Monday, October 29, 2018

Meeting State Requirements for Instructional Time

How do we determine if a student is successful in school? Traditionally, we put them into a variety of classes that have been determined as necessary to learn and test them to see if they can demonstrate knowledge.  The Virginia Board of Education has set the requirements for success and then makes modifications according to changing expectations of our society. We are living in a time of significant change as we shift from focus on academic testing only to the requirements of “Profile of a Graduate.” However, some components of the system remain significantly unchanged. One of these is the requirement for instructional time. Somewhere in the history of K12 education in the United States it was determined that students need to attend school 180 days a year to have adequate exposure to instruction for mastery. 

Obviously, there are issues that will come up to cause a school, or an individual student, to miss time that was scheduled into the annual calendar. The Department of Education takes care of this issue by setting a minimum number of days that must be met. They have even broken this down to a minimum number of hours. Schools that fail to meet this requirement can be sanctioned, and students who miss more time than is required can be required to retake the class. 

Several years ago Mecklenburg County Public Schools shifted from a daily schedule of six classes a day throughout the school year to a “4 X 4 block” schedule. With the block schedule students would have four classes during the fall schedule, and another four during the spring. Students have more time each period with this option to engage in hands-on projects. However, they are rushed to work through a year’s work in each semester. With the 4 X 4 they also have the benefit of engaging 8 classes each year rather than six. This creates a scenario which pushes the required time in class to be very carefully monitored. Students absent two or three days of class on the block schedule due to sickness will have missed up to a week of critical information in the traditional schedule. That’s difficult to make up. 

Another component of the 4 X 4 Block schedule is that each semester must be of equal time, 90 days. Fall semester must end at the Christmas break so that there is not two weeks of instruction lost before end of course examinations. This requires that the school year begin before Labor day.   

This school year has been very different and challenging because of the weather. Mecklenburg County Schools have missed six days in the first nine weeks of school due to Hurricane’s Florence and Michael. The Department of Education requires that all of these days of instructional time be made up. Typically, we have only missed significant time for weather due to snow or ice in the winter, sometimes in December, but mostly in January through March. The week of spring break after Easter provides a cushion of make-up time for 2ndsemester. We don’t have a fall break built into the calendar so these six days of absence have created a very unusual problem for us with state regulations. Our only real solution was to add time, 20 minutes per day or five minutes per high school class time, onto the school day. 

The reader will have noted that all of this issue of problems with meeting instructional time has been focused on the secondary schools. Elementary schools have to meet instructional time requirements but spreading the time over the whole year creates much less of a interval crunch. There is no crystal ball that we can use to predict what the weather will be this winter, or for years into the future. Certainly we have seen that the pattern over the past several years has brought us increased precipitation, the primary ingredient for school closing. We are prudent to plan cautiously to make sure that we are prepared to meet all instructional guidelines.  

The bottom line is that learning takes time. One can argue, appropriately, that students are unique. Each one has specific academic strengths and weakness, and will take different amount of time to master specific content. With modern educational technologies we are creating opportunity for much more personalized learning options. One day we may come to a place where it is only necessary that a student demonstrate mastery to receive credit, no time requirement imposed. Until then we still count “seat time” as a factor and must live with guidelines. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

MCPS Receives VDOE Extended Learning Grant

Mecklenburg County Public Schools (MCPS) is very pleased to announce that we have received a pilot Extended Learning grant from the Virginia Department of Education in partnership with the Southside Youth Development Corporation (SYDC). This pilot grant of $50,000.00 gives MCPS and SYDC the opportunity to create and initiate preliminary summer activities for middle school students to engage with local business for career exploration and foundational understanding of important work skills. Success with this program will lead to more financial support in future years to broaden the scope of activities with more business partners as well as assist the students as they move from middle to high school. 

Whenever one engages business leaders in conversation about critical skills for potential employees they immediately begin to emphasize the importance of “soft skills,” or the attitude for success that are so critical. This includes such issues as:
·     an understanding that it is very important to show up to work on time every day 
·     to have the appropriate cloths for the job
·     to be respectful of the boss and the customer
·     to keep the job as the priority while working instead of personal issues 
·     to get along well with fellow workers. 

These are personal qualities that will be emphasized during the summer program. At the same time, the students will have multiple opportunities to explore multiple types of careers with local business within the context of the six career centers that are being set up with our local schools. This will give the students practical exposure to the soft skills within the context of real careers while they are developing a sense of what job would fit their own unique interests and talents. The pilot will begin working with middle school students as this is the best age for significant career exposure. 

