News

August 10, 2012 - Volume 32 Issue 22

 

“Journalism is literature in a hurry.” – Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), British poet and cultural critic.


By Jim Wallace

State Department of Education officials are hopeful that county school districts under direct state control will find it easier to regain local control because of work done by the department and the West Virginia School Board Association.

Chuck Heinlein, deputy state superintendent, told members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability at their July meeting that many board members in counties under state intervention did not know how to get out of that status, because nothing had been put into writing until recently. However, the department now has a publication called “Process and Guidelines for Superintendents and Local Boards under Intervention Status.” It was developed with the help of conferences the WVSBA and its executive director, Howard O’Cull, held specifically for intervention counties.

“Because we’ve been working with Dr. O’Cull and working with the counties that were under intervention, they’ve told us some things,” Heinlein said. The department listened to the counties’ requests for the state department to communicate with them regularly to let them know what they need to do, he said. As a result, the department has told the intervention counties’ superintendents to give quarterly and annual reports to their local boards and provide them with information on financial status, personnel data and achievement data.

“You’re going to treat them as if they were an actual board that takes action on those affairs,” Heinlein said the superintendents were told. “We’ve also said you need to conduct a communication plan not only with your board but with the community.”

The department did not realize earlier that it needed to provide a guideline to the superintendents sent in to help counties under state intervention, he said. “We took for granted that as former superintendents they would do these things naturally,” Heinlein said.

Most interventions have occurred because of the leadership of the counties involved, either leadership of superintendents or of school boards, he said.

“There are some things the county board needs to do, and they need to work through that preferably with Dr. O’Cull and the School Board Association in terms of learning personnel laws, learning the finance laws so that they adhere to statute and adhere to policy. That work is ongoing during the period of the intervention.” – Chuck Heinlein

“There are some things the county board needs to do, and they need to work through that preferably with Dr. O’Cull and the School Board Association in terms of learning personnel laws, learning the finance laws so that they adhere to statute and adhere to policy,” Heinlein said. “That work is ongoing during the period of the intervention.”

The WVSBA has created school board standards, which didn’t really exist before, he said. “Dr. O’Cull’s organization has developed those standards so that, as a school board works, they can assess their effectiveness,” Heinlein said. “We can’t use this to be punitive; this is something that helps guide their actions. It also helps to inform them how they can become a functional board. I’m really excited about that.”

Currently, seven county districts are under state control: Mingo (since 2005), Lincoln (since 2000 and under provisional status since 2010), McDowell (since 2001), Preston (since 2009), Grant (since 2009), Fayette (since 2010) and Gilmer (since 2011).

“We’re working diligently to help them resume control,” Heinlein told the lawmakers. “Dr. O’Cull’s group is working diligently. It’s good work and it’s hard work and it’s frustrating work. I’m sure for you it’s frustrating as well when you get a call from your constituents.”

 

Problems vary from county to county.

Some counties have further to go than others. “Each county has different issues, but in McDowell County, it’s huge,” he said. “It’s culture, it’s jobs, it’s drug abuse and all the things you’ve heard before.”

Heinlein noted that Lincoln County moved to provisional status three years ago with control of some functions returned to the local board. He said a memorandum of understanding between the state and the county board was signed, and the county was moving toward a full review by the Office of Education Performance Audits that could have led to the end of the intervention status. However, he said, the state learned last year about board members interfering in personnel issues, so the state board decided to keep Lincoln County on provisional status another year.

Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, asked whether a county like Lincoln could remain in provisional status indefinitely. Heinlein responded, “We feel confident that the OEPA will come back with a good report on Lincoln County progress.” He said the state board has lifted from Lincoln County the requirement to submit the agendas and minutes of personnel meetings for state review. “For the last year, they have acted appropriately and done their due diligence,” he said, so the state board has asked the OEPA to return to Lincoln County to review its compliance with standards and then make a recommendation about the status of control. “Lincoln County has made some significant progress. I think you would be pleased.”

Sumner also wanted to know why McDowell County has been under state control so long.

“I would like to see them regain control of their system, but at the same time, I have to ask myself: Where would those kids be if somebody hadn’t intervened?” – Chuck Heinlein

“Ten years or 12 years is a long time,” Heinlein said. “I would like to see them regain control of their system, but at the same time, I have to ask myself: Where would those kids be if somebody hadn’t intervened?” He said new buildings have been constructed in McDowell County and the district has made some gains in student achievement, moving up from 55th in the state. However, he said, it’s still hard to find high-quality teachers for McDowell County schools. He said the legislation approved this year to create a countywide Innovation Zone and the Reconnecting McDowell initiative should help.

Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, asked why some of the people recently installed as superintendents in takeover counties have little or no experience as superintendents. “Some of them have never served as superintendents,” he said. “Some have tenures in school systems that were very short. Most of them now appear to be people coming out of the state Board of Education office.” In particular, Perry was concerned that most of the current Fayette County superintendent’s experience has been in a Regional Education Service Agency office.

Heinlein said the state has no standard criteria other than to look at the capability of the individual. “We prefer former superintendent experience,” he said. “As you know, there are very few former superintendents available to work. It’s getting very hard to find a former superintendent who is willing to work fulltime.”

Three people were interested in the Fayette County position and all of them were interviewed, Heinlein said. He also noted that he and others from the state department have visited Fayette County numerous times to check out residents’ concerns.

In other business, Heinlein told the legislators:

  • There will be a two-week grace period for the new seventh-grade and 12th-grade adolescent immunization requirements, which became effective on June 1. The grace period will start at the beginning of the upcoming school year to allow parents and guardians of seventh-grade and 12th-grade students a little more time to provide schools with immunization records.

