Archive for February, 2016

The Value of Public Education in Middlesex County

February 26, 2016

What do we want public education in Middlesex County to look like? How does Middlesex County value its public schools? These are the two central questions that drive our budgeting process each year.

The answer to the first question is easy – our school system strategic plan “Navigation 2020” informs us that we want to build better learners, citizens, and leaders to make Middlesex County an outstanding place to live, work, and learn. Navigation 2020 also promises that we prepare our students for life after graduation with peerless knowledge, understanding, and skills, where they can be ready to aggressively and confidently tackle the challenges of tomorrow. The singular goal articulated in Navigation 2020 states that “by the year 2020, all of our students will be on a path to graduate on time, prepared to become productive citizens in tomorrow’s local and global economies.” This is not a pipedream. This is our reality, and we have made tremendous incremental progress every year toward this goal. Where our on-time graduation rate in 2012 was 91.6%, today 95.7% of Middlesex High School students graduate on time. Our students are achieving at high levels and are growing academically each year because we have exceptional teachers and staff that support them on their learning journey to prepare them for leadership in the world of tomorrow. Our students are growing up to be the citizens that we want as next-door neighbors. We have a lot to be proud of – we are leaders in the region and in the state at providing a high quality education for our students.

We are also leaders at providing that high quality education at a low cost to taxpayers, winning recognition for efficiency at the state level.

Unfortunately, the answer to the second question lacks the same level of clarity as the answer to the first question. Recently, officials in county government explicitly said that our county’s public schools are “overfunded.”   And according to what the state “requires” localities to match financially, this is true (legally). The sad reality is that this is not the whole truth. By this measure, every school system in Virginia is “overfunded” because the basic state-financed requirements are inadequate to actually run any school system. In the last fiscal year, Middlesex County ranked 110th out of 132 school systems in Virginia in funding beyond what is “required”, funding 34% over the state’s minimum required funding – this is nothing to brag about. By comparison, Mathews County was ranked 99th in the same fiscal year out of 132 school systems and only funded 52% above the state’s required minimum.   Candidly, what the state requires as the “minimum” is not nearly what is actually required to run a school system.

Adding insult to injury, our teachers and support staff are the lowest paid in our region (the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula). All of our administrators could take demotions and be paid more in neighboring school systems for doing less work and to have less responsibility. The method that the state currently uses to calculate the required local effort from local governments to finance public education is missing a lot. For example, the state does not recognize the need for non-special education transportation, adequate maintenance, assistant principals for a school system our size, adequate staffing for instructional support and technology, gifted education teachers, technology hardware and software replacement cycles, school nurses, school construction/renovation, and a myriad of other resources that we have grown to expect as essential to the operation of our schools.

Regardless of what the state has not included in their so called “Standards of Quality”, there are many other regulations that come from the state that demand that we have these resources. In short, because of numerous unfunded or under-funded mandates from the state, it would be impossible for our school system to meet requirements set forward by the state without funding beyond what is minimally “required”. We provide the services listed above (and many more) so that we can meet expectations and advance the best learning opportunities for our students. To do any less would be immoral and completely unethical. Understanding the pressures of balancing the county’s many needs, the school system is still not requesting additional operational funds beyond what was provided last year.

As our county considers its budget priorities in the coming months, my hope is that our citizens and our public school community impress upon the Board of Supervisors the value of public education in Middlesex County. Today’s students are our county’s future EMTs, restaurateurs, physicians, watermen, firemen, nurses, mechanics, and tax base. Investing in our schools is an investment in the future of our community.

Published by guest blogger, Dr. Thomas Taylor, Superintendent Middlesex County Public Schools

O School Spirit, Where Art Thou?

February 11, 2016

‘The administration doesn’t care about school spirit, why should we?’

‘There is no support from parents.’

‘I tried to get something started, but no one was interested in helping.’

‘No one has school spirit…really, what’s the point?’

Over the past two weeks, I have heard numerous comments and complaints from students, teachers & parents about the lack of school spirit in our school division.  Whether a misconception or a reality, the decline of school spirit is something we should want to prevent at all costs.

Some say there is a lack of parental support, and the kids don’t care.  Some say the teachers have enough on their plates to do anything else, and some say the administration is doing a lousy job promoting school spirit.  Maybe it’s a combination of all these elements, but whatever the case, our lack of school spirit is cause for alarm.

Spirit or pride is an integral part of being connected to a team, an organization, or a school.  It shows that, despite our diversity, we are united and proud to be so.  It promotes togetherness and creates energy and a sense of community.

School spirit is a surprisingly powerful phenomenon.