This DOE funding opportunity is called an “extended learning” grant because the focus is to provide critical learning opportunities for students beyond the time of the traditional school day. This grant is often used by school divisions to plan for special weekend or after school academic remediation programs. Some schools are even using it to create a year-round schedule for students. But what better time is there than the summer to engage students in activities where they can learn how to be successful in the real world while having fun? There are many great opportunities to do this, including summer camp, road trips, 4H or Scouting activities, and even vacations. These activities are known as “informal education” programs. Research shows that students often learn more real-life skills while participating in these opportunities than they do in school. 

MCPS provides credit to students who take advantage of these programs through the use of digital badges. Each badge carries point values that add up for academic and career opportunities while in school. For example, successful participation in this extended learning program could open a door for a youth apprenticeship or job shadowing program with a local business while in high school.

Unfortunately, not all students have opportunity to participate in summer activities of this type because of the busy-ness of parents or financial restrictions. The Southside Youth Development Corporation has focused on providing support of this type of for local students for over 20 years. SYDC engages support from many churches throughout southern Virginia to enable them to do this. Mecklenburg County Public Schools considers this type of local engagement to be critical for our students. This is a perfect example of “wrap-around” community support, and we partner with many civic and church groups, as well as business, to provide these opportunities for our students.  

Planning for the summer program begins immediately. Announcements about how the program will be set up and how students may apply to participate will be shared with parents and the community in the spring. We look forward to seeing this program become an important component of our school division’s mission to “prepare all students for success with careers of the 21stCentury.  

Monday, September 17, 2018

MCPS Can Now Celebrate and Move Forward

It’s official. The Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors voted to purchase the site for the new Mecklenburg County Middle and High School today at a special meeting. Additionally, they agreed to fund a budget for the new school at $120,000,000.00; the figure that Ballou, Justice, and Upton, our architects, have determined will meet our building needs. This includes the classrooms, space for the six career centers, appropriate gyms and athletic fields, and an auditorium for 1,200. This is a major move forward for Mecklenburg County, in so many ways. 

The obvious winners from this action are the students and staff members in the schools. Most of our readers are aware that the current middle and high schools were all built in the 1950’s. They have served well but are very outdated. Matters related to safety, discipline, appropriate heating and cooling, and typical classroom activities have all changed dramatically, particularly in the past decade. The new facility is designed to take advantage of all the new concepts. 

Students and staff are not the only winners though. This is the most important investment for future economic development that the county could take. Mecklenburg County has several unique features that make it very attractive for business. We have major highways running north and south, east and west. We are very close, and almost exactly halfway between major cities; Richmond and Raleigh/Durham, Washington DC and Charlotte NC, New York and Atlanta. Thanks to the Tobacco Commission and Mid-Atlantic Broadband we have major fiber-optic cables infrastructure connecting us by Internet to the whole world. We are the gateway to the two largest lakes in Virginia and North Carolina. This is good for business as well as tourism. The one thing that has held business back has been the perception that we have a very poor K12 education system.  New buildings and the new career preparation focus of our system will take care of that issue. 

The community as a whole will also benefit greatly. Mecklenburg has been a county divided east and west. There is a very old and wise statement, “United we stand, divided we fall!” Focusing our resources to serve and support our students in this facility will build the strongest foundation to unite our county to its greatest potential. 

Now that the site has been determined and the budget established we can really begin to move forward. There has been much work done toward this goal, and much work yet to do. We set a goal, when we began this process, to move into the new building in August of 2021. We are on schedule for this thanks to the fact that the Architects worked with school staff and community leaders to complete preliminary design stages before we finalized decisions about the site and the budget. There are some months of design details yet to complete before we are ready to bid the project for builders and break ground. During this time, we will begin the process of marketing the new building and programs. This includes engaging students, staff, and the community in the process of selecting new school mascot and team colors. These efforts will take time and effort but will definitely be very exciting for everyone. 

Yes, this is a time for celebration in Mecklenburg! The process of preparing for new middle and high schools has been long and emotional; a major topic of discussion in the community for over two decades. There are many persons to thank for their hard work and patience to bring us to this place. This includes, but is not limited to, the members of the School Board and Board of Supervisors (particularly the Joint Education Committee), county leaders that served on the 2016 School Facilities Study committee, business and civic leaders that contributed advice at architectural planning meetings, and of course, our Mecklenburg county educators who serve on the front line with our students. Thanks to all of you we are going to have new secondary facilities and this will propel our students and community into the 21stCentury very well. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Planning for Education Beyond High School

Mecklenburg County Public Schools will host our 2ndannual College Night program at Bluestone High School on Thursday, September 6th, at 7:00 PM. This is a program for parents and students who are planning for careers that require a degree or certification beyond the high school diploma for a job. The program is available to private and home school students and parents as well as to parents of students attending MCPS. 

