By Alexandra Cline
Buena Vista’s been no stranger to challenges in recent years – and its two elementary schools are no exception.
The city’s elementary schools, F.W. Kling Jr. and Enderly Heights, haven’t achieved a full accreditation status since the 2011-12 school year.
However, about two weeks ago, the schools were officially granted partial accreditation status by the Virginia Department of Education. Enderly Heights met the standardized testing benchmarks in math and history, with 70 percent of students passing in math and 72 percent in history. Still, the school missed the benchmark in reading and science – with only 53 percent of students passing the latter test.
Compared to other local schools and Virginia as a whole, Buena Vista’s elementary test scores are also considerably lower.
At Waddell Elementary School in Lexington, over 90 percent of students passed in reading, math and history, while 88 percent passed in science. For Virginia, 80 percent of all students passed in reading, 79 percent in math, 86 percent in history and 82 percent in science.
However, Buena Vista Schools Superintendent John Keeler said that while higher-scoring schools in Lexington and Rockbridge County may be geographically close, Buena Vista’s schools face unique challenges.
“Six miles is a lot different in demographics,” he said. “I feel like we’ve caught up pretty well.”
The emphasis on literacy
Because Kling educates students only through second grade, a year before standardized testing begins, its accreditation status is based on the standardized test scores from Enderly Heights – which serves grades three through five.
Even though Kling isn’t directly accountable for the accreditation status, principal Lisa Clark said it’s still Kling’s responsibility to enable students’ future success. That’s why the school in 2014 implemented a writer’s workshop and a commercial program that sequences a student’s literacy skills with particular books and with individual intervention.
That program is called the Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention, named for the two education professors in Ohio and Massachusetts who created it. In the program, students are initially assessed on their word knowledge, fluency and comprehension. The program is then designed to provide supplemental assistance, or intervention, for students who are reading below grade level.
“We’ve set our master schedule up to include intervention times during regular literacy blocks,” Clark said. “If students come out with level F, for example, we start instruction there and move forward. If they come out on grade level and above, they don’t receive the intervention piece.”
Enderly Heights has also implemented the Fountas and Pinnell program and the writer’s workshop – which helps students improve their writing skills through story-telling.
This year, Enderly Heights’ third graders will be the first group to have had the intervention program and the writer’s workshop since kindergarten. With those programs and steady improvements in test scores, Enderly Heights principal Troy Clark – Lisa Clark’s husband – believes the schools will achieve full accreditation.
“With the jumps we made last year and the kids that are coming to us, I think we’ll make it there,” Troy Clark said. “I think the plan [Lisa Clark’s] put in place is going to get us there.”
A bumpy road
However, the path to achieving a better accreditation status hasn’t been without difficulty.
Beginning in the 2011 school year, the Virginia Department of Education made changes to the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, hoping to better prepare students for the challenges of college and the workforce. Test scores for students at Enderly Heights plummeted in the next year – resulting in a 51 percent pass rate in reading and a 31 percent pass rate in math.
After that, Keeler said he knew that the schools needed to make improvements, especially in literacy rates. He said that the elementary schools were far behind where they should have been in reading – which caused greater problems as students advanced to middle and high school.
“We’ve been trying to play catch up after that,” Keeler said. “It takes time to turn that wheel. Once the test changed, we hadn’t caught up.”
According to Assistant Superintendent Anna Graham, the elementary schools lacked structure and the right programs in previous years. After the leveled literacy intervention program and the writer’s workshop were introduced, she said that reading levels began to improve.
“They weren’t finding the right programs for elementary,” Graham said. “Once the new programs were put in place, it started making a difference. Before, kids were slipping through the cracks.”
The contributing factors
One challenge that’ll remain is the high proportion of students coming from economically disadvantaged homes. About 60 percent of the students at the elementary schools qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
For Lisa Clark, who also serves as vice-mayor of Buena Vista, that economic disadvantage is a challenge but shouldn’t be a permanent roadblock.
“I think it’s an issue, but I don’t think it’s a crutch,” Lisa Clark said. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be treated equally and have the same opportunity to be successful.”
Sarah Gross, president of the Virginia PTA, said the schools each had an affiliated PTA in the past, but ended that affiliation years ago. The schools do have unaffiliated PTOs that save on the expense of being in the larger organization, according to Lori Turner, president of the Enderly Heights PTO.
At Enderly Heights, one difficulty has been teacher turnover rates — further compounded by the lack of teachers applying for open positions. When the school tried to fill a recent opening for a science teacher, the applicant pool was “non-existent,” according to Troy Clark.
That problem can largely be attributed to the difficulty of luring new teachers to Buena Vista, Keeler and Graham said. For new teaching graduates, especially, Buena Vista can lack the appeal that many larger school districts have.
“It’s not somewhere people think they want to move to and work,” Keeler said. “We recruit everywhere, and we’re trying to get people interested. We’re behind the eight ball a little bit.”
In Buena Vista, the starting salary last year for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree was about $31,000 according to the Virginia Department of Education. That figure is closer to $39,000 for Rockbridge County and slightly over $38,000 for Lexington.
However, according to a living wage calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the cost of living in Buena Vista, Rockbridge County and Lexington is about the same.
Despite Buena Vista’s challenges, Keeler is optimistic that the elementary schools will regain full accreditation status in the near future – just as Parry McCluer Middle and High School did for the 2016-2017 school year.
“Are we where we want to be? Not quite,” Keeler said. “But we’re getting there, and I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. When we do get there, we’ll be a very good school system.”