By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette
This is the final story in a series about community efforts and education reform on Charleston’s West Side.
Whittney Armstrong knows what she signed up for.
Last week, Armstrong, a 24-year-old teacher, started her job at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School – ranked among the lowest-achieving schools in the state and located in a neighborhood infamous for drug-related crime.
“I tell everyone when they ask me about coming here, it’s like this: I could easily find a job at another school that wouldn’t be as difficult, but these kids need me more. They need me more than someone who has a parent providing them with all these things. These kids need loved, they need fed, they need consistency. It’s just important to me that they have that,” Armstrong said. “You have to want to be at a place like this. You don’t just work here to work here.”
Since last school year, at least 10 of the teachers at Mary C. Snow have left, plus its principal, Mellow Lee, who had been in the position since the school opened in 2011.
According to representatives with both of the state’s teachers unions, some of those teachers quit to avoid new requirements associated with an ongoing Community School pilot on Charleston’s West Side, which aims to turn around student achievement at the area’s five schools and connect the schools with various social service entities.
“There’s all this talk about education reform and all of these problems have been identified in the schools, but they always think the way to fix the problem is to train the teachers better,” said Ben Barkey, member advocacy specialist for the West Virginia Education Association.“Everybody can always use better training on how to do their job... but better training is not going to be able to squeeze the achievement gains that are made in an area where the median income is $200,000 out of a place where it’s $16,000. There’s just only so much that training can do.”
In addition to specific professional development for teachers, a plan approved by the state Legislature last year also allows for West Side schools to implement a slew of strategies outside of the state’s public school norm, like year-round school, school uniforms and special birth-to-3 initiatives.
Mary C. Snow employees are also provided extra oversight by Kanawha County Schools administrators while the school tries out these experimental methods.
Federal grant funding for the program initially required teachers to work extra hours, and several teachers felt like they were blindsided and left out of the planning process completely, Barkey said.
“This program is never going to work if they don’t have buy-in from the teachers. The teachers have never felt a part of this thing,” he said. “One of them told me, ‘we’re all just going to get out of here. We’re not fooling with this. We’re not fighting it. Most of us are just going to get out.”’
But many teachers at Mary C. Snow already go beyond the call of duty, volunteering during school breaks and reaching out to families in times of need.
Those are the people that keep the school running, said Johnny Ferrari, who has assumed the role of principal and shook hands with students for the first time last week.
“I’ve had to hire some folks, but I don’t look at anything in a negative light. If people choose to leave, that’s their decision,” Ferrari said. “Our staff is amazing. They want to be here. The West Side truly is an urban area. It may not be Detroit or Brooklyn, but the people who are working here really understand the needs of students in an urban area – how our kids migrate through the community on a daily basis when they’re not in school.”
Ferrari, who has worked with West Side schools in the past, doesn’t deny that there are extra burdens when working with the children in the area, but said when he moved out of state recently, something kept calling him back.
“I knew I needed to come back. I knew where my heart was, and that was back on the West Side of Charleston, West Virginia,” he said. “Lord, there’s nothing in my life that I’m afraid of after being here. I’m comfortable here. This is a resilient community, and we want to be family oriented.”
“We need to get away from the violence and focus on reaching out to the community and getting our kids up to the level where they have the same benefits as every other child in the district and the country.”
Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said he has met with teachers about their issues concerning staff development and is continuing to work to find middle ground.
“They are willing to take a look at what’s happening there... Of course, any time there’s change, people question that. I think they’re open to looking at working to improve the curriculum,” Duerring said. “We’re not only trying to focus on academic needs, but also family and community needs and wellness and social and emotional health. I think we should see some really good things happening out of this, but it’s going to take time.”