By Abby Thornton
Three Buena Vista schools received big news Thursday. The Virginia State Board of Education awarded conditional accreditation to F.W. Kling Jr. Elementary School, Enderly Heights Elementary School and Parry McCluer Middle School.
All three schools were denied accreditation last year after failing to meet state benchmarks on Standards of Learning (SOL) tests for three consecutive years. Administered to third through 12th graders, the SOL establishes a baseline for what students should know in each subject.
Over the past year, the schools have implemented a series of changes that administrators feel will boost test scores. The state board decided today that those changes are sufficient to increase the schools’ scores.
Anna Graham, Parry McCluer High School principal and director of instruction for the Buena Vista City School Board, said that the schools have already improved following the changes, which included restructuring of the schools and beefing up several instructional programs.
“The data shows that the programs that have been implemented are helping our students be successful,” said Graham. “We are optimistic that our students’ level of achievement will continue to rise across the board.”
A couple of years ago, Graham and a group of administrators visited a school district in Tennessee to observe changes that the schools there had made.
Back home in Virginia, the administration drew up a similar plan to help its own schools succeed. This plan included moving second graders from Enderly Heights Elementary School to Kling Elementary School.
Prior to the changes, Kling served pre-kindergarten through first grade, and Enderly Heights served second through fifth grade. Graham says the change will give children more time to learn before taking standardized tests in third grade.
“The move gives second graders more time to develop their skills in a preventative setting before they are exposed to the SOLs,” Graham said.
Another part of the plan involves an increased emphasis on reading, writing and math, so the school board hired more specialists to work with students in these areas.
Paula Charlton, a former teacher and the school board’s newest member, says that the middle school’s reading specialist, Becky McKenzie, is already making a difference.
“The kids just really love working with her,” Charlton said. “She’s really personalized the teaching process in a way that helps each child achieve at their own pace. It’s really amazing what she does.”
While the board has its sights set on passing SOL percentages, its short-term goal is ensuring that each student is making progress.
To do this, the schools are using new computer programs to track each student’s performance. Additionally, board members have been doing regular walk-throughs with school principals to ensure that students’ needs are being met and that the changes are being implemented.
Charlton says that while she is confident that schools will improve within the next few years, she is frustrated with the way that the state measures school quality.
“The state has a tendency to only look at benchmarks and test scores instead of ‘is this school making progress?’” Charlton said. “It needs to wake up and realize that change doesn’t happen overnight.”
Charlton added that poverty is a bigger issue in Buena Vista than it is in many other school districts, and she says this may be one reason for its schools’ lagging test scores. Nearly 51 percent of students in Buena Vista receive free or reduced lunch, almost 9 percentage points more than the state average.
“You can imagine how difficult it must be to focus on the test in front of you when you’re wondering where your next meal is coming from,” said Charlton.
Despite the district’s challenges, both Graham and Charlton say that students and faculty are on board with the plans. “The teachers have completely bought in to the changes,” Charlton said. “They’re excited about them and they’re really all in.”
Though Graham says she is pleased the plan gained approval, she says that the Virginia State Board of Education could take over the schools if they fail to improve within three years.