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Opinion – School improvements should be funded by supervisors

I agree with Prince Edward County Supervisor Jim Wilck’s June 11 guest column and news article published June 9 in The Farmville Herald and Herald Editor Roger Watson’s editorial advocating for quality schools in Prince Edward County.

If we are going to attract new businesses to our area and encourage families to reside here, we need high quality schools and early childhood programs.

Chapman Frazier

However, I also believe Wilck and Watson’s perceptions are misguided and do not reflect the current reality that all schools internationally are currently experiencing a learning loss due to the pandemic (which is why the VDOE is waiving accreditation for the next two years.)  To criticize the school district’s performance as it is opening again seems to be unfair.

As a professor in residence in the Prince Edward Schools (funded by James Madison University) as well as a recent school board member, I believe that it’s time for the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors to roll up their sleeves and actively support our local schools, teachers and students.  We need to create outstanding schools that encourage creativity, personal engagement, academic excellence and preparation for life in this 21st century.

Wilck questions the schools’ performance and states that Prince Edward Schools rank 314th out of 327 schools in the state.  Watson blames it for not improving SOL scores.  Though these are legitimate concerns, the only way to improve test scores is to improve instruction by supporting quality teaching, student engagement, and funding up-to-date facilities.

Wilck advises that we should look to business models like the one adopted by Plano, Texas to improve our school system.  According to The Texas Tribune, the Plano School District has an enrollment of 52,405 students and average teacher salary of $59,290 which is $2,199 above the Texas state average.  According to the VDOE, Prince Edward County’s enrollment is 1,949 with an average teacher salary of $44,781 about $2,000 less than the state average.

Plano’s population is 287,765 with a poverty rate of 6.76 %, an annual medium income of $93,012, and median property value of $341,100.  Prince Edward County’s population is 22,802 with a median household income of $47,202 and poverty rate of 20.6%.  Perhaps, Wilck should look to Northern Virginia for a better comparison.

More importantly, Plano has a 14-1 student-teacher ratio in their schools, offers student AP and International Baccalaureate programs and a STEM academy.  Prince Edward does not have an IB program but does offer AP courses and dual enrollment.

Plano High School opened in 1999 while Prince Edward schools are more than 30 years old, opening in 1964.   All Prince Edward County schools need to be rebuilt and updated but especially the elementary and high schools.

To improve test scores, schools need highly-qualified teachers and an ability to retain good teachers to engage students and design quality instruction.  Also, they need to be better paid.

From my perspective, there needs to teacher autonomy in the classrooms, substantive opportunities for teachers to plan together on a regular basis and for professional development.  Less teacher time wasted on low-level meaningless tasks like bus duty, lunch duty, etc. The way to improve test scores is to create an environment of trust and respect for students and teachers that begins at the bottom not the top.

Students need access to quality resources: STREAM programs, engineering labs, differentiated and project-based learning that involves collaboration, internships in the local businesses and engagement with area colleges and Longwood University.  They need smaller class sizes. Students need to begin foreign language classes at the elementary level and all levels need access to high-quality arts programs. Also, elementary children need time for free play and much longer recesses.

Would these changes cost money?  Absolutely, they would.  But to build towards an innovative and high-quality school system we need to not deconstruct our system every four or five years.  When I arrived on the School Board, it was in the process of terminating the current superintendent and hiring Dr. Barbara Johnson.  She set up community response opportunities and input from county constituents on what they wanted to see in good schools. These, however, were not funded by the Board of Supervisors.

Now, we’re on that verge of beginning again with Wilck’s proposed business model.  We’ve seen these trends in education before. Baltimore’s school system hired private business firms to oversee “quality” schools.  They were a dismal failure.  According to Education Next, their progress has stalled with funding under legal threats, loss of administrators, and the high-cost of contract obligations. That certainly is not what’s needed.

We do not need a new elementary school roof but new schools.  We need our Board of Supervisors to provide real funding.  We need to petition our representatives in government for resources for our rural schools (similar to how Halifax High School has funded and a new building).  We need our political representatives in both parties to collaborate and fund quality education instead of its litany for improved test scores.  We need our community to stand together and support our schools and our children.

Can we create a local education commission of area stakeholders both private and public, higher education, business and government to locate outside funding sources and grants?

Perhaps, it’s time for a new vision in how best to support all our children and teachers. I support Wilck’s and Watson’s efforts to begin that discussion.