A tough conclusion to reach

Published 10:21 pm Thursday, October 11, 2012

There was actually good news for Suffolk Public Schools in a report released this week by the Virginia Department of Education. The good news? None of Suffolk’s schools ranks among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state, based on success in meeting annual measurable objectives established by the state Board of Education as part of the commonwealth’s waiver of participation in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

One hundred and eight of Virginia’s 1,836 primary and secondary schools are now required to hire “turnaround partners” or advisors approved by the state to help them meet the goals that were established in the areas of math, reading and other measurable achievements, such as graduation rates. None of Suffolk’s schools were relegated to that fate.

Still, the school system’s performance in relation to the other systems in Virginia is hardly commendable. Half of its four middle schools and all three of its high schools are now required to develop and implement plans to raise the achievement of student groups that fell short of the federal standards.

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The local schools’ poor performance puts them in league with the bottom third of the commonwealth’s primary and secondary schools and denies the system as a whole the opportunity to be part of the elite one-third of school systems able to boast that all of their schools met all of the standards. More importantly, it points out the continuing failure by Suffolk school officials to serve taxpayers and their children effectively.

It’s especially disheartening to look into the particular areas in which Suffolk’s schools failed. For instance, the group that includes students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students and students for whom English is a second language failed at each high school to meet the graduation standards. That’s especially worrisome in Suffolk, where a disproportionate number of kids comes from economically disadvantaged homes.

But even the economic disadvantages cannot account for all of the problem. Note, for instance, that all of Suffolk’s primary schools — even Booker T. Washington Elementary School, where roughly three-quarters of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — met the standards. Only as the students entered John Yeates Middle and King’s Fork Middle schools, and from there into any of the three high schools, did their performance drop to levels unacceptable to the state.

One way of looking at the revelations from this week’s state report is to conclude that public education in Suffolk fails its most vulnerable and at-risk students and that it does so at a rate that increases the longer those students are in the system.

It’s a sad and worrisome conclusion to reach, but it’s a tough one to avoid. And that’s not good news at all.