, 2014


On the road to full accreditation:
Schools without borders

This is the final installment in a three-part series regarding improvements being developed in Lancaster County Public Schools towards full accreditation status.

by Audrey Thomasson

After just his second month in office, few would doubt the impact school board chairman Dr. Robert Westbrook has already had on Lancaster public schools.

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The two-term Irvington councilman and dentist has done his homework, visiting classrooms and meeting with administrators, teachers and parents. He contacted superintendents and educators from neighboring districts to learn how they resolve issues in their districts.

His first priority, along with board members Bob Smart and Patrick McCranie, was to shift to new school leadership by bringing former principal Sandy Spears out of retirement to serve as acting superintendent.

“Sandy Spears graciously consented to doing this out of the goodness of her heart. She is so respected and established in this school system, it immediately dissolved most of the tension between teachers and the central office,” said Smart.

“Morale went through the ceiling,” said Westbrook. “I got calls from teachers practically dancing in the halls, telling me how great things are now.”

Westbrook personally met with each county supervisor and re-established enough trust to persuade them to approve additional funding for the acting superintendent.

He and Spears swiftly assembled an agenda of priorities and mechanisms to achieve their objectives of repairing the system and moving education beyond state standards.

“Our goal is for Lancaster to get a reputation as one of the best school systems in the state,” he said.

While Spears is tackling the schools’ academic hurdles, Westbrook is breathing life into a number of volunteer programs. He revamped the special education committee to be parent-led and threw support behind a mentoring and tutoring group being organized by area churches. He welcomed a parent’s offer to organize public involvement in the superintendent selection process—an idea rejected by the board three years ago. Board meetings were reorganized to include committee progress reports.

Special education’s first report sparked a visit to the middle school’s special needs classrooms by Westbrook and Spears where they witnessed inadequate facilities that forced teachers to transport soiled children down a long hallway in order to clean and change them.

The board agreed to top the list of capital improvement needs with a $30,000 request to expand the classroom and make it handicap equipped including shower facilities and natural sunlight, said Westbrook. If approved by supervisors, the additional shower will also benefit citizens since the middle school is the county’s main emergency shelter, he added.

Westbrook persuaded Jimmie Carter, president of Rappahannock General Hospital Foundation, to look at the feasibility and costs of bringing the alternative school back to the district rather than bus troubled kids to a five-county combined alternative school in Warsaw.

However, Westbrook’s desire to establish a program of African-American men mentoring black male students is not finding much support. Lloyd Hill, president of the local NAACP, noted the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Neck already has such a program in place. However, Wardell Carter, Boys and Girls Club’s operations director, said they have trouble finding black men available during the late afternoon hours when the children are available. Currently only one black man is mentoring a child. All the other mentors are women or caucasian men.

Mentoring and tutoring

Westbrook believes a critical ingredient to academic success is community involvement by individuals, businesses and organizations. Church leaders from Campbell Memorial Presbyterian, Kilmarnock Baptist, Sharon Baptist, Calvary Baptist, Grace Episcopal and St. Andrews Presbyterian are onboard.

Last month’s joint meeting with school principals and administrators and Lancaster County Virginia Education Foundation (LCVEF) kicked off an effort for a mentoring and tutoring program.

According to committee leader, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Coye of St. Andrews Church, LCVEF is raising the funding to hire a part-time coordinator whose job will be to match volunteers to needs specific to each student.

While the plan is not finalized, tutoring could be divided between short-term and long-term needs during school hours. Mentoring might involve running an activity outside class that helps to socialize students.

By law, volunteers will be subject to a background check and screening for TB.

“We’d like to get started this spring as school is coming to a close...to get oriented,” said Rev. Coye. “Volunteers could network over the summer and work with the schools to hit the ground running in August” when the summer session is held for struggling students.

The committee is hopeful that retired educators will volunteer at the schools. Spears noted that in a school program they offered some years ago, a banker tutored a student all the way through high school and even attended his graduation. “They built a very special relationship,” she added.

“Some Lancaster students have a difficult life,” said Spears. “Anything anyone can come in and do extra for students has a tremendous impact. You might be the only positive thing that happens to that child.”

Superintendent selection

Bill Chapman enjoys being involved in school improvement—even though his son graduated from LHS in 2012. Westbrook tapped him to head up a committee researching the best way the public could be involved in the selection of a new superintendent.

“I’m encouraged to see the school board is interested in having this level of communication and public involvement in the process...rather than just introducing (their choice) later,” said Chapman.

As director and producer of the Richmond Forum, Chapman is well suited to the job. He modeled a process based on a similar plan for public input by Richmond City School District.

Chapman proposed two sessions for public questioning of final candidates—an afternoon session for school employees and an evening session for the public. Each attendee will be asked to rate the candidates.

A number of people have volunteered to help tabulate the results for a quick turnaround to assist the board when they make the final decision.

Making a difference

Bill Warren is a retiree who was not content to bask in the memories of his career. Instead, the physicist got involved in his new community and soon discovered a real need—affordable housing that would attract teachers to Lancaster.

Warren’s efforts show how one person can make a difference. But to hear it from him—it took a village.

“It was total community involvement,” he insists.

It took individuals, businesses, churches and civic groups coming together to build Mercer Place, a $2.1 million apartment complex in Kilmarnock for teachers and other service providers. The idea was based on a model in a community in North Carolina.

Warren credited early commitments by the Nettie Lokey Wiley and Charles I. Wiley Foundation and the Jesse Ball duPont Fund for getting the ball rolling.

“Their names made it easier to sell the idea” that by improving the lives of teachers, Lancaster children would benefit, Warren explained.

But rather than building and then setting rental fees to cover costs, Warren backed into the finances in order to keep it affordable.

“I set the rent based on 25% of a starting teacher’s after-tax salary,” said Warren. Using rental income from 16 apartments—less operating expenses—he calculated he could finance $1.3 million, leaving him the task of raising the remaining $800,000 from the community.

The Kilmarnock Board of Zoning Appeals recently authorized an exception for a third eight-unit building on the nearly six-acre parcel, putting Warren back on the job raising another $400,000.

Opportunities

New volunteers join others who have been helping Lancaster schools for some time. Whether reading a book to a class of kindergarten children, tutoring a student in math, chaperoning a field trip or mentoring and advising a student in life, volunteers are welcome and encouraged to help turn the schools around.

“We want people to come up with ideas, to form groups, to help in any way they can and resolve to inspire and make a difference in a child’s life and in our schools,” said Westbrook.

By removing boundaries separating schools and the community, he and Spears hope to build community ownership and pride in student achievements.

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