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Trouble foreseen for pilot project targeting West Side schools

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Some West Side principals already are fielding complaints about a proposed pilot project aimed at improving student achievement at five chronically low-performing schools.

The Kanawha County school board voted 5-0 Thursday to let Superintendent Ron Duerring pursue the proposed reforms.

The changes would include school uniforms, a year-round calendar, a crackdown on student tardies and more flexibility for principals in hiring teachers.

The affected schools include Watts, J.E. Robins, Grandview and Mary C. Snow West Side elementary schools and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

Principals from at least three of those schools already have heard negative push back.

Most of the complaints, from both teachers and community members, are about the year-round calendar, said J.E. Robins Principal Henry Nearman.

Stonewall Principal Donnell Gilliam and Grandview Principal Michelle Settle have heard similar opposition.

At Stonewall, at least half of the teachers are against the new calendar, Gilliam said.

"I have kind of heard rumblings of some teachers wanting to leave because of going to a year-round calendar," Gilliam said. "They're not in favor of it."

Some teachers have children in schools that would remain on the traditional calendar, and Gilliam said they weren't happy at the prospects of juggling different schedules.

He isn't opposed to the year-round calendar if it improves achievement, but he said if that's the case then the whole county should convert.

On a year-round - or "balanced" - calendar, students attend class for nine-week terms followed by three-week breaks.

The summer break is a little longer, at four to five weeks, but it's still significantly shorter than the conventional 12-week break.

Shorter summers were among the concerns expressed by some Stonewall and Grandview parents, the principals said.

Some teachers also have mentioned the second jobs they hold down in the summer, Gilliam said.

Not everyone is on board with uniforms, either.

Gilliam said he isn't opposed to the idea of school uniforms but said the policy would work only if it was rolled out gradually.

"What do we do if on any given day 100 kids didn't dress?" Gilliam said. "We could call 100 kids' parents every day, but I don't want to do that. Nor would I want to send a child home or have them miss class because they don't have the proper shirt on."

He has heard talk about grant funding for uniforms but was not sure of the details.

Duerring said the county still needs to work out the particulars, but any uniform chosen would be readily available at local stores and inexpensive.

Duerring believes strengthening punishments for student tardies could have the greatest impact.

The Rev. Matthew Watts, a community organizer and pastor on the West Side, helped Duerring come up with the reforms.

He is confident the three-week breaks between terms would give struggling or truant students time to catch up on their work, as teachers could require their attendance during the breaks.

The Legislature would be asked to pass a law allowing schools to count three tardies as one absence. Once a student wracked up too many absences, his or her parents could be required to appear in truancy court.

Tardies are a huge problem at J.E. Robins, and Nearman thinks a code change would have an immediate effect.

The change would create "accountability for parents to bring their children to school for the entire day of instruction," he said.

"And right now parents can bring their children an hour, an hour and a half late every day and there are no repercussions."

Schools can put students in detention or suspend them for too many tardies, but Nearman said he has found those punishments to be ineffective. Settle and Duerring agreed.  

Gilliam doesn't think a different calendar would improve the attendance of students who regularly miss school.

"It doesn't matter if they're on the year-round calendar or not, that parent is still going to have issues getting their child to school on time," he said.

Absences and tardies are not a big problem at Stonewall, Gilliam said. He thinks the changes in hiring practices would have a far greater impact.

Even if the county said principals didn't have to weigh seniority as heavily when it came to hiring the right teacher for the right job, Gilliam doesn't think the schools actually would be allowed to follow through.

"Really, honestly, I think that's where the rubber meets the road," Gilliam said.

He thinks there are teachers who might be a good fit at his school, but they don't have as much seniority as other candidates so they can't be hired.

He would love to hire the right person but thinks state code and the teachers' unions are powerful enough to prevent principals from gaining that flexibility.

However, Nearman and Duerring said the county is already using such a policy when it comes to staffing the new Edgewood-area elementary school that will consolidate the student bodies of Robins and Watts.

Nearman will serve as principal of the sprawling new "school of the future." Set to open by fall of 2014, the building is designed for a curriculum incorporating project-based learning and advanced technology.

The curriculum is so specific, and the teachers needed for the positions so unique that Nearman and Duerring said they've already chosen people based more on qualifications and less on seniority.

About 90 percent of the school's 46 positions have been filled, Nearman said.

Because of the intensive amount of training needed to execute the new curriculum, Nearman said teachers had to agree to stay at the school for at least three years. Right now teachers are required to stay at a school for only one year, Nearman said.

"We wanted this knowledge that was gained from the trainings to be implemented at the very least for a few years," he said.

Removing the emphasis on seniority also is a focus of the state Board of Education, in response to a major audit of the state public school system.

Duerring said he thinks the pilot project proposed for the West Side is in keeping with many of the audit's recommendations, and he doesn't think the hiring portion would require any changes in state law.

Teacher union officials repeatedly have said seniority is only one of many factors weighed in hiring.

Christine Campbell, president-elect for the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union wouldn't be excited about changes regarding seniority and hiring.

She's confident the most qualified teacher also happens to have the most seniority, so she doesn't think it will be that big of an issue.

Duerring said, "I don't think any one of those organizations would balk at hiring the most qualified person."

Legislators will decide whether to fund or approve some of the recommendations in the pilot project. However, Duerring said few of the recommendations actually require legislative action and the project could start as soon as the next school year.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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