In the first few minutes of his visit to Patrick Henry Elementary School, Gov. Terry McAuliffe took student Natasha Maldonado’s hand, looked her in the eyes, and begged her to keep doing well on her Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.
“Keep passing those tests, all right?” he asked, “We need you.”
McAuliffe and Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton visited the school on Oct. 27 to officially announce that Patrick Henry, along with 200 other schools in Virginia, had officially gone from “accredited with warning” to “fully accredited.” To be fully accredited, 75 percent of students must pass their English SOL and at least 70 percent must pass the math, history, and science classes. Three years ago the school had fallen to “accredited with warning” status, which lingered with a warning last year in English and science. However, the 2015 scores revealed a 79 percent pass rate in English, 78 percent pass rate in math and history, and an 86 percent pass rate in history.
Principal Ingrid Bynum said the school staff had undergone intensive professional development training with a focus on data driven instruction. Most importantly, Bynum said the school rededicated itself to making sure there was no sub-group of student left behind in the curriculum.
Like Bynum, McAuliffe and Holton credited the school staff and students with the turnaround, but also added strong praise for Bynum. It was Holton’s second time at the school in 2015, joining U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the school in February to recognize the school’s success in its pre-K program. In both cases, Holton cited Bynum’s work as pivotal to the school’s progress.
“A crucial element to success is strong leadership,” said Holton. “If we could replicate you everywhere in the state, we’d be flying high right now.”
At a statewide level, McAuliffe and Holton emphasized that there needs to be less focus on a testing-based curriculum.
“Education is about learning in ways that are more than just regurgitating the information on a test,” said Holton, “and the statewide level hasn’t always helped in that.”
“We should not be making students take six-hour reading tests,” said McAuliffe, and when one young student let out a shocked gasp, he turned to her and nodded, “I know, right?”
While McAuliffe emphasized that the standards for testing had not changed, the 2015 numbers likely benefited from a new policy that allows students to retake the tests. McAuliffe said it was part of a statewide strategy of relieving pressure on students and recognizing hard work.
“I would rather we try something and fail than not try something new,” said McAuliffe, a message that seemed to resonate with the students, with one of them repeating the phrase to himself as he left the school.
In the upcoming budget session, McAuliffe also promised the students to make K-12 education a priority, specifying that the funding needed to go towards school improvements that limit class sizes and providing teachers with access to whatever help they need.
But there’s still over 300 schools in Virginia that remain accredited with warning, and 13 that are unaccredited, including Jefferson-Houston in Alexandria. But even Jefferson-Houston is showing signs of improvement. The school’s SOL pass rate increased by 26 percent in science, 18 percent in math and 12 percent in reading.
“Jefferson-Houston made huge strides this year,” said Holton. “They went up in ratings, but because they were unaccredited, they don’t qualify for partial accreditation. If we adjusted the rules to partially accredit them, that would have taken away the additional resources the school is receiving.”
With no potential partial accreditation status, Holton said that there’s no benchmarks except full re-accreditation. She deferred speculation on the timeline of that accreditation to Superintendent Alvin Crawley.
“This June is the deadline,” Crawley said.
“If they make half the strides they made this year, they’ll make it,” added Holton.
Repeatedly, McAuliffe advised the students to study cyber-security and code writing. Most importantly, he encouraged them to stay local.
“You all are going to stay and live in Virginia forever, right?” asked McAuliffe, and after receiving a chorus of cheers from the students, he nodded, “That’s what I like to hear.”