Legislative News

Overview

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January 20, 2017 - Volume 37 Issue 1

By Jim Wallace

Education reform with perhaps major restructuring of agencies will be one of the biggest topics for West Virginia legislators this year. Both Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leaders have made that clear.

In his inaugural address on Monday afternoon, Justice said he was ready to present his education plan immediately as he held up a blue booklet, although he hasn’t made it public yet. Nevertheless, he indicated in his speech some of the changes he would like to see.

“I have an education plan right here that I’m going to submit immediately for people to review. It’s going to be the elimination of a bunch of unnecessary agencies. It’s going to be a look at education in a different way that has never been looked at for a long, long time.” – Gov. Jim Justice

“Our teachers – like it or not like it – are underpaid,” Justice said. “Now, we’ve got to do something about it. Do you know we’ve got 600 classrooms in this state that we can’t even field a teacher? We got to get the bureaucrats out of the way. We’ve got to worry about our kids getting an A through F versus our schools getting an A through F. We’ve got to listen to the people that are on the ground instead of trying to administer from Charleston when we don’t have a clue what’s going on, and we have proven – we have proven how to be last. Today, I have an education plan right here that I’m going to submit immediately for people to review. It’s going to be the elimination of a bunch of unnecessary agencies. It’s going to be a look at education in a different way that has never been looked at for a long, long time.”

On the subject of having too many bureaucrats, he said the state had about 130 of them overseeing about 500,000 students in 1980, but since then, the student population has dropped to about 277,000. “Today, we have half as many students and 10 times as many bureaucrats looking over them,” Justice said. “How can it possibly be? How can it possibly work? And we know it’s not [working]. We got to do something about it.”

Despite not having many details yet, legislative leaders indicate that they like the direction that Justice wants to go.

“I give him accolades for those comments,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said the day after the inauguration on the MetroNews Radio Network’s Talkline. “Those are the things that this legislature has been trying to achieve for many years. We just haven’t had the support of the chief executive. He’s ready to go in there and make wholesale changes to the education departments that are housed in Charleston, West Virginia, and return control to the local counties and the entities that control the school system. He is absolutely right out of our playbook, and we will be 100 percent with him to help him achieve those goals.”

Asked specifically about Justice’s adverse remarks concerning the new A-through-F grading system for schools, Carmichael said, “I’m not sure the A-through-F system has been received as it was intended to be…. We need to hold our schools accountable. There’s no question about that. Measure them and be accountable.”

However, he expressed concern that too much of schools’ grades depend on how students do on the end-of-year test, which currently is the Smarter Balanced test. Carmichael said it is “ridiculous” that schools spend an inordinate amount of time on testing. “It’s taking away from the true mission of education to convey knowledge and invest the people with skill sets to move forward in a 21st century economy,” he said. “But beyond that, we’re having these tests that mean nothing to the grade of the student.”

Carmichael said it’s “a step in the right direction” that the state school board has proposed to replace the Smarter Balanced tests with end-of-course exams. But he still wouldn’t want school grades to depend too much on the test results.

Also on Talkline, House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said he was encouraged that Gov. Justice wants to look at meaningful reform and “restructure and right-size” the education system because it is too top heavy.

“I do believe that there’s a strong sentiment in the legislature that we do need to push greater resources out to the local school districts and to the classrooms. We’ve been looking very closely at the RESAs, trying to understand exactly how they’re fulfilling their mission.” – Delegate Paul Espinosa

“I do believe that there’s a strong sentiment in the legislature that we do need to push greater resources out to the local school districts and to the classrooms,” Espinosa said. “We’ve been looking very closely at the RESAs, trying to understand exactly how they’re fulfilling their mission.”

On the subject of RESAs – Regional Education Service Agencies – he said he was concerned about “mission creep” and wanted to refocus them on their core missions. Espinosa said legislators are looking at the 2012 education efficiency audit to find ways to achieve greater efficiencies in public education.

In regard to the A-through-F grading system for schools, he said he heard many of his fellow legislators applaud when Justice criticized it. But Espinosa indicated he was more inclined to change the system rather than get rid of it.

“As a parent, I appreciate some type of grading system that helps me to better understand exactly how is my school performing,” he said. “And I think, in the past some of the report cards that we’ve gotten have made it relatively difficult to really determine how is my school doing. So I support the concept.”

However, Espinosa said the grading system is a bit too heavy on one assessment. He said the proposed switch to end-of-course exams would help by giving students more “skin in the game.”

