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School pilot project pitched

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A proposed pilot program calls for big changes at five struggling schools on Charleston's West Side.

The changes -- including moving all five to a year-round calendar, hiring teachers without regard to seniority and increasing penalties for student tardiness -- are aimed at spurring the academic success community members and educators want to see.

"When you take a look at student achievement, we're not necessarily getting gains . . . We're getting gains, but we're not getting what I think is enough gains in achievement," Kanawha County Superintendent Ron Duerring said.

"So I think what we wanted to do is just take a look at that whole area and (say), 'What could we do to make it different?' "

Duerring has worked with the Rev. Matthew Watts, a community organizer on Charleston's West Side, to create a pilot project including Grandview, J.E. Robbins, Watts and Mary C. Snow West Side elementary schools and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

The pilot program includes 15 recommendations and involves actions by the school system and the community itself. Of those 15, Duerring thinks those addressing tardiness could have the biggest impact.

"We need something that allows us to say, 'If you're tardy, these are the actions we're going to take and yeah, we are permitted to do that by law,' " Duerring said.

"Because the response we continually get is, 'Well, there's nothing you can really do about it.' Well, there's not," he continued.

Watts has repeatedly mentioned the chronic tardy problem plaguing the West Side. When students continually miss the first part of the school day, they're often missing out on reading sessions; the desk of a tardy student is just as empty as that of one who is absent, he recently told the Daily Mail.

Watts and other community members have suggested solutions like neighbors calling parents to make sure their youngsters are getting ready to go to school in the morning.

"We've got to create a culture where it's unacceptable for parents to get to school late, or not get their children to school on a regular basis," Watts said.

Right now schools can put students with excessive tardiness in detention or even suspend them, school board attorney Jim Withrow said. That can be counterproductive, so the school system wants to treat tardiness the same way it treats absences, he said.

The school system can force parents to go to court hearings if their children miss too many days. There's no similar recourse for tardiness, but the educational ramifications of being late are just as serious as missing school altogether, Duerring said.

The pilot program would

allow the school system to count three tardies as one absence.

"Sometimes until you get a parent down in front of Judge Bloom or something like that, some of those other interventions aren't as effective," Withrow said.

Watts also believes moving all of the schools to a year-round school calendar could cut down on truancy. The year-round system, often referred to as the balanced calendar, keeps students in school for nine-week periods followed by three-week breaks. Students falling behind can get tutoring during those breaks.

"We think that calendar provides the type of flexibility you need on the West Side," Watts said.

Mary C. Snow is the only West Side school using the calendar. Although the school is relatively new, its standardized test scores are some of the worst in the state.

Christine Campbell, president-elect for the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said she has not seen proof the balanced calendar is any more effective than a traditional one.

"We're not against the balanced calendar, but show me how it's going to make any difference," Campbell said.

Overall, Campbell said she is in favor of the pilot program. It could provide some evidence as to whether the calendar or the other changes included are effective.

Watts recently presented the project to a group of state lawmakers studying the statewide education efficiency audit. Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, is a member of that group and said he's excited about the prospect.

"I come out of the business world. Pilots are always a good way to test ideas, products, new methods," Nelson said Monday in a phone interview. "I've seen (Watts) perform other duties before. And what he's talking about is hitting a need that desperately needs to be serviced."

Another change recommended in the project is the hiring of teachers based on the needs of a specifically designed job instead of seniority. Campbell didn't think her organization would be too excited about the changes in hiring practices, but she didn't think the issue would crop up very frequently.

Most of the time the most qualified teacher is also the one with the most seniority, she said. While Duerring said teacher certification does not always lead to teacher quality, he agreed that everyone is on the same page as far as getting the right teacher in the right room.

 "I don't think anybody would fight the idea that you want the right teacher in that position for that particular school. I just can't see or imagine anyone would want to fight that, that whole idea," Duerring said.

Involving the community, businesses and other stakeholders will be key to the success of the project, Watts said. Most of the remaining recommendations relate to involving community organizations, the state Legislature and the state Board of Education.

Although the pilot addresses only the West Side, Watts and Duerring both believe it could affect schools across the state.

Many of the recommendations fall in line with the suggestions made in the audit and with the state board's response to that audit, Duerring said. If it is designated as a state pilot program, there could be additional state funds available.

However, it would also bring attention to the program and potentially allow other educators to see what works and what doesn't, Watts said.

"We want the West Side itself to be ground zero for education reform," Watts said.

He admitted it could take a little more convincing at the local level before the entire community buys in to the ideas. The pilot itself is also only a template, and a school should be held accountable for whether any proposed changes work, Watts said.

Even if the Legislature doesn't look at the pilot, Duerring is confident the county can move forward with some recommendations right away. He agreed some of the ideas might not be popular, acknowledging that parents of students at J.E. Robins and Watts recently overwhelmingly voted against a year-round calendar for the new Edgewood-area elementary school.

"Well, there may be some backlash. But I think there's the time where you just have to stand up and do the right thing," Duerring said.

"I think there's a time where you have to step in and take control, and say, 'This is what we're going to do so that we hope that we can increase student achievement,' " he continued.

The Kanawha County Board of Education must approve the pilot or any of the suggested reforms before it could advance to the state level. The board is scheduled to discuss the program at 6 p.m. Thursday during its regular meeting at the board offices on Elizabeth Street.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at



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