With West Virginia K-12 schools set to open in the coming weeks, educators statewide have turned the focus to fundamentals in an effort to improve achievement.
West Virginia Board of Education President Paul Hardesty and State Superintendent of Schools Michele Blatt both emphasized that during a 30-minute interview with The State Journal.
“What we’re focusing on is the implementation of the House Bill 3035. That’s the Third Grade Reading Success Act,” Blatt said, explaining that the state has already conducted two large training conferences.
The sessions — one in Charleston and one in Morgantown — involved more than 1,200 educators. From there, there will be regional training sessions with county leadership teams across the state, Blatt said in implementation plans for the new Ready, Read, Write initiative aimed at making sure students can read by third grade.
“ ... We really focused on the basics of the Ready, Read, Write campaign and the Unite for Literacy campaign, which is just making sure that our teachers and support staff and counselors and things are aware of the basic skills that our students need to be successful, especially about third grade and reading and math.”
Hardesty, who is entering his second year as board president, said getting back to the basics of reading, writing and math have been his and the board’s directive to staff since day one.
“... The first thing I did when I became president was to challenge our then superintendent, Mr. (David) Roche, to get back to the basics with respect to reading and numeracy.
“We have rolled out Ready, Read, Write West Virginia. I think that is a step in the right direction,” Hardesty said. “I was taken aback when I found out that we did not teach phonics in public schools in West Virginia for over two decades.”
Hardesty said he believes students will be better off with the improved approach.
“... We’re talking test scores have been abysmal. We know that; we’re trying to improve by going back to the basics, teaching phonics like you and I learned as children. That’s what taught me how to read, how to sound out words. And we feel like we’re making some monumental strides with Ready, Read, Write West Virginia and the numeracy programs we’re adopting right now.”
Overcoming staffing issues
Both Blatt and Hardesty talked in-depth on the state’s teacher shortages and steps being taken to help address the issue.
“Well, I think (hiring) is a challenge for all careers right now, not only in education but we hear so much about the nursing shortage and everything else,” Blatt said.
“We’ve implemented several things to try to work on that. One is our Grow Your Own pathway. And that’s where we’re actually getting students as they are in high school, and getting them started on a pathway to become a teacher.”
But the education efforts aren’t just limited to teachers, Blatt said.
“We have several programs in our career and technical centers to start training our aides and bus drivers and various other things that we need in the schools and hoping that we can kind of grow our own ... that those people will be able to graduate from high school and have a good job to stay here.”
She said the key is promoting the opportunities, “... that these are good paying jobs with benefits and people can stay home and do those.”
Hardesty said he believes West Virginia’s effort to “Grow Your Own” educators will be looked at by other states as an innovative way to address shortages. The program allows high school students to enroll in dual credit college courses their junior and senior years.
“Here in West Virginia, we’ve always been referred to last. I think with this Grow Your Own pathway ... you will see that it’s something that other states are going to want to emulate and try to replicate over the course of time because it does work and will work,” Hardesty said.
“It’ll be more of our going back in these counties, giving people a pathway to get a teaching certificate and a much faster process than they would have normally had. It’s just the dual credits alone have saved families in excess of $90,000.
“It’s something that we’re really proud of, and I think you’ll see this be the model. The West Virginia model will be one that people start utilizing and trying to replicate as time goes on.”
One factor that educators have discussed as a growing concern is the increased demands on public education to serve as a social safety net, providing food, health care and even clothing to students who are in challenging circumstances at home.
Schools have always played a nurturing role in some regards, but with more than 8,000 students in foster care, and even more being raised in homes with socio-economic challenges, schools are becoming more and more a safe haven for some students.
“Our foster care situation is always going to be a challenge. The fact that we have kids coming from broken homes, so many children that don’t have a caring adult or parents in their lives to give them the instruction they need,” Hardesty said. “We’re going to take all the children we get and provide the best education opportunities for them.”
Blatt explained that the West Virginia Department of Education has an Office of Student Support, as well as an Office of Nutrition, to help counties set up ways to provide needed support.
“They’re extremely important because if those things are not in place, we will never get our student test scores or proficiency where we need it to be. I mean, you have to meet the students basic needs first before you can even begin to teach them what they need to read by third grade,” Blatt said.
Hardesty was more direct in putting in perspective the challenges educators face.
“Over 20% of our kids here in West Virginia have special needs children. Let’s say now, we also got 40% of the kids in classroom that come from broken home or a single parent home,” Hardesty said.
He then challenged the media and public to “see what the teacher has to do before she even cracks the book open to teach. These kids are hungry, some of them are dirty, some have been abused the night before. I mean, it will break your heart.”
Committed to achievement
While both Blatt and Hardesty spoke of challenges faced in public education, they also spoke of the many bright spots they see, from the works of committed educators on the county and state levels to the support of Gov. Jim Justice, first lady Cathy Justice and the Legislature.
“I’d be remiss if I did not thank the governor and the first lady for their commitment to education in this state. I know his heart is in the right place, and hers, with Communities in Schools (program),” Hardesty said.
“The Legislature has been very supportive of Superintendent Blatt and myself. I feel like we have an open door policy with (House) Speaker (Roger) Hanshaw and (Senate) President (Craig) Blair. And Senate Education Chair (Amy) Grady and House Chair (Joe) Ellington are great to work with. I feel like we’re on a good trajectory coming up to this next legislative session with the Department of Education and Legislature working together.”
Blatt sees the addition of aides in first grade this year and eventually in second and third grades, as pivotal.
“I think our early learning program has been very successful. I know for years, we were kind of leading the nation in the work we were doing around pre K,” Blatt said.
Part of that was the requirement of aides in the classroom to allow more one-on-one or small group instruction.
“That’s really one of the things that led to this request that started a year or so ago to the Legislature around the first grade aide, because what we had seen in the data was that the students would be in pre-K and then they would do really good into kindergarten, and then by the end of first grade, and especially going into second, there was a decline in achievement and their success rate.
“When you started looking at it, you saw the impact that extra person in the classroom made for those young learners, especially those that are learning to read.”
Hardesty said the board and Department of Education would continue to stress achievement and expect results. But they also will supply the support educators need to help students reach proficiency.
“ ... One thing I want to stress with you is that Superintendent Blatt and this board are committed to one thing, and that is student achievement. The focus of this department is 100% on student achievement,” Hardesty said.
“I feel like that no one knows the child better than the teacher and the principal in their building. We’re going to give our teachers time to teach, our principals to manage and run their buildings, but we’re going to hold them accountable for results.
“We’re going to train our staff. We’re going to try to do it the right way but we will hold our people accountable because the children and the taxpayers deserve that right here in West Virginia.”
“... I’m looking for proficiency. I’m looking to try to get a child on grade level proficiency by the third grade because if we don’t get them by the third grade,” the child will struggle moving into middle and high school, Hardesty said.
“I want to get to a level of proficiency. I’m not really interested in the standardized test, although we have to use that benchmark, but the child’s got to have his multiplication tables. [The] child’s got to have a basic reading comprehension. He’s got to know how to read, because if we can’t do those two functions they can’t move forward and be successful.”