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Virginia School Boards Association task force assists schools in challenging environments

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This guest commentary was written by Gina Patterson, Executive Director of the Virginia School Boards Association.

The Commonwealth of Virginia is not exempt from the “public school takeover movement” threatening U.S. schools that chronically face academic challenges. In Virginia, the takeover movement took the form of 2013 legislation creating Virginia’s Opportunity Education Institution (OEI) and Opportunity Education Institution Board. The legislation required the OEI Board to take over the supervision and operation of any school in a local school division that had been denied accreditation, and it permitted the OEI Board to take over the supervision and operation of any school that had been accredited with warning for three consecutive years.

The members of the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA), a voluntary nonpartisan organization of Virginia school boards, determined it was important to uphold the Virginia constitutional mandate of local school board control in light of this legislation. As a result, the VSBA joined with a local school division, Norfolk City Public Schools, to fight OEI in the courts. This past June, OEI was declared unconstitutional.

While VSBA successfully battled OEI in court, our members also strongly believe the issue of schools in challenging environments requires ownership and accountability by school boards. This is why in the spring of 2013, the VSBA Board of Directors created its Task Force on Schools in Challenging Environments. The task force is comprised of a diverse group of school board members and superintendents representing school divisions large and small, urban and rural, higher-income and lower-income, racially diverse and far less racially diverse. The task force defines its mission as “to make recommendations to the State Board of Education on how VSBA can partner to help challenged schools in Virginia; and to identify and share research, resources and strategies that will empower Virginia’s schools to reach higher levels of student achievement.”

From the first, task force members committed to creating a safe environment where courageous and crucial conversations could take place—an environment where issues like class, geography, race, income, and other issues so often avoided could be discussed and their effects honestly assessed. The task force agreed to be driven by data and research, and to draw upon the best practices and successes of VSBA members and school districts around the country, and to give special attention to the role of school boards and board governance in student success (or lack thereof).

Over several months, VSBA leadership and the Task Force on Schools in Challenging Environments hosted forums on the issues; created a special track at the association’s annual conference to further discussions; consulted with legislators in a non-partisan manner; culled research; and interfaced about the issues with state board of education members, academics, parents, and officials from two governors’ administrations (one a Republican, one a Democrat). Emerging from the year of work, the task force members identified five focus domains:

  1. parent, family, and community engagement and outreach
  2. funding and resources (including infrastructure)
  3. teacher quality
  4. specialized training
  5. student learning

Each domain encompasses recommendations, anticipated outcomes, accountability, duration/timeline, and budget impacts for target groups critical to student success: School Board / Governance Leadership Team; Internal Stakeholders (i.e., parents, staff); External Stakeholders (i.e., business community, appropriating bodies); General Assembly; and VSBA itself.

The VSBA Task Force on Schools in Challenging Environments presented Version 1.0 of its recommendations to the VSBA Board of Directors this past August. The recommendations included immediate, short-term, and long-term recommendations. This was only Version 1.0; the task force will continue to fine-tune the recommendations in response to emerging research, data, and best practices.

We at VSBA believe it is important for school boards and school board associations to tackle the often less than stellar records of schools in challenging environments head-on. Fighting against takeover movements is not enough. We must recognize and embrace the role of local school boards in the academic success of all children and apply themes uncovered by our task force: school boards committing themselves to strong governance support by continuous training & professional development; shared accountability; and knowing the right questions to ask to ensure data-informed goals are matched with means implemented with fidelity, ensuring the correct outcomes—especially for children attending schools in challenging environments.

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