Superintendent sets vision for division

Published 8:43 pm Friday, June 17, 2022

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Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III has a multi-tiered vision for the upcoming school year that seeks to increase community partnerships and parental engagement, puts a foundation in place for a schedule change for high school students, continues with efforts to attract and retain staff and addresses infrastructure issues at schools across the division.

Gordon, at the Suffolk School Board’s June 9 work session, said he wants to increase support for parents of special education students in Suffolk Public Schools through a support group to meet three times per year.

He also plans to establish transition teams to help families of students as they prepare to move from elementary to middle school (fifth to sixth grade) and from middle school to high school (eighth to ninth grade), and from high school to college or the workforce. Chief Academic Officer Dr. Okeema Branch and new Chief of Schools Dr. Stenette Byrd will be leading this effort.

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Gordon said he also wants to make it clearer for parents who they should contact should issues arise in their child’s education, and list different staff members’ duties and responsibilities. For instance, he said, if they have a problem with a teacher, to contact that person via email, but also copy the principal on the email.

The division also plans to help parents be more proactive in their child’s education by providing academic tips and behavioral strategies while helping build relationships with schools and continue to lower disciplinary issues.

The parental partnership program also will include a schedule of events, while providing potential opportunities for them to be involved through coaching, volunteering, parent-teacher associations and booster club organizations.

Gordon noted that he plans to expand partnerships with city businesses to have more of them offering internship opportunities for students. He pointed out the division’s 100% workforce readiness rates, “but kids have also lost hands-on experiences because of COVID, so let’s have a list of businesses that are already lined up that kind of match up with the fields that we’re offering at CCAP (College and Career Academy at Pruden) or for some of our other kids who want to do it because of Project Lead the Way.”

He said there are plans to create a “community champions catalog” that lists specific community and financial partners for the 2,325 employees in SPS to patronize for various services. Many of them, he said, already support the school division, or support individual activities within the division.

He has also had discussions with the Suffolk Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, which offered tutoring programs to students during the COVID-19 pandemic, to expand their partnership with the school division.

“We feel with this community leadership, and this community champions plan, that we will have consistency throughout the city and one uniform message on supporting our kids,” Gordon said.

On the instructional side, Gordon said the SPS Summer Series has been a success and will continue this summer with its four programs – Summer Academy for intensive, targeted support and Standards of Learning remediation, continued traditional summer school offerings, a Summer Bridge program to introduce students to new classes and a Summer Explore program where students are encouraged to get out into the community.

He also outlined plans to shift to a four-by-four block schedule in the 2023-2024 school year. He said students would take four classes per semester, and teachers would teach three, but noted that it would require additional instructional staff, because students will be taking eight classes per year instead of seven.

“This is the missing link, right here, to improving our graduation rates,” Gordon said.

The graduation rates from 2020-2021 range from 78.7% (down 5.7% from 2018-2019) at Lakeland High School, to 84% (down 6.6%) at King’s Fork High School and 92.9% (down 2.6%) at Nansemond River High School.

The four-by-four schedule would allow students to take up to 32 classes in high school over four years and provide incentives for students to stay in school.

He said it also would help increase the number of students who receive advanced diplomas, and reduce achievement gaps for special education students to allow them more support and resources. Additionally, it will help with English Language Learners, or ELL, giving them more time to master English and graduate on time.

Gordon plans to ask the school board to vote on it in October so the division has time put this in place. He said he wanted to put this in for this year, but thought it might be “too much” coming out of the pandemic.

There also will be increased opportunities for SPS staff professional development, he said, and said some staff members were challenged in returning to the classroom full-time after being in virtual and hybrid formats. He said technology should be a supplement and built into the lesson plans, not necessarily the primary resource for teachers.

The division plans to continue with staff bonuses for new hires ($250) and hard-to-fill positions ($2,000) in areas such as math and special education. It plans to expand its reach to find new staff.

Gordon said the division will continue to work through infrastructure issues that include repairing sinkholes at King’s Fork High School and adding more security cameras at the division’s elementary schools.

He said the division is working with the city to add fiber infrastructure in several areas — from King’s Fork High to Elephant’s Fork Elementary, from John F. Kennedy Middle to Mack Benn Jr. Elementary, from Col. Fred Cherry Middle to Northern Shores Elementary and from Florence Bowser Elementary to John Yeates Middle.

He noted work to improve the audio, video and lighting to the King’s Fork Middle auditorium, the Nansemond River gym and at Lakeland High.

Several schools are getting their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems replaced this summer, including Elephant’s Fork Elementary and the Lakeland High and Nansemond River High gyms. Other HVAC repairs is planned for Mack Benn Jr. Elementary and Northern Shores.

“These are things that have to be done,” Gordon said.

Design work also will begin on a new John F. Kennedy Middle and the school administrative offices, along with painting, roof replacement and floor replacement at several schools.

Work is ongoing on putting in Lakeland High’s turf field, and tracks are being replaced at all three division high schools.

Parking lots also will be resurfaced at Forest Glen Middle, John Yeates Middle, Lakeland and Nansemond River.

In addition, work is nearing completion for Lakeland’s Center for Performing and Production Arts, which will start this fall, with classrooms and sound booths being completed this summer. Next year, plans call for its auditorium to be renovated.

There also are plans to replace the mobile unit decking at Kilby Shores Elementary and upgrade fire panels at John F. Kennedy Middle. He said discussions will begin on expanding Northern Shores Elementary.

The division also plans to begin its own pharmacy in partnership with the CCAP pharmaceutical tech program. Gordon credited Chief Financial Officer Wendy Forsman for her role in implementing it. The pharmacy will be located in unused space in the division’s operations center, which Gordon said would allow staff to save money on prescriptions.

The board will receive an updated presentation in August, and Gordon hopes the program can begin by January.

Board members who spoke at the meeting were generally favorable of Gordon’s plans for the upcoming school year. Lorita Mayo and Vice Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum spoke in favor of the four-by-four block scheduling, while Heather Howell supported the increased internship opportunities. Byrum also supported the plans for the pharmacy, and Mayo spoke favorably of the support systems being added for students and families transitioning from elementary to middle school, and middle school to high school.

“We can only get better,” Mayo said, “and we can improve. And we’re always looking for ways to improve. Are we perfect? No. But we’re getting there. We’re addressing our students’ needs and that’s first and foremost what we need to do.”