Prince Edward School Board pushes back on supervisors’ comments

Published 3:12 am Wednesday, March 15, 2023

FARMVILLE – Recent comments made by supervisors about Prince Edward County schools were simply unfair, school board members say. During their Wednesday, March 8 meeting, Prince Edward County School Board members said they feel progress is being made in the district but not acknowledged. 

“I’ve been here for 25 years now and I believe that we are positioned now to accomplish some things we haven’t been able to accomplish in the past,” said school board member Dr. Timothy Corbett Sr. “Our past is actually not good here in Prince Edward County (but) that past is the past. Our past has really hurt us and we’ve had some tough things to overcome in this county, but we are (well) positioned now.”  

Corbett said the reason for his encouragement was the fact every school in the district has a good administrator in place. 

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“They are rooted and grounded and committed to this community, which is something we’ve never had before,” Corbett said. “We’ve never had all three of our buildings (at the same time) with solid administrators.” 

Corbett and other school board members pointed to improvements in test scores. For the yearly state Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, the district saw more students pass in reading, math and science. The biggest improvement came in math scores, both at the high school and district level. 

Last year, only 21% of Prince Edward High students passed their math SOL. This year, that number hit 60%, more than double. Overall across the district, 51% of students passed the test, a big improvement over just 25% last year. 

Another highlight in this year’s scores came in reading at Prince Edward High. A total of 75% of students passed their reading SOL, compared to 67% last year. The school’s pass rate was also higher than the state average, coming in at 73%. 

Supervisors question Prince Edward schools 

The school board was responding to comments made by Prince Edward County supervisors during the county’s first budget workshop. Supervisors raised some hard questions, asking why the schools, especially Prince Edward Elementary, were allowed to get in their current physical condition. They asked why the county is asked to pay for additional teachers, when the district can’t fill the open positions they have now. And after giving more than $800,000 extra to the district last year, some supervisors questioned where were the tangible results that money produced? 

“I was not very happy with what I read,” said school board vice chair Beulah Womack. “Does anybody realize that the elementary school has been accredited? There was nothing mentioned (in the budget session) about that. All that was mentioned was about failing schools and finances and all those things and I think that was unfair.”

Womack questioned if the board needed to put together a response to the county. She wondered if a committee needed to be assembled to draft the document. 

“I think you don’t want to leave the public hanging, to think this board of education hasn’t done anything. When I came on the board, they were working on the (elementary school) roof. It was not ignored. We also put some chillers in that school. For people to say that we ignored the elementary school is simply not true.” 

But, Womack said, there’s been only so much the school district could do. 

“Money has been a problem,” Womack said. “Finances have been a problem, because we’re not a rich district. We’re a poor district. So there’s been some focus on the elementary school in terms of the building itself. This discussion this year is not the first discussion we’ve had. I really think that the comments made were simply unfair because it gives an unfair perception of the school board and the school system. It’s time we support our children and support our schools. We’re not perfect but I don’t know if any of them are perfect. In my opinion, public education is always the whipping boy, because children do not vote.” 

Accreditation, by the numbers

As the school board was talking about accreditation, let’s explain what that is and how schools in Prince Edward County did this year. 

The Virginia Department of Education decides if an individual school is accredited, or meets state standards, based on six categories. The state looks at a school’s English pass rate, English achievement gaps, math pass rate, math achievement gaps, science pass rate and if there is chronic absenteeism. To give schools one more year to adjust post-pandemic, the state didn’t include chronic absenteeism in this year’s assessment.

First, the good news. Prince Edward Elementary was fully accredited, meeting or exceeding all of the state standards for English and math. The school also closed achievement gaps in both subjects, improving beyond state standards. 

The news was a bit more mixed for Prince Edward Middle. Each school receives a “quality rating” of Level One, Two or Three when being considered for accreditation. Level One means you meet or exceed the state standards. Level Two means you’re showing improvement, but haven’t quite got there yet. Finally, Level Three means there are issues, as the school is performing below state standards. 

In math and science, Prince Edward Middle came in at Level Three. Science especially took a nosedive, with only 42% of students passing the state tests. In 2019, that number for the middle school was 61% and 60% in 2018. Math, meanwhile, was better, coming in at 70%. That’s up from 68% in 2019. 

The school also came in at a Level Three for achievement gaps in English and math, with the state saying students weren’t showing enough growth. 

At Prince Edward High, scores improved but fell just short of state standards. A total of 74% of students either passed their English test or showed significant improvement. That’s just 1% below the state standard of 75%. It was a similar story in math, where 63% of students either passed or showed significant improvement. That’s seven points off the state standard of 70%. It’s worth mentioning that those math scores showed the biggest jump at the school, going from 52% in 2018 and 2019 to 63% this year. 

The only problem area for the high school comes in science. Only 48% of Prince Edward High students passed their science tests, down from 63% in 2019 and 70% in 2018. The state standard for science is a 70% pass rate. 

Hiring teachers

Corbett admitted that Prince Edward County, like most of the state, is struggling to find teachers to fill open spots. Based on the posted openings, updated as of Wednesday, March 8, there are more than 12 current needs, with at least 11 more anticipated for the fall semester. Corbett said he recognizes there are talented students in the district and it’s up to the board to get them what they need to develop that talent. 

“We have to make sure, this board, that we keep our focus on increasing the rigor in the classroom,” Corbett said. “We have to make sure our teachers bring out the talents that our students have. Our students are smart students. It’s up to us to bring it out.” 

He added that the district needs to make sure it supports the people who teach, coach and otherwise work in the district as well, to make sure they stick around. 

School Board member Doug Farley echoed Corbett’s earlier comments, saying he believed the school district had made tremendous strides. 

“I agree that we’re at a point we have never been at before,” Farley said. “I think this is our time to make that jump, to put us where we ought to be.” 

He praised Superintendent Dr. Barbara Johnson’s leadership in getting the schools to where they are now. Chairwoman Lucy Carson agreed, saying what the school board needs to do is get out and tell the community all the good things happening with the schools. 

“Our job, as well as governance, is to be ambassadors,” Carson said. “We should be out singing the praises. Nobody’s perfect and we’re not perfect, but we do the best we can.” 

What’s next for Prince Edward schools?

Because of the delays at the state level, budget discussions will continue through the month of March. Currently, a joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and School Board is set for March 28, to present the school district’s proposed budget. That will take place at 5:30 p.m. at the Prince Edward County Courthouse.