School & District Management

Va. Hones School Assistance Model

By Alan Richard — January 07, 2004 4 min read
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Nestled between one of this city’s most prestigious parkside neighborhoods and some of its toughest streets, Maymont Elementary School is one of the places where Virginia’s strategies for helping low-rated schools have played out.

In the process, state officials and educators at this school in the capital city learned a bit about what works and what doesn’t.

Maymont’s test scores had slipped two years ago to the point that the school was one of four in Virginia that warranted full-time attention from the state.

About the same time, Gov. Mark Warner had announced the creation of a program called PASS—the Partnership for Achieving Successful Schools—that aimed to help some 117 schools failing to meet state test-score goals. State officials hustled to organize the program on a budget of about $1 million—far less than states such as Kentucky and North Carolina were spending on interventions for low- performing schools.

The result for a handful of schools in Virginia, including Maymont Elementary, was the deployment of full-time teams of veteran educators who would spend every other week on campus. Other schools were partnered with higher-scoring schools, and some received only part-time help.

“There was limited additional funding,” Gov. Warner, a Democrat, said in an interview late last year, recalling when he had started PASS in 2002 as the state faced record budget deficits. “You had to be more creative.”

The full-time model worked fine for Maymont last year, educators at the school contend. But for the current school year, in which the number of Virginia schools receiving aid fell to only 51, the school needed something different.

Facing up to budget constraints and conceding that the program was not as effective as they wanted, Virginia officials adjusted the PASS program for the current year by abandoning the full-time-assistance model.

“The model simultaneously attempted to influence all parts of the school. That turned out to be a mistake,” said Jim Heywood, who helped design the PASS program and runs it for the Virginia Department of Education.

Maymont Elementary this year ended up with a part-time “coach.” The retired principal, who worked on the full-time assistance team last year, now makes weekly visits and advises Maymont’s principal on ways to improve instruction, the use of test data, community involvement, and other topics.

The state diverted some of the money it saved from ending the full-time model into staff development for educators who work in the PASS schools, and for support of affordable, part-time programs, such as partnering successful schools with struggling ones.

“That’s why we backed off it, because we could take that money and do more training and provide more resources for our schools,” said Jo Lynne DeMary, Virginia’s state education superintendent.

Partner schools cost less than the full-time helpers, Mr. Heywood said. The state pays mileage, the cost of meals, and hotel expenses for occasional visits from partner schools.

Gov. Warner said he contributed by calling leading district superintendents into his office and asking them to volunteer some of their employees to help needy schools. Districts responded favorably, which Ms. DeMary said was nothing less than remarkable.

Maymont’s Movement

Maymont Principal Ruth B. Person said that once she got over the disappointment of her school’s being labeled as needing extra help, she learned to count on the experience and suggestions of retired principal Judy Johnson and two other veteran educators on the full-time assistance team.

“There were mixed feelings, of course,” Ms. Person said. “The school felt that we had made some strides.”

The team helped Maymont with many of the issues Virginia officials say are common in struggling schools. It devised curricula that more closely aligned with state academic standards and exams. The team also helped develop more personalized support for each child who was behind.

“The assistance we’re receiving is still meaningful,” Ms. Person, whose school enrolls 228 pupils in prekindergarten through 5th grade, said of the part-time help.

To some extent, PASS worked in her school because of the way it was presented. The state didn’t dwell on a list of failing schools. Instead, educators from the PASS schools, including Ms. Person, were invited to the governor’s mansion, and Gov. Warner visited Maymont Elementary. “The governor made us feel like this would be wonderful,” said Ms. Person, who has pictures of her visits with Mr. Warner on her office walls.

Gov. Warner said that part of the idea was to be uplifting. Too many schools had “never even seen a school board member, let alone the governor of Virginia,” he said.

Mr. Heywood said he and other policymakers would keep looking for better ideas as such work expands, even if the funding does not. “It’s basically a field test,” he said. “No one has the answer.”

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