We’ll be blunt: Danville’s public schools face some mighty steep challenges, evidenced by the fact that only two of the city’s 11 schools have been accredited by the state, Galileo Magnet High School and Forest Hills Elementary School. It’s no secret, as Superintendent Stanley Jones readily admits.
The city’s other nine schools, including George Washington High School, are “accredited with conditions,” what the Virginia Department of Education used to call “accredited with warning.”
The department judges schools on three basic metrics: academic achievement, achievement gaps and student engagement and outcomes. Drop down, and within each category, schools are then evaluated on several indicators — English, math, science, chronic absenteeism, dropout rates and graduation and completion — at levels one, two or three within each of the three main categories. Level one indicates the school meets or exceeds state standards; level two indicates performance near the state standard; and level three is below standard standards. One quality indicator at level three results in accreditation with conditions.
Take G.W., for example.
Register & Bee reporter John Crane pointed in news coverage last week, that the high school notched level one and level two rankings in addressing chronic absenteeism and graduation and completion, respectively, while the dropout rate was at level three. G.W. came in at level two in English and math, though at level three in science for its overall academic achievement metric.
Superintendent Jones and his staff were expecting the results, based on preliminary data from the state back in the summer. Fortunately, they took the time to anticipate what was coming and develop a comprehensive, division-wide plan to address the state of public schools in the city.
In speaking with the Register & Bee, Jones was circumspect but aware of the challenges ahead of him and division. “There are signs of progress, but there are also signs of distress,” he said. “We’re focused on both.”
They need to be.
While all public schools in Pittsylvania County are accredited, the fact that only two city schools are is disturbing but also indicative of the unique challenges urban school divisions face.
A fifth of Danville’s population lives in poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census, and the impact is felt most acutely in schools. Children come to school hungry or without clean clothes or are housing insecure. Children in poverty begin school already behind their peers when it comes to reading ability, and access to books and the internet is often restricted. There may only be one parent at home or their primary caregiver may be a grandparent or other relative. All these factor into low academic achievement.
Cities attract people living in or near poverty for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is access to everyday services most of us take for granted: public transportation to get to the doctor or the grocery store; the social services programs and family support resources they need; and jobs and ready access to them.
It is an indisputable fact that most children from economically challenged homes come into the public school system already behind in basic skills. To catch up requires resources, and those resources are not cheap. Danville, as we are well-aware, is a city of limited resources.
Superintendent Jones knows that, too, and to that end he has requested the state education department conduct an instructional audit of the division in the wake of the schools’ steadily declining Standards of Learning test scores. What are the division’s strengths? What are the weaknesses? What is Danville doing right? More importantly, what are we doing wrong and could improve on?
Already, the division has implemented some changes on its own initiative. Jones has hired a coordinator of balanced literacy to focus on reading instruction in the elementary schools, and the schools are emphasizing small-group instruction from kindergarten through the third grade.
But the challenge the division faces is not its alone to bear; it is a challenge for all of city government and the entire community.
Mayor Alonzo Jones and his colleagues on City Council know this, which is why they have made improving public education in the city a top priority, as important as economic development. They know that a good public school system is fundamental to attracting good jobs and fostering economic growth.
The private sector is also a linchpin for any community looking to better its school system. Sovah Health and other major employers, the Danville Regional Foundation, the Danville Public Schools Education Foundation — all are key to the division’s future.
We hope — and sincerely believe — that Danville Public Schools is on the right path. While changes won’t come overnight, we must hold the division’s feet to the fire while simultaneously giving the schools leadership team the resources our schools need. Our future — our children’s future — is at stake.