City school division gets high marks in virtual instruction

The Martinsville City School Board discussed the division’s virtual instruction efforts. Yvonne Givens, vice chairman (left to right); Donna Dillard, chairman; Schools Superintendent Dr. Zebedee “Zeb” Talley Jr.; and Dominique Hylton. Board members Emily Parker and Tony Jones attended virtually.

By Brandon Martin

With some school divisions struggling with the decision to provide some in-person or full-virtual instruction, Martinsville City Public Schools has experienced a degree of success with their full-virtual model.

During a Dec. 14 school board meeting, School’s Superintendent Dr. Zebedee “Zeb” Talley Jr. said the division’s enrollment outpaced expectations.

“We currently have 101 students more than we anticipated in the city schools,” he said. “Our enrollment is up, and we are one of the few. We are the only school in Region 6 that has an increased enrollment since the pandemic. Most school divisions have lost 200-300” students.

If you multiply that by $6,000, then that is how much revenue they are going to lose, Talley said, and credited the city division’s increased enrollment to community support for its decision.

“I want to thank the parents that had faith in us, even though we are having to do this virtual,” Talley said. “Virtual instruction is not the best instruction. We’ve never said that, and we’ve never put up that facade. But it is the safest.”

Owing to its successes in virtual learning, Talley said the division will give presentation to the Virginia School Board Association on educational equity.

“Everybody is facing a similar set of problems,” he said. “I don’t think anybody has a golden caveat or has all of the answers, but we are trying to adjust and do the best we can with safety first and then educating our students at all costs.”

Talley said Martinsville has been holding “several” workshops with other school divisions.

“It’s always a privilege for us to help other school divisions because school divisions are very instrumental in our turn around and success,” he added.

Ama Waller, assistant principal of Martinsville Middle School, said the school’s virtual night for parents and students, held on Nov. 23, “went really well.”

In a survey to parents, the top response for positives about virtual learning was “being able to learn in a relaxed environment,” according to Waller.

She said there was a tie for second, between being able to rewatch instructional videos “as they need” and “being able to ask the teachers questions during office hours in a private setting.”

“We’ve gotten this virtual thing kind of down pat,” Donna Dillard, chairman of the school board, said. “Moving forward, what do we need to look at next? We’re not sure what the school year is going to look like ever again. If we are good at virtual teaching, then what is our next step? What do we need to do for our students and community to make our school division even better? We want to raise the bar.”

Talley said one improvement will be in addressing learning deficiencies.

“All across the country, a third of students or more are failing because of the fact that they cannot get into school,” Talley said. “We’ve been watching that and benchmarking.”

Many of those failures can be attributed to “students not logging on and not actually doing the work, he said, and added that outcome was expected when “some parents cannot be home to guarantee” students complete assignments.

“You’ve got some young people that are going to log on regardless,” Talley said. “But some people need that extra push. We’ve been talking about ways that we can motivate students to log on. What we’ve found out was fascinating. Every student who logged on was doing well. That was the key. Keeping them logged in and engaged.”

Discussions have been ongoing throughout the state on how to better educate students in a virtual setting. In November, members of the school board attended a virtual VSBA Conference. Board member Emily Parker represented Martinsville to gather a list of priorities for the state legislature.

The 2021 VSBA legislative priorities compiled during the conference are “a culmination of things that we discussed over about three days,” Parker said, adding that there were nine “high points” in the priorities: funding/budget, local control, labor relations, school safety, school modernization, broadband connectivity, teacher shortages, COVID-19/student learning.

“Within each of those, there are subsections,” Parker said. “These are things that the VSBA will take forward to the legislature in January and they include full funding of all mandates and programs passed by the General Assembly. Partial funding, or the absence of funding, for mandates and programs places an additional burden on local school divisions and they want to make sure that we get full funding support for that.”

In addition, Parker said the VBSA is seeking more local control over funding and more studies “to determine the cost of adequately funding our public schools.

“Also, the VSBA opposed any attempt to divest local school boards of their constitutional authority to supervise schools,” Parker said.

The VSBA is also working to address teacher shortages, according to Parker.

“That is putting into place provisions that will increase funding for teacher compensation to attract qualified teachers, as well as supporting alternative entry routes into the teaching profession to provide localities flexibility in hiring qualified people who have not formally prepared for teaching careers,” Parker said, adding that waivers would be given “to those proven their ability to teach in the classroom and be effective, but have not yet completed all of their teaching requirements.”

Parker said this initiative helps solve teacher shortfalls and support minority recruitment by providing scholarships for minorities trying to enter the profession.

Yvonne Givens, vice chairman, said a particular theme from the conference struck her most. It was that “of keeping your promises.

“The part about keeping promises and being there for our students, and being there for others, is really hitting home,” Givens said. “Especially, now locally where we’ve had so many students who really need somebody and to know that somebody is there. We need to keep our promises when we tell our students that we are going to be there for them.”

Board member Dominique Hylton offered an example of how educators can be mindful by “directing our attention to our experience as it unfolds. It trains us to respond skillfully to whatever is happening, good or bad. It improves our thought process, feelings and concerns of others. It helps us perform better, feel calmer and less depressed.”

Students in the 21st century face a number of obstacles that educators should be aware of, according to Hylton.

“Most kids today present a schedule that is too busy, pressure to perform, too much media, lack of face-to-face relationships, increasing anxiety and depression, and a brain that is in constant state of fight or flight,” Hylton said. “If we take some of those things and think about all of that before we address different scenarios, respond or judge” then “I think we will take a step back and really have more compassion for them.”

In other matters presented, the school board:

*Received information on a $200,000 grant received through the Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) School Security Equipment Grant program. T.J. Slaughter, director of School Safety and Emergency Management, said a bulk of the grant will go to finishing a gunshot detection system in all of the schools.

“A weapon has a certain decibel rate when it is fired,” Slaughter said. “It (the detection system) picks up on that rate of different weapons. What it does from that point is it sends notifications to our 911 center that a detection has been seen. Also, to our law enforcement officers’ cell phones.”

Slaughter said that only “one or two” school divisions in Virginia have the detection system, and  Martinsville “will probably be the first school division to have it in all of our buildings.”

Some of the funding will go to replace some of the administrators’ school radios, while the remaining funds will place cameras on school buses and update old cameras at the high school.

*Recognized students who placed in the Dan River Association Fall Art Contest. NyShawn Walton received second place in the fourth-grade category and Addison Wilson received third place in the second-grade category.

*Recognized Kellene Wotring for being the first student in Martinsville High School history to receive the $1,000 FIRST Robotics scholarship for each year of college.

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