Planned Failure

PWCS projects that it will open the 13th high school in the fall of 2019 to relieve overcrowding in western end high schools.  Battlefield high school opened in the fall of 2004 and Patriot high school opened in the fall of 2010.  PWCS knew that both Battlefield and Patriot would be overcapacity before they opened, yet their “plan” for relieving that overcrowding was to wait 9 – 14 years until the 13th high school opened in the fall of 2019.

Based on the enrollment projections provided by PWCS, the 13th high school is overcapacity, 5 years before it opens.

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Unacceptable Conduct

As I watched the school board meeting blast night I was reminded of the often used idiom about the trees getting in the way of the forest.  Readers of this blog will recall that I, and many others, opposed the 12th high school.  We opposed the school for multiple reasons, which we painfully and carefully explained in detail here, in letters to the editor of local newspapers,  and in public comments to the school board.

Our reasons included:

  • that the school’s only street access will be from a highway;
  • that the school bumps against an active dump that spews highly flammable methane gas;
  • that lacrosse fields located adjacent to what will be the school’s PE fields have had to close due to heath concerns resulting for decomposing partially digested mice and rats pulled from the dump by birds and contamination from airborne bird feces;
  • that the school is no where near the population centers in the county or the schools that are overcrowded by in area enrollment;
  • that the school will be  yet another 100% bus school;
  • that the school  included a pool two pools that weren’t disclosed anywhere in the CIP or PWCS web site until a few months before the project was set to go out to bid, and then, only when private citizens disclosed their existence in comments to the school board, and;
  • that the school included a black box theater and orchestra lift which weren’t disclosed by PWCS to the public or school board until just before the bids were awarded.

This project was shrouded in secrecy by PWCS from the beginning, perhaps deliberately.

Last night it became evident that several school board members weren’t paying attention during the debate over the 12th high school and clearly have no idea why people were opposed the 12th high school.

Just a reminder for those school board members – you’re reviewing the designs for the 13th high school, now, because the school division misled the public and the school board about what was included in the 12th high school.  That debacle resulted in the quagmire of mistrust in which you presently find yourselves.

The opposition to the 12th high school wasn’t about whether it should have used the less expensive Battlefield / Freedom design or the more expensive Patriot design.  It was about all the stuff that was included in the 12th high school that no one in the school division wanted to admit was there until they were forced to do so.

While $18 million may seem like a drop in the bucket, it’s roughly the cost of a 10 room addition.  PWCS could have built Patriot with the Battlefield / Freedom design AND put an addition on Brentsville that would have provided enough seats that Patriot and Battlefield wouldn’t be looking at being more than 30% overcapacity in the next school year.  With that in place, PWCS might have been able to delay the 12th high school a few years and put that money into renovating the older high schools in the county so that they’re more in line with 21st Century learning strategies.

One more thing.

I recognize that some school board members are playing political games with their comments that are dripping with derision and contempt.  I find that attitude unacceptable from an individual elected to stand for and advocate on behalf of our children.  Our citizens and children deserve better than that.  School board members who find themselves incapable of avoiding such games ought to resign so that candidates who are worthy of our children can be elected to fill their places.

Lowest Test Scores in the Area

At the last school board meeting Harry Wiggins, Chairman of the PWC Democratic Committee, addressed the board.  He stated that PWCS had the lowest test scores in the area.  Dr. Otiagbe appeared taken aback by that  and asked the Superintendent to address it.  The Superintendent responded that PWCS consistently exceeded state averages but didn’t elaborate further as it was quite late.

Both are mostly correct.

Confusing, isn’t it?  I’ll try to break it down a bit.

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Does the PWC School Board Take Education Seriously?

If we’re to believe our school board members and every other person who works for PWCS, the school division’s finances are at the point where we might have to cut or eliminate non-core services in the coming years; that to balance the budget things like specialty programs, sending students to TJ, elementary strings, and middle school sports might have to be eliminated.

I sat through the budget discussions last spring and listened to department head after department head bemoan how little money there was to maintain current service levels.  I heard how PWCS is understaffing special ed and certain student services to the extent that our children’s education is at risk.  I had a conversation with a senior level school division administrator about serious problems they know exist in one of our programs for mathematically advanced students, and listened as he told me that they didn’t have the staff to design and implement any sort of changes to the program.  Every school board member just attended a joint meeting with the BOCS about reducing class sizes where it was agreed that taxes might have to be increased to bring class sizes down.

