Schools look to start new chapter
PETERSBURG — Though indicators show the Petersburg school division went through a rough summer, Superintendent Marcus Newsome said the administration is eager to start a new chapter as they begin their attempt to overhaul the school system.
“I have a full leadership team that I’ve brought on board,” said Newsome. “We have some incredible talent that has come to Petersburg.”
The school district received rough news several times over the summer.
In June, the school announced that the Virginia Department of Education was investigating the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests at AP Hill Elementary School. The allegations involved “irregularities” in the way the tests were administered. The division fired several employees after they investigated the allegations, though the VDOE has yet to conclude their investigation into the testing.
“I’m very confident that a strong message has been sent, that we will not tolerate inappropriate testing procedures going on in our classrooms,” said Newsome. “It’s unfair to our students and unfair to the community.”
In addition, Petersburg students did not fare well on the SOL tests, which cover all commoncore subjects (reading, writing, math, science, history). The SOL pass rates for Petersburg were on average 23.8 points lower than the state averages. Though this did not faze the new school administration.
“Some people might be surprised to know that we weren’t surprised [by the low scores]” said Newsome. “We have been monitoring benchmark assessments throughout the year: we anticipated an implementation dip this first year.”
Despite the speedbumps, the school district will begin implementing its “Innovate 2022” plan, which they spent last year working on with Education First, a private education company. A special grant from the Cameron Foundation enabled the district to create the plan, which lays out a roadmap for the schools to get back on track.
A major facet of the plan was to create “21st century” classrooms in Petersburg’s outdated schools.
As a result, one of the biggest differences in Petersburg schools this year will be a huge increase in access to technology.
“Every student in grades 5-12 this year will have a digital device, whether it be a laptop, chromebook, or tablet,” said Newsome. “We anticipated that it would take three or four years for us to do this, so I’m very proud we were able to do it in one year.”
The district has already been engaging in programs with CodeVA, an organization dedicated to implementing computer-based learning into Virginia’s public school curriculum. Newsome said the district is getting ready to introduce a special “coding center” based at one of the elementary schools. Students will also be learning out of “techbooks” which are digitized versions of textbooks. Teachers will also have more digital resources at their disposal.
“Teachers will have new tools in their toolbox to deliver instruction in a way that we think will be engaging and exciting,” said Newsome.
One of the biggest problems the district had in previous years was a teacher shortage. Last year, one in five classes in the system was taught by a substitute teacher. The district made it a priority to go out to recruiting fairs around the mid-Atlantic region to bring new teachers to the area. As a result, this year 63 new teachers were hired, all of whom are up to the challenge of helping turn around Petersburg’s schools.
“The people coming in are well aware of the situation,” said Newsome. “I think it’s part of their moral mission to be a part of everything.”
Special pilot programs with Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State University will begin at AP Hill and Walnut Hill. The programs will bring in aspiring teachers from those universities to help out the regular teachers in the classroom.
In addition to new teachers, six of Petersburg’s schools will feature new principals. For Petersburg High School, William Wynn III takes over: for Vernon Johns Middle School, Danielle Davis: for Robert E. Lee, Sheryl Doswell: for AP Hill Elementary: Jennifer Jentgen-Kelley: for Westview Early Childhood, Stacie Parham: and for Blanford Alternative Academy, Alicia Fields.
“Their optimism and outlook is encouraging,” said Newsome.
The “Innovate 2022” plan also calls for more community engagement in the schools. To address this, a new volunteer initiative has begun, with the district establishing a database of needs from each school, and matching up volunteers.
When he first addresses the district’s teacher when they return to work on August 28, Newsome talked about addressing the “elephant in the room”. He is referring to the city’s poor financial situation, which forced the city to give the minimum amount the state allows over to the school system this past fiscal year. The school funding was one of the first things to get cut in 2016, when the extent of the city’s financial problems came to light.
“What I want to share with [the teachers] is that this isn’t anything new,” said Newsome. “I’ve experienced budget cuts [while in Chesterfield County] before.”
Newsome noted that going through so much change is tough, especially when officials are trying overhaul the system to such a large extent.
"Anytime there is change there is resistance,” said Newsome. “We’ve experienced some of that here. Over time, people who aren’t comfortable will either decide to leave the district or they will support the changes we are bringing.”
Though despite a rocky couple of months, the district is ready to welcome kids back to school once September begins.
“The students are excited about learning, excited about coming to school,” said Newsome. “We’ve seen pockets of that, but we want to make that the culture of the school division.”
Technology Department employees prepare laptops for teachers. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/LEIGH ANN MCKELWAY]
Vernon Johns Middle School Principal Danielle Davis (right) in front of the school. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/LEIGH ANN MCKELWAY]
New Petersburg High School Principal addresses the school board during a meeting. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/LEIGH ANN MCKELWAY]