    Students entering seventh grade must show proof of a booster dose of the Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough), and a dose of the meningococcal vaccine. Students entering 12th grade must show proof of a single dose of the Tdap vaccine and a booster dose of the meningococcal vaccine, if the first dose of the meningococcal vaccine was received before the student’s 16th birthday.
     
  • Heinlein said the Books on the Bus program, which will allow some students with long bus rides to check out iPods and download e-books and audio books, is scheduled to begin this fall in Hampshire, Randolph and Preston counties. He said it didn’t get going last year as had been planned.  
     
  • County districts will have some flexibility during the upcoming school year in selecting instructional term dates. After noticing that many school calendars scheduled the last instructional day on or prior to May 24, the department decided to establish a three-week window of May 6 through May 24 for administration of the WESTEST 2. That requires a waiver of state code, which prohibits scheduling the test before May 15, but the department believes the waiver will uphold the intent of increased program flexibility and still meet legislative requirements.
     
  • West Virginia has received a $4.8 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences for a Statewide Longitudinal Data System. It is expected to help with accessibility to data across the state. West Virginia was among 24 states that received grants.

 

Free food for all students is encouraged.

Heinlein also gave legislators an update on the status of the Community Eligibility Option, which allows counties to apply to feed all students in a school for free. He said a school or an entire county can be eligible if it has at least 40 percent of students in poverty. The idea is that there would be enough funds in federal reimbursements to cover feeding all the students.

“We’re quite excited about that,” Heinlein said, although it’s a tough decision for a superintendent when not all of the schools in a district would be eligible.  He gave members of the commission a chart showing which counties have decided to participate and how many schools in each county are participating.

That prompted House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, to ask why a county would not participate if it could. Heinlein responded that a superintendent might be wary about participating until it is clear the budget would come out at least even. But he added that superintendents should take into consideration bills that cannot be collected. Poling suggested that some schools might need additional staffing to provide more meals, and Heinlein conceded that staffing would be an expense not covered by the reimbursements.

 

Truancy declines.

Also at the same meeting, Amelia Courts, assistant state superintendent in the Division of Educator Quality and System Support, presented school-by-school data on truancy for the 2010-2011 school year.

“The number of students with five, 10 and 20 absences is consistently decreasing over the last four years,” she said. The department believes that is a result of recent legislation, collaboration between schools and the judicial system “and also the seriousness with which the schools are looking at their attendance data and also partnering with parents,” Courts said. Much of the emphasis is on truancy among elementary school students, she said.

“We’re looking at our elementary schools in particular to really focus on the parents’ responsibility and building those good habits of on-time and regular school attendance.” – Amelia Courts

“We know that those patterns of attendance or truancy are often created in elementary [school], and certainly at the elementary level, the responsibility is much more that of the parent,” Courts said. “So we’re looking at our elementary schools in particular to really focus on the parents’ responsibility and building those good habits of on-time and regular school attendance.”

Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said he was troubled about the definition of an “unexcused” absence. Courts said it is up to each school district to define what constitutes an unexcused absence, but most permit five excused absences and anything above that would be unexcused.

On another matter, Courts said the department is taking a twofold approach in dealing with an effort to try out a new system for evaluation of educators. The Center for Professional Development is training administrators at five sites across the state this summer, she said. There also is school leadership training for both administrators and teacher leaders at eight sessions based at Regional Education Service Agencies.

 

New policies are to help with troubled juveniles.

The legislators also heard from Fran Warsing, superintendent of the Office of Adult Institutional Education Programs, about changes being sought in two policies (2800 and 1471) dealing with the education of juveniles in correctional facilities and pre-dispositional centers. She said the changes being sought would help those students make the transition back into public schools rather than being placed in alternative education settings. She said the problem with alternative education is that students involved in it tend to have more free time than students regularly enrolled in public schools.

“Juveniles like this don’t need that much free time,” Warsing said. “They need to be in school.”

 


By Jim Wallace

The effort to make life better in McDowell County is getting bigger with more organizations and money devoted to the cause.

“The Reconnecting McDowell initiative is probably an unprecedented comprehensive partnership between labor, business, the education community, the government, the faith community, nonprofit organizations, county administrators, and the students,” Bob Brown, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, told members of Education Subcommittee B at their July meeting. “Everyone associated with McDowell County in one way or another came together and formed this comprehensive partnership.”

Reconnecting McDowell got going last December with a news conference led by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers approved two bills to assist the initiative, one to allow the creation of a countywide Innovation Zone and one to create a teacher-in-residence program to get education students working in classrooms sooner.

The effort began with about 40 partners in the coalition, but Brown said it has grown to include 87 partners. Reconnecting McDowell is registered now with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

“People continue to step up wanting to be a part of this comprehensive initiative for McDowell County,” Brown said. “The focus of this initiative is comprehensive as well.”

One primary purpose is to improve education opportunities for the county’s children, but it is a multi-faceted effort.

“You really can’t address what’s going on in the classroom and in the schools unless you address what these kids come to school with: the pervasive poverty issues in southern West Virginia in general and McDowell County in particular and the rampant prescription drug abuse problem in McDowell County.” – Bob Brown

“You really can’t address what’s going on in the classroom and in the schools unless you address what these kids come to school with: the pervasive poverty issues in southern West Virginia in general and McDowell County in particular and the rampant prescription drug abuse problem in McDowell County,” Brown said. He noted that War Mayor Tom Hatcher had recently been murdered apparently over money for drugs.

