I have spent a lifetime in schools. They feel like home to me.

As a teacher, administrator and now a member of the West Virginia Board of Education, I have involved myself with young people for many years.

And in recent weeks, I have been reminded yet again of the many faces of West Virginia public education.

While interviewing applicants for a full-ride college scholarship, I heard from some of our brightest seniors representing high schools from Boone County to Morgantown. Their talents ranged from singing opera to knocking the top off national math and science tests to building their own computers.

They devoted hours to tutoring classmates and orchestrating service projects to aid out-of-state flood victims, having experienced the trauma right here at home. They shared family stories and reading interests, stretching from viruses to biography and historical fiction, and spoke knowledgeably and passionately about issues confronting us all. They were a group with big dreams.

I spent the following day with high school principals and staff from economically depressed counties. They spoke with heart-wrenching clarity about the challenges facing their students and schools. Families decimated by drugs. Unhealthy water and sewer systems. Poor health. Poverty. Scarcity of jobs. Despair. The things they dealt with every day were daunting, but as a person they were fighting the good fight, hunkering down and refusing to give up.

Linking the two groups together was a belief in the transformative power of education and educators.

The aspiring scholarship recipients spoke of teachers who inspired them intellectually and personally, always encouraging them to greater confidence. The adults I visited with the next day, while aching for their students’ trials, did not use their difficulties as excuses. While triaging the most obvious cases, they focused on solutions for individual students, the student body as a whole and the community. They were determined to move students past their current circumstances.

All recognized schools as backbones of communities, places where people gather, not just during the school day, but in times of joy and sorrow. Beyond surrounding children with adults who teach, feed, motivate and help them access vital human services, schools are social and economic sparkplugs for their communities. People are generally proud of their schools and care enough to fight to keep them.

The whole picture

As educators, policy makers, business people and others consider our state’s public schools, the discussion must be well intentioned and well informed, based on the whole picture. Cherry-picking facts won’t cut it.

The most basic fact of all: Our public schools admit every student who walks in the door.

Our students reflect West Virginia’s demographics. They are healthy and unhealthy, rich and poor, and everything in between. They reside in comfortable homes and in homes with poor water and sewer systems. They live in thriving communities and on lonely stretches of country road. Some have experienced trauma.

Approximately 266,000 preschool through 12th grade students attend our 684 public schools. Schools dot the landscape, from mountaintops and hollers, to city streets and suburban neighborhoods. The oldest school still in use was built before 1900, and the newest ones opened this school year.

Forty-eight percent of our students live in poverty. Poverty rates in individual schools range all the way from 18 percent to 90 percent. Nearly 7,000 of our school-aged children live in foster care or kinship care. Almost 17 percent of our public school children qualify for special education services.

School bus transportation is a necessity for most West Virginia families. Our 3,800 buses travel over 46 million miles per year. That’s a lot of fuel — and a lot of money — just to get children to the schoolhouse door and home again. While 47 percent of students ride school buses nationally, 79 percent of West Virginia children ride buses, with the longest rides lasting over an hour each way. High schoolers attending career technical centers often have additional transportation time taking chunks out of their school days.

Educating young people is the most important investment a society can make. It is costly in every case and made all the more so when West Virginia’s unique challenges of topography and demographics figure into the mix. Our schools are supported by state aid, federal funds, local funding, county levies and bonds and county excess levies.

This is the complex environment in which our schools operate. So how are they doing?

Scores don’t tell the entire story

Well-publicized test scores tell part of the story. We could do better, and our educators are working hard to change the numbers.

But students are more than test scores and failure to recognize the broader picture shortchanges our schools, everyone associated with them and our state.

West Virginia has been singled out for providing better access to preschool and kindergarten programs. One of only five states meeting all National Institute for Early Education Research Pre-K benchmarks, West Virginia has been recognized for leading the nation in developing children’s literacy skills, and has received the State Pacesetter Award for its Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

West Virginia has earned national kudos for its Child Nutrition Program. Our school breakfast and lunch programs serve approximately 54 million meals annually, nurturing bodies and minds while fueling the local economy.

West Virginia leads the nation in breakfast participation and is one of six states most successful in improving school breakfast participation among low-income children. The USDA touts West Virginia as a leader in the farm-to-school movement and, through scratch cooking schools, our school cooks learn to incorporate scratch-made food and locally sourced products in school meals.

Almost 5,000 of our high school students are enrolled in dual-option college-level courses, an increase of more than 100 percent over the past five years. In 2018, 3,365 West Virginia advanced placement students scored high enough on national tests to be awarded college credit. And last year 1,220 earned Advanced Placement Scholar status, including 70 National Scholars, the most elite recognition level. Seventy-one National Merit Finalists were named from the Class of 2018. And over 1,000 of our career technical education students competed at the national level last year, with 10 percent of them placing in the top 10 in their fields.

Last year nine out of every 10 students who entered as freshmen graduated from our high schools. This 90 percent graduation rate is up from 78 percent seven years ago and exceeds the national rate of 85 percent. For the Class of 2017, an estimated 54 percent enrolled in higher education institutions in-state with many others matriculating to out-of-state colleges.