Chief of staff emphasizes reducing regulations.

Two days after the inauguration, Justice’s chief of staff, Nick Casey, indicated on Talkline that West Virginians might have to wait for the governor’s State of the State address on February 8 to get the details about his education plan.

“The basic principle is less regulation equals more efficiency. If you’re more efficient, you’re going to save time and money.” – Nick Casey

“The basic principle is less regulation equals more efficiency,” he said. “If you’re more efficient, you’re going to save time and money.”

Casey added, “There are so many regulatory restraints that are placed upon the schools that it’s actually affecting their ability to be efficient. It is costing a lot of money to comply with the regulations for the sake of complying with the regulations.”

In addition to suggesting that such agencies as RESAs, the Office of Education Performance Audits and the Center for Professional Development could be restructured, he said Gov. Justice would like to see changes in the way schools are graded.

“Accountability is important,” Casey said. “The governor does have some concerns, and he expressed those in his speech about the way we’re measuring accountability. The A-through-F [grading] on kids is something we all kind of understand. That A-through-F approach for the schools themselves is almost a divisive, almost a demeaning, a very concerning way to do the measurements. Accountability, yes, but let’s do accountability and measurements in a way that empower the folks at the schools to feel like they’re doing things well, they’re improving themselves, they’re going to make things better for the kids, than using a system that appears on its face to almost be punitive in the way it does the measurements.”

However, he said, Justice realizes that he does not control the state school board, so he will have to work with board members to get what he wants. Casey said one problem with the system is that the grading is done on a bell curve.

“F versus A is not very helpful, and I don’t think it’s representative of the accountability that those schools have,” he said. What is needed, Casey said, is a method to report accountability in a way “that is collaboratively helpful for the schools to do better and at the same time for the parents to be able to rate those schools in a manner that’s fair to the schools.”

Speaking on Talkline right after Casey, Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, also expressed interest in getting away from the current system of grading schools. She said the A-through-F system has failed in other states, which changed their requirements to make their schools look better. She suggested considering factors other than test scores, such as how they have implemented community schools and wraparound services. Another criticism she had for the way schools are graded now is that more support systems are needed for schools getting failing grades.

“I think we can come up with an accountability system that actually measures schools’ achievement, measures their growth, measures their improvement, and put in a system that makes sense for everybody,” Campbell said. “I have no issue with accountability. I have an issue with accountability that doesn’t actually represent how well a school is doing for the students in meeting the needs of the whole child.”

By Jim Wallace

It looks quite likely that this will be a year of change for West Virginia’s Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs).

Not only has the Legislative Auditor’s Office recommended eliminating RESAs and turning their duties over to regional staff of the Department of Education, but key legislative leaders have indicated they are inclined to make such a change. In addition, the president of the state school board has said the board wants to make changes affecting the RESAs, although he doesn’t want to get rid of them. Meanwhile, the RESAs contend they are saving money and it would be foolish to get rid of them.

The future of the RESAs was a big topic for legislative meetings in both December and January. In December, John Silvia, director of the Performance Evaluation and Research Division (PERD) of the Legislative Auditor’s Office, presented a performance review that recommended the elimination of the RESAs. In January, Nick Zervos, executive director of RESA 6, protested PERD’s findings on behalf of the RESAs, and Mike Green, president of the state school board, also disputed those findings but pledged that the board would make some changes in RESAs’ operations. The occasion each time was a combined meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Government Organization and the Joint Standing Committee on Education.

Since then, Gov. Jim Justice, who once served briefly on the Raleigh County Board of Education, pledged in his inaugural address to “get the bureaucrats out of the way” to improve West Virginia’s education system. He said, “I have an education plan right here that I’m going to submit immediately for people to review. It’s going to be the elimination of a bunch of unnecessary agencies. It’s going to be a look at education in a different way that has never been looked at for a long, long time.” However, even though Justice said he would submit his education plan immediately, his office hasn’t made it public yet, so it is not clear whether he would like to get rid of RESAs.

Nick Casey, the governor’s chief of staff, said Wednesday on Talkline on the MetroNews Radio Network that there are opportunities for restructuring RESAs and other agencies, which all do good things for schools. He specifically mentioned RESAs, the Office of Education Performance Audits, and the Center for Professional Development. He suggested it might be possible to have one entity handle the duties now split among those organizations or have them share responsibilities in a way that would reduce regulations and increase efficiency and savings.

