Capital improvements, dress code mark start of new school year

The school board at its regular monthly meeting Sept. 8 heard reports of the school system’s first 21 days in session and it was mostly good news.

Facilities director Jimmy Swindler reported on the completion of the portico construction at the elementary school. The board agreed that the bump-out, providing space for parents and other visitors away from the school’s main hallway, added to the school’s security. Principal Cathy Jones said the portico improvement contributed to “the smooth start to the school year.”

Later in the meeting, she also described how the newly repaved parking lot also contributed to the smooth opening. “Drop-off areas are clearly marked,” she said, “so that kids get dropped in the drop zone, not are not dropped off all over the place,” thus enhancing safety in the mornings. At the high school, the opening time was adjusted to facilitate the flow of school buses.

High school principal Mike Tupper praised the improvements as helping to instill a sense of pride in the schools. “The better we keep our facilities, the more the children will support them,” he said.

The board also discussed other needed improvements — such as replacing the windows in the old wing of the elementary school — and how to pay for them. Swindler updated the board on sources for funding capital projects, the stipulations, and suggestions for viable options. Swindler said his report presented only illustrative examples and that the “we want to have as complete a picture as possible” before making any funding decisions. Superintendent Donna Matthews said she would bring a plan before the school board in January or February for paying for new windows.

In sharing the state American College Test (ACT) College Readiness report with the board, Matthews reported that students’ scores continue to increase, outscoring the average score for the state of Virginia in all areas except mathematics. (In the area of math, the school division’s average score was 22.6 and the state average score was 22.8, a difference of two tenths of a point.) “But,” she reported, “we made great gains in reading, scoring well over the state with a 26.3 score versus the state score of 23.6.”

Jones and Tupper also reported on the dress code procedures at the schools. “Before the ‘back to school’ shopping time, we sent letters to the parents explaining the policy and illustrating what was acceptable and not acceptable,” said Tupper. “The drawing we developed lays out everything for parents and kids and helped to build widespread support for the policy.”

At a staff meeting, teachers learned about the policy “to help them understand and be empowered to handle potential transgressions without getting the principals involved,” said Tupper. Jones and Tupper reported seeing very few departures from the dress code since the start of school.

Sarah Moore, the schools’ Farm-to-Table coordinator, recently received a state Department of Environmental Quality award of a Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE) mini-grant. She plans to use the funds to purchase a portable, table-top environmental education model that provides unique, interactive and hands-on exploration of watersheds and sources of pollution.

Jones and pre-K teacher Tiffany Keys reported on the progress of the pre-Kindergarten students last year, the first year pre-K was offered by the county. A reading specialist, Keys presented a chart demonstrating the progress her students had made in one year in developmental milestones, such as name writing, upper- and lower-case letter recognition and letter sounds. In some cases the students’ scores at the end of were 20 percentage points higher than at the beginning of the year.

“Pre-K is making such a difference for our kids,” said Matthews. “They are getting instruction they wouldn’t have had” and are better prepared for kindergarten.

Following Keys’ presentation, the board discussed the feasibility of adding another pre-K class. Matthews said she wasn’t sure there were enough kids to form another class. Jackson district board member Amy Hitt asked if an additional pre-K class could replace the Head Start program at the elementary school, but Matthews pointed out that Head Start kids are a year younger than the pre-K kids, so are learning different skills. The board did not reach a decision, but agreed to keep an eye on both programs.

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