Schools look to start new chap­ter

The Progress-Index Weekend - - PETERS­BURG - John Adam, Staff Writer •John Adam may be reached at jadam@ progress-in­ or 804-722-5172.

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]

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