“The restructuring opportunity there is enormous.” – Nick Casey

“The restructuring opportunity there is enormous,” Casey said.

Despite the lack of specifics from the Justice administration, Senate President Mitch Carmichael endorsed the concept of eliminating unnecessary agencies, and other legislative leaders have expressed similar sentiments.

After the January legislative meeting about RESAs, House Government Organization Chairman Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, indicated that he would like to get rid of RESAs. “In the administration of the RESAs, I think it’s time that we do cut those employees,” Howell said. “We need to eliminate those bureaucrats and make sure that money flows down to the teacher. We can give teacher pay raises. We can make sure that, instead of being at the bottom of the results, if we spend the money, we should be at the top. And getting rid of this bureaucratic overhead like the RESAs, that’s how we begin to get the results and move West Virginia to number one.”

Similarly, House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said, “Certainly, there may be some things that are positive activities that RESAs and other agencies are undertaking, but when you’re looking at a budget shortfall north of $400 million for the upcoming fiscal year, it’s certainly come to the point, I believe, where perhaps we can’t afford some of those types of activities, as worthwhile as they are.”

Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, also indicated interest in restructuring in a way that at least could cut out the RESAs from professional development. Speaking on Talkline, she said some school districts have been using more curriculum coaches for professional development at the local level, so if every county could have a math and a reading curriculum coach, RESAs might not be needed for professional development.

Campbell said she wouldn’t want to take away any RESA services the counties depend on, but there might be opportunities to restructure agencies to achieve more accountability and efficiency. She said the Education Department sends money to the RESAs, which then charge school districts for services. She suggested the county school districts might be able to handle them more efficiently if they had the resources.

“PERD finds that there is a continued need for the regional service purpose, but this purpose should emanate from regional staff, not through regional agencies. – John Sylvia

When Sylvia was asked if RESAs are still needed, he summed up his agency’s findings this way: “PERD finds that there is a continued need for the regional service purpose, but this purpose should emanate from regional staff, not through regional agencies.”

In support of that finding, Sylvia made these points:

  • Technical assistance and professional development are RESAs’ two most important responsibilities, but in fiscal year 2015, only 18 percent of their expenditures were for those two areas.
  • Another 25 percent of expenditures were for programs that do not serve county school districts, such as adult education, public service training and workforce development grants. In two RESAs, those items accounted for 40 percent of expenditures.
  • RESAs are to facilitate the sharing of specialized services among districts, but 52 percent of the RESA employees providing such services are not shared among districts.
  • In 2003, the RESAs were reorganized to be extensions of the state school board, but they still function as independent agencies, which results in overlap and duplication among the RESAs and the Department of Education.

Because of those reasons, Sylvia said, PERD determined that the RESAs are not needed, and their functions could be handled by regional staff of the department. Just eliminating RESA executive directors and chief financial officers would save $1.5 million, he said, and other costs could be saved by streamlining professional development.

RESAs defend their performance.

But Zervos strongly objected to Sylvia’s arguments. He told legislators that the RESAs have provided them with 12 pages of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the PERD audit and six pages of rebuttals to its findings. Among the points Zervos offered to counter Sylvia’s positions were these:

  • RESAs save 187 county-level positions statewide.
  • RESAs are low-cost providers of technical assistance and professional development. They are RESAs’ most important services but account for just a small portion of their expenditures. “The RESAs do not understand how this report can turn what has historically been a positive for our low delivery cost for [technical assistance] and professional development into a negative by comparing our low cost to overall budget.”
  • In a Monongalia County case, the state Supreme Court found that a RESA could provide services to one county without sharing the employees with other counties.
  • RESAs help avoid duplication and use resources more cost effectively.
  • Calling RESAs autonomous and not under the jurisdiction of the state school board is incorrect.

“The legislators who crafted the original legislation in 1972 would give a standing ovation and solute those who are carrying out the RESA mission they envisioned. The capacity building and return on the state’s investment is exactly what they expected. There are no other West Virginia government agencies who provide the return on investment that the RESAs do.” – Nick Zervos

“The legislators who crafted the original legislation in 1972 would give a standing ovation and solute those who are carrying out the RESA mission they envisioned,” Zervos said. “The capacity building and return on the state’s investment is exactly what they expected. There are no other West Virginia government agencies who provide the return on investment that the RESAs do.”