Planning for an education beyond the completion of high school is very much more complex than it was at one time. Not that long ago it was a common assumption that any person who completed a Bachelor’s degree would be able to get a good job paying at least middle-class wages. Therefore, one of the primary goals of public education was to prepare as many students as possible for success in getting accepted to college. The number of colleges in the USA increased to take advantage of the demand, and the cost of college increased dramatically to cover the expense of extra services that would make the school more attractive to students. 

Today we find that a variety of technologies have had a significant impact on the jobs available in the workforce, and that technical skills are a greater determining factor in the hiring process than advanced degrees. This doesn’t negate the long-term intrinsic advantage of additional education, but it does force the student and their parents to ask more significant questions about why they pursue further education. Each student should know; why are they going to college, what is the Return on Investment (ROI) for their education funds and effort, when is the best time to pursue further education, and where will they get the best education to fulfill their career goals? 

Dr. Barry Simmons, a former Dean at Virginia Tech will be joining us at Bluestone High School to give some insight to parents about the issues related to seeking higher education. Additional speakers that evening will be:
·     Representative from College Board to discuss the PSAT, SAT, and Advanced Placement course options
·     Representatives from GReat Aspirations Scholarship Program (GRASP) who will discuss financial aid support that will be available to students this year
·     SVCC Career Coaches
·     Representatives from Southside Youth Development Corporation
·     Representatives from local institutions of higher education and programs that support students in their decision making process. 

Today’s students need to focus considerable attention on planning for the career that will fulfill their emotional and financial goals. Parents should be a part of the process along with school counselors and teachers, mentors and role models, and community support representatives. This type of planning should begin as early as possible, no later than 9thgrade. Can you answer the questions posed above? Don’t miss this opportunity to come and engage with experts that will be available to help you create a bright future. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

MCPS Off To A Good Start for 2018-19

MCPS Off To A Good Start for 2018-19

The 2018-19 school year at MCPS had a very good beginning as the students returned to schools last Monday morning. I had the opportunity to begin the day with the staff to welcome the students at South Hill Elementary School while each of the other administrators from Central Office went out to the other schools. All of the reports on opening day and throughout the week have been very positive. Teachers were well prepared and the students seem to be very pleased to get back into their routine. 

I have attended opening day at South Hill Elementary for several years because this is where we have had the greatest challenge to get the busses and the parent drivers flowing safely in and out of the school’s drop-off zones. Highway 1 and the Old Plank road nearly intersect right in front of the school, thus causing vehicles to get backed up onto both highways easily. We have worked with local police and transportation experts to seek a solution to this issue. This past year we decided to build an extra loop for the parent-drivers. It looks almost like a go-cart track in front of the building, but it works! Many thanks to all the parent drivers that paid attention to the new directions and lanes. I also want to give a big shout of thanks to Chief Bowen and his staff at the South Hill Police Department for their support to make this new plan a successful one.  

So the year with all the academics, athletics, skill development, and opportunities for students to engage the community and learn real-life lessons and skills has begun. It is important at the start to acknowledge the wonderful support given to our schools through the efforts of volunteers, civic organizations and clubs, and parent groups. Our elementary schools have wonderful PTA organizations, lunch buddies, and book buddies. Local grocery stores, vendors and civic groups donate support for meals, clothes, and school supplies for needy students. Booster clubs attend to the needs of our bands and athletic organizations. Retirees in the area volunteer their time to provide tutoring services and technical support for programs like our robotics competition. A number of local organizations create wonderful scholarships to support the continuing education needs of students. There are too many programs to mention, lest we leave some out. Please know that all of this effort is most needed and greatly appreciated. 

Please note that there will be an important meeting for all high school (9 – 12thgrade) students who are planning careers that require a college degree or higher held in the gym at Bluestone High School on Thursday, September 6th, at 7:00 PM. At this meeting participants will hear about college planning activities like the new Advanced Placement classes, SAT test preparation options, programs to support financial aid, and distance education programs. MCPS is very pleased to welcome and introduce our new partners from GRASP (GReat Aspirations Scholarship Program) who will be giving support to seniors in the financial aid process. This program will be available to home school and private school students as well as our own MCPS students. This is an annual event that shifts from year to year between Park View High School and Bluestone High School. We will be sending out more notification in the upcoming weeks and look forward to meeting with everyone there. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Goal Setting for the New School Year

There is great news to share as we begin the 2018-19 school year at Mecklenburg County Public Schools. Just this past week we received official word from the Virginia Department of Education that all 8 of our schools are fully accredited. For several years now we have had as many as three schools partially accredited. Last year, due to the hard work of our teachers and students, all of our schools hit the mark for full accreditation. 

