New school board holds first meeting
By WILLIAM PAINE
Newly elected members of the Pulaski County School Board gathered for their first official meeting on Thursday Jan. 18. The meeting was held in the Pulaski County Middle School Auditorium and included a welcoming reception which took place in the school cafeteria.
Before the reception, incoming school board members held an organization session to elect leadership and make committee appointments. It should be noted that all votes taken at Thursday evening’s meeting were unanimous.
In their first official action, Josh Taylor was elected as School Board Chairman and Gina Paine was subsequently elected as Vice Chair.
Teresa Porter was reappointed as School Board Clerk, as was Brenda Crawford in her position as Deputy Clerk.
Pulaski County Public School Superintendent Rob Graham was then appointed as Parliamentarian of the Pulaski County School Board.
Two members of the school board were appointed to fill the role of agent of the Virginia School Board Association, which meets annually in Williamsburg to set VSBA policy. The board elected Sabrina Cox as VSBA Agent and Gina Paine as VSBA Deputy Agent.
Paine was subsequently appointed as the Representative to the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School Governing Board.
In a minor break from precedent, Jake Price and Billy Williams were appointed as board representatives for the School Security Committee. Normally these positions are held by the Chair and Vice Chair of the school board but Gina Paine recommended Price because of his prior experience as an SRO and Williams because of his familiarity with the topic and the board agreed.
Following these organizational appointments, a reception was held in the school lunchroom featuring a buffet prepared by the Pulaski County High School Culinary class. The meeting and reception were attended by the entirety of the PCPS Administration, as well as all seven Pulaski County Public School principals.
A few minutes later the school board gathered again to call for a closed session. The board and administration then consulted with legal counsel on a matter that was not disclosed. Approximately 50 minutes after entering closed session, school board members re-entered the auditorium, again took their seats and opened the meeting.
The next section of the agenda called for the recognition of exceptional students and staff of Pulaski County Public Schools. Once recognized, honorary certificates were distributed and photos were taken with school board members providing a backdrop.
Middle School Students Jonathan “Hunter” Tolley, Allisha Justice and Gracianna “Gracie” Wimberly were recognized for their outstanding citizenship.
Next, Pulaski County Middle School Librarian Karen Brown, a 32-year veteran of the PCPS system who has served in three different roles, was awarded Employee of the Month.
Charles Shelton, who currently teaches Math 8 and Algebra I at PCMS, and who has also taught civics and science over his 27-year year career at PCPS, was awarded the honor of Teacher of the Month.
January’s Student of the Month certificate was given to Kameron Carden, who played a key role in bringing the Fellowship of Christian Athletes back to PCHS.
Sydney Proctor, the PCHS Captain of the Color Guard, was recognized as the PCHS Senior of the Month of November 2023, as Sydney wasn’t able to attend November’s meeting.
The school board then passed a consent agenda, which included the hiring of Richard (Ritchie) Thomas as the Director of PCPS Human Resources, following the recent resignation of Ashley Coble . Thomas was Principal of Fort Chiswell High School for many years before briefly serving as interim Principal for Pulaski County High School. Before accepting this position, Thomas was most recently employed as an instructional aide at Pulaski County Middle School.
Following the recognitions, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Tara Grant gave the board an overview of PCHS attendance and academic status.
Grant began by saying that six of the seven schools in Pulaski County were fully accredited with Pulaski County Middle School being “accredited with conditions.”
According to Grant, obtaining full accreditation for PCMS will be a major goal for PCPS in the coming year.
Grant stated that Pulaski County Public School students averaged a 65% passing rate for the reading portion of the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, and only 53% of Pulaski County Public School students were able to pass (SOL) Writing tests.
The goal is to have at least 75% of students pass the English reading/writing sections of the SOL tests.
PCPS students average a 60% passing rate in both mathematics and History Social Science SOL tests and only a 57% passing rate for the science portion. All three figures represent a slight decrease in proficiency from the previous year. The goal for PCPS is to bring a passing rate of 70% is these subject areas.
“I’m pointing this out because, even though we’re 96th out of 131 school divisions, which is very uncomfortable for us, we all work very, very hard and so do our teachers,” said Grant.
Grant is now working with the Virginia Board of Education and a consortium of 61 public school divisions which formed a Comprehensive Instructional Program to improve student achievement. Part of this process involves using benchmarks to monitor students’ progress in core subjects before taking the test.
In addition, as part of Virginia’s All In Tutoring initiative, starting this term learning loss teaching assistants have been hired for each of the county’s schools (two for the middle school) to help with tutoring.
These tutoring sessions are to take place during school hours and teachers who currently work in the schools will have the opportunity to give tutoring sessions to students before school starts.
“I just want you to be encouraged that we’re on it,” said Grant. “We’re going to move forward and we’ll be top twenty in the state before too long.”
