Over the last several days the social media world in PWC has been up in arms over accusations that school division leadership is failing our schools and that characterizations of our schools as failing are unfair. On one hand you have Justin Wilk, who has written several letters that were published in local media that expose and call into question less than desirable things happening in our schools. On the other hand you have PWCS and school board Chairman Milt Johns, who clearly don’t care for what Justin has to say and lashed out at Justin in a recently published response that was shared with every teacher, public school employee, and parent of a child in the school division.
Justin is justifiably upset at how he was characterized in Chairman Johns’ letter and is upset that the school division shared Chairman Johns’ letter with everyone they have access to. To Justin, I say welcome to the club. Attacking the messenger is something PWCS does exceptionally well.
This blog started as an offshoot of the math wars here in Prince William County. It was created by the parents who were denigrated on a regular basis by PWCS for exposing the truth about Math Investigations. For several years PWCS had a publication on their web site that identified a parent by name and more or less called him a liar. However, I must note that during the math wars, Chairman Johns was one of the few school board members who stood up for us and challenged the school division’s spin.
From Math Investigations to test scores, the cemetery, and the
school pool aquatics complex, PWCS is a school division that hides its dirty laundry and doesn’t like to see it aired. Secrecy and spin are their lines of first defense, expedited by an uninformed and apathetic public and elected officials who prefer to hide their heads in the sand and accept everything the administration tells them without a grain of professional skepticism.
Things are changing. I’ve watched this board for a long time, and it is a very different board than it was 2 or 3 years ago. Several school board members have consistently refused to hide their heads – Lisa Bell, Alyson Satterwhite, and Gil Trenum. They work tirelessly researching issues and regularly question the administration and challenge the status quo. Others have begun to question things, a little, and a couple are too new to judge. While official press releases excel at spin, the information about student performance coming from Accountability and Student Learning is accurate, albeit limited, and available on the PWCS web site for anyone who cares to look for it.
These things, in my opinion, are all significant improvements and are the result of our school board representatives. More is still needed if we want these changes to result in improvements in student achievement.
As for the issues raised in both letters, both Justin and Chairman Johns have valid points.
PWCS high schools did fare badly on the US News ranking. Comparing PWCS to the rest of Virginia isn’t appropriate as PWC isn’t like the rest of Virginia because we have a higher educated and more affluent population than the rest of Virginia. Our SAT and ACT scores and SOL scores are among the lowest in the region. Our on time graduation rate, and the percentage of students achieving an advanced verses standard diploma, lag almost every other district in the region. All of these indicate that our schools face challenges.
In my opinion, overcoming those challenges won’t happen until school division leadership admits that we have them. I’m not sure they’ve all recognized that.
However, the US News ranking did exclude Patriot high school. It also didn’t include Cambridge exams or Cambridge program participants, and, since both Potomac and Brentsville high schools offer the Cambridge program, I question the ranks for those schools. The US News ranking only focused on college readiness; it didn’t consider career readiness programs like Welding, Nursing, and other career readiness programs PWCS offers. There’s also the issue of class sizes, which are the highest in the state in PWCS. The US News ranking lists a teacher to pupil ratio, but didn’t mention how that ratio was determined or how it factored in their calculation.
Neither of the letters surprised me, nor did anything in either. Justin is absolutely correct that PWCS has challenges that need to be addressed, and that doing so will require an engaged board that is willing to question what they’re told. Chairman John’s defense of the school division was accurate and expected.
I suspect politics is at play here as the school board election is coming up in 2015. Politics is nasty business and can frequently detract from the business at hand. For our children’s sake, I hope that politics don’t get in the way of identifying and addressing the challenges our school system faces.