State allows local school reviews

Published 7:55 pm Saturday, October 19, 2013

After two of its schools failed to meet state standards last year, Suffolk Public Schools was allowed to lead its own academic review of the schools, rather than have that review completed by the state.

The schools were two of only three in the entire state in which the state’s Board of Education allowed the local review, instead of performing the review itself.

Following a request by Suffolk Public Schools’ superintendent, Lakeland and King’s Fork high schools were approved by the Virginia Department of Education for district-led academic reviews.


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In 2012-2013, the department conducted 68 on-site academic reviews for schools accredited with warning or provisionally accredited due to substandard graduation rates, according to department spokesman Charles Pyle.

At Suffolk’s King’s Fork and Lakeland high schools, and Heritage Elementary School in Lynchburg, the reviews were led by school districts, not the state.

District superintendents like Suffolk’s Deran Whitney can request internal academic reviews for schools accredited with warning under a standard of the State Board of Education policy adopted in October 2006.

“Such requests must be sent to the Superintendent of Public Instruction for approval,” the standard reads, adding that requests “must show that the proposed process and areas of review address the components of the school-level academic review process approved by the Board of Education.”

Kathleen Smith, director of the department’s Office of School Improvement, said she approved the request, which was requested in January by Whitney in a letter to Lynn Sodat, a school improvement specialist in the office.

The Suffolk News-Herald obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information inquiry.

The request, which Whitney contends was “not so much a request” but an agreement that the district’s own review process was “acceptable,” was neither personally viewed nor approved by Patricia Wright, the state superintendent, Smith said, adding that Wright is permitted to delegate such tasks.

“Primarily, our goal was to include our instructional staff in the entire process,” Whitney said in an email, adding the district’s team worked with a consultant provided by the department.

Department guidelines forwarded by Pyle offer three different academic review team setups. They differ based on why schools miss full accreditation, as well as performance on annual academic targets mandated under the commonwealth’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind policy and Title I designation.

According to the guidelines, the Suffolk high schools, both being non-Title I schools warned in math that met requirements under the waiver, required a review team led by the state and with district staff assigned to help the school in areas where improvement is required.

But Smith described her office’s approach to constituting academic reviews as much more fluid — driven more by individual school characteristics.

“In any given case, it might be less department involvement than other cases,” she said. “It varies with the circumstances.”

Smith said state education officials are working with districts to build districts’ capacity to review their own schools. Suffolk Public Schools has been working with a department consultant for three years and has been held up as a model for other districts, she said.

The academic reviews of King’s Fork and Lakeland were “no different than reviews we completed in other schools,” she added.

Direct contact and involvement with Smith’s office has helped the district develop this capacity, Whitney said, and processes were crafted using an online department academic review template.

September brought more bad news for Suffolk, when the department announced the number of public schools in Suffolk without full state accreditation had tripled. Booker T. Washington, Elephant’s Fork and Mack Benn Jr. elementary schools, plus King’s Fork Middle School, joined the ranks.

Suffolk wasn’t alone in falling behind. The number of failing schools increased statewide. Officials blame the introduction last year of new reading, writing and science SOL assessments that required students to understand how they arrive at answers and what those answers mean. Math assessments introduced in 2011-2012 had also been more rigorous.

One result of the new standards has been more academic reviews.

“Prior to the new math test, approximately 20 schools were accredited with warning,” Smith said. This year, the figure is about 400, she said, and “next year it could be a little higher.”

When determining school accreditation, the department looks at three years of test scores, Smith said, so the new reading, writing and science tests will factor into accreditation ratings into the latter half of the decade.

The General Assembly appropriated an extra $500,000 in 2012 and the same amount again this year for improving the commonwealth’s schools. Funding the rising number of academic reviews required and fixing whatever they uncover is an ongoing challenge, Smith said.

“We have more schools in the first or second year of review right now, and that’s less costly” than reviews for schools that continue to miss accreditation standards and require more invasive action, she said.

Suffolk School Board Chairman Michael Debranski said the board is satisfied with the district’s plan to improve test scores.

“From what I can see, we are at the forefront of trying to get our schools improved as far as the action we are undertaking,” he said.

“(But) believe this: If it doesn’t work out, we will ask for state help or intervention. I won’t be satisfied until all our schools make full accreditation — anything short of that isn’t acceptable.”

Smith said the last round of academic reviews focused on aligning districts’ written curricula with state standards. But, she added, “We are now going to look a little further  … are the teachers teaching that curriculum?”

In Suffolk, Whitney said, “The written, taught and tested curriculum will be the focus this year, ensuring that tight alignment is evident.”

“During observations, delivery of instruction will be the primary focus,” he said.

David Foster, president of the state Board of Education, said he sees no reason to second-guess permitting Suffolk Public Schools to conduct internal academic reviews, instead of having them led by the state.

“The involvement of the department comes in many different varieties,” he said. “In every case, the department is involved; this is not a case of turning it over to the division.”