VBOE adopts memorandum of understanding for Franklin School Division

Published 10:36 am Friday, March 28, 2014

RICHMOND—With two members of the school board and Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle present, the Franklin City Public Schools were officially put under a memorandum of understanding on Thursday by the Virginia Board of Education.

Following approval of the MOU by the Franklin City Public School Board, Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright will assign a chief academic officer to monitor and coordinate the actions of division instructional staff and the school turnaround partners assigned to the district.

In addition, the MOU requires the Franklin School Board to provide the state superintendent with the names and credentials of its top three finalists to replace the outgoing division superintendent prior to making an offer to a candidate.

The MOU also requires the division superintendent and her successor to consult with the state superintendent before making recommendations to the city school board on instructional programs and instructional personnel. Further, it requires the Franklin School Board to provide justification in writing for instructional or personnel decisions made counter to the recommendations of the state superintendent.

All three of Franklin’s schools are rated as Accredited with Warning for a second consecutive year. The schools also are under federal sanctions for not meeting incremental improvement goals under Virginia’s No Child Left Behind waiver. Eighty-one percent of the division’s 1,266 students are economically disadvantaged.

“Despite the challenges, I believe Franklin can do better, much better,” Wright said. “It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but with the right leadership on the school board and in the central office and well-supported and highly qualified teachers, I am confident that students will achieve at higher levels and Franklin’s schools will earn full accreditation.”

State board members also had concerns and questions for the Franklin officials present, Chairwoman Edna King, Ward 1 representative Will Councill and Belle.

The state board had previously challenged all board members to be present at this meeting, and that challenge was again echoed by Joan E. Wodiska. Wodiska was concerned about the board’s relationship with its community, partially because no one came to the public hearing on the corrective action plan.

“We advertised and put the corrective action plan on our website,” King said. “I have had some contact with persons across the community. It is not as though we don’t interact. I don’t know why it is people did not show up for the public hearing. I don’t know if they felt adequate work had been done. I don’t know if they felt that we had addressed the major concerns.

“We talked to the mayor and had meetings with city council persons. We have a large number of people who have stepped forward with an interest to be involved in our schools. We do have the support of stakeholders.”

Wodiska said that when she was a member of a local school board, that when the public didn’t come to them, she went to the public.

“I would go out in the community, and meet at their work place on their time,” she said. “It might be something for you to reflect upon in how to better engage the public. Go to them.”

King said she felt like the school board was doing that.

“I do that, and I think other board members do as well,” she said. “We are always in the community. We really are.”

Wodiska said the numbers didn’t back that up.

“The proof is in the pudding,” she said. “By the very nature of you sitting here, that hasn’t been the activity. I want you to really work hard to get into the community because they are the backbone for you getting it right. And they want you to get it right. They need to understand how to help you.”

Wodiska even volunteered VBOE to come visit, and Councill said he welcomed them.

“I’m grateful you made the offer for us to come visit,” said President Christian N. Braunlich. “I’m confident we will take you up on that. We have a responsibility here too.

“We need to prove to ourselves, your community and the Federal Department of Education that we are doing everything we can for the students in your school system.”

VBOE member Darla Edwards worried that the school board was in denial.

“You keep referring to the AdvancED Report,” she said of the division-level review report. “I think at least part of you is in denial. I understand why you don’t want to believe it. It’s heartbreaking.”

King said that wasn’t the case.

“It is not that I am in denial. And I know there are things that have happened that support the findings. But, still, our parents are engaged.

“I think what we have to do is go out more into the community. I accept that.”

She also said that the corrective action plan outlined how to engage stakeholders.

Approving the corrective action plan without a true public hearing concerned Diane T. Atkinson of the VDOE.

“I know you gave notice, but if nobody shows up, you have got to redo it,” Atkinson said. “I am concerned you are putting together a plan with no public feedback. You need to go the extra mile.”

Vice President Winsome E. Sears had a suspicion based on the months of questioning with the Franklin City School Board, and she challenged King and the board to prove her wrong.

“My fear is that there is a willingness to do what you have only been doing, [only] better,” she said. “You have a systemic problem. Because it is a systemic problem, not an appendage, there are core issues that need to be fixed. You need an absolute transformation.

“I’m picturing children on a playground. What do you say to them about their education, or lack thereof? When they are 18, what do we say? That we are sorry you missed two years or however long this has been going on worth of an education?”

Sears said that the school board has to hold itself and its leadership accountable.

“We ask the students to be accountable. They have to pass assessments, pass the tests teachers give you. I’m asking you now to be accountable.”

Dr. Billy K. Cannaday Jr. encouraged the board to show leadership, but also to not be over involved.

“It should not be you doing the work, but the professionals you hire and hold accountable,” he said. “Boards shouldn’t do curriculum alignment. You approve recommendations, or deny them and ask questions.”

Cannaday added that it’s not just about checking a box on the corrective action plan.

“You need to have hard conversations and not lose sight of what is important,” he said. “If checking a box doesn’t lead to enabling things to improve in the classroom, what is it?

“It’s one thing to have weekly updates with the state superintendent, but weekly updates to people in the schools and classrooms are more important,” he said later.

The MOU requires the school board to develop a corrective action plan spelling out the steps it will take to improve instruction and raise student achievement in Franklin to state standards. Franklin’s board recently passed their draft and the Office of School Improvements is reviewing it.

After that is complete, it will be on the docket for the Board of Education, no later than May.

Once the corrective action plan has been accepted by the Board of Education, Franklin’s school board and division superintendent will be required to appear before the state board when requested to provide progress reports and answer questions about implementation.

Franklin is the fifth division in the state to undergo a division-level review and enter into an MOU with the state Board of Education.

Sussex County Public Schools and Petersburg Public Schools have been operating under MOUs since 2004 and 2006, respectively, because of chronic low achievement.

Lee County Public Schools entered into an MOU with the state board in 2004 and was released in 2007 after meeting the plan’s objectives. Richmond City Public Schools operated under an MOU from 2005 until 2007, when it was released by the state board.

Click here to watch the Virginia Board of Education meeting. Representatives from Franklin begin speaking around the 40 minute mark.