Again, he emphasized that RESAs help avoid duplication and use of resources more cost-effectively than if they didn’t exist. “A seriously flawed report should not be the basis for disrupting delivery of vital services to the education system and the public service community, adult education participants and those seeking to enhance their job skills through our agencies,” Zervos said. However, he added that regardless of the RESAs’ disagreement with the PERD findings, they will take them seriously and improve on quantifiable shortcomings.

State school board could make changes in RESAs.

Mike Green, president of the state school board, also strongly opposed PERD’s findings, but he said the board is likely to make some changes in the ways that RESAs operate.

“I want to be very clear that we do not agree with any of their findings, conclusions or recommendations.” – Mike Green

“It wasn’t possible for this auditor to really do a complete, comprehensive report on such a complex and comprehensive system that we have in our RESAs,” he said. “I want to be very clear that we do not agree with any of their findings, conclusions or recommendations, but we do respect the process, the professionalism of Mr. Sylvia, in particular, and the staff.”

PERD was correct in pointing out the core mission of the RESAs, Green said, and they must focus on student achievement and school improvement.

“With reduced resources – and that means human and financial resources – declining student enrollment and smaller county board office configurations, the RESAs continue to serve a distinct purpose in providing services closer to the people than can be provided by a single remote location, such as Charleston,” he said. “In attempting to address all educational aspects and serving multiple entities with good intentions, RESAs perhaps have been distracted and even will lose focus.”

At least, the PERD report has initiated a discussion on how RESAs can get refocused, Green said. But he called PERD’s arithmetic “completely flawed” in suggesting that RESAs do not pay enough attention to technical assistance and professional development because they account for only 18 percent of their expenditures.

“There’s a good reason why the RESAs were set up as regional entities,” Green said. “I think we would all agree there’s no one West Virginia, and one size does not fit all in the Mountain State. Therefore, let me be clear, there are good reasons why, by necessity, each RESA provides different and unique services. Regional also implies local, and having local involvement and, in fact, local control is one thing the board strongly believes in and supports. For the system to work effectively, local relationships, local communication, local community engagement really matters. RESAs provide on-the-ground support on a daily basis in our local communities, and we disagree with the auditor’s recommendation that control should come from Charleston. We believe in just the opposite. The local communities know their issues and priorities and thus are quite capable of dealing with their local challenges.”

The recommendation that RESAs’ services should be turned over to regional staff of the Education Department makes no sense, he said. “The department has been decimated over the years by drastic budget cuts and simply does not have the personnel nor the capacity to provide such services,” he said.

Green said the school board agrees with PERD that some of the RESAs’ services are “contradictory” to the purposes stated for RESAs in statute. But he said board members disagree that RESAs are ignoring schools’ improvement needs.

“The truth is: The statutory responsibilities of the RESAs are delivered and fulfilled every day in every RESA by RESA professional personnel,” Green said. “What is also true is that the income provided by the so-called non-statutory services provided – such as Medicaid reimbursement, bus operator training, energy management services, et cetera – by the RESAs supplements – SUPPLEMENTS – the funding provided by the legislature and, in fact, adds to the capacity of the RESAs to provide the statutory services. The other reason is because somebody has to do it. The RESAs can and they do.”

Deciding not to provide those services anymore is not the answer, he said.

“The RESAs have been, and continue to be, the poster child for entrepreneurialism in West Virginia. There’s no other agency in state government that can claim they provide nearly 15 times the services over its budgeted and allotted funds.” – Mike Green

“The RESAs have been, and continue to be, the poster child for entrepreneurialism in West Virginia,” Green said. “There’s no other agency in state government that can claim they provide nearly 15 times the services over its budgeted and allotted funds.”

RESAs provide services that school districts cannot provide on their own, he said. For example, he said, through joint purchasing, RESAs helped school districts save more than $4 million in school year 2016. In regard to shared services, he said, RESAs have taken a creative approach, which saved the system more than $7 million in fiscal year 2016, “which is ironically twice the total budget allocated by this legislature to the RESAs, and eliminated the need for almost 113 employees.”

Such savings free up revenue to be put into classrooms for improved student achievement, Green said. If the savings are lost, classrooms, teachers and students will suffer, he said. The RESAs also have developed grant-writing skills and secured millions of dollars over the years to bring in supplemental funding for their mission, he said. But although the state board disputes the PERD findings and recommendations, he said, the board is prepared to make some changes.

