Archived Story

City, school officials discuss the next step for Franklin schools

Published 11:22am Friday, November 1, 2013

FRANKLIN—In a joint meeting on Wednesday between the Franklin City Council and the Franklin City Public School Board, the school officials presented their plan to improve the schools, and they also took questions from city council.

The joint meeting, which was attended by more than 50 people, follows a recent public forum about the school that the council hosted at city hall. People spoke about the situation to council members. They in turn would bring these thoughts and their own to the joint meeting, which took place in the Regional Workforce Center at Paul D. Camp Community College. At the forum, council also clarified its power concerning the school board, which including appropriating funds and appointing board members.

THE PLAN

Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle quickly went through the division’s plan to return the schools to full accreditation and to strengthen human resource practices, which were two of the biggest concerns when the state placed the school system under division-level review status. The Virginia Board of Education will send in working and retired superintendents and other professionals to look into stakeholder engagement, as well as board and governance with both the school board and the district’s central office.

Based on the school-level academic reviews that were completed this past year, the division drafted a plan, which it submitted to the board of education before its Oct. 24 meeting in Richmond. That’s when the school system was placed under division-level academic review.

With S.P. Morton warned in reading and math, the school has adopted new computer programs, iStation for reading and iReady for math. These are intervention programs to help lower-performing students.

Professional development regarding differentiation and data analysis were important topics at all of the schools. An instructor on differentiation of instruction from the University of Virginia will visit both the elementary and high schools.

Also to help with instruction, the division has developed criteria for tiered identification of students at the schools. The levels will help determine the intensity of the intervention effort. Students in tier 1 are provided enrichment and extension activities. Students in tier 2 are provided direct intervention from the classroom instructor, based on the skill deficit areas and through remediation in the computer lab. Students in tier 3 are provided what tier 2 students receive, and they also interact with the specialists in the schools. At the high school level, many students in T3 receive after-school instruction. For the middle and elementary schools, T1 is 100-80 percent pass rate, T2 is 79-70 percent pass rate and T3 is 69-0 percent pass rate. At the high school level, T1 is the same; T2 is 79-60 percent pass rate and T3 is 59-0 percent pass rate.

Every month, the district conducts Division Strategic Support Team meetings, which began in October. The team, made up of central office members, meets with building officials to discuss student achievement, discipline and student and teacher attendance. The team also conducts learning walks, where they observe classrooms and give immediate feedback to the building principals.

By hiring a dean of students for both the elementary and high schools, the building principals are spending more time in the classrooms. For teachers, the principals also have PD360 Observation, a computer program designed to help instruction.

Speaking about professional development, ward 3 school board member Johnetta Nichols said the new approaches were different from the past, which was described as a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Some teachers were having a problem with classroom management, and some teachers were having problems with other things,” Nichols said. “We would have teachers in group staff development, and often what was being talked about wasn’t appropriate for everyone. Now we look at what types of skills they think would help them more individually. I think that is going to help with our instructional piece in the classroom.”

The focus of the division this year is in vertical articulation, which will have middle school teachers being better coordinated with elementary and high school teachers, to make sure elementary students are ready for middle school, and in turn, middle school students prepared for high school.

School board chair Edna King said that data regarding student benchmarks, discipline and attendance was getting to them quicker from the schools, which will help in making decisions.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Vice mayor and ward 1 Councilor Barry Cheatham said that last year, when the council and school board had its meeting, the school board had a plan.

The schools are now in worse shape than they were a year ago; however, as in 2012-2013, S.P. Morton was warned in only English; J.P. King was warned only in math and was a priority school; and the high school was warned only in math. Now, S.P. Morton is warned in English and math, and is a priority school; J.P. King is warned in math and English and is still a priority school. The high school held and is still only warned in math.

“The plan didn’t work,” Cheatham said. “What is the difference between that plan and this plan?”

King responded that the plan Belle had just laid out was the same one that was presented to the Virginia Board of Education.

“I left that meeting feeling somewhat impressed that they did not grill us about what we had presented,” she said. “They accepted our plan of correction. There were other school divisions there, who submitted reports, and they were questioned about what they submitted.”

Ward 2 Councilor Benny Burgess, having watched the meeting on the board of education’s website, disagreed with her take.

“I appreciate your opinion of that meeting. My opinion is that they had already made up their minds. They were ready to vote when you came in,” Burgess said, drawing applause from the audience.

Belle confirmed that the board of education can suggest modifications to the plan during the division-level review, a date for which has yet to be scheduled.

Ward 3 Councilor Gregory McLemore was interested in how the school had gotten here.

“In my opinion, this is like cleaning up a disaster and not knowing what was being cleaned up,” McLemore said. “What caused us to be in this situation?”

Belle said there is more than one answer. She said the system had a bigger population of economically disadvantaged students as compared to other districts — its free and reduced lunch population was 70-80 percent.

“When compared to Isle of Wight, it is not fair,” Belle said. “Their population of disadvantaged youth is smaller than ours.”

She also talked about the new tests.

“I know, people say don’t blame the test,” Belle said. “But what happens when a division already struggling to pass the original test has to take a test with more rigor added into it? It pushed us back further.”

King also said that the school has lacked stability, that the turnover of teachers, principals and superintendents has been horrible.

“This year, for the first time, we managed to retain all three principals,” she said. “There is no way you can move forward if there is a new principal in the school every year.”

Nichols said that economically disadvantaged students tend to score lower on standardized testing.

“Our philosophy is that every child can learn, however, no matter where they come from,” she said. “We’re trying to get to the point where we can find something that works that helps the economically challenged children, so they can achieve at the level other students are achieving.

