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Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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Board hears options on Albert Harris

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Martinsville School Board heard presentations Monday night from two companies selected as finalists to become the “lead turnaround partner” to improve student achievement at Albert Harris Elementary School.

Albert Harris, which was identified by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) as one of 37 low-performing 2013-14 Priority schools in the state, is going though a three-year process to make improvements.

A committee with representatives from the school system and Albert Harris reviewed eight companies on a VDOE-approved list, narrowed it down to four and then to two finalists, said Angilee Downing, assistant superintendent for instruction.

Officials from the two finalists — Pearson Education and Cambridge Education — made presentations at a community forum at Albert Harris after school Monday and again at the city school board meeting Monday night.

Surveys for parents and teachers are available and being done now about priorities and concerns. Go to the school division’s website or call the school division or school for more information.

The committee will select one of the two finalists as the lead turnaround partner this week because the deadline to apply for a federal School Improvement Grant is Friday, Downing said. She added that the school division will receive the grant, but the amount has not yet been determined.

The presentations by the two finalists dealt with how they would work collaboratively with the school, school division and VDOE to improve student achievement at Albert Harris. Their strategies and methods would involve such things as assessing the needs; providing services, resources and professional development; getting parents and the community more involved; improving weaknesses and building on strengths. Each company provided examples of low-performing schools they had helped to improve achievement.

In other business, after hearing comments from Superintendent Pam Heath, the school board reached a consensus to direct the division administration to begin looking into “policy considerations regarding drug testing.”

Heath said during the meeting and in an interview that her purpose was to see if the board wanted to start a conversation looking into the issue.

Heath said that Virginia state law generally requires students to be expelled for possessing drugs at school, but there are “some exceptions and nuances.” On the other hand, she said, students are getting mixed messages, because some states have legalized marijuana for adults.

Also, she said, some local employers have said they have trouble finding employees who can pass drug testing.

The school division has an obligation to prepare students to be college and career ready, and to be aware of the realities of the workplace, which commonly include drug testing, she said.

A wide variety of policy options are available, ranging from random student drug testing as the most extreme, to “at the other end of the spectrum, basic education about dangers of illegal drug use and guidance counseling,” Heath said. She added she is not looking at this as a being punitive.

She said that several years ago, the school division looked into doing random student drug testing for students involved in extracurricular activities but decided not to pursue it. She said she was not superintendent then and did not know all the reasons why.

During the discussion, school board members Craig Dietrich and board Vice Chairperson Carolyn McCraw expressed support for looking into the issue. School board member Rives Coleman said it is an issue if people are not passing drug tests, but he wondered if the school division might be setting itself up to be “a test case.” He also said it is important to look at what other school divisions have done and what was successful.

Heath said she envisions school division officials will do a thorough, deliberate study, talking with students, parents, business partners and other stakeholders, and researching use of drugs, peer pressure and drug policies of other school divisions.

In other the business, the school board:

• Approved a Pre-Labor Day opening waiver request to VDOE based on a proposed innovative program to engage students at the elementary, middle and high school levels in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-related activities and courses early on and throughout their academic careers. The program, called the Henry County/Martinsville STEM Pipeline Initiative, is a partnership with the two school divisions; Patrick Henry Community College; New College Institute; the Piedmont Governor’s School for Mathematics, Science and Technology; and professors from Virginia State University.

• Heard a report from Travis Clemons, executive director for administrative services, that at this point it does not appear there will be a big decline in state funds to the school division under the governor’s proposed budget, but there still are many unknowns and variables, and things could change.

• Heard a report that Feb. 17 definitely will be a makeup day and April 21 tentatively is scheduled as a makeup day.

• Heard a special education Dec. 1 child count report. The total number of students receiving special services aged 2-22 on Dec. 1 was 298.

• Heard comments from several members of the Martinsville High School marching band, which performed in the governor’s inaugural parade, and Band Director Kevin Lewis.

• Heard a report by Heath that Jennifer Martin has begun work as the school division’s communications and community outreach coordinator. Heath also thanked Crystal Ritchson for helping with the duties until the position was filled.

• Appointed Larry Hairston as assistant coach of varsity girls basketball.


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