By MIKE WILLIAMS
A citizen group calling itself Community Conversations about Equity in Pulaski County was out in force Monday night to urge the Board of Supervisors to fund a nearly half-million-dollar budget request from the School Board to add a para-educator in every county kindergarten class next school year.
The $445,690 needed to fund the para initiative is part of some $1.6 million in new funding the School Board is seeking from the county for next school year’s budget.
The school board recently sent over to the county a $66.8 million budget that includes $31.7 million in state funding and $17.6 million in county funding.
The state figure is an increase of $2.7 million over the current year, a figure that could change since the General Assembly is still haggling over the state budget. The belief is once the legislature is finished with its budget work, the school system could receive more than the additional $2.7 million.
Until that happens, the School Board is asking the county for an additional $1.6 million in new funding.
That all translates into a total of $4.3 million in new funding for the school system.
The school board wants to use this new funding for new positions; raises for teachers and support staff, custodians and bus drivers; new teaching positions; printing and mailing costs for a school system newsletter; creation of a replacement cycle for students’ Chromebooks, and the para-educators for kindergarten classes.
Several people spoke in support of the kindergarten para initiative – dubbed “Start Strong,” which would require hiring 19 paras to work in the kindergarten classrooms.
Kara Etzel, a kindergarten teacher at Pulaski Elementary School, spoke for all the kindergarten teachers in support of Start Strong, saying she was reaching out to the Board of Supervisors to “formally request your prioritizing funding for classroom paras in kindergarten.”
“The addition of a second adult in the classroom would benefit students in a number of ways, including more small group reading and math instruction, fewer interruptions and increased support for learning independence,” Etzel said.
She said the practice of having a para in each kindergarten class with over 10 students is used in both West Virginia and in Northern Virginia.
“This investment will increase the number of children who successfully graduate from high school on time and will do well in life and the workforce.
“We believe that Pulaski County School children deserve the best possible education, and this investment will start them out strong,” she said.
Terrie Sternberg, a Pulaski minister and member of the Community Conversation group, told the supervisors the community “owns” the needs of our children.
“It’s not left up to the school system only, the parents only, you (Board of Supervisors) only – it’s something we all own,” she said.
She said during the group’s conversations and research, it was learned that two out of five students do not read proficiently when they are tested in the third grade.
“We’ve taken this on as a group of community partners saying, ‘what can we be doing to partner with our school system and families to help children become more proficient readers’ because, as you know reading is super foundational to life,” she said.
She read from a letter signed by 107 others calling on the School Board and Board of Supervisors to “work together to find the funding necessary to give our children the educational attention they need starting in kindergarten to be successful in their academic and professional careers in the future.
“We believe county children deserve the same opportunities that are being given kindergarten children in West Virginia. They have a rule of law that says a kindergarten class size will not exceed 10 students per teacher, and if it does there will be a full-time para educator in the room to support the teacher.
“Research shows that will have the greatest impact on those who come from low-income families because strong reading skills breaks the cycle of intergenerational poverty, boosting our community’s economic competitiveness.
“Small kindergarten class sizes will be a draw for people considering moving to our county in the future, helping to support the county’s ‘40 by 30’ goal and other components of the county’s comprehensive plan.”
Jill Williams likened the para initiative to an investment in economic development and public safety.
It will, she said, create 19 good jobs with benefits. And it will boost public safety, “because research shows that children who are reading proficiently by the third grade are less likely to end up in the criminal justice system.”
Williams said the initiative would distinguish the county as a unique place to live and work.
“There are no other school systems in the New River Valley or perhaps in all of Southwest Virginia that are investing in small kindergarten sizes like this. This investment will be a selling point for Pulaski County to people looking to relocate in the area,” she said.
And while the budget request being debated is for only one year of para funding, Williams took the issue a step further by proposing the Board of Supervisors “make a four-year commitment” to Start Strong, since Standards of Learning (SOL) testing starts in the third grade – the first opportunity to actually see if Start Strong resulted in better reading scores.
Not everyone spoke in favor of the plan. Dublin resident Gina Paine addressed the continual rise in education funding over the past eight years with little to show for it as far as student performance is concerned.
“In the 2013-14 school year, the total school budget was $43.5 million ($13.1 county contribution). At that time, there were 4,470 students in our schools, for an average expenditure of $9,730 per student (county funds = $2930 per student),” Paine said. “The current year budget of $62.9 million equates to an expenditure of $15,565 per student (county = $4,400 per student), based on a total reported enrollment of 4,041 students. So, in 8 years we’ve had a decrease of 530 students in our schools, but a near-50 percent increase in expenditure per student.”
“What has this almost-50 percent increase in spending per student purchased? According to the reported standardized testing scores, very little. Since 2014, the average scores for all county students (in Reading, Math, Science) have remained about the same, with a bit of a decrease beginning around the 2017-18 year. They average around a 78 percent pass rate. If we use a base number of 4000 enrolled students, that’s still roughly 880 students county-wide not meeting the passing threshold in these subjects,” Paine said, adding that the 2020-21 school year showed all scores cratering, a trend seen nationwide due to school shutdowns and a heavy reliance on remote learning.
Paine said the request to make a $450,000 investment into kindergarten classes is interesting.
“Hiring an additional non-teacher for every kindergarten classroom is a theoretical idea that will not provide proof of effectiveness, if any, until those students reach 3rd grade and begin state-standardized testing. Essentially, it’s an experiment that provides no objective proof of effectiveness for years.
“So, where does this leave us? With the requested $66.8 million for the 2022-23 school year, we’ll be averaging an expenditure of $16,700 per student, a huge increase in 8 years. What has it bought us? Some capital improvements, at least $40,000 in CRT-based professional development, a heavy emphasis on ‘equity,’ but as for academic improvement, the answer is: nothing. We remain below state testing standards. Would the county’s increase in funding be any different? If trends mean anything, it doesn’t bode well: we keep spending more and the children are doing no better. Are these resources improving academic performance of our children? Based on the data, the answer is no,” she said.