If the school division’s finances are stretched as tightly as they say, why do so many school board members still believe the pool is a wise choice?  The school pool will cost the school division approximately $1 million a year, after user fees are deducted.  The total costs of the pool are in the $1.5  - $1.8 million range with user fees covering $500,000 – $800,000 of those costs.  That money to pay those expenses will come from our allocation of county tax receipts, and, as we’ve heard for everyone employed by or affiliated with the school division, the school division is broke and can barely afford basic instructional supplies.   Yet Dr Otiagbe, Mrs Jessie, Mrs Covington, and Chairman Johns still believe that spending $1 million a year for the school pool is a wise decision.

Why?  They know that money doesn’t grow on trees and must realize how little room there is in the school division’s budget for luxuries like a school pool.  Yet they still think it’s a good decision and refuse to say why.

This week Dr Otaigbe said he thinks every PWC school student should be given an iPad.  PWCS officials implied that the only thing holding us back was our budget.  Are you kidding me!  Just so I understand, if PWCS had Fairfax’s budget, we’d be buying and issuing iPad or lap books for all of our students?  Seriously?  That’s roughly $17 – $34 million.

Classrooms in many of our schools are too large to manage.  Our teachers haven’t gotten the salary increases they deserve and may not be getting them in the coming years as the state requires school districts to pay back the deliberate underfunding of the VRS.  Schools have been rationing things like toner and paper.  But spending $1 million a year on a pool is a wise use of funds and buying iPads for students is a necessity.

Hugh????

I can’t imagine that these school board members are that stupid.  I was willing to give these folks the benefit of the doubt.  I figured maybe they had inside information that indicated that the school division would be getting more money from who knows where.  Maybe someone bought a winning lotto ticket with PWCS money so now the school division has several hundred million it didn’t expect.  Because barring that, I don’t know how the school division can pay for all these nice to haves.

Unless there’s something else at play.

At the joint school board / BOCS meeting, the BOCS agreed that we may need to increase taxes to adequately fund our schools.  Maybe these school board members expect that the tax increase will be sufficient to fund their pet projects, so they don’t need to worry about fiscal restraint.  The pool, iPads for students, increased spending on conferences and travel without justifying the expenditure, $100 million on a high school, astro-turf fields – all are perfectly fine as long as someone is available to pay for it.

It’s not that the PWC School Board isn’t serious about education, it’s that they’ve found their sugar daddy to pay for their playthings, and it’s us.

One of the Best Things PWCS has to Offer

With all the complaining we do about PWCS, I thought it might be time to compliment the school system on one of the many things it does well, and yes, there are many many things the school division does quite well.   This first one is a unique program that should be a model for all schools – New Directions Alternative School.

New Directions

New Directions is public school in Prince William County that offers an alternate to students who are at risk of falling behind or dropping out.   The children who attend New Directions are what many call our most “at risk students”.  They are students who have special needs that’s aren’t being met in a traditional school, students with family issues that prevent them from attending school from 6 – 3 every day, or students who are habitually truant or who have gotten into trouble.  This school offers them a chance, sometimes their last chance, to get their high school diploma and go on to college or a career, if they want it and are willing to work for it.

The school offers flexible schedules and a mix of classroom and digital learning, including AP courses, so that students can adapt their school schedule to better align with their lives.  Their Robotics team defended their title this year at the regional robotics competition by coming in 2nd out of 168 teams and will head to the national robotics competition.

The faculty and staff provide support and encouragement to struggling students and pushes students to excel.  It has strict attendance requirements and tough discipline for students who step out of line.

New Directions opened in the fall of 2006 with 200 students in attendance.  Over 500 students attended New Directions in the 2012 – 2013 school year.  Over 100 students graduated from New Directions this Spring; many are headed off to college in the Fall.

Without a doubt, New Directions is one of the best things PWCS has to offer.

