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Cotton intent on preparing kids for college or careers
School superintendent assesses his first year, looks at goals
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Jared Cotton reflects on his first year as Henry County schools’ superintendent and his goals for the system in the future. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

When Henry County Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton met each county kindergartner on the first day of school last fall, they were excited about what lay ahead. Cotton, however, was looking 12 years into the future.

He was wondering, “Where do we want them to be in 12 years?” He doesn’t know what jobs will be available in 12 years, but he knows it is the school division’s responsibility to make sure all students are prepared for them when they graduate, he said.

Cotton recently reflected on his first year as Henry County’s school superintendent, discussing what the system has accomplished since he arrived in January 2012 and challenges it faces in the future.

Among the school division’s goals is trying to prepare students for both college and career, so they will be ready for either path. Many of the skills needed are the same for both, including the four C’s — critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration and communication — and math, Cotton said.

To make sure it is accomplishing that, Cotton said the school division is looking at eventually testing all high schools juniors to determine if they are career and college ready.

Cotton said scores by Henry County students on state Standards of Learning tests are the envy of some other school superintendents, but there is room for improvement on SAT and Advanced Placement test scores. According to the school division’s website, all schools are fully accredited. Rich Acres Elementary School recently was honored by the Virginia Board of Education as a 2013 Title I Distinguished School, one of 37 schools in Virginia to receive the honor. Rich Acres was a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School, one of six public schools in Virginia. Five Henry County elementary schools received 2012 Virginia Index of Performance Awards: Drewry Mason, Mt. Olivet, Rich Acres, Sanville and Stanleytown elementary schools.

The school division is working to raise expectations for students, pushing harder than the state requires, Cotton said. In addition to stressing the four C’s, he said teachers are working together to improve assessments of student achievement. For example, multiple-choice tests are limited in what they can measure, so county educators are being encouraged to use more open-ended assessments, such as writing assignments or completing projects, Cotton said.

Another achievement is that READ 180, a reading intervention program, has been implemented at the elementary school level, and the middle and high school programs have been upgraded. Some students have made more than a year’s gains in reading skills in only half a year. The goal is that no student will read below grade level, Cotton said.

The school division is considering converting part of Magna Vista High School into a New Tech school — the first in Virginia, school officials have said. It is a school within a school concept that possibly could begin next fall at Magna Vista with 100 rising ninth-graders. If it is successful, Cotton hopes a New Tech school would be started later at Bassett High School.

New Tech stresses problem-based learning, real-world applications and multidisciplinary learning. For example, it would combine physical education and biology or English and world history at Magna Vista, Cotton said.

According to the University of Indianapolis Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning website: “At a New Tech (school), you will see students working in groups, deeply engaged in projects that encompass multiple areas of learning. Large open spaces provide a dynamic environment for collaborative education. Classroom teachers act as leaders and guides who interact with their students for academic exploration, while ultimately helping students become directors of their own learning.”

Cotton added that New Tech “has the potential to transform high schools.”

County schools officials have toured New Tech schools in other states, and Cotton saw students “on fire” with excitement. One girl said she didn’t want to miss school.

“We want (our) students to have that same fire in their bellies. Learning is exciting. Learning is not a sentence — do your time. We want kids to be excited about coming to school. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s happening,” he said.

In other initiatives, Cotton is working with Angeline Godwin, president of Patrick Henry Community College, and William Wampler, executive director of the New College Institute, on such things as trying to make college more affordable and provide more opportunities for students to earn an associate degree or an industry credential while in high school, Cotton said.

He said he has been impressed with community leaders’ support of and desire to work with the school division. As an example, he said, a group was formed with representatives from the county and city school divisions, PHCC, NCI and the business community. The group meets regularly, and among its accomplishments was recommending a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Day, which was to have been held at PHCC to encourage high school students’ interest in STEM learning and careers. It was canceled due to inclement weather.

“We’re a community so rich in resources. The challenge is how to pull resources together to maximize the impact for students,” Cotton said.

Sometimes he has used community resources when dealing with students who have made poor choices, at times resulting in suspension or expulsion. There have been times when parents have been opposed to the decision to place a child in a different educational setting, but the child went on to thrive, Cotton said.

He could not give specifics because of confidentiality rules, but he added: “You don’t give up on students who make poor choices.”

Some students have overcome big obstacles — ranging from finances to family dynamics, such as divorce — to get back on track and meet graduation requirements. That may have involved such things as going to school during the summer or staying after school, he said.

Cotton also pointed out that efforts have been made to improve school discipline, especially in secondary schools, and that members of the student advisory committee have said they can see a difference. Also, there is more emphasis on monitoring bullying, and bus behavior is improving, he said.

One of his defining moments as superintendent was at the Jan. 3 mid-year review of the school division’s strategic plan implementation, he said. The plan, enVISION 2018, includes strategies dealing with instruction, professionals, safe and orderly schools, innovative technology, efficient resource management, and family and community engagement. Representatives of action teams on all six areas gave reports.

“It’s incredible the work that has been done so far,” he said.

A few examples are that the school division is getting ready to launch a website to provide resources for parents, families and the community; it has increased efforts to attract, retain and develop high-quality professionals; and it has increased security. On the latter point, Cotton said mandatory school safety drills, tabletop drills and safety audits, among other measures, have taken place.

Cotton said he has spent a lot of time visiting schools this year. It shows on his blog, where he highlighted student and teacher achievements and activities. For instance, on Nov. 19, he blogged about attending the JROTC Military Ball and Arts Alive.

Looking forward, Cotton said challenges for the school division include: “How can we take it (instruction) to the next level?”; funding for operations (for example, because of staff cuts last year, some offices “have skeletal crews”) and upgrading school facilities; and making sure students are prepared for both college and career.

Cotton, 42, said he, wife Joanna, and 16-year-old daughter Michaela have adjusted well to the area. They live in Stanleytown. Michaela is a junior at Bassett High School.

Henry County School Board Chairman Joe DeVault said Cotton “has been a great addition to Henry County Public Schools. Specifically, he has targeted in on instruction, from pre-K through high school. He has a strong instructional background and great organizational skills. His expertise in those areas has been invaluable to us.”

DeVault added that Cotton has “zeroed” in on long-range planning, looking at what the school division is doing now and what it wants to be doing two, five and 10 years down the road in prioritizing capital and instructional improvements.


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