By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 3, 2018 | 1:35 p.m.
DINWIDDIE – This week, the doors to Dinwiddie County Public Schools reopen to students, ushering in the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year for not only the county’s next generation of leaders but for parents and teachers alike.
At the helm as superintendent for the 2018-2019 school year remains Dr. Kari Weston as she enters her second year as the leader of the county school division and it was her and a team of administrators who looked at what was done right during the previous school year while analyzing areas for improvement. In an interview, Weston reflected on her first year as superintendent, which saw all of the county’s schools reach full accreditation and, based on preliminary data, that status will remain for the 2018-2019 school year.
“I can’t believe it has been a whole year,” she said with a smile. “I feel blessed that I am able to be in this position and to be able to work in this community.”
Earlier this year, Midway Elementary School was among seven schools in the Commonwealth to be named a 2017 National Blue Ribbon School, an honor that is handed down by the United States Department of Education. In order to be selected, a respective school must fall into one of two categories: performance on state assessments, or in the case of private schools, performance on national standardized tests and high school graduation rates; or performance in closing achievement gaps between a school’s subgroups and all students over the past five years while increasing graduation rates for each subgroup, with a special celebration being held to recognize the school in April, which saw current students and alumni come out not only for the national honor but also for the school’s 100th anniversary.
A flag recognizing Midway Elementary as a National Blue Ribbon School is displayed during the special event last school year. (Meredith Baker)
In addition to Midway’s recognition, in July, Governor Ralph Northam and the Virginia Department of Education announced Dinwiddie’s Sunnyside Elementary School was among 200 of the Commonwealth’s schools to receive the 2018 Virginia Board of Education’s Distinguished Achievement Awards as part of the state’s Virginia Index of Performance, or VIP awards. This award affirms that the schools met all of the state and federal benchmarks set for them and that they have made progress toward the goals of the governor and the state board of education.
According to the state, the VIP program “recognizes schools and divisions that exceed state and federal accountability standards and achieve excellence goals established by the Governor and the Board of Education.”
Only schools and school divisions that have met all state and federal accountability requirements for two consecutive years – and have not experienced significant irregularities in the administration of state assessments – are eligible to earn VIP awards.
For Weston, these two recognitions, paired with two consecutive years of full accreditation for the county’s schools, have continued to drive home the message that Dinwiddie is a great place to learn in Virginia.
“I have always said there is no better place to learn than Dinwiddie County and that we’re the best-kept secret here in the Commonwealth,” the superintendent remarked. “I think that Dinwiddie has always been poised for greatness. I think what we are doing now is we are taking all of the great things that were already there and putting some really smart people in place to build upon what was already there.”
“For me,” Weston continued, “I believe these recognitions are all about the right people being in the right places with the right support. It has truly been there all along.”
When it comes to student achievement, the leaders in that realm are teachers who spend time with the county’s youngest minds throughout the course of a school year. Over the past year, Weston and the Dinwiddie School Board have spent time working to address key topics in the area of teacher retention, particularly salary and benefits.
Dr. Kari Weston talks with Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni during a special tour of Rowanty Technical Center in Carson, where students from Dinwiddie, Prince George, and Sussex gain career and technical education. Qarni visited the school during the previous school year. (Michael Campbell)
Earlier this year, the school board approved raising the base salary for teachers by $500 to $43,000 and moved all teachers up one step on their salary scale while also implementing the unified pay plan for all non-instructional positions. Those actions served to address two facets of the current job market for teachers, the need to remain competitive with other school divisions, both neighboring and further away from your borders, and fairly compensating teachers for the work they do on a daily basis inside the county’s classrooms.
“People matter most when it comes to the work we are doing here,” she said. “For me, what’s happening most importantly is happening inside that classroom so I feel our teachers do have options when it comes to employment and I want this to be the place they come to work.”
The superintendent continued, “We want our salaries to be competitive in this region because we know teachers do have choices. There was about a nine-year period where employee salaries were frozen. At the end of the day, we have to pay people for the work they do and we want them to be able to live comfortably.”
