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Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, smiles as Colonial Beach school officials discuss improvements they've made at the town's high school. Federal officials visited yesterday to learn more about the school's turnaround effort.
Officials discuss Colonial Beach High. Facing the camera are (from left) state education official Kathleen Smith, Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Thelma Melendez,
By PAMELA GOULD
Colonial Beach schools Superintendent Donna Power got the chance yesterday to tell state and federal education officials about the division's efforts to turn around the high school's poor performance.
She said it has been a collaborative process, bringing in education experts from the College of William & Mary and elsewhere, revamping scheduling of the school day, and reaching out to people from various corners of the 3,000-resident Potomac River town.
Federal funding of $1.5 million over three years is also playing a crucial role.
"The offer of school improvement funds was absolutely critical," Power told two officials from the U.S. Department of Education yesterday during a meeting in the high school's music room.
Last spring, Power called it "devastating" when she learned that the Virginia Board of Education had rated the town's one high school in the bottom 5 percent for student achievement among state schools.
Since then, she has been working with school staff to change that.
She told Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, assistant secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education for the U.S. Department of Education, and the Town Council this week that she has started seeing results.
For the first time, all special-education students passed the Standards of Learning test for Algebra I, she told Melendez, eliciting a "Wow."
Earlier this week, Power updated the council and School Board on the progress. She said most students who were seriously behind their grade levels have caught up.
"The [Lead Turnaround Partnership] at Colonial Beach High School is working better than most turnaround plans in rural schools," Power said.
The federal school improvement program, which provided the funding, requires turnaround schools to replace the principal. However, Colonial Beach received a waiver for Principal Clinton Runyon last year after agreeing to provide him with intensive coaching and training.
This week, Runyon was offered a new contract to continue as principal.
Melendez said she has traveled to 21 states to visit struggling schools, and had asked Virginia's Board of Education to introduce her to a rural school division that's working through its problems.
Kathleen Smith, the state's director of the Office of School Improvement, recommended Colonial Beach, and Melendez was pleased with the pick.
She saw in Power's presentation that Colonial Beach's high school had garnered support from its School Board, superintendent, Town Council, business partners and the people dropping by the local convenience store.
"It's always really impressive when you see a community working together at all levels," she said.
But she said instructional success is fundamental.
"What it comes down to, it's really about teaching and learning, bottom line," she said. "And it's about the resources and structures put in place."
Power provided an overview of her division's efforts yesterday morning during a meeting also attended by Smith, some of the education consultants involved, and two School Board members.
Power, who started her tenure in August 2009, said she discovered that teachers had no planning periods and that staff had no outside resources or networking to draw on.
She mentioned rescheduling the student day, incorporating time for specialized help, and re-evaluating student needs every two weeks.
She also said she implemented planning time for teachers and employed instructional coaches.
But Power shared that one of the challenges in smaller rural divisions like hers is the "emotional component" and people's attachment to the past.
"They say: 'It was good enough for me. Why change it?'" she said. "They truly want to keep things as they know and love it."
That's what prompted her approach of reaching out to the community, to try to get buy-in to the changes she was trying to implement.
But she said that one key ingredient was already present.
"The thing that saved this school district was the teachers are so involved with the kids," she said.
Teachers needed a hand improving instructional techniques, and they're getting that now.
Melendez indicated she was pleased with what she saw and heard yesterday.
"It's a pleasure to see this and take it back to the department," she said.
--Staff writer Frank Delano
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972