“We have a multitude of health issues the children come to school with,” Brown said. “Hunger, broken homes, boredom from isolation. Some staggering statistics in McDowell County – 46 percent of students in McDowell County schools live in a home with neither biological parent, 72 percent of the students in McDowell County schools live in a home with no working adult – staggering statistics. So we need to try to find a way to address those outside-of-school factors that affect the students’ ability to succeed.”

Beyond that, he said, it is the initiative’s hope to reinvigorate and rehabilitate the county and the region through economic development, improved transportation and expanded technology capabilities and housing options.

“I can tell you that nothing of this magnitude has been attempted anywhere in the country,” Brown said. “Now, there are some great comprehensive neighborhood redevelopment programs, not the least of which is the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem [in New York City], but it’s isolated in one community, not a countywide focus like this particular initiative.”

Many attempts have been made to revitalize McDowell County, which has been declining since the 1950s when mining employment peaked, but they haven’t been coordinated. Brown said some groups have gotten discouraged after seeing the extent of the problems.

“The problems are complex and could be overwhelming, and that’s why we think it’s going to take really a comprehensive approach for dealing with those issues.” – Bob Brown

“The problems are complex and could be overwhelming, and that’s why we think it’s going to take really a comprehensive approach for dealing with those issues,” he said.

 

Planning is still under way.

The initiative is in a six-month planning phase that has included a couple of planning meetings with partners and some town hall meetings around the county. It started with a $100,000 grant from the Benedum Foundation and another $150,000 from the American Federation of Teachers. Brown said other partners also have offered money, including $1 million for early childhood initiatives from Save the Children, $100,000 from Frontier Communications and $50,000 from Verizon Communications. He said the Frontier money is going toward the World Wide Workshop of the Globaloria program, while the Verizon money is being used for the First Book program to set up some book giveaways and overhaul the county’s libraries.

Brown said other recent components of the project include the state Supreme Court’s creation of a juvenile drug court in the county, cable channel VH1’s contribution of $30,000 to provide band instruments for Mountview Middle School and the AFL-CIO’s contribution of money used to dig water lines that have allowed the Council for Southern Mountains to build the first five new homes in McDowell County in more than 20 years.

Another component of the initiative, he said, is that the United Mine Workers of America is working with West Virginia Southern Community and Technical College to start a miner apprenticeship program in September with 25 trainees. Brown said they have letters of commitment from the coal industry to employ those individuals.

“Now, 25 jobs will not turn the economy of McDowell County around, but it is a start, and it will give people hope,” he said. 

Brown said the Reconnecting McDowell project took a labor-management team from McDowell County to New York City a couple of months ago for some labor-management collaboration training. The initiative also is in the process of applying to the U.S. Department of Education for a Promise Neighborhood grant for McDowell County, a process he called “all-consuming.”

 

Teacher village is being established.

“Every year, we get a lot of young, energetic college grads who want to come to McDowell County and take one of the jobs. The problem is they can’t find a place to live.” – Bob Brown

One of the most exciting developments in Brown’s opinion is that the organization has made a down payment on an old, abandoned furniture store in McDowell County. “It is our hope that we can convert it into what we are calling a ‘teacher village,’ an apartment complex for teachers who would like to come and live and work in McDowell County,” he said. “Every year, we get a lot of young, energetic college grads who want to come to McDowell County and take one of the jobs. The problem is they can’t find a place to live.”

The plan is to create 23 to 25 apartments that could be ready as early as January. The first floor would have a resource room, a lounge, a coffee shop and a workout room, so the teachers could have a social life. “When kids come out of college, they’re used to a social life,” Brown said. “They don’t want to move into a home or a trailer on top of a mountain by themselves.”

The partners involved in Reconnecting McDowell have been organized into seven committees, he said:

  1. Early Childhood
  2. K-12 Education
  3. College-Career Pathways
  4. Health, Social and Emotional Wraparound Services
  5. Jobs and the Economy
  6. Technology and Transportation
  7. Housing.

Brown said the partners will have a meeting in McDowell County either September 10, 11 or 12. Shortly after that, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will visit the county.

“We think there are better days ahead for McDowell County, West Virginia, and we are excited about Reconnecting McDowell,” Brown said. 

In response to questions, he told lawmakers that McDowell County has higher rates of truancy and dropping out of school that most other counties in the state. When asked about after-school programs, Brown said part of the Promise Neighborhood grant application is to create workable community schools. He said they need wraparound services with ways to get communities to place higher value on education. One way to do that could be to offer adult basic education classes or community college classes during the school day, so Brown said the organization might seek a waiver to transport parents along with children to school on buses. The schools also might need to provide health services and more counselors, he said.

Delegate Walter Duke, R-Berkeley, asked whether the schools have room to provide health care services. Brown said both high schools have clinics, but they have trouble staffing them, because there is not just a teacher shortage but also a shortage of health care professionals.

When Duke asked if McDowell County has any summer recreation programs, Brown said there is none and that is a problem the organization is trying to solve, especially for elementary students who live in rural areas.

“We have to find a way to get over that isolation. Transportation is one of the issues. I find it ironic that we have students isolated all summer, and we’re sitting on 42 brand-new school buses sitting at the bus garage all summer.” – Bob Brown

“We have to find a way to get over that isolation,” he said. “Transportation is one of the issues. I find it ironic that we have students isolated all summer, and we’re sitting on 42 brand-new school buses sitting at the bus garage all summer.” Brown said Reconnecting McDowell might seek a waiver of state law or policy, as well as funding, to get students involved into some activity in the summer.

