‘Work together’

Published 9:53 pm Friday, March 2, 2012

Suffolk Public Schools students Regan Worley, left, from Northern Shores Elementary School, and Mitch Moore from Southwestern Elementary School demonstrate how students read while sitting on exercise balls to maintain balance. They were presenting at the Learning Fair following the State of the Schools speech. The innovative seats are part of the school district’s wellness initiatives.

Whitney calls for help with school budget

Suffolk’s public schools continue to look to increase student achievement and retain hard-working teachers in the midst of yet another budget shortfall, the school superintendent said Thursday.

Superintendent Deran Whitney delivered that message during his State of the Schools speech at an event hosted by the Suffolk Education Foundation at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

“We must commit to work together and hold each other accountable,” Whitney said.

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The program was a fundraiser for the Suffolk Education Foundation, which funds instructional grants and other programs in the schools. Following Whitney’s speech, guests visited 12 “Learning Fair” stations featuring programs ranging from wellness initiatives to a robotics club — many of them funded by SEF grants.

“Public education today is critical,” said Michael Debranski, chairman of the Suffolk School Board. “No other country has the educational opportunities that are offered here in Virginia and throughout our great nation.”
Whitney warned, however, that Suffolk’s educational system is in danger without increased support from the city in the coming budget cycle.

He currently is reworking his proposed budget to include a raise for staff, at the direction of the School Board. It already had closed a $6 million gap caused by increased retirement costs and less state aid.

He cautioned he could still find it necessary to eliminate programs and positions to balance the budget. With the city manager and most of the City Council in attendance, he stressed the need for increased funding from the city.

“We cannot ignore the budget shortfall,” he said.

He also addressed the fact that Lakeland and King’s Fork high schools are only provisionally accredited this year because of graduation rates that fell short of state benchmarks. The schools missed the mark by two and three percentage points, respectively.

“While I certainly don’t make light of that, I know the students, teachers and staff are working on it,” he said.

He highlighted successes in closing achievement gaps and increasing pass rates on standardized tests in each content area. He also praised teachers for their dedication.

“They’re working hard,” he said. “They stay true to our mission to help each student find success in our complex society. I thank you sincerely, because I know you’re working hard and putting forth much effort.”

He said a committee currently is working to revamp teacher evaluations to place more emphasis on student performance.

Whitney also touted the International Baccalaureate program, which will graduate its first class this year, and the $5.6 million in scholarships earned by the class of 2011.

He also thanked the community members who attended the event.

“You’re here, which sends a message that you value education,” he said.

The Learning Fair afterward appealed to all of the senses in showing guests the various programs of Suffolk Public Schools.

Visitors were invited to smell and taste kiwi fruit at the wellness initiatives station and sample other healthy snacks at a table that showed how a Kilby Shores Elementary School class studies math, science and reading through cooking.

A strings quartet from Forest Glen Middle School represented music programs in the schools by playing pleasing music for visitors. Guests also got to look at a robot created by the FIRST Robotics team at Nansemond River High School and touched oysters raised through an oyster restoration project at one of the schools.