Board rejects extending school year

At its monthly meeting last Tuesday night (March 11), the Rappahannock County School Board debated at length whether to add two more days to the school calendar, eventually deciding against it.

At its February meeting, the board added six days to the schedule — including taking three days off of spring break — in an effort to make up the nine days which, at that point, winter weather had cost the school system.

Since that February meeting, however, a continued snowy and cold winter has cost the school system another seven snow days (as well as two delayed openings), bringing the total to 16 days and prompting superintendent Donna Matthews to request additional make-up days.

Though she said her previous calendar extension “caused a great stir in Rappahannock County,” Matthews requested the board consider taking two more days from spring break — March 27 and 28. “I wouldn’t be the institutional leader of this county if I didn’t at least consider this,” Matthews said.

Matthews explained that while RCPS would still meet the state standards for hours of instruction without the two additional days (the state demands a minimum of 990 hours, which RCPS still easily surpasses, she said). The minimum can also be measured in days — 180 days and 140 clock hours per course for high school course credit — and having missed 16 days so far this year, Matthews said she was concerned with consistency. Next year’s calendar, Matthews assured the board, would have several more snow days allotted.

Piedmont district’s Aline Johnson was the first board member to weigh in, and said she’d received a number of calls from people asking that no more time be cut from the spring break. “Nobody has said, ‘Take ’em all,’ ” Johnson said. “It’d be a disservice to do that.”

Chairman John Lesinski said his callers had agreed with Johnson, and opposed adding extra days. “If I didn’t have complete confidence in our staff to have [students] ready for the SOLs, I’d take [those days],” Lesinski said. “But we’ve already pulled days from spring break and most people have said we need a break of some kind . . . We should preserve those two days.”

Amy Hitt of Jackson district and Stonewall-Hawthorne representative Larry Grove took the opposite view, and both said they’d had calls urging extra make-up days. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Please take the 27th and 28th because these kids need to be in school,’” Hitt said. “They don’t want anything added to the end of the year . . . I think we should take them.”

“I’m a parent and I don’t really care about spring break,” agreed Stonewall-Hawthorne resident Michelle Burke. “You need to give these kids what they really need.”

Nonetheless, the board’s vote on a motion to add those extra days failed, 3-2. (Lesinski, Johnson and Wakefield district’s Chris Ubben voted against the new calendar.)

Academics and Moms for Math

Otherwise at the board’s meeting, academics and school improvement again took center stage, as staff presentations focused on the elementary school’s new Moms for Math program.

A table full of manipulatives, RCPS’ newest math program addition.
A table full of manipulatives, RCPS’ newest math program addition. Courtesy photo

The Moms for Math program, Matthews and director of academic services Shannon Grimsley explained, was founded just last month by three elementary school mothers concerned about improving the school’s math scores: Janet Davis, Jen Perrot and Rachel Bynum. (All three were also honored with the school system’s Community Partner in Action award at the meeting.)

The program focuses on manipulatives — concrete objects used in teaching math, such as counting cubes, fraction pieces and geometric shapes — which Grimsley said have been “shown to have a direct impact on students.” The materials — about $3,000 worth — were purchased by the school with the proceeds of two federal grants, said Grimsley.

Sixth-grade history teacher Elizabeth Dodson explained that the main advantages of manipulatives are that they help teach the younger students “number sense” and allow them to create and work their own way toward a solution.

Dodson and seventh-grade math teacher Debbie L’Amoreaux then demonstrated how the students might reach a solution by solving a practice SOL problem asking students to correctly compare two different fractions. L’Amoreaux produced a white board covered in manipulatives that demonstrated — visually, and clearly — that “two-thirds” and “eight-twelfths” were comparable.

This ability to visualize potentially abstract concepts is a huge boon to younger students, L’Amoreaux said. “All of a sudden it becomes a game to them. That’s a good thing . . . suddenly they have no more fear of math.”

Each math class for fourth through seventh grades has its own set of manipulatives, Dodson said, while kindergarten through third grade share one set per grade level.

Hitt suggested more sets could be purchased, as needed, with money in the school’s curriculum enrichment program (CEP) fund, but no plans were made.