VDOE cites Franklin division for several standard violations

Published 11:01 am Monday, September 16, 2013

Photo Illustration by Ryan Outlaw

Photo Illustration by Ryan Outlaw

FRANKLIN—The Virginia Department of Education has cited the Franklin City School District with six violations of standards of quality.

In light of state findings, what steps should be taken regarding the leadership of Franklin City Schools?

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These violations included failure to develop and implement programs of prevention, intervention or remediation for students who fail to achieve a passing Standards of Learning score; employing personnel who are not licensed in relevant subject areas; and failure to implement a plan to make achievement for students who are educationally at risk a division-wide priority.

“We knew once the schools went into warning, we knew that an academic review was something they would do,” Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle said.

She said she did not think of the review as a bad thing.

“We need assistance to correct some of the challenges in the division,” Belle said.

The superintendent and School Board Chair Edna King received a document dated June 27 from the Virginia Department of Education.

“As stated in my previous correspondence, Section 22.1-253.13:3 of the Code of Virginia, Standards of Quality (SOQ), requires local school boards to maintain Fully Accredited schools and to take the corrective actions for schools that are not Fully Accredited,” Dr. Patricia I. Wright, superintendent of public instruction, wrote in the June 27 letter. “Franklin City Public Schools has three schools rated Accredited with Warning. As demonstrated by the findings and recommendations indicated in the attached reports, the review revealed evidence that the failure of the schools within the division to achieve accreditation status is related to division-level failure to implement the SOQ… .”

VDOE spokesperson Charles Pyle said the responsibility to meet these standards as part of Virginia law belongs to the local school board, which ultimately is responsible for holding a superintendent accountable.

Belle said that the code was a huge, generic document.

“This is a thing that will help us, and I am worried that people will twist it,” she said. “It is a diagnosis of the school division.

“The problems started way before I got here. But we’ve got to get to the bottom of it. We can’t run from it.”

When Belle took over as superintendent in March 2009, S.P. Morton Elementary School and Franklin High School were fully accredited, while J.P. King was accredited with warning in math, history and science, though the school was in its review year and was fully accredited the next year. Schools retain the warning label for an additional year, even if it received a passing grade.

From fall 2009 to spring 2012, all of the schools were fully accredited, though there were declines in Standards of Learning scores every year in math and English for each school. In 2012-2013 all of the schools went into warning, and based on recently released SOL scores where Franklin schools fell in 22 of 32 categories from the previous year, it is anticipated that they will all be in warning again in 2013-2014. VDOE will release official results Friday, Sept. 20.

While there may be a history of some problems in the district, Pyle said past problems have no bearing on this review being done, but rather it is based on the current failings in regards to the Standards of Learning scores.

“Dr. Wright is not in the habit of bringing up matters that have already been addressed,” he said. “I think this letter is as straightforward as it can be. In the code, it says ‘Each local school board shall maintain schools that are fully accredited.’ That’s not in the past.”

In the letter, Wright also wrote that she would use assessment data to make a decision regarding her “recommendation to the Virginia Board of Education to request that Franklin City Public Schools enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Virginia Board of Education and undergo a division-level academic review… .”

Pyle said a Memorandum of Understanding is an agreement where a local school board agrees on a schedule of goals to be completed from year to year, and has a menu of actions that must take place to accomplish its goals.

Belle said this June 27 report was the focus of her administrator retreat of late July.

King said that this report was the frame of the Aug. 5 School Board Retreat. However, one school board member, Dawna Walton of Ward 6, said that she had not been made aware of this document. Nancy Godwin of Ward 2, stated that she could not confirm or deny whether these documents had been reviewed. Johnetta Nichols of Ward 3 declined to comment because her mother was ill and she was on her way to Norfolk. The other school board members could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.

When confronted with some members not having heard of or immediately recalling the document, King said she would prefer to not say who was at the meeting and declined to comment any further. She also said she would not comment on the document itself for personnel reasons.

Minutes from the Aug. 5 retreat were not available, though there was a school board meeting on Aug. 15. A central office record keeper confirmed that all school board members were at the retreat.

Belle said to be fair to the new school board members, it was the first school board retreat.

“It is an overwhelming day,” she said, also confirming that they were all at the meeting.

To obtain the documents, The Tidewater News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with VDOE and received them on Aug. 28. The newspaper also received other documents relating to this report on Sept. 5.

The item is a follow-up to a November academic review, which was sent to the division in January.

In the follow-up review, several problems still persisted.

At S.P. Morton Elementary School, the school improvement plan had not been updated to reflect grouping practices or to address the use of differentiated strategies, while at J.P. King Middle School, the improvement plan had not been revised to adequately address the academic review essential actions.

At Franklin High School, however, the essential actions had been incorporated.

Dr. Shannon Smith, director of instruction, said the factor of this was the time when they were looking into it, in that the principals at the schools were new to the district in this last academic year.

“That’s no longer a concern,” Smith said. “Once they received technical assistance, they got a handle on it.

“The principals were new. They have all returned, and we are expecting a stronger year,” she said. “I think we will be OK. We appreciate the guidance by the academic review. We used that to make some decisions and move the school division forward.”

It was found that central office instructional leaders did not conduct observations, and stated that they had been discouraged from spending time in the schools, according to the June 27 report.

“We’ve been there more than ever,” Belle said of late. “It is a new day, with a new set of board members, and they have different expectations for us.”

Four of the seven-person board remains the same.

Data tracking, remediation and intervention were also amongst the citations, and Smith said they are improving this.

She said there are people charged with monitoring student programs, enrichment and remediation. Central office leaders will be reviewing data with the principals, who will report on discipline, academics and attendance.

The middle school also has a turnaround partner, EdisonLearning, which is helping with monitoring and other plans. Some of EdisonLearning’s information has been spread to the elementary school to help with vertical alignment.

The data tracking system will also be a part of teacher evaluation, said Gail Wade, director of human resources.

Placing students in tiers is another aspect of planning for at-risk students, with Tier 2 students needing support and Tier 3 students struggling significantly.

“The data will determine where the kids are,” Smith said. “And it is flexible from one month to another, so that we can provide the necessary intervention for our students.”

In the Jan. 17 original review, one teacher at S.P. Morton Elementary was teaching a subject matter that he or she was not endorsed to teach.

At J.P. King Middle School, two teachers were teaching in areas where they were not endorsed to teach.

At the high school, one teacher was teaching a subject she was not endorsed to teach.

“That’s not a true statement,” Belle said of employing teachers not licensed. “Anyone who is not licensed fully is at least provisionally licensed.

“We may have had a few licensed teachers who were teaching out of their area, for whatever reason, but that has been addressed.”

According to the report, however, one teacher was cited for having a license that had expired June 20, 2011, though this teacher was let go in January. Four administrators also lacked endorsements for administration and supervision as of January 2013, including Dr. Debbie Harris Rollins, principal of S.P. Morton Elementary, who did not have a valid Virginia license. Rollins had come from North Carolina to start the 2012-2013 school year. She waited until January to apply for her license. All of the administrators have since received these endorsements, including Rollins.

Belle said she knows that the school district is not where it needs to be, and that this academic review has been used to help the schools improve.

“We know we are not where we want to be, and we know where we need to go,” she said. “We are moving forward.”