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Teachers at Welch education forum hopeful concerns will be heard

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By Caity Coyne, Charleston Gazette-Mail

WELCH — Disrespected, ignored, unappreciated and demoralized were just a few of the words used by Southern West Virginia teachers to describe their relationship with the Legislature at the West Virginia Department of Education’s second listening forum for education reform on Tuesday.

“We honestly, we dread each legislative session, year after year after year,” said William French, a teacher at Glenwood School, in Mercer County. “Each year, we have to watch ourselves be demonized by our state leaders in the media, at the Capitol, and then we have to tell our students that they should believe in themselves and that the system is there to support them. It’s hard, it is, when they hear from everyone else that we’re failing, or that we’re failing them.”

Discussion at Tuesday’s forum included more than 150 educators, administrators and parents from McDowell, Wyoming and Mercer counties. They were joined by a handful of legislators and education representatives in the cafeteria of Mount View High School, in Welch, as they shared concerns about potential education reform measures that were introduced this legislative session in Senate Bill 451 (the Education Omnibus bill) that ultimately died in the House, but that many expect to make a reappearance in the upcoming special session.

“After what we’ve been through this legislative session, we want you to react to the components of [SB 451],” said Steve Paine, West Virginia superintendent of schools, to those in attendance before small group discussions started. “We didn’t have a whole lot of input for that bill. This is our chance to have more input, moving forward.”

After a brief introduction, individuals split into smaller groups for three 25-minute discussions on four topics of their choice: school choice and innovation (education savings accounts, charter schools and open enrollment), social emotional support (social services, increased support personnel and trauma training for teachers), funding opportunities (levy rates and pay raises) and instructional quality (teacher preparation courses and teacher certifications).

The conversations were facilitated by volunteers from the Department of Education, who took notes of the key talking points from each group. Those attending were also asked to fill out sheets of paper with their thoughts on the topics covered, all of which will be used in a comprehensive report that will be presented to the governor and legislators after all forums are complete and before the special session.

Legislators were invited to listen in on Tuesday’s sessions, but were not permitted to talk.

Delegate Caleb Hanna, R-Webster, said these listening forums — Tuesday’s was the second of eight scheduled throughout the state in coming weeks — were an integral first step to rebuilding the trust that has been lost between legislators and the education community in the last few years.

“I’ll admit, back in the session we probably rushed in the process of introducing these measures [in SB 451],” Hanna said. “These forums are a great example of showing that we’re here to listen, we’re willing to listen.”

Those in attendance did not hold back in expressing their frustrations and fears about certain measures, like charter schools and education savings accounts, and support for others, like increased support personnel and counselors.

Cathy Jack, a special education teacher at Mount View High School, said the forum seemed like a good-faith effort to include educators in the conversation around education reform, but it’s one that should have happened months ago.

“Nobody knows how hard this job is or what we do every day, and they [legislators] didn’t think to ask us,” Jack said. “When we tried to tell them, they wouldn’t listen … this is an excellent idea to try and bridge that divide, but we’re going to have to see what happens.”

The word “hope” was used a lot by those in attendance. Teachers were hesitant to say they believed their concerns would be taken into serious consideration — enough to influence any policy — but they would hold out and hope that is the case once talks start again come the special session.

“That’s all I’m going to say — that I’m hopeful. That’s all I can say,” said Gwen Lacey, a second grade teacher at Fall River Elementary School. “Teachers’ rights are being eroded, and they have been for a while, and it feels like they [legislators] couldn’t care less. It used to be the kids disrespected us and the parents disrespected us. Now the system is disrespecting us, and we haven’t seen any evidence yet, in my opinion, that they are willing to change.”

Hanna said the listening sessions were beneficial for him, as he wants to hear what concerns those in different regions of the state hold toward reform efforts. He said he is open to hearing any points of view or opinions as they move forward legislating.

For Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, the efforts for Hanna and others in the legislature — Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer; Delegate Chandler Swope, R-Mercer; Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo and Delegate Roland Roberts, R-Raleigh — to come to the session were appreciated and recognized.

“I was thrilled to see them here, and the conversations they got to hear were amazing. There was a lot of frustration expressed — especially among the teachers — and I think they needed that, they needed to feel like someone was listening to them,” Evans said.

It was also refreshing for McDowell County educators to see something like the listening forum make its way down to Welch, instead of centering on Bluefield, Princeton or Beckley, like many other initiatives do.

“This really was worthwhile, if for nothing else than for some of them to have a chance to come down and see where we live, where we work and what it’s like down here,” Lacey said. “I can have my voice heard and they made an effort to hear it; I didn’t have to drive to Charleston to meet them.”

McDowell, Jack said, can come with its own set of challenges when tackling education, and it’s rare to feel like those affected in the county are listened to as much as other educators in more urban population centers, like Charleston and Morgantown.

“Most of us down here, we feel like McDowell County built West Virginia — you’ll hear that everywhere, and it’s true. Now, we feel like time and time again we just get slapped in the face because we have less than those other areas, but we don’t have less because of decisions we’ve made. We are living with the consequences of others,” Jack said. “Education, it really is the key to everything around here. It can help us turn things around, and I hope — I’ll say it again, I really do hope — our input is heard and considered when it comes to changes.”