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Howard M. O'Cull: No more excuses in WV education (Opinion)

“As I said in a recent meeting with county superintendents, when it comes to increasing student achievement, we make no excuses. Our focus remains on building capacity of our schools and communities to provide for students’ needs, regardless of their circumstance. All students matter, and all students deserve our best.”

West Virginia Superintendent Steve Paine penned those words in a Gazette-Mail commentary.

In his “making no excuses” declaration, Paine doesn’t short shrift myriad social issues affecting West Virginia schools: “Research shows that nonacademic factors, such as poor physical or mental health, lack of adequate housing and instability at home, influence students’ ability to concentrate, learn, process information and behave well in class.”

Additionally, Paine notes, public schools bear “much of the burden” of the state’s opioid epidemic, “food insecurity, poverty and household dysfunction,” saying, until students’ “basic physiological needs are met, teaching and learning cannot occur, especially if students are experiencing trauma at home.”

The superintendent needs unwavering support from the state Board of Education, governor, Statehouse politicians and public education hierarchy to advance the “no excuses” student achievement approach.

Paine proceeds to identify state-level efforts designed to address capacity for student mental health and related issues to which he alludes.

The superintendent must use consistency, clarity, urgency, necessary risk-taking, coalition-building, traditional news media and/or social media campaigns for the “no excuses” student message to gain momentum.

What’s next? Paine doesn’t make an outright statement concerning whether to formulate his ideals into a larger student achievement campaign.

No matter. These groups will greatly inform any efforts Paine might take to refine or expand the “no excuses” student achievement approach:

  • County boards of education: County boards are accountable for student achievement results based on statute, court cases, state policies and, it’s hoped, governing principles. To ensure that students’ academic achievement is a chief priority, county boards must “know” student achievement data; ask “right questions” concerning academic proficiency; and, endorse the “no excuses” message.
  • School employee groups: Chief takeaway from the 2018 and 2019 teacher work actions: Educators rightfully want greater say in public education policy formulation, including student achievement.
  • Organizations critical of public education: It’s priggish for business/economic groups to bear uncomfortable truths about public school woes while seemingly sidestepping any effort to invest in student success, especially time and resources (in-kind contributions, volunteerism, tutoring/mentoring and modeling constructive work ethics) and job-training initiatives.

State-level policymakers: Student academic achievement requires unwavering support from state-level policymakers. “Steering,” or providing guidance, identifying obstacles hampering student achievement success, continuous monitoring of student academic progress and providing goal-focused interventions, including resources (not just money).

  • Community-based organizations: Communities might have greater motivation to embrace recommendations to address — not necessarily “solve” — identified social problems. Effective leaders, using heightened community input, will merge disparate recommendations as a guide for holistic community campaigns to redress identified community ills.
  • An emergent question: Should the Legislature infuse millions of dollars to employ school personnel to provide services, especially counseling services, to assuage opioid epidemic effects on schooling?
  • A different take: To what degree are community mental health agencies, faith-based organizations and nonprofit agencies capable of providing student counseling or similar services? Certainly, organizational quality, capacity and readiness vary, with squishy grant du jour missions, inter-group wrangling, program overlap or jagged if not irregular rehabilitation services.

Given persistent loss of students, should lawmakers deploy state-funded specialized personnel to counties while simultaneously lowering teacher/pupil class-size ratios? What about incentivizing county boards to investigate available state-approved community-based social services to augment state funds, providing teachers class-size ratios appropriate to student social needs — that is, without simply adding new residents to the state’s school funding formula. Let’s ensure lawmakers, and certainly taxpayers, don’t dodge this question.

The superintendent’s “no excuses” approach to increasing student achievement reworks the public education community’s well-worn idea that more money will “fix” our schools, which often proved “code” to blame student socioeconomic demographics almost exclusively for West Virginia’s stagnant academic standing.

We must use every means to ensure public school effectiveness or we continue cursing future generations with a culture of low expectations. Student achievement can’t be captive to the public education establishment — it’s everyone’s issue.

No more excuses.

Howard M. O’Cull is executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association.

Funerals for Saturday, September 21, 2019

Abodeely, Malakee - 11 a.m., St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Charleston. 

Ayers, Helen - 11 a.m., Belcher Family Cemetery, Pinch Ridge.

Backus, Ernest - 2 p.m., First Baptist Church of Rainelle.

Bailey, Jerry - 5 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Carney Jr., Chester - 2 p.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Carter, Blanche - 11 a.m., Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, North Elkview.

Copen, Louise - Noon, McRoss Baptist Church, McRoss.

Fizer, Donna - 3 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Fowler, Jeannette - 1 p.m., Casto Funeral Home, Evans.

Goard II, Mitchell - 5 p.m., Central Community Tabernacle, Charleston.

Hammack, Barbara - 2 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.

Kessinger, Wilma - 4 p.m., Canaan Baptist Church, Charleston.

Knight II, James - 6 p.m., Casto Funeral Home, Evans.

Lymon, Daniel - 1 p.m., Grace Bible Church, Charleston.

McKown, Travis - Noon, Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Wallback.

Miller, Alexander - 4 p.m., Roane County High School, Spencer.

Mitchell, Emma - 2 p.m., Calvary Baptist Church, Hurricane.

Montgomery, Betty - 11 a.m., Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Charleston.

Pfeil, Ruth - 2 p.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home Chapel, Poca.

Roush III, George - 12:30 p.m., Tyler Mountain Funeral Home, Cross Lanes.

Samuels, Hazel - 1:30 p.m., Dunbar Kingdom Hall, Dunbar.

Slonaker II, Harvey - Noon, Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Starks, Henry - 11 a.m., Lantz Funeral Home, Buckeye.

Stooke, David - Noon, Henson & Kitchen Mortuary, Huntington.

Thompson, Thomas - 2 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Mount Hope.

White, Duane - 1 p.m., Evans Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Chapmanville.

White, James - 1 p.m., Cedar Grove Middle School, Cedar Grove.

Woodson Jr., Lewis - 1 p.m., Abundant Life Ministries, Charleston.