Fate of SWVA Governor’s School still undecided
By WILLIAM PAINE
A November 3rd article published in the Patriot revealed that Pulaski County Public Schools will no longer provide a location for the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School nor will PCPS serve as Fiscal Manager for the SWVA Gov School.
According to the PCPS administration, the primary reason for divesting in the SWVA Governor’s School was financial, as Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers was unable to convince other school systems sending students to the school to help pay for a roof repair at the old Northwood Elementary School where the school is housed, costing $150,000. Siers also listed the time and effort associated with acting as the SWVA Gov School Fiscal Agent, as a reason to divest.
Since then, both alumni and others associated with Gov School have voiced their concern about this course of action, which was done without any formal announcement and with no public discussion.
Adam Farris, owner of Iron Heart Winery, graduated from the SWVA Gov School in 2003, when it was still located at Pulaski County High School.
“I had a fantastic experience with the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School,” said Farris. “I think that promoting accelerated education for our bright children is a priority … or should be a priority in the county. There’s an opportunity for Pulaski County to shine in that regard to say, ‘Look, not only are we paying for this, but we’re happy to pay for this.’”
The SWVA Governor’s School admits intellectually advanced students who attend high school in Pulaski, Montgomery, Wythe, Smythe, Floyd, Carroll and Giles Counties as well as Radford and Galax cities. Students attend the Gov School in the morning and then commute to their local high schools for afternoon classes. SWVA Gov School curriculum is weighted toward courses in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). The courses are highly advanced and the homework load is more than substantial, which reflects the complexity of their studies.
According to Giles County Superintendent Terry Arbogast, who acts as the Superintendent- In- Charge at the Governor’s School, no decision has yet been reached as to where the SWVA Gov School campus will be in the fall of 2023.
“We’ve had conversations with all three … We met at RU, Wytheville Community College and New River Community College and we invited board members and superintendents to these sites to see what classrooms and labs look like.”
Though not widely known, the decision to evict the SWVA Gov School from Northwood Elementary School building came several months ago, well before securing a new location for the Gov school.
Bill Hickam, who served on the SWVA Gov School Foundation board, only learned about PCPS divesting from the SWVA Governor’s School through his contacts at Radford University, where he taught chemistry for 35 years.
“The plan was to use the Chemistry Department at RU as part of the Governor’s School for the other counties,” said Hickam, who lives within sight of the Northwood Elementary School building. “When I talked to people about putting it in Radford, the people involved with it have no idea what they’re talking about. They said they haven’t told us beans so what are we supposed to do about scheduling?”
Years ago, Hickam and others suggested the SWVA Gov School be moved to Northwood Elementary School, which had fallen into disuse due to consolidation. In 2006, the SWVA Gov School moved from PCHS to Northwood. Bill and Lydia Hickam’s daughter, Georgie, attended the SWVA Gov School.
““It is a jewel for Pulaski and why they’re just throwing this away, I have no idea,” said Lydia.
“What makes me so unhappy about this is they’ve done this in secret. We went over to talk to the (Gov School) teachers about it and it was a surprise to them as well.”
According to Rebecca Phillips, SWVA Gov. School Director, she received notification on Oct. 4 2022, that the building must be vacated by June 30, 2023.
It was Lydia Hickam who first called Mike Williams of the Patriot to notify him of the move, as no official announcement had been made, nor has any official announcement come since.
The PCPS divestment from the SWVA Governor’s School came as a surprise to county officials as well.
“Neither the County Board of Supervisors nor the County Administrator were advised or consulted about the decision,” said County Administrator Jonathan Sweet. “We were just as surprised to hear of the decision as the general public and although we have absolutely nothing to do with those types of school board decisions, the general public has reached out to administration and the Board of Supervisors sharing their concern and frustration. We were able to tout that we were the Governor’s School for the region. It was a symbol of pride and excellence and it was part of our marketing to showcase Pulaski County.”