“This is an opportune time for us, as a board, to reevaluate, make adjustments and propose a new course of action. We’re going to emphasize and establish the primary role of RESAs and get buy-in from the regional councils to focus on school improvement and student achievement, including greater emphasis on lower-performing schools.” – Mike Green

“This is an opportune time for us, as a board, to reevaluate, make adjustments and propose a new course of action,” Green said. “We’re going to emphasize and establish the primary role of RESAs and get buy-in from the regional councils to focus on school improvement and student achievement, including greater emphasis on lower-performing schools. We will work most closely with the state Department of Education, the superintendent and his staff in assigning appropriate department personnel to be held accountable for developing and implementing a school improvement process that all RESAs will use in a consistent manner.”

Further, he said, the board will develop a comprehensive process to ensure more collaboration and cooperation between the RESAs to avoid duplication and to work closely with the Education Department and the county school districts.

“And in each RESA, we’re going to propose a project director specifically for school improvement to oversee all functions of school improvement, and for maximum effectiveness, this position must be an educator and must be someone with school improvement administrative experience,” Green said. “We also expect to create a working group populated by the RESA project directors for school improvement and comparable officers of the Department of Education and task them primarily with coordinating the efforts of assisting lower-performing schools.”

In addition, he said, the board will review and revise Policy 3233, which deals with regional services. Some revisions might be necessary anyhow to align those services with new federal regulations under the Every Student Succeed Acts, he said.

“We need to identify and detail county-coordinated services that exist and to what extent,” Green said. “We need to thoroughly review county-coordinated services and determine together whether returning any of these services to the counties would be a cost savings or be cost prohibitive. We need to identify additional areas where shared services can save even more money and also determine which, if any, functions can be provided or transferred to other state agencies. And lastly, the services that are not directly related to education, we will require the RESAs to demonstrate and document that any services performed that are not directly related to education do not depend on appropriated dollars and do not detract or take funds from educational services.”

His conclusion was that, although RESAs need some changes, they are important parts of the education system and should be retained.

Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, asked if there is redundancy between the RESAs and the Center for Professional Development. Green said several different entities provide professional development, and he expected the legislature to consider some sort of reorganization.

“We are very concerned about professional development, making sure there is enough funding provided to make sure that our teachers and principals and superintendents and other administrative people get the professional development they need.” – Mike Green

“It’s an area of great concern to the board,” he said. “We are very concerned about professional development, making sure there is enough funding provided to make sure that our teachers and principals and superintendents and other administrative people get the professional development they need.”

Espinosa, as House Education chairman, will have much influence on how the legislature deals with the PERD report. He expressed concern that, if RESAs are using 25 percent of their resources for services that don’t directly serve school districts, that is “a sizable portion.”

Zervos said that issue is the center point of the audit, but he again contended that using the total budget as a measure of RESAs’ effectiveness is flawed. RESAs get funding from other agencies for adult education and public service training with administrative costs built into them, he said.

In regard to professional development, Zervos said, the RESAs worked with about 32,000 participants last year. Also during the past year, he said, RESAs helped 770 teachers get college credits at reduced costs. No other agency could do that as cost effectively as the RESAs, he said. Handling other tasks doesn’t affect the professional development services, he said. “We do professional development every single day of the year with our staff,” he said.

When Espinosa noted that the 2012 education efficiency audit recommended having a single agency for professional development, Zervos said professional development is most cost-effective at the local and regional levels, and that is what the RESAs have been providing. He said the RESAs can develop more trust and confidence at the local level than any agency based in Charleston.

Espinosa responded that legislators support high-quality professional development but would like to reduce the duplication of bureaucracy. Green responded, “I think it’s time to look at that. We prefer to have professional development done as close to where the action is as possible.” He said the state board and the Education Department will make recommendations on that.

By Jim Wallace

Add virtual public schools to the concepts that West Virginia legislators are considering adopting. Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education received a presentation on that subject at their latest meeting. They also learned about a career-tech program that is doing so well that schools are running out of room for it, as well as about the state’s flexibility on when young children should start school.

“Just think of the virtual public school as a traditional public school as you know it without walls and without boundaries.” – Seth McKinzie

“Just think of the virtual public school as a traditional public school as you know it without walls and without boundaries,” Seth McKinzie, senior director for school development at K12, Inc., told the legislators. K12 is a for-profit company that sells online schooling to state and local governments.

McKinzie said his company, which is involved with fulltime virtual schools in 34 states, has a large course catalog, which includes special education courses. Students who attend the virtual schools can get diplomas from those schools, he said.

