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Kanawha 'cautiously optimistic' about West Side schools program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha County Board of Education plans to ask the Legislature for permission, and funding, to implement a West Side Community Development pilot program in an attempt to turn around the area's struggling schools.The program would require students to wear uniforms, enforce a year-round school calendar and a stricter tardiness policy in addition to allowing principals to hire more teachers based on specific job descriptions, instead of seniority.Board members unanimously approved a motion on Thursday evening to give Superintendent Ron Duerring the go-ahead to write a letter to the governor and legislators seeking approval to enact the 15 recommendations outlined in the program -- several of which require legislative action.The affected schools would be Stonewall Jackson Middle School and Mary C. Snow West Side, J.E. Robins, Grandview and Watts elementary schools, which are among the lowest-performing schools in the state."The whole county should understand the critical condition that we're in on the West Side academically. We cannot prosper throughout the county and have the West Side lagging behind. There is no success unless we're all successful. It's critical over there," board President Pete Thaw said.The project is an expansion of a bill passed in 2010 that established a special five-year community development school pilot program at Stonewall Jackson. The purpose of Senate Bill 2009 was to pair community members and organizations with at-risk, underachieving students to give them the support they need to succeed in school.The county's original attempt at the pilot faced many obstacles, including funding problems, and "never fully left the ground," according to the Rev. Matthew Watts, a West Side community leader involved in the project.A lack of state funding created a few bumps in the road, and though Watts' proposal to expand the program to the elementary schools that feed into Stonewall Jackson was denied by legislators before, he is "cautiously optimistic" about the future of the pilot."It has been very difficult because there's been such little funding to really do anything. It has been a struggle, and the project hasn't taken off like we had hoped, but we have done the best we can do with limited resources, and we certainly continue to study and analyze it," he said.Watts said $500,000 over a four-year period of time would be ideal to implement the program, but that "may be an unrealistic number." The Legislature denied Watts' request for an additional $250,000 to expand the program in 2011.
The state's efforts to move education reform to the forefront also gives Watts hope that the program will be well received.About 75 percent of the recommendations for the community development project coincide with the recommendations found in the governor's statewide audit of public schools and are supported by the state Department of Education, Watts said."We put our plan together before the state issued the audit, then we went through and looked for where there was support in the audit for our ideas," he said. "The environment at the state level is different than it's ever been. All are saying education reform is number one on the agenda this year and both major teacher associations are saying the same thing -- that we need to do something. I don't think we've ever had this type of alignment before."If approved, the changes could go into effect as soon as July, and board members agreed that because it is a pilot, only good things could come from the initiative. "The great thing about a pilot is that we can learn from it, see what works and doesn't work, and expand it to include other schools and counties across the state. But, it can't happen without the funding," board member Bill Raglin said.
Also at Thursday's meeting:* The board discussed a new athletics sportsmanship policy that would mandate that student athletes and coaches show respect to opponents during and after games. The policy will be placed on public comment.* Board members agreed to meet in the near future to discuss the possibility of an additional levy to help increase revenue for the county's education budget. The school board is facing a million dollar deficit. Reach Mackenzie Mays at or 304-348-4814. 
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