No member of the Pulaski County School Board has replied to emails inquiring about the future of the SWVA Governor’s school with Superintendent Siers referring all inquiries to the newly formed Public Relations Department, headed by David Gravely.
When asked if making necessary repairs to the Gov School building constitute an excessive financial burden on the finances of PCPS, the Public Relations Department simply replied, “yes.”
Pulaski County Public Schools uses money from various sources for ‘Capital Improvements,’ which include building repairs. PCPS recently received $16 million in COVID relief money from the Federal Government, 80% of which went to capital improvements.
In addition, a recently enacted tobacco tax puts upwards of $600,000 in PCPS coffers for capital improvements each year. Millions of Federal dollars have been used to repair school buildings throughout the county but none of this money was allocated to fix the roof at Northwood Elementary School.
In the meantime, the school board has decided to spend $30,000 to create a Health Clinic within the high school. Additionally, Pulaski County Public Schools is currently building a $1.6 million maintenance facility on the PCHS campus.
Gravely also mentioned that less than 10 students from Pulaski County High School currently attend SWVA Governor’s School, adding that “interest in the Governor’s school has been declining for years and not just in Pulaski County.”
Each locality that participates in the SWVA Gov School program chooses how many students to send. In recent years Pulaski County High School has sent fewer and fewer students, whereas Giles County High School, which has about half the number of students as PCHS, sends 20 students to Gov School annually … and more would like to attend. In 2017-2018 school year, Pulaski County sent 27 students to SWVA Gov. School. According to Phillips, nine PCHS students attended last year and only seven currently are enrolled.
Pulaski Town Councilman Tyler Clontz graduated from the SWVA Governor’s School in 2008.
“I’m pretty sure Pulaski County was capped at 25 but more kids had applied for it,” said Clontz. “I just read that there are only 9 Pulaski County kids in Gov School and that’s crazy.”
“The response shouldn’t be ‘there’s only 9,’ the response should be that the students capable of attending know about it and are attending,” said Adam Farris. “When I was in school, the Governor’s School was on the Pulaski County High School campus and every seat that was allotted was always full and they were coming to the high school and promoting the Governor’s School and soliciting applications. Kids were put on long waiting lists to get into Governor’s school. There’s been a number of high school parents that contacted me and said they didn’t even know there was a Governor’s School. It seems like the recruiting process is a little bit broken.”
As mentioned, the new location of the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School has yet to be determined. Early on, Radford University seemed to be the favored location but SWVA Gov School board members from southwestern localities objected because Gov School at RU would result in longer commute times.
Another possibility involves splitting the SWVA Governor’s School into two campuses. In this scenario Gov School students would take classes at both NRCC and Wytheville Community College. This arrangement may include a virtual learning element for Gov School students.
Wythe County’s wishes are not to be discounted, as Wythe County sends more students to Governor’s School than any other locality. Giles sends the second most with Montgomery County a close third. The Southwest Virginia Governor’s School Board will decide on what form the Gov School will take at their next meeting on Wednesday, February 15.
As such, which courses and teachers will be available for classes next fall is yet to be determined.
“I can’t guarantee who’s going to be there,” said Gov School Superintendent-In-Charge, Terry Arbogast. “It’s going to be up to the teachers. If they split the sites then it’s going to be whether they’re up to traveling. The course load will depend on what teachers are available.”
While attendance at SWVA Governor’s School has declined in recent years, attendance at Dual Enrollment classes remains high. Since both can count for college courses, they are often considered to be equivalent but admissions requirements tell a different story.
A high school student who wishes to attend Gov School must score in the 90th percentile on PSAT/SAT, 500 or greater on SOL tests, as well as maintaining a very high grade point average, in math and sciences courses in particular. They must also collect recommendations from both teachers and counselors to attend.
In the past, students wishing to enroll for dual enrollment classes had to score high on Virginia Placement Tests for English and Math before qualifying. These tests took 2 to 3 hours to complete but as of last year, these requirements were dropped and now a student merely needs to maintain a 2.5 grade point average in high school to take Dual Enrollment classes.