For those who worry about whether students who get their education online would get enough socialization, McKinzie said that is available as well. In addition to interacting with learning coaches, which are typically parents or guardians, they also are able to “find other students in their area and may form these cohorts, so to speak. They’re able to go on field trips. They’re able to have school clubs.”

Sharon Williams, deputy regional vice president for school services for K12, Inc., said the online teachers have the same passion as regular school teachers. She said they build relationships with their students, do much benchmark testing and spend much time analyzing data. She said virtual schools also provide more opportunities for students in rural areas. It’s not fair that students currently in larger school districts get wider choices of classes than those in smaller districts, she said.

McKinzie told legislators that accountability is very important for virtual schools. “If they’re a public school, the school has to adhere to all the same accountability measures that are set forth in that particular state,” he said. Each virtual public school has a board of directors, he said, and if it is part of a school district, the district’s school board would oversee it or form another board to oversee it.

“Virtual public school is public school without walls and boundaries,” McKinzie said. “It’s not restricted to just one format.” He said students could have a fulltime virtual environment, blended environments, career-technical programs, credit recovery and dropout recovery. Families make the choice, he said.

“It meets the needs of a variety of student populations,” McKinzie said. “If it is set up as a public school, then there is no cost to the actual parent and the families.”

Another advantage that Williams mentioned is that every lesson is recorded, so students can review their lessons any time day or night. “They can spend the amount of time they need in the subject areas in which they need it the most,” she said.

When House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, asked how to cope with areas that have inadequate broadband service, Williams replied, “That’s a tough one.” Some families have used satellite connections, she said. Then she added, “I think someway you’ve got to be creative enough to figure out the internet.” McKinzie said some families have used central locations for accessing the internet. That could be someone’s home or a public location with wireless connections, he said.

Simulated Workplace Program is working well.

On the subject of vocational education, Kathy D’Antoni, the Education Department’s chief career and technical education officer, told legislators that West Virginia is getting national attention for students’ creation of tiny homes for flood victims through the Simulated Workplace Program.

“The level of performance of students in career-tech is almost phenomenal. We’re seeing higher graduation rates, higher attendance rates. Students are taking pride in setting goals.” – Kathy D’Antoni

“The level of performance of students in career-tech is almost phenomenal,” she said. “We’re seeing higher graduation rates, higher attendance rates. Students are taking pride in setting

In the Simulated Workplace Program, students form their own school-based companies. Twelve of those companies from schools across West Virginia built 15 tiny homes for flood victims, D’Antoni said. The students designed them and built them, she said. Some students even worked evenings and weekends to finish them in time for Christmas, she said.

Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, agreed that what the students are doing is astounding. But he wanted to know what needs to be done to expand the program to all 55 counties.

D’Antoni said one important step would be to change opinions about career-tech education among business people, parents, students and others. “We have to get our students understanding the whole area of what career readiness means,” she said. However, she said, where that is happening, schools are running out of classrooms.

“We’re turning away students from a lot of our programs because we don’t have the expansion available for these students,” she said. Expanding the programs into middle schools also is needed, D’Antoni said.

State has flexibility on when children should start school.

Another subject the committee members considered was whether to change the September 1 cutoff date used to determine when students should begin their schooling. But Clayton Burch, the Education Department’s chief academic officer, said there is little need for change because state law already is very flexible.

State law requires every school district to offer kindergarten to children who turn five by September 1, he said, and West Virginia is one of the few states to require schools to provide full-day public kindergarten. It also is one of 10 states to offer full-day voluntary pre-kindergarten to four-year-olds. However, he said, even though schools are required to provide kindergarten to any child who turns five by the beginning of September, the compulsory school age is six. In addition, Burch said, because of legislation passed last year, kindergarten and pre-kindergarten are now listed as school readiness grades that prepare children for first grade.

State code also allows families to enroll children early, he said, and every county is required to have an early entrance policy. The entire code and policy are written to be based not just on chronological age but on developmental age and the needs of children, he said.

“We’re one of the few states in the nation that offer that flexibility to families,” Burch said.

West Virginia is among 30 states that have September cutoff dates, he said. “Whenever you move the cutoff date, there will always be a group of children who will miss the cutoff date,” Burch said. “There will always be a group of children who are not developmentally ready for school.”

