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West Virginia Legislative Interims: Committee told education still below pre-pandemic competencies levels but ‘moving in the right direction’

By Matt Young, West Virginia Press Association

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. – The West Virginia Legislature’s Oversight Commission on Education Accountability (LOCEA) met on Monday to hear reports regarding the “transformative system for early literacy,” as well as safety and security measures from representatives of the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE).

It was the commission’s first meeting since last week’s referendum defeat of Amendment 4, the proposed “Education Accountability Amendment.” Members of the legislature are conducting interim meetings Sunday to Tuesday in the Eastern Panhandle at Cacapon Resort State Park. 

Sonya White, teaching and learning officer with the WVDE, began by providing a brief explanation of the early literacy report, saying, “We have an overview of the campaign for grade-level reading, so this includes the four tenets of that campaign.” 

According to White, those four tenets are school readiness, school attendance, extended day and extended year learning, and high quality classroom instruction. 

“As with any educational program, family engagement is also important,” White added. 

As an example of family engagement, White highlighted West Virginia’s inclusion in the Dolly Parton “Imagination Library” program, which provides one book per month – for children between the ages of birth and five-years – to enrolled families, free of charge. 

“They get a total of 60 books by the time they start kindergarten,” White added. “We appreciate the legislature’s continued support of this project – $350,000 is allocated for this annually. Over 12-months, we give a little over half-a-million books to students in the State of West Virginia. Currently, a little over half our students receive books from the Imagination Library.”

White then explained that, although the most recent West Virginia General Summative  Assessment revealed third-graders are not yet back to pre-pandemic competencies, “We are moving in the right direction.”

“In 2021, we had a significant dip,” White told the commission. “This past year we’ve been moving in the right direction. Our hope is that as we work with counties, and counties work with their local schools, that we continue to reverse that trend.”

At the conclusion of the presentation, Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, expressed his confusion regarding his perception that White’s testimony contradicted what was said by W.Va. Superintendent of Schools David Roach during Sunday’s meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Education, saying, “The Department of Education is giving us two different messages on two different days.”

“Yesterday our meeting was all about early-childhood literacy,” Roberts continued, before adding that Roach spoke of the need for more teacher-competency assessments, while White had stated that the assessments were currently being performed. “Can you straighten this mess out please?”

“We’re presenting you with what’s happening, and it’s not enough,” White replied. “For this report – it is what’s going on. But it doesn’t begin to cover what we need. We have so many things that aren’t being adequately addressed.” 

White further explained that of the $5.7 million currently allocated for “K-3rd Grade Programming,” which includes funding for teacher-competency assessments, teacher coaches, new teacher training, and various other educational-support initiatives, more than half goes directly to county school boards. According to White, that amount is, “not enough.” 

Unsatisfied by her response, Roberts told White, “That wasn’t the message that’s been given. You just changed the message. So 53 percent of that funding ($5.7 million) is going directly to the counties, and all 55 counties do their own thing because we call it ‘local control?’”

“We’re all over the board,” Roberts concluded.

The second piece of business before the commission was a presentation from WVDE School Operations Officer Sam Pauley, regarding new safety and security measures, as well as upgrades to existing measures. 

Pauley advised the commission that, “The state code requires counties to survey the safety and security of their facilities annually, and the statute requires us at the department (WVDE) to summarize that data and report that to you (the legislature) annually.” 

Pauley explained that in light of the Uvalde, Texas school shooting that occurred earlier in the year, the WVDE, “felt like it was not appropriate for us to call-out certain county school districts that may have one or two schools that don’t have certain things in place.”

Pauley cited “safe-school entryways, fencing, or card readers” as possible examples of what was omitted from the report. 

“We felt like that may actually put a school at risk for an active-shooter or an intruder that could harm students,” Pauley noted. 

According to Pauley, the WVDE’s current funding request for safety and security enhancements is “a lot larger” than in the previous school year. Pauley attributes the increase to county school districts taking safety and security “a lot more seriously” as a result of the tragedy in Uvalde. Fences, weapon-detection systems, and additional lighting were among the most requested items reflected on the WVDE’s report.

“Any funding that goes out, we do have monitoring-procedures over those items,” Pauley concluded. 

The Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability will reconvene during next month’s interim session scheduled for Dec. 5-6. 

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