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Kanawha board approves West Side education reform pilot

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It might not be perfect.

But Kanawha County school board members are optimistic the plan they unanimously approved Thursday night to reform schools on Charleston's West Side is a step in the right direction.

"It's just critical over there. We have got to solve the academic problems on the West Side," said Pete Thaw, president of the board. "I think because it is isolated on the West Side, you can attack it on the West Side.

 Superintendent Ron Duerring presented a plan of attack to combat low test scores at five West Side schools. The pilot project would affect four elementary schools -- Grandview, J.E. Robins, Watts and Mary C. Snow West Side -- as well as Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

The changes proposed in the pilot are dramatic: each school would move to a year-round school calendar, principals would have more flexibility in hiring teachers, tardies could be dealt with in a similar manner as absences and uniforms would be mandatory, to name some of the 15 recommendations.

It's not to say teachers at the affected schools have failed, Duerring and board members emphasized. The board wants to see more academic gains than those to date, and the board is confident these changes are necessary.

That doesn't mean all of them will work though, board member Robin Rector cautioned.

"It is a pilot, and the beauty and nature of pilots is you learn from them," Rector said.

"Some things won't work and some things will, and we just have to be willing to evaluate fairly as we go forward and not be afraid or ashamed to say 'well that piece didn't work' but absolutely applaud the pieces that do."

Duerring worked closely with the Rev. Matthew Watts, a community organizer and pastor on the West Side, on creating the pilot. Rector said she was happy the community had input.

Not everyone is happy, though.

Michelle Settle, Grandview Elementary principal, said some of her teachers were absolutely against moving to a year-round calendar. There has been negative feedback from some parents as well.

The year-round schedule, also referred to as a balanced calendar, consists of nine-week blocks followed by three-week breaks. The summer break is condensed to four weeks, an idea that left some parents a little "shell shocked," Settle said.

She is in favor of the move, as well as the recommendation to reduce the role seniority plays in hiring teachers. Although teachers' union officials have already voiced displeasure at the idea, Settle thought it would give her more flexibility.

"It would give me more leeway to pick teachers that I feel maybe are a better fit for our school culture," Settle said.

"Some of the West Side schools are a little more difficult to work in," she said. "It's a unique culture, so I think it would be beneficial for us to have a little more hiring leeway."

Most of the pilot's recommendations require legislative action. The most crucial part of the package, in Duerring's opinion, does though: allowing the school system to count three tardies in one absence, and pursue legal action when tardies add up.

There's already a system in place through truancy court to address absences, but the county is powerless to take similar action against students who are chronically tardy.

Watts has already spoken with many legislators and staff members of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin concerning the project, local NAACP head Kenny Hale told the board. He said Watts spoke with Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and current Senate Education Committee Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, about the project.

They agreed the pilot would last four or five years if approved, and the two would discuss how much financial backing it would take to make that happen, Hale said.

"We've already tried to grease the skids for you," Hale said.

There's no timeline for when the changes would take affect, Duerring said. It depends on how much funding is provided by the Legislature for the portions of the pilot that involve interacting with community-based organizations.

Board member Bill Raglin said he hoped the plan would take affect immediately, in order to enact some changes ahead of the opening of the new Edgewood-area elementary school.

At $21 million, the school has not been cheap. Considering other serious financial constraints, most notably county taxpayers' vote to cap the amount of money the board could receive from an additional property tax, Duerring has repeatedly told the board it could face dire financial straits in coming years.

With that in mind, board member Becky Jordon proposed discussing a levy at a future meeting. The board agreed to have a special meeting to do so, much to Thaw's dismay.

He adamantly fought for the cap on the extra property tax, called an excess levy, and has repeatedly said he'll never support passing a levy.

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




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