Stakeholders address school concerns

Published 9:58 am Friday, May 16, 2014

FRANKLIN—More than 15 members of the school division’s stakeholder community — parents, students, teachers, city officials and business leaders — came out on Wednesday to speak their minds to the Virginia Board of Education regarding the turnaround effort at Franklin City Public Schools.

Four VBOE members traveled to Franklin, along with the new Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven Staples, to host a public forum on the Corrective Action Plan, but they also learned that many in the city are passionate about the school system, and many also believe that it can be fixed. The forum was necessary because no one showed up to the public forum that the Franklin school board hosted earlier this year.

Michelle Barlow, a Franklin High School teacher, stepped out near the beginning and outlined some of the problems with the system.

“In 7 years here, I’ve seen teachers, admin, staff and central office come and go,” she said. “I’ve taken notes as great teachers and excellent staff members throw down their weapons and run for the hills to take jobs in other places, other fields and other states.

“I know why — it’s a simple thing: common sense. What we have succeeded in doing in Franklin is to play the blame game, in every sector of the system.”

She said the Virginia Department of Education was part of the problem. With putting more emphasis on data and tests than the child, it’s created a streamlined factory approach.

“We are charged with producing citizens of merit based on how they click on a 4-answer test,” she said.

Barlow said she asked a VDOE interviewer what the problem was, and the employee said she didn’t know — there are so many schools in improvement programs and nothing seems to be working.

“Has anyone ever thought to punt?” she asked. “That less tests might be better than more and more and more?

“The state seems like it is in an adversarial position to the schools, target and overwhelm, rather than nurture.”

As Barlow left, she did so to the applause of the J.P. King auditorium crowd and the teachers watching from the library. To back that up, Rock Church Associate Pastor and FHS Basketball Coach Danny Dillon backed those words up, saying there was too much emphasis on the Standards of Learning, and not enough emphasis on just letting the teachers teach.

He also said that comparison to neighboring districts wasn’t completely fair because they seem to have better parental support.

“I coach players that have to wake up their siblings to get them to schools because their mom is working two to three jobs,” he said. “They feed them breakfast and get them on the bus. Then after practice, they go work a job and put their siblings to bed.”

Dillon was confident the community would be able to handle this problem, though.

“We’ve been through International Paper closing. We’ve been through the flood. Now there is this,” he said. “I know no one came to the school board meeting. But you have woken up a sleeping giant. These people behind me, they are going to help get us to the other side.”

Cherié Karmilovich, a single mom with three students in the system, painted a less pretty picture about some of the parents.

“All of my children have done very well,” she said. “And every year, there are perfect scores on the SOL. I point that out to say that something is being taught.”

She said that what she hears from her children is that a lot of students and parents don’t care.

“I know the science fair project was due last Thursday,” Karmilovich said. “My kids stayed up the night before and finished it. I went last night to look at them, and both kids got first place. I’m not saying that to brag. There were a lot of projects there, and quite a few were good. But there were a whole lot of really bad ones.

“My oldest one complains a lot, saying, ‘Mom, they just don’t care.’ They talk about stuff that I won’t bring up, but she is appalled by it.”

At the elementary school, recently, they did an event, Muffins for Mom, where they invited mothers. While hundreds showed up for the muffins, only seven signed up for the workshops meant to help with educating the children.

“Some parents and kids in the system just don’t care,” she said. “The ones that do care, they are getting good scores.”

Another mom, Teri Zurfluh, backed up that comment, stating that her family actually chose Franklin over other systems. She lives in the county and pays to send her children to Franklin.

“No other school system in this area could give me a definite plan of what they would do to help my daughter, who could read before kindergarten,” Zurfluh said. Over the years, she’s held the school accountable for its promises with the robotics program and AP courses. “Both of my children have had a chance to grow intellectually, thanks to the talented teachers.”

She wanted to make sure that VDOE didn’t lose sight of the high-achieving students in reaching for the lower-achieving students.

“I understand focusing on lower achieving students, a system should do that,” Zurfluh said. “But you can’t sacrifice high-achieving students on the altar of good enough. Good enough is the enemy of great. And our kids are great.”

Armirah Stephens, a senior at FHS, said one thing that the schools could do is better communicate to the students the programs that are provided. Another thing, is to bring in Franklin High School students who have been successful.

“It is helpful for students to see what success looks like,” she said. “I believe that our people’s mindset has become, ‘Once I graduate, I won’t go anywhere.’”

She also believes that students need more access to technology, as many students coming into the high school have poor keyboarding skills and can’t operate office programs. More career technical classes would also be helpful, as would access to earlier foreign language programs.

Benny Burgess, a city council member and also an FHS graduate, said another thing the system needs is integrity.

“I have been misled by the school division,” he said. “For instance, regarding top highly qualified teachers, I was told at three different meetings that all are highly qualified with the exception of one or two. As you know, that’s not the fact.

“To get community support, integrity is imperative.”

Burgess said he is part of a committee that is working hard to get volunteers in the school, and fellow councilor and vice mayor Barry Cheatham has also been a part of that.

“One thing the school system had was strong public support,” Cheatham said. “However, in recent times, volunteers have been hitting a stone wall. I could give you examples all day. How often will they hit these walls before they get frustrated and say, ‘We are not going to support this anymore.’”

Cheatham said that for some time he has been saying there needs to be a change of some of the “coaches” of the school system.

“I do believe we have the right principals and some very fine teachers in place to help guide this school system forward if they get the correct leadership to ensure that all students are going in the same direction,” he said. “For some reason, the right blend between central office, the schools and the school board doesn’t seem to be there.”

VBOE Vice President Winsome E. Sears said she was glad the people came and spoke so candidly to them as they toured the schools and at the meeting.

“One thing is, some students are not motivated, and nothing it seems can be done about that,” she said. “But a way has to be found.

“Another thing that we heard today, from the students and from this group, is that you have spectacular teachers. But you also have ineffective teachers. There seems to be a dichotomy between the teachers and the central office,” she added.

Another important factor Sears heard was that parents had to be involved.

“When Saturday school is offered, the kids don’t come,” she said. “We saw it ourselves this afternoon. When tutoring was offered, the kids were not there.

“It is because of the social dynamics. They have to be home to help with the younger children. They have to go to work. You do have a lot ahead of you as a city.”

Sears said that she was glad the board took the time to visit the city and hear Franklin out.

“I want to thank you so much for coming out,” she said. “We don’t want to vex you, nor do we want you to think that it falls on deaf ears. We’re not going to allow that to happen. This is your community, your system and your children. We will do the very best we can to help you accomplish the goals you want to see accomplished.”