Six Pools in Three Schools * UPDATED

Several months ago I addressed the PWC School Board about their plans to build a pool in the 12th high school.  I asked how the annual cost of the pool could be justified when our classes are jammed to the gills, our schools are overcrowded, and our teachers are underpaid.  Over the past several months I’ve acknowledged that there is a need for addition year round indoor pool facilities in our county – that the facilities at Chinn, Dale City, and The Freedom Center are simply inadequate for a community of our size.  As I’ve explained multiple times to anyone willing to listen, I’m not opposed to a pool in the school, just to having the school division manage and pay for it.  To me, pools, and the programs in them like Mom and Me swimming classes or aquatic aerobics, are the responsibility of the Park Authority and not the school division.

I’ve changed my mind.

I don’t think the school division should build pools in the 12th, 13th, and 14th high schools, no mater who manages them or pays for them.

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Is PWCS Wasting Taxpayer Money?

Is the Prince William County School Board spending our money wisely? I ask this, in part, because of the debate over the pool that will be built in the 12th high school.

Most of us aren’t so wealthy that cost doesn’t play a role in the decisions we make for our families.  When we need a new car, we tend to buy something we can afford that meets our families needs, even though the Maserati would be so cool. We don’t put in granite counter-tops or buy new stainless steel refrigerators unless we can afford them.

I expect that our elected school board members and school division employees will apply the same level of financial caution when they consider spending my tax dollars. The debate over the pool has made me question whether our elected officials are being good stewards of my money.

Until I spoke at the school board meeting last week and raised the issue of the pool, the school division had not admitted that a pool was included in the plans for the 12th high school.  Nowhere on the PWCS web site was there any reference to the pool. Estimates for the cost of building the pool in a school building could not be found on the PWCS web site nor had they been disclosed to the public or the school board. No estimates of the cost of operating the pool have been provided to the public or the school board. No plans for offsetting some of those costs by opening the pool to the public have been provided to the public or the school board. The pool was, and still is, a great big unknown.  It may well be one of the best kept, poorly planned secrets in the county.

I called each of our Board of County Supervisors to ask them about PWCS’s plans to put a pool in a school. Here’s what they said.

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The Evil that Schools Do

Anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to education reforms in the past 20 – 30 years knows that rote memorization, or drill and kill, are the single worst things a developing child can be exposed to.   Not only does rote memorization take the joy out of learning, it undermines children’s ability to understand numbers and arithmetic operations.  Teachers forcing children to memorize math facts to automatic recall are committing what can only be characterized as educational malpractice.  In this modern era the focus in education is on deeper understanding, critical thinking, and developing 21st Century skills, not on creating a generation of robots who mindlessly repeat steps they don’t understand.

Too bad those promises aren’t based on actual science.  You know data, from actual studies, conducted by actual scientists and peer reviewed, that show that rote memorization undermines learning.  Because the studies, the actual science and data, show the opposite.

The Journal of Neuroscience recently published a study conducted by two professors of neuroscience from the University of Ontario. The scientists observed something rather amazing during their study:

Students who performed well on the math section of the PSAT showed more activity in brain areas linked to memory of math facts. Those with lower math PSAT scores had less brain activity in those areas and more in areas associated with processing number quantities.

The findings suggest that the high-achieving students knew the answers by memory, while lower-performing students were calculating even low-level problems.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Children who knew their math facts to automatic recall, or rote, did better in math than those who didn’t.  College professors and high school math teachers have observed this for years, but have been scoffed at, belittled, and worse by the folks peddling programs they claim foster deeper understanding and critical thinking.  Turns out the college professors and high school math teachers were right.

I don’t think anything will change as our country has sold it’s soul to the promise peddlers and has spent literally hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars developing techniques employed by these folks to undermine parent opposition to their programs.  Virginia has fully embraced these programs and openly advocates giving calculators to children, starting in kindergarten.

There’s just too much money and too much influence at the highest levels of government for anything to change.

Virginia Virtucon recently noted that students in Prince William County lag far behind students in Fairfax and Loudoun in their performance on the PSAT and in the number of students who qualify as National Merit Scholars.  Virtucon wanted to know why.

Prince William County is run by folks who honestly believe mastery of math facts and the standard algorithms are dangerous as they undermine student learning and critical thinking skills, and they teach that to our teachers.  The science says mastery of math facts and the standard algorithms actually improve student learning.  Virtucon, I think perhaps we’ve found part of the answer to your question.