Duke asked what employers McDowell County has other than the school system and county government. Brown said the federal prison has about 600 employees, but fewer than 50 of them are from McDowell County, because many of the people who wanted to work there could not pass the drug test. “Prescription drug abuse is an incredible issue in McDowell County,” he said, and that is why the Supreme Court has established a juvenile drug court and soon might establish a family drug court.

 

McDowell County can be a warning for other counties.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said McDowell County’s problems could be considered “inordinate damage,” because if something had been done to diversify the economy when the county still had a population of 120,000 people, it might be in better shape today. He warned that with the coal industry declining the same type of decline could happen in other southern counties.

“We’d better strap it on as leaders and think about what we can do to prevent this from happening. I applaud the efforts that are going on right now. It’s like so many things: You spend a little up front, you won’t have to spend as much at the end.” – Sen. Ron Stollings

“We’d better strap it on as leaders and think about what we can do to prevent this from happening,” Stollings said. “I applaud the efforts that are going on right now. It’s like so many things: You spend a little up front, you won’t have to spend as much at the end.”

Brown said improving broadband access to the Internet could help the county’s economy, because it would allow people to work at online jobs. “One of the issues we’re struggling with in McDowell County is the bandwidth that’s available to the schools is so narrow that at Mountview High School when they turn on the security cameras, it pulls the bandwidth down to the point that you can’t get on a computer to load a program,” he said. “It takes 20 minutes to pull up a program to do a lesson.”

The state has a federally funded project to expand broadband access. Brown said he hopes that will bring better connections to McDowell County by this fall, but he also said that Shentel, a communications company based in Virginia, has begun a project to bring broadband to 10,000 homes in McDowell County.

 “That’s going to be huge in McDowell County,” he said. “We can’t diversify the economy without Internet access. We think we’re pretty close to dealing with that issue.”

 

New superintendent is eager to oversee changes.

The subcommittee also heard from Nelson Spencer, who had been superintendent of the McDowell County schools for just three weeks at that time. He said, “These past three weeks have been a whirlwind.”  During those weeks, he had met with many people representing entities offering help and suggestions for the county.

“Those issues are coming to some of your counties. You see it. You’re afraid of it. You see it happening in other counties besides just southern West Virginia. If something doesn’t change and people don’t start working together, as you’re seeing in this Reconnecting McDowell, you’re not going to get anywhere, because the education system can’t do it by itself.” – Nelson Spencer

“I would not have taken the superintendent’s job when the state superintendent asked if those things had not been ready to roll, because McDowell County has been in this situation for more than 10 years, way before the state Department of Education took over McDowell County,” Spencer said. “Those issues are coming to some of your counties. You see it. You’re afraid of it. You see it happening in other counties besides just southern West Virginia. If something doesn’t change and people don’t start working together, as you’re seeing in this Reconnecting McDowell, you’re not going to get anywhere, because the education system can’t do it by itself.”

Spencer said that student scores have improved slightly since the state takeover, but he said changes also are necessary in transportation, housing and the other factors Brown mentioned for the schools to make significant improvements.

“Until we start addressing all of those issues, I can stand up and talk about reading, writing and math all day, but you’re not going to see great gains in academic achievement until those things are addressed,” he said. “I’m excited that some of these things are starting to take place. I’m beginning to see movement, such as the teacher village.

Spencer said that he worked at Mountview High School last year on behalf of the state Department of Education and saw how bad the teacher shortage was.

“Many a day, we had classrooms that we didn’t have substitute

teachers in,” he said. “We had those kids farmed out, shipped out to other classrooms. Those kids didn’t get what they needed that day in school. Teachers did the best they could, but they didn’t get what they needed.”

Thus, he said, teacher retention and recruitment are “huge, huge issues” that must be addressed.

 

Building problem eats up funds.

Despite all the big problems the district faces, Spencer said, it will have to spend much of its money this year installing a modular building for about 100 students at Anawalt Elementary School, because the existing school building is no longer suitable for use. The school system had set aside $1.5 million for construction of a new building that would have consolidated Anawalt with two smaller grade schools, but the School Building Authority declined to provide any funding for it. Spencer said the $1.5 million will have to be used on the temporary, modular building instead of a permanent replacement.

“Things like that affect our educational system more than you would ever imagine,” he said. “A lot of people want to help McDowell County. That is the only way we are going to change McDowell County.” 

House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, asked how the people of McDowell County perceive the Reconnecting McDowell initiative.

“There has been so much promised, to not just McDowell County but to the state of West Virginia, that somebody’s going to come in and do this and do that,” Spencer said. “So there’s some skepticism. Until we actually see things happen, such as that teacher village being built, seeing the dirt starting to fly, they’re not going to believe that. But once they see those things happening, sure they’ll be right on board with everyone else.”

Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said it must be hard for people in the county to remain optimistic after suffering through so many problems for many years, so he asked how Spencer can keep school employees motivated.

Spencer noted that although he was raised in Wyoming County, he was born in Welch, so he has “blood in the game” and wants to be part of the change. He said he already can see teachers and administrators working for the needed improvements.

“In spots throughout the county, there’s very, very high achievement. There are pockets of excellence, pockets of excellent teaching going on…. We just need more of that happening in McDowell County.” – Nelson Spencer

“In spots throughout the county, there’s very, very high achievement,” Spencer said. “There are pockets of excellence, pockets of excellent teaching going on…. We just need more of that happening in McDowell County.”

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, said he thinks education should be the province of local government, so he asked if there is a commitment for McDowell County to regain local control.