To make sure parents are aware of when their children are expected to start school, the Department of Education partners with the Department of Health and Human Resources to distribute guides on school readiness in brochures called, “Ready, Set, Go, West Virginia.” Burch said they go to health clinics, doctors’ officers and other places that parents of young children tend to visit. About 100,000 brochures are printed each year, he said.

By Jim Wallace

Legislators have learned that the Feed to Achieve program is working well, schools in most of the West Virginia counties have applied for Innovation in Education awards, schools must do more to provide computer science courses, and the rate of harassment, intimidation and bullying has been level in recent years. Those are the subjects that members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability heard about in their latest meeting.

“We’ve got some bragging rights for a good cause, and it’s thanks to this progressive piece of legislation,” Amanda Harrison, director of the Education Department’s Office of Child Nutrition, said in reference to the Feed to Achieve program. “To our knowledge, West Virginia is the only state that has passed anywhere close to this type of legislation, which actually requires schools to implement and have innovative breakfast strategies incorporated into the school day.”

There is correlation between having breakfast and improved academic performance, she said. West Virginia also has made it a priority to explore and expand public-private partnerships to provide food outside the traditional school day, she said.

Samantha Snuffer-Reeves, a coordinator in the Office of Child Nutrition, said more than 20 percent of West Virginia children live in homes that are considered food insecure, meaning they do not have sufficient access to food. About 63 percent of school-age children qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, she said, and more than 178,000 children come from families whose household income is below the federal poverty level.

“Oftentimes, the meals provided at school are the only nutritious meals these children receive,” Snuffer-Reeves said, adding that’s why the legislature passed the Feed to Achieve Act a few years ago. “This has resulted in an additional 5.3 million breakfasts being served to our students, and the federal revenue for the school breakfast program in West Virginia has increased by over $8.6 million. Additionally, due to the vast growth in breakfast participation rates across the state, West Virginia has become a national leader in child nutrition programs. The Food Research and Action Center, based out of Washington, D.C., has ranked West Virginia as the top-performing state in the country for serving school breakfasts for two consecutive years.”

The act also allows for collection of charitable donations to provide child-feeding programs outside of the school day, she said. The statewide campaign was launched in September, she said, and Feed to Achieve grants will be awarded to nonprofits late in the spring.

Most applications for Innovation in Education grants are for STEM projects.

On the subject of Innovation in Education grants, Joey Wiseman, executive director of middle and secondary learning in the Division of Teaching and Learning, said schools from 47 counties have submitted applications this year. The Innovation in Education program resulted from a bill promoted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin during the legislature’s 2016 regular session. It replaced the Innovation Zones program and a similar program that focused on preventing students from dropping out of school.

Through the program, schools can get funding and waivers from state school board policies for efforts to improve education in five areas: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, community-school partnerships, entrepreneurship, career pathways, and the arts. Wiseman said most of the applications for the first year of the new program were for STEM projects.

Unlike in past years when the Innovation Zones program was in effect, few schools had to apply for waivers from state board policy because Policy 2510 “has given schools so much freedom,” he said.

Wiseman said some requests that were not approved would have required hiring of staff, which would have taken up most of the money available. He said the Education Department is assigning a content coordinator to provide technical assistance to every school that applied but didn’t receive awards.

In regard to Policy 2510, Wiseman also noted that a policy revision will require schools to offer more computer science education. Last year, state policy required all high schools to offer computer science courses, he said, but a new policy revision will provide for college- and career-ready standards for computer science at each grade level. Many states are implementing similar standards for grades six through 12, he said, but West Virginia is going further with standards for the lower grades.

Legislators also received the 2017 version of an annual report about incidents of harassment, intimidation or bullying across West Virginia. Shelly Stalnaker, a coordinator in the Office of Student and School Support, said there were 240,387 discipline referrals reported in the last school year with this breakdown:

  • Of them, 3,507, or 1.5 percent, were for harassment, intimidation or bullying.
  • Almost three-quarters of the offenders were male and 86 percent were reported for single offenses.
  • Middle schools had the highest rate of referrals at 47 percent. High schools accounted for 32 percent. About 20 percent of referrals came from elementary schools.

Stalnaker said the numbers have remained basically stable for the past three school years.

 

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Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, former news director of West Virginia Public Radio and former news director of WWVA/WOVK radio in Wheeling. He now works for TSG Consulting, a public relations and governmental affairs company with offices in Charleston and Beckley. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. Wallace is the author of the 2012 book,A History of the West Virginia Capitol: The House of State.