‘Get us where we need to be,’ PECPS superintendent could face challenges with accreditation

Published 3:02 pm Thursday, August 18, 2016

Editor’s Note: Each Friday the Herald news staff will take an in-depth look at a topic of major importance to the community. Today, staff writer Carson Reeher explores the challenges and opportunities confronting new Prince Edward County Schools Superintendent Barbara Johnson.

As the Prince Edward County Public School System undergoes a transition in the form of a new superintendent, some say challenges, such as the accreditation process and lack of community involvement, are bound to arise.

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Dr. Barbara Johnson’s tenure as superintendent began July 1. Dr. David Smith, Johnson’s predecessor, served for six years, ending June 30.

Former School Board Chairman and member of the superintendent search committee Russell Dove said he hopes the community will take more ownership in the schools and superintendent position. The position, he said, is vital because it “controls the everyday work in the school.”

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Smith noted several improvements in the school system during his tenure. He said the graduation rate increased from 77 percent to 89 percent. Smith also said the dropout rate decreased 50 percent in six years, from more than 18 percent to its current 9 percent.

Dove said accreditation is something needing improvement in the school system.

According to 2014-15 records released by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), Prince Edward County High School is fully accredited, while the county’s middle and elementary schools remain partially accredited with a “warned school-pass rate” noted. According to VDOE this category includes, “Schools that are not within a narrow margin of, nor making acceptable progress toward, achieving the adjusted SOL (Standards of Learning) pass rates required for full accreditation.”

Accreditation rankings for the 2016-17 school year, based on the previous school year’s data, will be announced in September.

Former Prince Edward Superintendent Dr. James Anderson said getting schools accredited is key to their success. Anderson, who served as superintendent for 25 years, said, “when a school system has unaccredited schools … that doesn’t say much for the community.”

“It’s a challenge,” Dove said, “because most schools that have those challenges on the SOLs are in the school divisions that have higher poverty and lower wages.”

Dove said this is consistently correlative across the country.

Smith agreed, saying the number of requirements from both state and federal levels are increasing. Smith said these “require constant improvements in the quality of teaching as measured by student achievement.”

Anderson said before he retired in 1997, he put a plan in place he believed would prevent the school system from failing accreditation standards. This plan, he said, involved putting time aside in the schedule so there would be two weeks of intensive review prior to SOL testing.

“These students are going to have a hard time passing their SOLs,” he said.

Another challenge, Smith mentioned, is the role of the superintendent to meet the needs of a diverse school system with a diverse student population. Smith said Prince Edward County has a 70 percent free and reduced lunch rate.

This challenge, Smith said, is one many school systems in Southside Virginia face.

Catherine Franssen, a parent and assistant professor of psychology at Longwood University, said the diversity of the community, including a range of socioeconomic statuses and educational backgrounds, “is really going to make it more challenging for (the superintendent) to be able to communicate out with the community and with the parents.”

Sarah McElflresh, mother of two middle school students, said she would like to see “the aura of the school and the morale of the teachers” improve with Johnson’s term.

Dove agreed.

“Even if you’ve never been to Prince Edward County Schools, you’ve never had any children in Prince Edward County Schools, or don’t have any there, if you live in this community, what happens in Prince Edward County Schools impacts your community,” Dove said.

Franssen said there is a lot of energy toward remediation.

“And a lot of attention given to the needs of our community, which are valuable and important, but I’m hoping to see some attention given to our excellent students,” Franssen said.

“I’m optimistic about the connections (Johnson’s) made with Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley IV and with Longwood,” Dove added.

He said he hopes those connections translate “into an even better relationship with Hampden Sydney College.”

Reveley agreed. He said he looks forward to “all of us working together so much more…. Longwood and the school system in particular.”

Reveley said the increasing participation by parents will be a lasting legacy for Dr. Johnson.

Leigh District 301 School Board representative Dr. Timothy Corbett, said he believes Dr. Johnson will take the school system to the next level.

At the beginning of her tenure, Dr. Johnson said the goal is to “make sure everybody is committed” to making sure children have quality experiences and invest in themselves.

“It will pay off, and with all of that comes great pride,” she said at the time. “I already have great pride in our system.”