“There absolutely is, particularly with the local board,” Spencer said. “But let me say this: I don’t care who is in control. If we don’t address the issues of recruitment and [retention] of teachers, I would challenge anyone, because until you start solving the transportation, the housing, the recruitment, the [retention], the drug issue, it doesn’t matter who has control of it.”

 

State board has acted on new Innovation Zone policy.

Amelia Courts, assistant superintendent, gave the subcommittee an update on Policy 3236, which deals with the countywide Innovation Zone for McDowell County.

“We know that partnerships and collaboration are key to success in all of our schools, and we are pleased to support the collaborative Innovation Zone and board policy that the Legislature enacted this past session,” she said.

Policy 3236 was filed by the June 15 deadline, Courts said, and the state school board folded the “collaborative Innovation Zone” into the board’s existing Innovation Zone policy. She said the Innovation Zones committee is scheduled to meet in August. The Legislature did not designate any funding specifically for the Innovation Zone, so it would provide just flexibility.

Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, suggested that legislators should go to McDowell County themselves to see the problems there.

 


By Jim Wallace

A wide range of people interested in West Virginia’s education system – from the Legislature and Supreme Court down to teachers and magistrates – have put new emphasis on reducing truancy among students over the past few years. What they have been finding is that it takes a multi-faceted effort to make a difference.

One example of such a successful effort is the “Attend to Win” program in the Monongalia County schools, which attendance director Danica Rubenstein oversees. She was a probation officer for 11 years until the school system offered her the attendance director’s job in 2010. She told members of Education Subcommittee C at their July meeting that she found a communications breakdown among the schools and the courts and the school board. Rubernstein said she has worked closely with Monongalia County’s chief circuit court judge, Susan Tucker, and others to overcome the problems.

The program has had notable effects, including reducing the number of elementary students missing 15 days or more from 941 in the 2010-2011 school year to 709 in the 2011-2012 school year. That’s a decrease of 232 students in just one year. In terms of enrollment, the schools had an improvement of 5.5 percentage points.

In the middle schools, the number of students missing 15 days or more dropped by 105 – from 282 students to177 students. That’s an improvement of 5.1 percentage points.

Rubenstein said one change the school system made was to designate assistant principals as the key persons in charge of attendance at the schools. When truancy cases go to magistrate and circuit courts, the assistant principals attend to represent the schools, she said.

The school system also put together an attendance team that includes all the key players expected to have influence on attendance, Rubenstein said. Since before she became attendance director, the system has had a contract with Burlington United Methodist Family Services to work on attendance in the elementary schools, she said. That includes such services as making phone calls to parents, sending letters to parents, helping to prepare for court cases, conducting lunch group meetings for students with significant attendance problems and keeping calendars with several at-risk students. Rubenstein said others in the school system focus on high schools and middle schools.

The school system uses several means of getting the word out about truancy and the importance of attending school. Rubenstein said those methods include making phone calls, advertising in newspapers and on the radio, working on court referrals, sending posters to parents, and using a brochure. She said the attendance committee will meet two or three times during the school year to assess those efforts.

The emphasis in the Monongalia County schools has been on elementary and middle school students, Rubenstein said, because once they reach high school with bad attendance habits, it’s hard to get them back. She said Burlington makes calls to parents when students miss just three days of school.

“When they’re interested, they can get there. They can really push parents. That’s really effective.” – Danica Rubenstein

“When they’re interested, they can get there,” Rubenstein said. “They can really push parents. That’s really effective.”

One member of the attendance team concentrates on analyzing academic and attendance data in Title I schools. Rubenstein said that work has resulted in decreasing student absences by 5.84 days among a targeted group of students.

“It’s gone down,” she said. “It’s working. We couldn’t do this without the support of the people I work with.” That includes administrators, teachers and judges and prosecutors. .  It’s been a team effort with the support of our Homeless Coordinator, Burlington Family Services, Title I, Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist as well as our partnership with the judicial system in Monongalia County.  

Rubenstein said that because of Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Davis’s Truancy Platform, more counties across the state are becoming more proactive in the fight against truancy.  BOE’s are working with the judicial system to employ their own school-based probation officers.   This fall, Monongalia County will have their own School Based Probation Officer thanks to the support of Superintendent Frank Devono and Assistant Superintendent Donna Talerico who gave Monongalia County the “green light” to begin their own venture! Rubenstein said not much was being done at the high school level until one person donated some time. This fall, thanks to help from Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis, there will be a school-based probation officer, which Rubenstein said she is “really excited” about. The probation officer will be in two high schools two days each and a more rural high school one day each week, she said, and the school system will pay the person.

“It has been an amazing venture,” she said. “We’re hoping that that will be the final component in the numbers in high school to eventually be going down.”

When students miss more than a few days of school, Rubenstein said, “They’ll get a letter from the school, they’ll get a letter from my office, and then they’ll get a letter from a probation officer. There’s something to be said when you get a letter from a probation officer that says you need to follow through with what the school and the principal say or you’re going to be put on probation. Kids don’t like that so much.”

In response to questions, Rubenstein said Judge Tucker is very involved with “the whole child.” She wants to know what’s going on in the family, who the kids are hanging around with, what extracurricular activities they are involved in, whether they are on Facebook, whether they have Internet access in their bedrooms or TVs in their bedrooms.

 

State also is focusing on truancy.

Testimony from two Department of Education officials indicated that what Monongalia County schools are doing fits in well with the efforts on the state level to reduce truancy. Amelia Courts, assistant superintendent in the Division of Educator Quality and System Support, said both the Legislature and the judicial system began to collaborate and focus efforts on truancy three to four years ago, and truancy has decreased each year since then.

