By Callie Hietala
Students in Martinsville schools are succeeding across multiple academic and achievement areas and are positioned for future success post-graduation. The city school board also learned that students are outperforming the state when it comes to graduation rates and closing the opportunity gap in advanced instruction.
Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Angilee Downing told the board that the school system is “well above the state” in terms of its on-time graduation rate, holding steady at 94.6 percent for the 2020-2021 school year, the same as the previous year. The state graduation rate for the 20-21 year was 93 percent.
Downing said that 53.1 percent of students graduate with standard diplomas (versus the state’s 40.2 percent) while 41.5 percent of Martinsville students graduate with an advanced diploma, compared to the Commonwealth’s overall 52.8 percent.
Additionally, Downing said, 71.7 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. Of that group, 58.9 percent earned standard diplomas (compared to 56.5 percent statewide) and 34.4 percent earned advanced diplomas while the state average is only 32.7 percent.
Downing said she was “excited and proud to say we’re closing the opportunity gap” in terms of advanced courses.
Demographics for the last school year indicated that 58.7 percent of students were Black, 19.6 percent were white, 13.8 percent were Hispanic, and 6.7 percent were of multiple races.
She told the board that “our demographics for the percentage of students enrolled in advance courses align with the demographics of our school division.” In other words, the percentage of students taking advanced courses in the school system does not heavily trend toward a single subgroup.
“Not many school divisions can say that,” she said, attributing the success to “a concerted effort that truly starts in preschool and works its way up through the whole system.”
Dr. Paulette Simington, executive director of special education and student services, said that Martinsville far exceeded the state’s target of a 61 percent graduation rate for special education students, coming in at 73.68 percent. The city also exceeded Virginia’s target of a 48 percent pass rate on the math assessment with 53.45 percent, but had only a 41.74 percent pass rate in reading, falling short of the state’s targeted 46 percent.
DeWitt House, senior program officer for the Harvest Foundation, spoke to the board to share how Martinsville’s students can build on their post-graduation success through the SEED Fund. Harvest and Patrick & Henry Community College (P&HCC) recently announced SEED 2.0, a $10.3 million, 13-year investment by Harvest which will allow any student of Martinsville or Henry County schools, from this year’s kindergarteners to current high school seniors, who graduates with a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) to attend P&HCC at no cost to the student or their family.
“One of the things we stress is we don’t use the word ‘free,’” House said. “It’s not free. Somebody’s paying for it. It’s an opportunity,” House said.
He emphasized that the program was not solely academic in its focus, pointing to P&HCC’s successful trades program, which offers students the opportunity to graduate with a variety of certifications necessary to immediately enter the job market. To take advantage of the funding, House said students had to enroll at P&HCC the semester immediately following graduation from high school. SEED students are required to complete four hours of community service each semester and must take a minimum of 15 credit hours per semester.
While enrolled, students must attend meetings with the Harvest SEED coach, who serves as a counselor of sorts, stepping in to help alleviate any barriers to success a student might encounter including providing resources for food and transportation. “It’s an adjustment” for some students, House said. The coaches are in place as a support network.
House said that Harvest has also funded an external evaluation of the program, which will be conducted by Virginia Tech every two years. The evaluation will explore the number of credit hours students are completing, their grades, and will collect other anecdotal information through conversations with students. This will help Harvest learn about situations, hindrances, and other issues the foundation may not have thought to address yet, as well as learn about what is working well with the program.
“Communities cry out for an opportunity like this for their young people,” said Dr. Zebedee Talley, the city’s school superintendent, adding that students don’t want a handout, they want a hand up, which the SEED Fund provides.
In other matters, the board:
* Approved a request from Simington to assign $129,472.67 in American Rescue Plan funds to secure contractor services for providing in-classroom, evidence-based program solutions for students during the instructional day. Simington said there are self-contained classes at Albert Harris Elementary, primarily kindergarten and first grade students, who missed 18 months of school due to the pandemic “and as a result they’re coming to school with some challenging behaviors.” The funds will be used for therapists and support staff who will be in the schools daily, helping teachers with challenging behaviors and training staff to help with the capacity to deal with students who have behavioral challenges.
*Read a proclamation declaring October Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.
*Recognized school board members with Virginia School Board Association awards. Chairman Donna Dillard received the VSBA Award of Excellence, as did board member Emily Parker. Vice-Chairman Yvonne Givens received the Award of Achievement, and Talley was presented an Award of Recognition.
*Heard Talley’s report.