Observer: In regards to Jefferson's future, we are all partners
In Regards to Jefferson County’s Future, We’re All Partners
The midst of winter may seem an odd time to talk about growth in our agriculturally vibrant community. However, just as there are seeds that even now await the touch of sun and rain to bring them to life, there are seeds of challenges/opportunities lying beneath the surface of our current education system that await our attention.
One of our primary challenges stems from one of our greatest strengths. We are a growing/thriving community that is part of a struggling state. While Jefferson County Schools (JCS) has gained an average of 71 students per year over the past 5 years, the state of West Virginia has seen a steady decline.
The declining population and accompanying loss of revenue means that when JCS added 60 students this year, we were simultaneously forced to cut another $355,583 from our budget due to state funding cuts. In the last 1.5 years, we’ve cut more than $1.2 million from our budget while adding over 130 students. Based on the information we have regarding state financial forecasts, we can expect similar results for years to come.
Even as we address the issue of growth, we maintain an acute awareness of our community’s performance expectations. From graduation rates that exceed the state and national average to state athletic championships to nationally renowned arts programs, we have high expectations of ourselves and our student body. However, as we’ve grown, and our student body has changed, we recognize that our overall achievement has sometimes masked a great deal of variability in the achievement between schools—and between different groups of children within those schools.
Having conducted weekly instructional observations with principals, I can confidently state that we have the talent pool in our staff to meet this challenge. Unfortunately, we are struggling to support our staff with the time for staff development to keep pace with the increasingly technical demands of modern performance expectations. In a recent meeting of Jefferson leaders, many were surprised to learn that the National Park Service allocates 21 days per year for staff training, while Jefferson County teachers received two days (one of which is devoted to annual state-mandated trainings, such as policy and procedure). In a perfect world, the time devoted to growing children would at least equal that devoted to growing trees.
Facing the Challenges
These challenges are not insurmountable, but we must have a clear-eyed, long-term vision and the resolve to enact it. First, we must be relentlessly efficient with the “business” of running a school district. This includes reducing energy costs, streamlining bus routes, assigning staff for maximum student impact, and aggressively seeking support from grants and outside agencies.
We have used several of these tactics to achieve our current level of savings, but more will be necessary if we are to continue to provide the level of services that Jefferson families have come to expect (amid declining revenue and increasing population).
Second, we must prepare for the inevitable fact that we will need additional space in our schools by purchasing land, addressing policies that result in inequality of student population, and securing funding sources for building new schools.
Third, we must support our staff by investing in their professional development to make the changes necessary to ensure that all JCS students achieve at comparable levels. Many of these decisions will require that we choose the short-term pain of self-discipline over the long-term pain of regret in order to resolve issues—rather than leave them to another generation.
As members of the Jefferson community, you can help address these challenges in a number of ways. First and foremost, advocate to your legislators for growth funding and local flexibility in calendar and personnel issues. This will allow us to use what limited resources we have for the maximum effect.
Closer to home, cultivate relationships in your child’s school by becoming a PASS mentor or reading volunteer. The most definitive factor for success in a child’s life is the presence of a caring adult.
Finally, stay informed and involved by following School Board meetings and signing up for School Messenger alerts. In the all-important task of cultivating Jefferson County’s future, we are all partners.