“We will not accept that excuse. But it does take time. That’s one of the reasons why we have been moving slowly, but I am very optimistic that we are going to conquer that obstacle.”

King said that she thought the division-level review would be a good thing.

“I am glad that we are having a division-level review,” she said. “Our problems in the schools are systemic. We need help in fixing them. This division-level review is going to do something for us that we have not done for ourselves.

“We now have a correction plan in place that we feel will work for us. Maybe this is not the best place to be in, but look at the performance of the children. If someone can come in here and tell us things we need to be doing to correct this, I think it needs to be done.”

Ward 1 school board member Will Councill said he was not glad that the state was coming in.

“I respect what Mrs. King said, but I’m not happy with a division-level review. I am embarrassed,” he said. “I am embarrassed that we have to have someone else come in our city and tell us what to do. But she is correct. They will come in and put us in the right direction. I will take my blame for where we are.”

McLemore later tried to summarize how the schools got here.

“It is not the school board. It is not Dr. Belle, she is experienced. It is our students,” he said. “The students are the reason we are failing?”

After looking around and no one else stepping up to talk, King said “I think that your conclusion might be good based on what we said.

“But I hope we will see this as a community problem. We’re not saying it is the students, or the teachers or the principals, but we as a community have a great deal of work to do.”

When asked, Belle said that the issue has been reconciled in respect to the teachers and administration members cited for not having proper licenses in their specific areas.

Nichols said she thinks what happened with regard to the teachers was that principals were placing teachers in areas they were not licensed to teach, and now, she added, the principals have to go through human resources before reassigning teachers.

“When hired, they were hired in positions in which they were certified,” she said. “For some reason, without getting into personnel, the principals thought that they would work better elsewhere, and some have proven that.”

Cheatham said that last year the city council was told there was one person working out of his or her area, but now they are finding out it is more.

“I’m wondering if the board is getting good information to be good management directors,” he said.

As far as the central office positions, Belle said that some of those people had been there longer than she had, and she was surprised to find out all of a sudden their not being licensed was a problem.

FINAL COMMENTS

Not every school board member gave final comments. In fact, Ward 4’s Sherita Ricks-Parker and Ward 5’s Jeanette Austin didn’t say anything during the whole meeting.

Dawna Walton, ward 6 board member, had pointed out earlier that there were 10 people in question for working out of certification.

“The reason I was telling you that it was 10 and not 13 was not to say it was better,” she said. “Ten is still too many. I agree with Will (Councill). We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. I wish we were not in the position we were in, but hopefully we can work together and get this right.”

Councill said the numbers in regard to the Standards of Learning scores were bad, and they have to get them better.

“It is not the lack of work teachers and the administration. I wish I could tell you why it is the way it is,” he said. “I’m not going to point the finger. It is not the kids. All kids can learn. We are going to work hard to bring this school system back the way it used to be and the way it deserves to be.”

King rounded up the three final comments made by school board members.

“We are going to move ahead, but we need your support,” she said. “I invite you to attend our school board meetings. We do have citizen time that you can sign up for.”

McLemore said he hopes the new plan would be successful, but that he had his concerns about the leadership, though he didn’t blame Belle, he blamed the school board members — specifically some of the long-term members.

“I’m not happy with where we are. I think that unless we make changes in leadership, we are destined to continue the same route,” he said to applause. “If the leadership was proper, the state would have never had to come in here.”

Cheatham joined McLemore in challenging the leadership.

“I’m not sure if we’ve got the right coaches,” he said. “Sometimes, there are coaches in systems, who are otherwise great coaches, but they don’t mesh in for whatever reason. Sometimes they go somewhere else and they are great coaches, and the old team gets a new coach in, and all of a sudden everything works.

“I am extremely disappointed, and also with the parents in the system. I see very little parent support for their children. They are not pushing their kids to read, write and to learn math.”

Burgess said it is a lot like when the flood came (in 1999), and he had to get his business back up and running.

“For the next year, I barely slept,” he said. “I was in crisis mode. I worked myself to death. I got it up and running, but it wasn’t easy. The schools are in crisis mode. We can’t act like everything is running smooth, it has to be all hands on deck.

“Make sure you are focused and giving us 100 percent,” he said to the school board members. “We can not afford to lose any more children to failure.”

Ward 5 Councilor Mary E. Hilliard said that it takes a village to raise a child, so she hopes everyone will support the schools despite the problems.

“No one is perfect,” she said. “If it was a perfect world, we wouldn’t be here. But everything critical that will go out of this room, and is printed in the paper, is doing nothing but destroying Franklin.

“I say, all of us, let’s roll up our sleeves, and do what we can do.”

Ward 4 Councilor Mona Murphy said she was one of the people with longevity that McLemore talked about, and she added he didn’t know everything that was going on then.

“You don’t know it if you were not there,” she said. “There were a lot of things happening.

“As I looked out, into the audience,” she continued, “I saw a lot of people snickering, laughing, people part of the community and the school system itself. It may be bad, but let’s all do something.

“I’m not ashamed. I want to do the right thing. Dr. Belle and the school board, I support you.”

Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn closed, concurring with Burgess on his analogy.

“My business was also in the flood,” she said. “I had to roll up my sleeves, work and get very little sleep.

“I guess I look at Franklin as a whole. Franklin has a bright future, but we have to get this right. We have to get the children educated for our entire city to succeed. Without that arm, Franklin won’t succeed. We have to buckle down and understand that they are in a crisis situation, and we have to support them.”

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