Fewer students enrolling in West Virginia colleges in the fall of 2017 needed remedial courses, declining to 25 percent from 31 percent the previous year. In addition to PROMISE Scholarships, millions of merit-based scholarship dollars are awarded annually to reward the accomplishments of young West Virginians.

Getting technical

Career Technical Education (CTE) opportunities are extensive — agriculture and natural resources, business management and finance, health sciences and hospitality, transportation and logistics, science and technology, engineering and math, arts and manufacturing, and more. Last year, at 153 CTE locations across the state, nearly 9,000 students, including 37 percent of all seniors, completed state-approved programs. An impressive 94 percent of CTE students passed random drug screening.

After graduation, 88 percent of all CTE completers were successfully placed, with 47 percent seeking post-secondary education, 37 percent entering the workforce and 4 percent joining the military. With more than 24,000 students enrolled, Simulated Workplace, now adopted as a national model, collaborates with business and industry to create high quality “work” environments inside our schools.

Adult education programs associated with our schools contribute to improved statewide employment prospects. Last year, over 1,300 adults graduated from CTE programs and thousands more attended classes earning certificates in EMT, Fire, Haz-Mat, Homeland Security, Terrorism and others. Over 2,200 adults took the high school equivalency test with 83 percent passing, soundly surpassing the 69 percent national rate.

The emphasis on coding and GIS is impacting schools with technology woven into every aspect of traditional courses, beginning with our youngest children. Statewide, 168 schools offer computer science courses.

Extracurricular activities — athletics, band, fine and performing arts, chess, STEM, culinary, book clubs and so on — provide remarkable opportunities at all grade levels. Such pursuits build pride, a sense of individual and collective accomplishment, and exposure to a broader world.

Service is also part of the fabric of public education, with school communities joining to help others through tutoring, food and clothing pantries, flood relief, and more. And how many of our high school students are working during the summer and after school, earning money to help support themselves and their families while learning about the intricacies of personal finance?

Qualified teachers and personnel

Of the nearly 19,000 teachers working with our students, approximately 53 percent have spent the time and money to obtain master’s degrees or higher. Almost a thousand of our teachers have met rigorous national board certification standards.

Since the program’s inception 30 years ago, 72 of our teachers have received the prestigious Milken Educator Award, an honor bestowed upon only a handful of exceptional educators around the country. And our school personnel are participating in broader conversations on education through their professional publications, service on state and national instructional and leadership committees, and invitations to speak at national conferences.

Having capable, talented teachers in every classroom is essential. And teachers need time to teach and to prepare to teach. They need the resources to increase their knowledge and skills. Certainly, they need to be paid a wage that is more in keeping with the tremendous service they perform.

As in any profession, there are some who are not doing the job and should seek satisfaction in other careers. But the bulk of our school personnel are earnest and hardworking, intent on improving students’ prospects.

Obstacles to their success must be identified and overcome. If teachers are spending more time writing lesson plans than delivering them because local policies exceed state requirements, or spending time completing Medicaid reimbursement claims for services they provide to children, let’s rethink priorities and methods.

Our schools require sufficient support staff to deal with the issues facing children and families and to connect them with needed services. Our facilities need to be safe and well maintained with adequate instructional materials and access to dependable broadband.

And parents must realize that they have a voice. They, too, are the “public” in public schools.

While we all benefit from a well-educated population, schools cannot do it alone. They deserve the support of every one of us, even if we no longer have children in school or never were parents.

Solutions that make sense

Beyond demographics and local issues, what other influences affect our schools? As in other fields of endeavor, regulations seem to continue to multiply. The West Virginia School Law Book filled with statutory mandates that the Department of Education, counties, schools and teachers must follow has nearly doubled in size over the past 30 years. To what effect?

Yes, our schools can do better. As stakeholders in West Virginia’s success, we must continue to analyze our schools’ results — achievement, attendance, behavior, graduation, healthy students — and to build upon the rigorous standards in place. Beyond that, we can do a better job looking at other indicators.

Just as employers say that they are looking for workers who possess the “soft skills” — ability to collaborate, communicate, problem solve, be responsible — we must appreciate the broader spectrum of what schools produce. While difficult to gauge, students’ contributions to their communities, their work ethic and sense of responsibility, being drug-free, and their post-secondary plans are valuable indicators of West Virginia’s future.

The danger is failing to recognize the good things happening in our schools while working to overcome the problems. Another danger is overreacting, handwringing and lunging to alternatives that may be no better — and even worse — than what might be achieved by continuing the hard, important day-to-day work of teaching children.

Those of us who have had the good fortune to work with young people know that each child is worthy of attention and hope. And we understand that their greatest allies must be not only their families and school personnel, but also local communities and indeed the entire state. What can individuals, businesses, colleges, policy makers, health care providers and others do to support our schools and to recognize their value?

Folk wisdom says that it takes a village to raise a child. It is equally true that it takes a village to build strong schools.

Debra K. Sullivan is a retired school principal and a member of the West Virginia Board of Education.