I don’t expect anything to change.  Education in the United States and Virginia is run by folks who are making money by the boatload selling programs that they claim help students develop deeper understanding, critical thinking, and 21st Century skills.  Unfortunately, what they claim their programs offer will actually leave our children even further behind.  The evil that our schools do will live after them.

Va Dept of Ed Blows Off 60% of Virginia Students

This summer, after receiving a wavier from NCLB’s 100% passing requirements, the VA Dept of Ed established new goals for the percentage of students passing the SOL in all school divisions and public schools in the state.   The new targeted percentage passing was set for the state overall and for groups of students;  groups that are based on race.

The Va Dept of Ed took lots of flack from the public because the pass rate targets for 2013 – 2017 for Black and Hispanic students are lower than the pass rate targets for White and Asian students.   The Dept of Ed was accused of having lower expectations for Black and Hispanic students than they do for White and Asian students.

The VA Dept of Ed responded that the goals don’t reflect lower expectations for Black or Hispanic students as the final goal, 73% passing by 2017, is uniform across all groups. Instead of setting a uniform starting point that didn’t reflect actual pass rates, the Dept of Ed set the 2012 actual pass rates as the point from which annual increases are expected.  The goals for annual increases for Black and Hispanic students, according the the Dept of Ed, will be challenging but are achievable.

Unfortunately the Dept of Ed blew off White and Asian students as they aren’t expected to improve at all.

In 2012, 73% or more White and Asian students passed the state SOLs in every elementary grade level or high school subject tested.  For White and Asian students, who comprise 60% of Virginia students, no increase in the percentage of students passing the state SOLs is expected through 2017.  Here are the actual 2012 pass rates and the 2012 – 2017 targeted pass rates from the VA Dept of Ed for each racial group  Pass Rate Targets & 2012 Actual Pass Rates

According to the Va Dept of Ed, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students passing the SOL exams is expected in increase nearly 20% over the next 5 years, but no increase is expected for White and Asian students.   In these times of scarce resources, with pressure on school divisions to meet state pass rate targets, where do you think the resources will be allocated – to the schools that are struggling to meet the state pass rate targets or the schools that have already met them? If every child deserves an education that helps them achieve the most they can, is that fair?  Wouldn’t it be more fair for the state to expect the percentage of students passing the SOLs to increase in each and every group, not just in select groups?

If you have any concerns with the goals the Dept of Ed has established, you may want to contact your state representatives.

Mythbusting the Common Core

The pressure on Virginia to adopt the Common Core State Standards is intense, with the CCSS’s supporters actively spreading false information, grossly exaggerating it’s success, and misrepresenting who is behind the CCSS. Virginia isn’t likely to last long under such intense pressure, so us plain folk need to arm ourselves with knowledge and share our opinions with our state delegation.

Here’s the first of a series from Truth in American Education debunking the CCSS myths – the myth that the CCSS are “state led”.

Most of our elected delegates in Richmond, I’m sorry to say, are not well informed about the Common Core.  We need to educate them.

Here is a handy dandy one clink link to send an email to all of them.  Below the link is a list of their names and individual email addresses.

DelDBell@house.virginia.gov;DelSLandes@house.virginia.gov;DelCStolle@house.virginia.gov;delrrobinson@house.virginia.gov;DelJYost@house.virginia.gov;DelJMorrissey@house.virginia.gov;DelMKeam@house.virginia.gov;DelDHester@house.virginia.gov

Senators

Richard Black – district13@senate.virginia.gov
Charles Colgan –  district29@senate.virginia.gov
Toddy Puller – district36@senate.virginia.gov
Richard Stuart – district28@senate.virginia.gov
George Barker – district39@senate.virginia.gov

Delegates

Scott Lingamfelter – DelSLingamfelter@house.virginia.gov
Richard Anderson – DelRAnderson@house.virginia.gov
Luke Torian – DelLTorian@house.virginia.gov
Bob Marshall – DelBMarshall@house.virginia.gov
Jackson Miller – DelJMiller@house.virginia.gov
Dave Ramadan – DelDRamadan@house.virginia.gov
Tim Hugo – DelTHugo@house.virginia.gov
Mark Dudenhefer – DelMDudenhefer@House.virginia.gov

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