Sunday, February 24, 2013
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Christina Nuckols: School grades: a view from the classroom

Christina Nuckols

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Christina Nuckols grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and worked at several newspapers in western Virginia, including The Roanoke Times, before moving to Richmond to cover state government and politics. After 14 years at the state Capitol, she returned to Roanoke in 2011 to become the editorial page editor. christina. nuckols@roanoke.com | 981-3377

From the RoundTable blog

Jennifer Dean, the principal of Roanoke's Westside Elementary School, was feeling pretty confident when she learned that Gov. Bob McDonnell had given every school in Virginia a letter grade, until she saw the results.

"I was pretty devastated by the D on the piece of paper," she said last week. "I expected an A, and I took it personally. It's not a reflection of what's happening here."

Parents, too, have expressed concern, but the students remain philosophical. It's obvious to them the governor didn't do his homework.

"Maybe he doesn't really know about Westside because I think Westside is a great school," 11-year-old Treazure Taylor told me when I visited.

"If the governor actually came here as a student, his mind may change," suggested 10-year-old Cameron Peters.

Nickolas Andrews, 10, wearing a hoodie proclaiming himself "Awesome," nodded. "He should visit the classrooms and take notes on what we're doing. If he stays here awhile, it'll probably come up to a B or an A."

They made a convincing case, and not just because they are all members of the school's nationally recognized debate team. They have the numbers on their side.

Westside's English pass rates rose from 71 percent in the 2009-10 academic year to 82 percent last year. Math pass rates increased from 81 percent in 2009-10 to 90percent in 2010-11. (Virtually all schools saw a dip last year because of a new math test.)

The achievement gap between black and white students shrank for both subjects.

The PTA is 300 members strong, with all board positions filled, and the school gets support in the form of tutoring, snacks and winter coats from Congregations in Action.

Still, there's no question that Westside has its struggles. It's the largest elementary school in Roanoke, with 722 students, 87 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The students represent 19 foreign countries and have a 33 percent mobility rate. Westside was identified last year as one of the lowest-performing 5 percent of state schools with significant economically disadvantaged populations.

The school received a School Improvement Grant, which has helped to fuel academic progress, but also garnered it an automatic D under McDonnell's grading system.

Despite the governor's dis, I could feel the energy when I walked into Westside on a drizzly Tuesday morning.

"Teachers are respectful, and they really don't try to get mean," said 10-year-old Jadan Akerson, who struggled in the third grade but is now a straight-A student.

Cameron Peters described the support he received when his grandfather died.

"If you're stuck, they don't ever give up on you," he said. "They stuck with me."

"Children feel welcome here," said fifth-grade teacher Kim East. "They feel safe. Our children are achieving great things. They seem proud to be here."

Jeff May, who coaches the debate team as well as the school's step club, said working at Westside is no ordinary job.

"It's a feeling of purpose," he said. "It's important to everybody that we're trying to do something from the heart."

No one is suggesting that Westside is where it needs to be.

"Our work is not done yet because there are still doubters out there," said Seydric Williams, the former Westside principal who now oversees K-5 education for the school division.

McDonnell is convinced he's helping the cause by giving Westside and every school in the commonwealth a grade. Legislators last week were still in negotiations over a permanent program for awarding annual grades. But what has the governor accomplished by giving Westside a D? What benefit is there in shaming a school that has come so far? Just as important, what good would it do to shame any school still struggling to get its footing?

If McDonnell has an answer, Nickolas, Treazure, Cameron and Jadan would like to hear it. He shouldn't be surprised if they engage him in a debate on the subject. I've no doubt who will win.

Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.

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