VSBA president tours county schools

May 8, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer 

As part of a statewide tour, Virginia State School Boards Association President Kerri Wilson visited Henry County Public Schools on Wednesday to see firsthand some of its challenges and successes. 

As for challenges, school division officials mentioned aging school facilities; declining student enrollment and the resulting possible need to consolidate some schools; the poor economy; and the loss of thousands of jobs in recent years.

School division officials took Wilson to John Redd Smith Elementary School, which school and school division officials have said is outdated and inadequate. 

Officials have said bigger classrooms, a new heating and cooling system and other infrastructure improvements are needed at John Redd Smith. They have cited various other traffic, safety and handicapped-accessibility issues at the school, as well as the school’s nearness to businesses and other issues and needs.

In its capital improvements study for HCPS, Moseley Architects recommended consolidating John Redd Smith Elementary and nearby Collinsville Primary and shifting five special-needs classrooms from Stanleytown Elementary to that new school. The price tag for all that is an estimated $21,186,587. 

Wilson said she gleaned that the school division’s greatest challenge is the need to replace John Redd Smith and how to fund it. That doesn’t mean the school division doesn’t have other capital needs as well, she added. She also pointed out she was told a new school hasn’t been built in Henry County since the 1980s.

As a success story, HCPS officials took Wilson to Warrior Tech Academy, a school within a school at Magna Vista High School and the first New Tech Network school in Virginia. After touring Warrior Tech, Wilson asked questions of a panel of Warrior Tech students and then a panel of Warrior Tech teachers, who are called facilitators because they guide students’ learning rather than lecturing. 

Wilson said she gleaned from her discussion with students that they signed up for Warrior Tech Academy, which is in its first year, more because of its innovative style based on project-based learning, and not as much because it is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) academy.

When asked what they liked most about Warrior Tech, students said such things as learning a different way, the open spaces and office-like furniture, hands-on projects, critical thinking, collaborating with other students, and the culture of trust, respect and responsibility. All the students said they plan to continue in Warrior Tech. 

Some of the students said they felt they had matured and, as a result of having taken classes at Warrior Tech, they could better excel in a mainstream classroom setting.

During the teacher panel discussion, Wilson asked such things as the teachers’ goals at Warrior Tech, what challenges Warrior Tech faces and how they think school divisions facing various challenges can attract and retain highly qualified teachers. 

Facilitator Brook Hankins said she worked for an economic development office before she became a teacher, and she feels her work at Warrior Tech combines the two in the sense that she hopes it will help in “bringing the community back to life” after losing many jobs. Officials have said they believe Warrior Tech is part of a pipeline to develop workers who have skills area employers have said they need.

Facilitator Drew Lowery said with the economic recession, close-mindedness can seep in, so he tries to open up minds, “break down walls of ignorance” and get students to think globally. 

One of the challenges mentioned as Warrior Tech moves forward will be adjusting to the addition of 10th grade in the next school year. This year Warrior Tech has only ninth-graders.

Ideas for recruiting and retaining teachers to school divisions with various challenges included higher pay or financial incentives, incentives or assistance for furthering education, and professional development. Lowery said HCPS offers outstanding professional development. 

“I’m so impressed” and “this is fantastic,” Wilson said of Warrior Tech. She said she liked the school within a school concept, the openness of Warrior Tech, the students’ working together in groups, their composure and maturity, and their advanced level of learning.

“Everything is clearly advanced rigor,” she said. 

HCPS Superintendent Jared Cotton stated: “It was an honor to have President Wilson visit. (She) was able to see some of the challenges we have with funding capital improvement projects, like the future plans for John Redd Smith Elementary. In addition, she was able to see our Warrior Tech program at Magna Vista High School, which is already doing extremely well during the first year of implementation. She had a chance to talk with teachers, administrators, and students throughout the day to learn about HCPS firsthand.”

Curtis Millner, Iriswood District member of the Henry County School Board, said he was “quite impressed” with Wilson’s visit and the day’s events. 


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