Recently at an especially exciting varsity boys basketball game against Charger rival, the West Point Pointers, I was disheartened by the number of spectators more intent on what was happening on their cell phones rather than what was happening on the court in front of them.  Didn’t they just pay money to watch a sporting event?  Could there be anything more interesting than the nail-biting battle that was evolving right before their eyes?  At one critical juncture, a single boisterous fan determined to generate some kind of school spirit stood up and began waving his arms encouraging the crowd to follow his lead.  The fans miraculously came alive pounding their feet and yelling in unison ‘Defense!’.  Cell phones forgotten, the crowd poured all of their energy into school spirit.  There was suddenly a 6th man on the court, and the team responded!  They stopped the ensuing offensive attack, and for a few brief seconds the entire home team side of the gymnasium was in complete harmony with the power of school spirit.  Breathless and heart pounding, when it was over, I was proud to be part of that enthusiasm, that unity, that awesomeness…even if it was just for a fleeting moment.

Unfortunately those incredible school spirit occasions seem to be becoming fewer and fewer and farther between as we grow more and more disconnected from each other and less and less interested in keeping school spirit alive.

The best way to tackle the lack of school spirit is to pinpoint some of the reasons for it. Perhaps, for students, it is the desire to be ‘cool’. If it is perceived by a few popular students that caring about and being spirited about anything is ‘uncool’, a vicious cycle begins:  school spirit is deemed uncool, fewer students have spirit, thereby making it even less cool, and so on. Perhaps the lack of school spirit stems from not enough time and too much to do.  There are only so many hours in the day, and teachers and administrators are working hard on daily job responsibilities.  Students have so many distractions and other extracurricular activities to divide their attention, focusing on school spirit is not a high priority.  Perhaps it is the fact that society as a whole is disconnected from each other as we form and sustain virtual relationships rather than physical ones.  Alas, none of this helps the school spirit cause.

Figuring out to generate school spirit and sustain that enthusiasm for an entire school year is a daunting task.  Even those few individuals passionate about trying to reignite the flame of school spirit can become burnt-out and give up, adding to its slow painful extinguishment.  Weekly pep rallies, bonfires, spirit booster buses, school songs, dancing mascots, cow bells, air horns, foam fingers, painted faces, varsity jackets and school dances are all sadly becoming a thing of the past.

I’m not sure who needs to change the tide:  administration, teachers, students, parents or community…but I do know one thing for certain…if you are reading this blog, you fall into one of these categories, and you CAN make a difference.  So stand up, be proud, get rowdy and show off your school colors!  Why not make your mark?  I say school spirit has to start somewhere, why not with YOU?

The Modern Student

February 5, 2016

Quite simply, the modern student does it differently.

The world of the modern student is an exciting, fast-paced one filled with state-of-the-art equipment, instant access to information, and a virtual persona created through social media.

Gone are the days of textbooks, overhead projectors and chalk & blackboard lessons in the classroom. We have graduated to handheld devices, Smartboards, on-line classes and electronic textbooks. Students at MCPS are no exception.  In virtually every classroom from pre-school to 12th grade, MCPS students and teachers have a wide variety of cutting-edge equipment and software available to them.  Android devices, iPads, iPad minis, high-speed laptops, touch recognition Smartboards, on-line instruction tools and of course, the all-powerful internet are readily available throughout our school system. Students communicate with teachers using apps on their phones, and parents have immediate access to their children’s grades…sometimes a blessing…sometimes a curse… depending on who you ask. In some instances, even something as “young” as e-mail and texting has gone by the wayside being replaced with the trendier Edmodo and Google Classroom. As our children navigate the waters in this quick-paced, ever-evolving learning environment, some can become overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Parents can feel lost and confused and even unsure how to help. Teachers and administrators need to stay on top of their game so they can continue to present core curriculum and effectively use the technological resources available to them. All these players working together are an invaluable component to the success of the modern student.

But unfortunately exposure to innovative technology does have its pitfalls.

The introduction and influence of social media has put increased scrutiny on our school system and our teachers’ and students’ lives. Cyberbullying is a real and dangerous enemy that many of our students face on a daily basis. A reputation which takes years to build can be destroyed in an instant with no justification and with a simple graze of a touch screen. Although there can be a real benefit to a strong virtual presence, we must be always conscious of our social reputation. Using social media to communicate information, promote our accomplishments and accept our criticisms is an important piece of a modern school environment offering a unique opportunity for every student, parent and community member to “weigh-in” on a posting and provide important feedback, necessary assessment, and raise relevant questions. But social media postings are also a possibility for misinformation, conjecture and opinion from both friends and foes.  Both an opportunity and a curse, students, teachers and even school systems must walk a thin line and form a thick skin to be able to withstand such constant scrutiny. Adults must be aware of this environment and help students avoid the pitfalls and benefit from the advantages that social media presents.

Whether the modern student is better or worse off than a traditional student is not even a viable question. To be successful in today’s world, students, teachers and school systems must adapt and evolve as the world around us does. MCPS is constantly striving to offer our students a safe and nurturing learning environment with appropriate use of technology and watchful consideration of our most important asset…our future…our children.

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