By Stefanie Jackson – The public hearing on the annual update of the Northampton County Public Schools comprehensive improvement plan prompted discussion of a wide range of topics, from everyday matters like class schedules to hot-button issues like school discipline.
“Each child is important and entitled to the opportunity to realize his or her full potential,” and “learning occurs best when instruction is tailored to individual needs” are among the NCPS core values that influence the comprehensive plan.
Enrollment in Northampton public schools continues to drop, with an average daily membership of 1,485 students in 2019, which is expected to fall to 1,430 in 2020.
But Superintendent Eddie Lawrence sees the enrollment decline as an opportunity to make staffing and scheduling adjustments that will benefit students and teachers.
He supports Northampton High School implementing a four-by-four block schedule, meaning students would take four classes during the fall semester and four different classes in the spring.
Each teacher would teach three classes per semester, and students could take eight classes per year instead of the current limit of seven classes per year.
The block schedule would allow the high school to provide more course offerings with fewer teachers.
“If we can do the same … amount of instruction with fewer teachers, to me, I think we need to look at that. It’s just not economical, what we’re doing,” he said.
One drawback of the block schedule is the loss of instructional time that results from holding end-of-course testing twice a year. When students fail the corresponding SOL (Standards of Learning) test and must undergo remediation and retake the SOL, even more instructional time is lost.
But that issue has been mitigated by the Virginia Department of Education, which has reduced the number of SOLs high school students must take and pass to graduate. For example, biology is the only science SOL required of high school students for graduation.
“So what that’s done is it’s removed some of the need for remediation for kids who pass the class, but maybe they just don’t test well, so they don’t pass the actual state test,” Lawrence said.
He believes the block schedule would not be feasible at the middle school until the new addition to the high school and middle school complex is complete, because teachers will have to be moved.
Northampton schools will continue to develop their inclusion and co-teaching efforts with students with disabilities and English learners by using resources provided by Old Dominion University’s Training and Technical Assistance Center, aka T-TAC.
“We’ve had a lot of success at times with our special education students. But let’s face it, they’re still far behind in some cases. They’re not showing the rapid improvement we would like for them to do,” Lawrence said.
Next school year, the district will begin taking advantage of supplemental educational programs that are provided by public broadcasting station WHRO at a minimal cost.
Northampton schools will start with Algebra I, a collection of video lessons taught by certified teachers, which students can watch at home if, for example, they need help figuring out how to do their homework.
Students could also access the videos when they stay after school but there is no math teacher to help them that day, Lawrence added.
Northampton schools have plans to add CNA (certified nursing assistant) training to its dual enrollment program with Eastern Shore Community College. “That’s a big step for us,” Lawrence said.
He is also interested in expanding Northampton’s CTE (career and technical education) program to possibly include cyber security and aquaculture.
Kiptopeke Elementary will pilot a home visitation program to foster communication and create partnerships with families. If successful, the program will be expanded to Occohannock Elementary and the middle and high school.
Northampton schools are taking steps to prevent bullying and other at-risk behaviors. The school district has a hotline that students or adults may call if they or someone they know is being bullied. Clicking on the “Stop Bullying Here” link found on Northampton school websites reveals the phone number.
Northampton’s social-emotional learning program, which was initially implemented in grades K to 2, is being expanded up to eighth grade, Lawrence said. The social-emotional curriculum is titled Second Step.
These anti-bullying measures are supplemented by what Lawrence termed “self-esteem clubs” like Kiptopeke Elementary School’s Ties With the Guys and GLAM, in which “kids are reinforced the proper way to act.”
During the public hearing on the comprehensive plan, former school board member Nancy Proto said she liked that the plan included specifics for addressing bullying.
She recommended the inclusion of plans for an alternative school or an “alternative learning environment for a number of our kids.”
Proto also approved of the school district’s goal to not only provide ongoing professional development for teachers, but to follow it up with coaching to help teachers apply their knowledge in the classroom.
Poverty and childhood trauma should be among the issues addressed by the professional development sessions, she continued.
“I think if we can do that, and if we can develop that awareness and, again, that working understanding of how trauma (and) poverty impact behavior, we can begin to address the suspension issues and not look at these as just misbehaved kids.
“Zero tolerance isn’t going to work. Punishment does not work. … We’ve heard it over and over from Dr. (Arthur) Carter” that Northampton “is one of the worst counties in the state for our numbers of suspensions.”
“Consequences? Yes. They need to be held accountable for their behavior, but we have to look at this behavior, and we have to respond differently.”
That could mean implementing restorative practices, Proto said, which focus less on punishing students and more on giving them opportunities to right their wrongs.
She would like the comprehensive plan to address “disparity, particularly among our low-income and African American students, because it’s just a glaring, glaring issue.”
Proto pointed out the Northampton County Public Schools vision is “to empower all kids, and if we’re going to really talk about empowering all kids, then we need to … address these specific areas.”
She noted that NCPS is short 11 bus drivers and suggested giving a monetary incentive to any school employee who refers for employment a bus driver who works for the school district at least one full year.
Dianne Davis, a retired teacher who advised the team that updated the comprehensive plan, also spoke.
She agreed that more bus drivers are needed, and to retain them, “we’re going to have to pay them more money. They need benefits and all,” she said. Part-time NCPS employees do not receive benefits.
On discipline, Davis said, “We have got to get the parents onboard.”
“You can talk about restorative everything, but we’ve got to have the help at home. And these kids who are in our school system now, those parents – some of them – were discipline problems when they were there, so it’s just an ongoing thing.”
“You need to go into the classrooms, not sit there one or two hot minutes and then leave. You need to be in there and see exactly what is going on, and then you can really talk,” Davis said.
“So please, let’s do what we can for our kids. Don’t put them down, but let’s raise them up and do what we can.”