A fresh voice for Franklin schools

Published 10:37 am Saturday, October 6, 2012

The latest Scholastic Aptitude Test scores reinforce what we’ve said in this space before: A motivated kid with involved parents can get as good a public education in Franklin as anywhere in the region.

Franklin Public Schools, under intense and warranted scrutiny for poor pass rates on Standards of Learning tests, fare much better against their peers when only the best and brightest students are tested.

Franklin High students made an average score of 1,254 this year on the SAT, a college-entrance exam taken only by students who are considering attending college. That’s a higher average score than Southampton High’s 1,237 and not far behind Windsor High’s average score of 1,393.

When the entire student body is tested, as is the case with SOLs, Franklin doesn’t fare nearly as well.

Travis Felts, the impressive new principal of Franklin High School, is quick to identify the reason: a staggeringly high percentage of students who come from low-income homes.

A whopping 76 percent of Franklin Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under federal family income guidelines, Felts told Franklin Rotary Club members Friday. By comparison, 33 percent of Isle of Wight County students and 45 percent of Southampton County students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Any comparison of SOL scores should start with an acknowledgement of the tough demographic hand that Franklin schools have been dealt, Felts believes.

He’s right, of course, but the people whose opinions truly matter — parents of young school-age children — don’t care much about the reasons for Franklin’s deficiencies. They just know this indisputable fact: Franklin is the only public school division in Virginia that does not have a single school fully accredited by the state Department of Education. Not one.

And while Franklin serves more poor kids than the neighboring divisions to which it is most often compared, it is not the only Virginia school division burdened by poverty. The percentage of students getting free and reduced luncheons is north of 75 percent in Brunswick County, Hopewell, King & Queen County, Petersburg and Sussex County, all of which have at least one fully accredited school.

To borrow from the modern vernacular, Franklin’s impoverished population is what it is.

To Felts’ credit, he doesn’t belabor the point. Nor is he ready to throw in the towel on public education in Franklin.

Quite the opposite.

“We want to be the reason people move to the City of Franklin,” Felts told Rotarians, “not the reason they think twice about coming here.”

Felts himself is reason for optimism. Refreshingly, he is personally invested in Franklin. He is an FHS graduate and sends his own three kids to Franklin Public Schools. He does not commute from an hour away, like many Franklin administrators have done in recent years. He is not using Franklin as a stepping stone. Rather, being principal of FHS is his “dream job.”

He doesn’t sugarcoat the problems in Franklin schools. He celebrates and touts their successes, as he should.

He engages stakeholders, rather than resist their input and constructive criticism.

“This is a community issue,” he said of public education, which is to say that we — the children, parents, taxpayers, educators, administrators and business owners of Franklin — are all in this together.

Steve Stewart is the publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.