Even as Dinwiddie Schools works to address compensation for its teachers, data from the Virginia Department of Education shows Dinwiddie County Schools as having one of the highest percentages of unfilled teacher positions as of the previous school year. According to VDOE data, the county had a total of 15 unfilled teaching positions during the previous year, a roughly four percent shortage.
To help communities dealing with teacher shortages like Dinwiddie or neighboring Petersburg, who has nearly 50 unfilled teaching jobs within their school division, Senator Tim Kaine has introduced legislation aimed at addressing teacher and principal shortages, especially in rural communities.
According to representatives from Kaine’s office, The Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals Act, PREP for short, would ensure that there are enough teachers and principals with the right skills and tools to educate students and prepare them for the future by “expanding the definition of ‘high need’ districts under the Every Student Succeeds Act to include those experiencing teacher shortages in rural communities and in areas such as special education, English language, science, technology, engineering, math, and CTE, to allow for access to additional support and improvement.”
In addition, officials with Kaine’s office said, “It would also encourage school districts to create partnerships, including Grow Your Own programs, with local community colleges and universities to ensure their programs are educating future teachers in areas where there is a shortage of educators. It will also require states to identify areas of teacher or school leader shortages by subject across public schools and use that data to target their efforts and, “since the majority of students in our nation’s public schools are students of color and the teaching workforce is only comprised of 20 percent teachers of color, the PREP Act increases support for teacher preparation programs at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) or Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to support a diverse and well-prepared educator workforce.”
Dinwiddie High School government students engage in healthy debate acting as mock supervisors during Government Day at Eastside Enhancement Center. (Michael Campbell)
For Weston, who has seen the turnover data in Dinwiddie first hand, any efforts to address the challenges of teacher retention is appreciated at any level, from the local level to on a national stage.
“I welcome any support and I am always happy to see people who are in positions of influence and can help us and have an impact on our schools,” she said, adding, “It is good to see they have an appreciation for the challenges we face and they are willing to put their support behind us.”
When asked about the data shared by the VDOE and the insights they’re seeing in regards to turnover, Weston said the school division tends to lose employees, particularly teachers, “in the first five years.”
“When we have asked, a lot of it goes go back to living in a rural community,” she said. “While young people fresh out of college are looking for work, but, for some, living in a rural community can be challenging as they are more likely to want to live in a place with a thriving social scene. We’ve also been told about limited health care options, limited facilities, meaning you can live and work here, but outside of that, you have to drive a bit.”
“We have to be mindful of that when we are talking to millennials and, as we grow, look at what we can do to meet their needs,” Weston continued.
Dinwiddie students gather to take a picture with traditional Costa Rican dancers who not only provided entertainment during their last dinner, but also gave them dance lessons during their trip this summer.
That conversation also goes beyond new hires as she said the school division has been looking at ways to offer other benefits to employees, such as assistance with tuition for continuing education in exchange for staying with the school division for a certain amount of time or other incentives.
All of these play into the school division’s goal of continuing to improve student achievement, an area that remains at the top of Weston’s list of priorities for the school year but achieving that goal with a more methodical approach.
“For this year ahead, we are going to continue to put students first and continue to focus on learning for everyone, not just our young people,” she said. “We all have to continue to grow together and make certain that we are doing good work every day.”
“When you hear us talk about goals, I think what you are also going to hear us talking about is about 100 percent of the kids,” Weston continued. “In the past, it was said, ‘If we can just get 80 percent proficient,’ but our focus is 100 percent of the students and making sure 100 percent of our students are learning and are learning in a way that is going to transcend far beyond their time with us. This is all about making certain when our young people graduate that they have options and that the learning is timeless.”
As she prepares to usher in a new school year across Dinwiddie County, the speed at which her first year as the county schools leader flew by took even Weston by surprise as she reflected on the 2016-2017 year while still humbled to be able to work for Dinwiddie Schools.
“I am extremely blessed to be here,” she shared. “This is such an incredible job and I feel blessed and honored to be able to work alongside some of the best and most talented people I have ever met and I am just excited about the year ahead and what we will do for the young people of Dinwiddie County.”