“I do think Governor’s school is on a whole other level than Dual Enrollment classes,” said Tyler Clontz. “At Gov School you have science fair projects to complete aside from your normal schoolwork and that’s a multi-week experiment that you have to conduct yourself with papers to go along with it. One of my math professors went on to head the math department at Virginia Tech. Gov School is definitely a different experience and based on my knowledge, I’d say there’s nothing equivalent to it.”
Another unanswered question relating to Pulaski County Public Schools divestment from the SWVA Gov School, is what will become of the Northwood Elementary School building. According to the PCPS Public Relations department the fate of the building will be “decided at a later time.”
When Pulaski and Dublin Middle Schools became obsolete thanks to the construction of Pulaski County Middle School, PCPS donated these buildings to the county. The same might hold true for the Northwood Elementary School building but in that case, the county would have to either pay for a new roof or pay for the demolition of the building.
Another possibility is that after PCPS evicts the Governor’s School, they may decide to move the school board offices from the bank building downtown to the Northwood Elementary School building. This could be justified by declaring that money saved on rent could then be used to repair the roof.
“It’s about time for somebody to find out what’s going on,” said Hickam. “I’m uncomfortable with rats over there because somebody’s got to fix the roof!”
Though many view divesting from the SWVA Gov School as being a major change in priorities, no official action, nor official announcement is forthcoming.
“The school board will not be voting on this issue,” the PCPS Public Relations Department stated. “There never was a memorandum of understanding or contract approved that would establish the terms and conditions of use for this facility,”
Whether the SWVA Gov School will secure a more ironclad contract with its new host is yet to be determined but if the agreement resembles the one maintained by PCPS and the Gov School, the future of this singular secondary learning institution is seemingly uncertain. Will the SWVA Gov School be forced to change locations again going forward and more importantly, will there even be a Gov School 5 years in the future?
“I can’t guarantee where we’re gonna be five minutes from now,” said Superintendent Arbogast. “I can’t guarantee anything.”
If the SWVA Gov School is moved to New River Community College, some, including Adam Farris, believe that it could turn out to be a positive for Gov School students. However, splitting the Gov School campus in two between Wytheville Community College and NRCC will necessitate longer commutes and the likely introduction of virtual learning classes, which are not generally well regarded in the teaching community.
“Gifted children need to be stimulated and pushed so that they can flourish and become everything that they’re capable of becoming and if you do not offer them that opportunity, then frequently they become bored and maybe even problematic,” stated Adam Farris. “Everyone that I kept in contact with who attended Governor’s School are all making waves in society. They’re engineers, architects, physicians, lawyers, vice presidents of international companies … you name it.”
“It was definitely a benefit,” declared Tyler Clontz. “I went into college with 43 credits, most of which were from the Governor’s School. I would have regretted it if I had the chance to do it and didn’t do it.”
“The kids do not attend Governor’s School simply because they want college credits,” said Farris. “There’s a whole culture and there’s a vibe at the school that is preparing them as a transitional stage before going into college. I hope my kids can attend Gov School. It was the highlight of my high school career.”
According to Superintendent Arbogast, the SWVA Gov School board must come to a decision at the Feb. 15 meeting, so that the chosen college can prepare for the transition. One thing is for sure, wherever the new location of the SWVA Governor’s School will be, much effort will be necessary to make ready for the fall semester. What isn’t clear is the logistics and costs involved, neither is it clear who will be teaching and what courses will be offered. All of these uncertainties have now come to the fore, because PCPS could not find a way to pay for a new roof at Northwood School.
February 10, 2023 @ 4:32 pm
This is sad. The Governor’s school was at PCHS when I attended. I know students who have attended at Northwood. It was a positive outlet for students who qualified. The challenge of the courses and making friends with students from other schools made it an amazing experience.