Grant then went over the accreditation statistics for each school in the county and revealed that academic achievement levels for English and math were categorized as Level 1 (best) in all of the county’s elementary schools. The same can be said for science, excepting Critzer and Riverlawn Elementary schools, which earned a Level 2 Academic grade for their science instruction.
Achievement gaps for students with disabilities were an issue for all elementary schools except for Snowville and Riverlawn, which registered no achievement gaps.
English and mathematics were given the Level 1 Academic Achievement designation at Pulaski County High School, with Science rating a Level 2 grade.
Pulaski County Middle School was the outlier in these accreditation ratings with only mathematics receiving the highest Level 1 designation. English at PCMS was given a Level 2 Academic Achievement designation and Science scored the lowest Level 3 designation.
Students with disabilities also have a significant Achievement gap in math at PCHS and math and English at PCMS.
Every school in the county has issues with chronic absenteeism but, according to Grant, this is an ongoing problem for the state of Virginia and the country as a whole, especially in high school.
Next, Tonia Singleton, Pre-K Coordinator of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction, explained how the policies of the Virginia Literacy Act, which was passed to combat a ‘literacy crises’ of Virginia school children, will be employed in the school system.
This literacy program, which uses benchmarks and ‘evidence-based literacy and instructional practices’ focuses on K through third grade students and is set to begin in fall of 2024.
The Informational segment of the meeting began with a report from Jeremiah Turner, who is the Student Representative to the school board.
After being told that student SOL test scores are lower than they should be, Turner gave the board two suggestions on how to potentially raise SOL scores.
Turner first suggested that each student be allotted a number of mental health days each semester but that safeguards should be put in place so that not every student in the school would take the same days off.
Turner then proposed a student mentoring program where upper-class students would assist younger students who were struggling.
Board members Josh Taylor and Sabrina Cox voiced their approval of the student mentoring proposal.
PCPS Director of Operations Jess Shull next gave the board a Capital Improvement priority list.
The top priority listed by Shull was a sewer line break under the concrete slab in Riverlawn Elementary School’s kitchen. This was discovered at the beginning of the school year and resulted in the closure of two of the school’s restrooms.
The second priority was replacing the water supply lines at Dublin Elementary School, where excessive buildup of water pressure has compromised multiple fixtures.
“We could be in real trouble if we don’t fix that soon,” Shull warned.
Other capital improvement priorities include finishing the replacement of exterior doors at PCHS and ongoing security upgrades involving remodeling vestibules at all PCPS elementary schools.
Shull recommended a more detailed meeting with the board in the coming weeks to better explain the funding and feasibility of PCPS upcoming capital improvement projects.
Mike Wade of New River Valley Community Services and Mandi Ackerman of United Way of Southwest Virginia then presented the board with a risk behavior survey. Wade and Ackerman stressed that today’s youth are more at risk than ever and asked the board to allow them to give the 66 question survey to 7th, 9th and 11th graders.
After stipulating that a child must have parental approval to take the survey, the board agreed to move this informational item into an action item later in the meeting. The board then voted unanimously to allow the survey to take place.
Superintendent Rob Graham then updated the school board on attendance and discipline. To receive accreditation, schools need a 94% attendance rate, with PCPS coming in with just under 93% attendance rate on average.
“Our teachers and staff are doing an outstanding job with chronic absenteeism,” stated Graham.
“If you look at our student behavior report for December, I was really, really pleased with this,” said Graham.
There were total of 144 discipline related incidents in PCPS for December, with nine incidents falling into the most serious “endangerment” category.
“The ones we really need to watch are persistently dangerous behaviors and luckily, we don’t have any of those and we haven’t had any of those this year … That would include carrying a weapon to school or serious bodily injury resulting in hospitalization. Those things would have to be reported and so your school would be labeled a persistently dangerous school and we don’t have any of that.”
Graham also mentioned that school administrators have been given more autonomy to deal with discipline issues than in the recent past.
“The Restorative Justice piece has a lot of positive applications to it but when you get down to reality, there has to be some type of consequence,” said Graham. “You can’t hit a teacher or cuss a teacher out and go out for an hour and talk to that child and try to provide them some restorative justice and then go back in the classroom an hour later, it simply … we haven’t seen it work here or when I was in Radford. So, we have really given the administrators the autonomy and if you talk to administrators, they feel like the adults are running the schools instead of the other way around.”
Action Items included the approval for upcoming school field trips and a recommendation to submit a Request for Proposals for insurance company consulting services to help lessen an expected hike in insurance rates.
The board unanimously passed the field trips, the RFP for insurance consulting services and the youth at risk survey.
The next meeting of the Pulaski County School Board is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday February 13 at the school board offices in downtown Pulaski.