Amherst County’s public schools will finish the year four school days earlier than scheduled, on June 2, following an April 6 vote by the county school board.
The last day of school was set at June 8 but a request came before the Amherst County School Board to change the last day to June 2 and convert June 5 and June 6 to teacher work days. The measure passed with Vice Chair Abby Thompson opposed.
Superintendent William Wells said a mild winter was a reason for the request. Thompson said recent academic reports have shown the division has not yet filled its learning loss from COVID-19 in explaining why she was against an early end to the school year.
“I know that every hour of instruction is important and it’s needed,” Thompson said. “We already see a need for students to have additional instructional hours … every hour of instructional is vital.”
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Thompson said ending the school year June 2 meets the minimum of state code requirement but she wants to go beyond that.
“I am concerned with our instruction,” Thompson said. “I want to know why, when we have such need, we are advocating for the minimum.”
A former classroom teacher for 18 years, Thompson said she knows firsthand the challenge of the last week of school and spoke of measures she took to keep students engaged.
“Just trying to get rid of those last few days because they’re painful, I don’t support that,” Thompson said, adding: “We have students that need things, they need instruction. I value every single day and I think our students need to be there.”
Assistant Superintendent Dana Norman told the board she’s pleased with academic strides the division has made this year but it is still not at pre-pandemic data in performance.
“I’m confident that students are showing growth,” Norman said.
Board member Dawn Justice said she would like to reward teachers for working hard this year. While he voted in favor of the calendar change, board member Eric Orasi said he would have liked better planning and noted the academic challenges the division is dealing with.
“It’s tough to stop the avalanche when it starts rolling,” Orasi said. “We know there’s a struggle this year. We know there are children who have fallen behind. The struggle is real … I don’t think the fight is over this year. I think we need to keep pushing.”
Thompson’s motion to keep the June 8 end date in tact failed to advance to a vote due to lack of a second.
The board thanked Gloria Witt, a Madison Heights resident who during the meeting’s public comments portion spoke of her concerns of a recent academic status report and subgroups data that shows Black children are underperforming in some areas.
Addressing those remarks from Witt, Orasi said the division is working hard to make up learning loss during the pandemic and as long as even one child is failing there is more work to do.
“We need to keep focused on every child every day,” Orasi said. “There’s children behind those numbers.”
Thompson said she appreciates Witt’s challenge to the division and she doesn’t want any group of students to go under the radar. Speaking through tears near the end of the meeting, Thompson said her reasoning for not supporting the calendar change has nothing to do with lack of appreciation for teachers and schools’ staff but came from her passion for students’ learning.
“I just know it’s important for them to be in school,” Thompson said. “It’s important for them to have quality instruction. I just value that — that’s why I’m an educator.”
Thompson also lamented the effects of chronic absenteeism on the division. “That breaks my heart because I know what they’re missing,” she said.
Also during the meeting, a mid-year discipline data report was presented that shows the county schools have seen a 41% increase in first semester incidents compared to the previous school year.
School officials noted during the meeting a much larger number of students were quarantined from the COVID-19 pandemic or on virtual instruction during the 2021-22 school year compared to this year. COVID-related outbreaks also closed school more last school year.
The influx of students this year created more opportunities for behaviors leading to more discipline-related measures, according to school officials.
First semester incidents in discipline were at 1,865, an increase of 547 incidents compared to the same span last year, the data shows.
Tim Hoden, the division’s chief operations officer, said roughly 750 students of more than 3,900 in the schools have a discipline referral.
“That means 81% of your students have zero referrals,” Hoden said told the board. “We’ve got a lot of good kids.”
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The board thanked the Amherst County Board of Supervisors and county government for funding assistance in procuring a new school bus with air conditioning. Chis Terry, the school board’s chair, said it’s great to have “such a good working relationship” between the two boards.
Wells said seven county residents have applied for appointment to the vacant District 1 seat on the board following the recent resignation of former representative John Grieser. The board will hold interviews during a special called meeting April 20, Wells said.
The board received a staff report on the latest planning for an expansion and renovation project at Amherst County High School. A house structure on Lancer Lane has been demolished to make way for a parking lot and the first pre-bid meeting on the project was held April 5, according to the report. Bids for the project, which includes a new auditorium and revamped dining area, closes at 2 p.m. April 25. Construction is planned to begin this summer, Wells has said.