This is not the only point of success that we celebrate from last year as we begin this new school year. Other goals accomplished last year include but are not limited to: 
·     An 11% increase in the number of students that are moving from elementary school to middle school reading on or above grade level.
·     A 74% increase in the number of industry credentials that our high school students have earned by successfully completing skill development programs and passing industry tests. 
·     Both high schools are adding Advanced Placement classes to our curriculum this year. AP classes are being taught in English, social studies, math, and sciences. 
·     All of our career and technical classes have now become a part of one of the six career centers that will direct students to their future career of choice.
·     Each of the career centers have created critical partnerships with local business and industry that will give guidance to student career preparation.
·     All rising 9thgrade students have created a five-year career pathway that sets the course of their academic and skill development through high school. This pathway can, of course, be modified as they continue to evolve with their career goals.

These steps were accomplished in no small degree due to the fact that they were set as primary goals for the school year. Setting concrete goals is one of the most important steps toward success that any person or organization can take. How else will one know if you are being successful? 

Goals for our students over most of the past two decades has been focused on student success in passing the Standard of Learning (SOL) tests. This is no longer the case. You will notice that the above list of success for our schools includes goals in skill development, career planning, and student interaction with local business. These goals constitute the four focus areas of Virginia’s Profile of a Graduate educational expectations. This was discussed in last week’s blog. This year each school will have to set goals for their students that will show a growth measurement in each of the four areas: content knowledge, workplace skills, community engagement, and career exploration. (See attached chart.) 

School accreditation will now be based on the school’s success in attaining these goals. Each year every school, and the division, will have to set new goals. 

MCPS is very proud of the success attained in the 2017-18 school year by our students and the schools. We are looking forward to another successful year in 2018-19, particularly with the ongoing support of our community!  

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The 2018-19 MCPS School Year Begins

The 2018-2019 school year for Mecklenburg County Public Schools begins this week. It’s hard to believe that the summer vacation is over but we must remember that our summer began on May 18th, before Memorial Day! The school year for students in 180 days no matter what month we begin or end. On Wednesday of this week, August 1st, new teachers will join us to begin their special introduction and preparation. All the rest of our staff will join us next Monday, August 6th, for our opening Convocation ceremony, and then get down to business with professional development and work days throughout the week. Students begin on Monday, August 13th.

There is much to be excited about this school year as we move our education program more and more toward our new focus on preparing students to be more well-rounded and ready for careers of the 21stCentury. Yes, we still have some SOL tests that will continue to drive much of the content that is taught, but there is a much stronger emphasis on engaging each student with a focus on how the information they are learning will be used in the real world rather than just preparing to pass a test. This comes through significant introduction to real jobs at the elementary level, exploration of careers at the middle school, and engagement with career or college preparation activities in high school. And in addition to academic content, students will now have a stronger focus on the development of work preparation skills, including soft skills such as learning why it is important to dress appropriately for the workplace, get to work on time, and positively present oneself to the public. This is all a part of the emphasis on the “5 C’s” of success for graduation: Critical thinking, Creative thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Citizenship. In fact, this year’s 9thgrade class, and those who follow, will be working on a different set of expectations to earn a High School Diploma than the 10th, 11th, and 12thgrade students. The new requirements include requirements that show mastery of each of the 5 C’s. 

We are also very excited that the planning and development of the new middle and high schools is beginning to gain traction and move forward. There were many critical decisions that had to be worked through and agreed upon by members of both the School Board and the Board of Supervisors during the 2017-18 school year. We have now identified a site, secured funding, hired an Architectural firm, and have first renderings of the building that teachers, business leaders, and representatives of the community are studying. During this school year we look forward to breaking ground on the site and are very hopeful to move into the new building at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. 

There is much work yet to be done to prepare for the new school year. Many thanks to all the school staff and to so many persons in the community that give so much effort to get our schools ready and who support our students in so many ways. The saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” has never been more true. We look forward to a great year working toward this goal with each of our wonderful communities in Mecklenburg county this year.