Courts presented the subcommittee with data about attendance records at each school in each district around the state. She also presented statewide data showing that the percentages of students with excessive absences dropped steadily from the 2008-2009 school year to the 2011-2012 school year:

  • Those with five or more unexcused absences dropped from 40.8 percent to 34.0 percent ;
  • Those with 10 or more unexcused absences dropped from 20.3 percent to 15.1 percent; and
  • Those with 20 or more unexcused absences dropped from 6.4 percent to 4.8 percent.

House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, asked whether high school students miss more school than younger students. Courts said anecdotal evidence indicates that is so, but she promised to get data for the subcommittee.

“We know that the judicial system and schools have been targeting elementary students and parents as a focus of their efforts to reduce truancy so that we begin those lifelong habits of attending school on time every day,” Courts said.

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, asked whether local officials get the data the Education Department is collecting on attendance records. Courts said that depends on the school and the school system. “Some schools have an institutional history and practice of looking at their data and monitoring their absences,” she said. “Other schools have been more recently focusing on that.” Courts added that the department has created a tool to make it easy for all schools to monitor the data.

“These data are all readily available to school systems and have been historically. Where we’re trying to improve is the ease of the access of the data.” – Marshall Patton

Marshall Patton, executive director of the Office of Information Systems, said, “These data are all readily available to school systems and have been historically. Where we’re trying to improve is the ease of the access of the data.”

The data can be used as part of an early warning system “to identify students who might be at risk of, among other things, dropping out of school,” he said. Patton said the focus is on attendance, behavior and course failures, and a school can pull up the data each day through the West Virginia Education Information System (WVEIS). The school can see how many students have missed a certain number of days.

 


By Jim Wallace

With the 2012-2013 school year just a few weeks away, cooks from more than half of West Virginia’s county school districts have been trained to prepare meals from scratch.

Kristy Blower, coordinator of the Office of Child Nutrition, told members of Education Subcommittee A at their July meeting that cooks from 20 counties have been receiving their training this summer. That follows the training of cooks from seven other counties last summer.

The Scratch Foods Initiative began after state Supt. Marple was impressed with the cooked-from-scratch meals that were being served in Cabell County. Blower said Marple wanted other schools to do that, so the Education Department put together training for schools in the universal free meals program with recipes used in Cabell County. Sixteen of Cabell County's best cooks teach cooks from other counties to make a variety of meals, she said. Examples of the food being made from scratch include spaghetti sauce, bread, three types of salad dressings, croutons, rotisserie chicken, honey-glazed carrots, green beans with garlic, red-roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, Caesar salad and two types of grab-and-go breakfasts.

“Basically, they get to make them all, and they get to try them,” Blower said. The cooks leave the training with recipes for all the items they made, a list of all the equipment they need and an actual market order for the ingredients in the recipes, she said.

“It's the expectation of the county that they go back and actually train all the cooks in the county, so that hopefully we can move from processed food one county at a time.” – Kristy Blower

“They bring around five to six cooks in their county, and then those cooks turn into the trainers for that county,” Blower said. “It's the expectation of the county that they go back and actually train all the cooks in the county, so that hopefully we can move from processed food one county at a time.”

Counties whose cooks received training in June 2011 included: Clay, Gilmer, Fayette, Lincoln, Mason, McDowell and Mingo. Those receiving training this June included: Braxton, Harrison, Logan, Monroe, Nicholas, Pocahontas, Preston, Putnam, Roane, Taylor, Tucker, Upshur and Wyoming. Those receiving training in July included: Boone, Calhoun, Kanawha, Marshall, Ritchie, Wayne and Wirt.

The counties whose cooks have yet to receive the training include: Barbour, Berkeley, Brooke, Doddridge, Grant, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Hancock, Hardy, Jackson, Jefferson, Lewis, Marion, Mercer, Mineral, Monongalia, Morgan, Ohio, Pendleton, Pleasants, Raleigh, Randolph, Summers, Tyler, Webster, Wetzel and Wood.

Blower said her office has funds for two more regional training sessions this year, one in a panhandle and one in a more central location. She said her office has applied for another nutrition grant that would pay for two more big training sessions next summer and two more regional sessions in the following school year, and she thinks getting the grant is likely. 

“Folks really take well to this sort of training,” Blower said. “They're very motivated. They love using the equipment they have in Cabell County. They learn lots of safety tips and lots of time management tips.”

 

Breakfast schedules change.

Cooks also are being taught to serve breakfast to students at different times, Blower said. “Don't feed them at seven o'clock in the morning when not all the kids are there,” she said. “We're trying to feed them after first period. We're trying to feed them breakfast in the classroom or grab-and-go – grab it when you get there and then take it and eat it in the classroom.”

Her office is doing research on universal free meals and increased breakfast participation. In early fall, she expects to be able to tell legislators what effects the universal free meal pilot programs have had on academic results.

“We already have schools saying that their [need for] discipline has decreased by something like 30-some percent in a school just because they implemented breakfast strategies.” – Kristy Blower

“We already have schools saying that their [need for] discipline has decreased by something like 30-some percent in a school just because they implemented breakfast strategies,” Blower said.

Delegate Ralph Rodighiero, D-Logan, asked whether cooks are obligated to cook from scratch or if it is just optional. Blower said it is optional, and the idea is to slowly phase in made-from-scratch food. She said the cooks also are encouraged to try to make other meals from scratch, because students like different things in different parts of the state.

When Rodighiero asked if it costs more to make meals from scratch, Blower said sometimes the cost is higher and sometimes it’s lower.

Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, asked what the nutritional benefits are. Blower said, “When you reduce the processed food, you’re automatically going to reduce the sodium.” She said the amounts of saturated fat and trans-fat also are reduced. Blower added that national guidelines are changing, so all schools will be held to using 51 percent whole wheat in baking, offering more fruit and vegetables and other requirements.

Delegate Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, asked what students say about food made from scratch. Blower said, “Most of the time, the children absolutely love the food.” However, she said, the high school students tend to be pickier than the elementary students. She added that many kids had never had chicken that wasn’t in the shape of nuggets before the Scratch Foods Initiative began.

Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, said, “I am so happy to see that children are being exposed to fresh-cooked food.” But she asked what the cooks think about time management. Blower said the Cabell County cooks are wonderful with time management, because they have had plenty of training. The cook-on-cook training is so great, she said, because the cooks from other counties get to watch the Cabell County cooks. Blower added that some cooks need more help than others with time management.

Moye asked who determines the nutritional value of meals. Blower said that’s the responsibility of the food service director of each county, although her office provides technical assistance. She said she was surprised about how much recipes had to be standardized.

 

Fayette County students get locally grown foods

The subcommittee also heard from David Seay, child nutrition director for the Fayette County schools, about the Farm to School Initiative. He said he learned that West Virginia schools spend about $7.2 billion on food and only $7 million of that comes from West Virginia. He went back to his county to find out what it was doing to buy local products.

“We weren’t buying anything local,” Seay said. “Everything was coming from out of state or vendors away from Fayette County.”

After that, he said, the school system’s wellness committee adopted three goals:

  1. Every school should have a relationship with a local farmer. “We didn’t care whether the farmer adopted the school or the school adopted the farmer. We wanted to purchase as much local food as possible. And when we purchase local food, we want to advertise it.”
     
  2. We want to increase school visits to local farms.
     
  3. We want every school to have a garden or a greenhouse. Right now, Fayette County has two schools with gardens and two more have plans for gardens. Seay said the school system wants each to have a permanent garden location.

“Kids who do school gardening score much better in math and science.” – David Seay

Seay said gardening provides children with many educational benefits. “Kids who do school gardening score much better in math and science,” he said. “There’s a preconceived notion that there’s a geek thing of the smart guy in math and science sitting behind a computer. No, the smart guys in math and science are out in the garden or out in the woods to see science in ordinary life.”

Another advantage, Seay said, is that students get to see where food comes from, and if they grow it, they will eat it. “Something that engages students in an activity is the best way to teach them, and gardening teaches them and engages them,” he said. “Kids that have behavior problems in the classroom excel in gardening. It’s a hands-on, job-oriented activity.”

Self-esteem also goes up, especially among little children, Seay said.

Beyond the educational advantages, he said, local food is fresher, more nutritional and better for the environment. “Lettuce that is shipped from California takes a lot of carbon to get here,” Seay said. “Lettuce that is grown in Fayette County and delivered to the schools in the back door doesn’t impact our carbon footprint as much.”

Yet another advantage he pointed out is that buying food from local farmers helps the local economy and results in better service. Seay said the school system wants cafeteria managers and local farmers to get to know each other. When you’re spending local money, you should try to spend it locally, he said.

Seay said the 2008 federal farm bill allows the school system to encourage local procurement. It can’t be mandated, he said, but the school system can give a preference for it.

In September, the Fayette County schools plan to serve grass-fed beef. Seay also said the Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Program offers incentives to counties that purchase local fruits and vegetables, and the Office of Child Nutrition offers other incentives for buying locally.

 

Not all goes well.

However, he said, there are some challenges to buying locally. It is more work, Seay said, citing as an example the need to do more to wash dirt off lettuce. Also, he said, there is less uniformity in local produce. “If you go to Walmart and buy tomatoes, they’re all pretty much uniform size and they look the same, but when you’re buying from a local farmer, maybe it’s a little different and has a different shape to it,” Seay said. “It could have a different color. I’d rather have something from a local farmer.”

“We’re asking cooks to do more work each and every year: more nutrition information, more planning, more local produce, more fresh fruit and vegetables. And yet they’re the most underpaid, overworked classification of service personnel we have.” – David Seay

In recent years, the Legislature has considered changing the job classifications for cooks. Seay strongly urged lawmakers to do that. “We’re asking cooks to do more work each and every year: more nutrition information, more planning, more local produce, more fresh fruit and vegetables,” he said. “And yet they’re the most underpaid, overworked classification of service personnel we have.” 

Last year, Fayette County lost six longtime cooks, because they switched to being classroom aides to get better pay with less arduous work, Seay said.

Another challenge to the Farm to School Initiative, he said, is that farmers who are accustomed to getting paid in cash must learn to deal with the purchasing process and getting money 30 to 45 days later. Also, Seay said, the school system had a problem recently when it tried to work through a cooperative to get bids for 90,000 pounds of ground beef. Even though the co-op covers nine counties, the local farms were unable to bid on that much beef, he said, so some new method is needed to handle such purchase requests.

Seay added that crops fail sometimes, so the school system must be prepared to cope with it. Last year, the Fayette County schools contracted with local farmers for 30 bushels of green beans, but they didn’t have them, he said.

Despite such problems, Seay summed up the program by saying, “Farm to School is good for kids. It’s good for the local community. And it’s the best thing we can do for West Virginia farmers.”

Legislators took the opportunity to ask Seay about Fayette County’s experience with the universal free meals program and cooking from scratch. Seay said the district served more than 400,000 additional meals last year in the free meals program without adding an additional cook but lost almost $600,000 on it.

“The program is excellent,” he said. “We love feeding the kids, but we got to have a funding source for that.”

Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, asked what the county’s cooks did before being trained to cook from scratch. Seay said they mostly heated up food that already was prepared and served it. When Wells asked when the schools got away from cooking from scratch, Blower stepped up and put the blame on the U.S. food industry’s push for processed foods.

“What we have done here in West Virginia with the cook-from-scratch training is we’ve flip-flopped that,” she said. “We decide.”

Blower said cooking from scratch requires more skills so the position of cook is becoming a more skilled job than it was in the past.

To that, Wells said, “We were probably hiring cooks who didn’t know how to cook in the first place themselves. So now you get to where they learn how to cook from scratch.”

 

Healthy Lifestyle Coalition plans to be more active

The West Virginia Healthy Lifestyle Coalition has been in existence for several years, but it is getting ready to take a more proactive role. The Department of Education already is headed in the direction the coalition wants to go.

“Life is complicated, so what we need to do is to establish healthy behaviors and to make those healthy choices easy choices.” – Helen Matheny

Helen Matheny, chairwoman of the coalition, said the coalition will spend the next several months working on recommendations for the Legislature, and it wants to present those recommendations to legislators in December.

“Life is complicated, so what we need to do is to establish healthy behaviors and to make those healthy choices easy choices,” she told members of the Joint Committee on Health at their July meeting. Matheny said each West Virginian should be encouraged to:

  1. Eat at least five fruits and vegetables each day;
  2. Reduce tobacco use; and
  3. Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

“So if you’re looking for a silver bullet, I would think that would be a starting point,” she said. The rest of the nation has problems, Matheny said, but West Virginia is worse in most categories than other states. “As many as one-third of our children could have diabetes, and diabetes is something that leads to other kinds of illnesses,” she said. “It creates a huge financial burden on our state.” In addition, West Virginia ranks near the top in heart disease deaths, she said.

Matheny warned that, with the aging of the population, West Virginia needs to prepare for increased prevalence of dementia. She called it a growing crisis in West Virginia that already is the fifth leading cause of death in the state.

The West Virginia Healthy Lifestyles Act of 2005 put the state “ahead of the curve” when it became law and created the Office of Healthy Lifestyles and the Healthy Lifestyles Coalition, Matheny said. The coalition has been a great forum for sharing information among agencies and organization, she said, but it is time for a change.

“We’re looking more toward an organization that provides guidance, that encourages collaboration, that challenges organizations and individuals to align goals, work together and have targeted measures and outcomes to work toward,” Matheny said. She said that, to her knowledge, West Virginia is the only state with a statewide health coalition created by the Legislature. That coalition has 13 individuals appointed by the governor, Matheny said, and some members are very passionate and have worked in the field for decades.

The coalition’s policy committee is looking at what policies have been enacted in other states and what evidence-based best practices have been useful elsewhere, she said. That study will help the committee come up with the recommendations the coalition wants to offer to the Legislature in December, Matheny said. The coalition meets every other month, and the committees meet in between.

“I am constantly and pleasantly surprised and amazed at the level of activity, the interest and the passion to improve not only the availability of healthy foods and options for our students and also improvements in the area of greater physical activity.” – Helen Matheny

Matheny said she’s impressed with the state Education Department’s Office of School Nutrition, the state school board’s wellness committee and Supt. Jorea Marple. “I am constantly and pleasantly surprised and amazed at the level of activity, the interest and the passion to improve not only the availability of healthy foods and options for our students and also improvements in the area of greater physical activity,” she said, adding that the Education Department is doing a great job of leveraging federal money.

Matheny emphasized that whatever West Virginia does to improve residents’ health must be grounded in evidence-based best practices. “We’ve got to focus on what works: what we know has been proven, what has worked in other areas and how we can implement it here” she said.

The coalition’s new website, www.livehealthywv.com, is to be a one-stop shop for information that will provide links to various resources and data, Matheny said. Much is happening, and it needs to be coordinated, she said.

“I think this effort that we’re working toward takes bold action,” Matheny said. “We need to be accountable.”

The coalition did not focus enough on being accountable in the beginning, she said. “I think that’s one of the key things we don’t do enough of: evaluate what’s working, what’s not and why,” Matheny said. “We need to redouble our efforts.”

That includes bringing experts into committee work, she said, and that could require some help from the Legislature.

“Now that the coalition is taking a more proactive role, we’d like to ask for the dedication of one staff person to the coalition’s work to maintain our website, to reach out to partners, to research and put together information for best practices,” Matheny said. Members of the coalition are volunteers who spend a lot of time on the work, she said, and a fulltime, administrative staff person is a critical piece.

Matheny also encouraged the alignment of goals between the Department of Health and Human Resource and other efforts to improve the health of West Virginians. She said all of the goals should be put on a spreadsheet and there should be open communication and dialogue. “If we’re all reaching for different targets, we’ll never get there,” she said.

 

CARDIAC Project is explained.

Members of the Joint Committee on Health also heard from Eloise Elliott of the West Virginia CARDIAC Project about the health crisis in West Virginia. CARDIAC stands for Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities. The project began in 1998.

Elliott’s presentation was similar to one she gave in June to Education Subcommittee A. For example, she said, almost half of West Virginia fifth-graders are overweight or obese, although data are starting to show some improvements. She said screenings show that 23.6 percent of fifth-graders are already hypertensive, almost 26 percent have abnormal blood cholesterol, and more than 6 percent of the children are morbidly obese.

 

Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail and former news director of West Virginia Public Radio. He now works for TSG Consulting. His is the author of the new book, A History of the West Virginia Capitol: The House of State, which will be out later this month.

 

 

 

 

 

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