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Liverman looks back on decade as superintendent

Sitting behind his desk in the School Administrative Building, Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Milton Liverman seems relaxed.

He is at ease talking about the schools, their challenges and the opportunities that await them.

In between answering questions about the division, Liverman is momentarily distracted by a quick call from City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn or an email needing an immediate response, but even that does shake his composure. When he returns to the conversation, he needs no reminder of the discussion. He quickly apologizes for the interruption and confidently picks up right where he left off.

On this mid-October morning, Liverman has a reason to exude such a calm assurance.

He is being asked to reflect on the division’s development of progress in the past decade. It’s a progression Liverman has seen firsthand, as he served as superintendent throughout the past 10 years.

“Ten years ago, we were really just getting started with some major projects,” Liverman said. “We had some real capital needs as well as some academic challenges.”

Specifically, Liverman said, the system was struggling to get accredited, boasting the lowest teacher salaries in the region and in “dire need” of a middle school.

Piece by piece, the division has worked hard to address almost all of those issues, Liverman said.

Today, he said, the division is fully accredited, has an increased “academic rigor” and is working toward the construction of a new elementary school.

“The most visible progress we’ve had is in construction,” Liverman said. The school system got its much-needed middle school in 2001, when King’s Fork Middle School opened its doors. But it’s not just the building of a new school that has been successful, Liverman said – it’s been the building of award-winning schools.

“We have been building, basically, since 1996 with Northern Shores (Elementary School),” Liverman said. “We know the process, and can make good financially efficient decisions. We have the most cost-effective schools in the state.”

In the past 10 years, the division has seen not just King’s Fork Middle School, but the construction of King’s Fork High School, Creekside Elementary School and Hillpoint Elementary School, as well. Now, work is in the planning stages for a facility to replace Southwestern and Robertson Elementary schools.

“That’s a lot of investment in infrastructure,” Liverman said, “but it’s an investment in our students, in state-of-the-art facilities and, ultimately, in our community.”

Speaking of state-of-the-art facilities, Liverman brought up another major change in Suffolk’s schools this decade.

“We have the best technology department in the state,” said the self-described “technology guy.” “They are outstanding. We are able to connect our students and teachers to new technologies, new ways of learning. I’m looking forward to the day we can put a laptop in every teacher’s hands.”

But before he said more of those future plans, Liverman came back to address some of the more pressing problems facing the schools today.

He is the first to bring up the system’s high dropout rate.

Currently, the school system has a 12.6 percent high school dropout rate, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

“Our dropout rate is very high,” Liverman said. “And it creates a pretty vicious cycle.”

Liverman went on to say the students in today’s classrooms are not exempt from the problems and obstacles in their homes and communities, including high poverty and illiteracy rates.

“We have a big literacy problem in the city, and it does contribute to some of our problems (in the school system),” Liverman said. According to research in 2008 from the United Way of South Hampton Roads, 32 percent of adults in the city of Suffolk are functionally illiterate.

Liverman said partners from community churches and non-profit organizations have stepped in to try and help by offering tutoring programs. The school system itself has supported several adult education classes, but the literacy problem in Suffolk remains.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but we are going to keep trying new things,” he said. “I know we’ve got to keep plugging at it.”

But Liverman then quickly made an important observation.

“Socioeconomics is one of the biggest indicators of academic success,” he said. “But note, I did say indicators, not determinants.”

Liverman said the city’s obstacles have not stopped the school system from continuing to provide a challenging educational environment for students.

“I think that is best evidenced by our International Baccalaureate program,” Liverman said. “That has been developed and is now successfully running. We’ve also expanded our dual credit class options and our modeling and simulation program with TCC. We also have an ROTC program that is running at all of our high schools, and those are all programs our students and faculty take tremendous pride in.”

Liverman acknowledged that while more doors are being opened for Suffolk’s students, there is still work to be done in regards to the school dropout rate and Standards of Learning testing.

“We have work to do,” Liverman said.

Currently the school system is fully accredited by the state, but several schools in the district have struggled with achieving Adequate Yearly Progress results for the No Child Left Behind program.

“We are working on it, and I think that work is starting to materialize more. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have said that,” Liverman said. “We are working to close those achievement gaps. That has to remain our focus.”

There are many reasons to be proud of the school system’s growth during the past decade, he said. But there is another non-quantitative type of data that brings him much more pride.

“I go out, and I see our kids,” Liverman said. “They are proud of their schools. They always come up to me and ask me if I know their principal. Of course, I say I do, and they tell me how much they love their principal, love their school, their teachers. That’s important to remember.”