Could state take over West Side schools?

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

Making the West Side of Charleston its own school district — separate from the Kanawha County school system and overseen by the state — is the latest suggestion in an attempt to turn around the area’s struggling schools.

Bill White, a member of the West Virginia Board of Education, brought up the idea at a public meeting last week. On Wednesday morning, he said he hoped to get the state board to seriously consider taking over the low-achieving schools on the West Side, which has long dealt with drug-related crime and poverty.

However, late Wednesday afternoon, after speaking with other school officials, White claimed he never recommended a takeover of the West Side’s schools.

Last year, the state Legislature approved a Community School project for the four schools on the West Side, to connect schools with social services and implement innovative teaching methods.

Wednesday morning, when asked about his suggestion of a state takeover at last week’s meeting, White said not enough headway had been made on the project and that more extreme measures need to be taken.

“The West Side, as far as I’m concerned, and as far as most people are concerned, is probably in the worst shape of any area in our state right now. There’s lots of crime. The kids are not achieving . . . . There are a lot of kids over there who are just afraid, and we’re setting them up for failure,” White said. “In order to get it out of its situation that it’s in, it’s going to take a lot of resources that the Legislature and Kanawha County are not willing to give it right now. My goal is to make sure that we follow through with this, either by getting grants or whatever. We have to come up with some ideas on how we can improve the situations on the West Side, because we have to do it. We cannot continue to allow these kids to just flounder the way they are.”

White said Wednesday morning that he was hoping to get the West Side plan on next month’s state board meeting agenda and said he envisioned something similar to a state takeover — where a struggling school district has to report to the state Board of Education until it starts showing achievement — but only for the West Side.

White also suggested bold moves as part of a possible takeover — including replacing staff. “In order for these schools to improve, significant staff is going to have to be changed. That includes principals. We’re going to have to talk to the teachers and ask them if they’re willing to commit to doing the things that need to be done, which includes an extended school day and implementing a year-round calendar,” he said Wednesday morning.

Another state school board member, Lloyd Jackson, said, “It’s pretty premature” to talk about the neighborhood becoming its own school district. But he said there is a need for more innovative tactics.

“We’ve been interested in trying to find out new ways to improve the situation. I’m not going to use the word ‘failing’ — that’s the wrong word to use — but there are unique challenges on the West Side that are probably going to require unique solutions,” Jackson said early Wednesday.

Late Wednesday, White called the Gazette, angrily saying that state school board President Gayle Manchin had called him about his comments. He claimed that he never suggested that the West Side become its own district or that the state school board explore the idea.

A few minutes later, White said he only said a takeover was a possibility but never expressed any support for it. “I can say we can take over the world. That’s a possibility, but it probably won’t happen,” he said.

Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said early Wednesday that he was “totally unaware” of any talks about the state intervening on the West Side.

The Rev. Matthew Watts — a leading voice in the Community School effort — was aware of the idea of a state takeover prior to last week’s state school board meeting, having met with White and Jackson.

Watts said he is open to the idea but hopes to give the school system at least a year to continue its reform efforts before making any major decisions.

“I think that we have to put all the options on the table. The possibility of a state intervention may be the motivation we need to do what should have been done 25 years ago,” Watts said. “I don’t think that’s an unreasonable option to consider. We certainly need robust education reform ideas. We need out-of-the-box thinking. We can’t have gradual change. We need a step change, and it’s going to take a renewed commitment from everybody to make that happen.”

Jackson acknowledged funding for such a project would be an issue.

“Funding is always an issue when you’re talking about new approaches, but the fact is we often worry about funding when we talk about adding new programs when we really ought to talk about doing things differently instead,” he said. “The problem is the system can be bureaucratic, and even the [WVBOE] has its hands tied in certain areas. We need a more comprehensive approach that looks at new ways that are by-and-large done with existing funding. There’s not a lot of funding out there right now for new projects.”