Change coming to struggling West Side schools

The Rev. Matthew Watts leads a walking tour through the West Side on Wednesday. Watts said of the area’s struggling schools and high crime: “We can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing and call it reform. There has to be fundamental changes that we’re willing to make.”
The Rev. Matthew Watts leads a walking tour Wednesday along Third Avenue, on Charleston’s West Side. Watts, who is leading a reform initiative for the West Side, led officials from Kanawha County Schools and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office, as well as community leaders on the tour.

Kanawha County Schools is investing in unique strategies to turn around struggling schools on Charleston’s West Side — some of the lowest-performing in West Virginia.

Starting next year, the four elementary schools (some of which soon will be consolidated) and one middle school located on the crime-ridden West Side will see some major changes as a result of SB 359, legislation passed last year that allows the schools more flexibility in an attempt to improve achievement.

Kanawha County Schools will invest in “family interventionists,” similar to social workers, who will act as liaisons between the West Side schools and the community, and also will implement a Parents as Teachers program, as well as provide more staff development for teachers, to ensure customized learning, Superintendent Ron Duerring said Wednesday.

“We’re looking at how we operate — looking at each kid individually, to see the work they’re doing and, if there are issues, how can we remediate and enrich that child based on their needs. [Instead of] the whole idea that you stand up in front of the classroom and teach, and if they get it, great,” Duerring said. “We’re looking at individual work.”

The school system has set aside funding to hire two family interventionists for the area and also is looking at dedicating money to give teachers more time for planning at those schools, Duerring said.

Parents as Teachers is an international program that emphasizes the importance of parent involvement in a child’s educational success and provides early detection of developmental delays in young children.

The program conducts home visits to connect families to trained parent educators, and each visit is personalized, depending on the child’s age and the family culture.

The need for the five-year West Side community-development project, which will waive certain state policies to allow a slew of innovative education reforms among the West Side’s public schools, was undeniable Wednesday.

Duerring, Kanawha County Schools Assistant Superintendent Jane Roberts, officials from the Governor’s Office and other community leaders were taken on an afternoon tour of the West Side by the Rev. Matthew Watts, who’s helping lead the reform initiative.

Just about an hour before the “West Side Revive” tour began, a nearby shooting forced Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School to go on lockdown — the second time that’s happened this month.

Wednesday’s tour subsequently was overseen by an unplanned police escort.

Mary C. Snow was ranked 398th out of 404 elementary schools in the state last year, according to standardized test scores. Surrounding West Side schools, including Watts, J.E. Robins and Grandview elementaries, reached similar low scores.

More than 90 percent of the students at Mary C. Snow come from low-income families, and the school building is located in the middle of a Drug Marketing Intervention Zone — identified by police as the most crime-ridden part of the neighborhood.

The main goals of the initiative are to improve low attendance rates, decrease high school dropout rates and create a community clearinghouse that would merge several organizations to offer services to West Side students, from birth until they apply to college or enter the work force.

Although the pilot is in its preliminary stage, there have been holdups. Some of the West Side’s schools are resistant to move to a recommended year-round instruction calendar that officials say would improve student achievement by cutting back on learning loss during extended breaks.

“We certainly have to meet with the school staff, parents and community members. We have to discuss our thinking and their thinking and see if we can come to a compromise to move forward in the schools, because it’s all about achievement,” Duerring said. “I think we can all come to common ground, because we’re all focused on the same thing — and that’s whats best for the children.”

Watts said he believes, for education reform to work, everyone has to be on the same page, and that, for the West Side to become a safe neighborhood and cutback on crime, the educational aspects have to work first.

“The schools are the cornerstone for the community-revitalization effort,” Watts said. “The recommendations that have been made could help move a culture, but we can’t pick the nice parts that we like and fail to realize that the whole idea is that it creates flexibility so that you can do things in the intersession.

“We can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing and call it reform. There has to be fundamental changes that we’re willing to make.”

Reach Mackenzie Mays at or at 304-348-4814.

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