School redistricting becomes touchy issue
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- South Charleston Middle School principal Henry Graves is worried that if a proposed redistricting plan goes through, the school's atmosphere will suffer not because of the students, but because of their parents.
"We need to come together. Students are being divided by no fault of their own. If redistricting happens, these kids will be a part of this school," Graves said. "I don't want students thinking they are better than others. I don't want to perpetuate those thoughts.
"We can deliver a quality education no matter what happens, but it's going to take us all working together."
At a Kanawha County school board meeting last week, parents expressed concerns about the impact redistricting would have on their children's education if redistricting moves them from John Adams Middle and George Washington High School to South Charleston schools.
Although John Adams is overcrowded and has nearly twice as many students as South Charleston, several parents said they would move to avoid being pushed out of the George Washington attendance area.
"We want our kids to go to that school, and that's not changing if we get redistricted. I can tell you that I, and other families, will not send our kids to South Charleston. I will sell my home at a loss and move my kids to get them in the district," Chanin Wolfingbarger Krivonyak, a mother of three Ruthlawn Elementary students, told the board last week through tears.
Another parent said she worried about the impact the move would have on students' "middle class values," and another said the plan would "cripple the community."
When Graves first heard the comments, he thought about his own childhood growing up on the East End.
"Some of the comments made equated middle class values with economic status. I thought about my mother, who worked 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week so that I could go to a good college. She taught me to be moral and ethical and to respect the people in our community, and we didn't have things readily accessible to us," he said. "Just because these kids aren't at the highest socioeconomic level doesn't mean they don't have values. That's unfair."
Now, Graves is working to address the negative talk about his school without further worrying students about the education they're receiving.
"We're addressing students in a way that doesn't cause any further division. I don't want to point out what has been said, but we're highlighting what it means to be a productive citizen, and we're talking about the importance of community and giving them even more encouragement," he said. "I understand change is hard, but we need to tone it down because if we do make this change, we're going to have to be together. No more negative back and forth."
John Adams students scored the highest of any middle school in the state on the WESTEST 2 standardized test in 2012. South Charleston ranked 23 out of about 150 middle schools.
South Charleston Middle has met adequate yearly progress standards every year since the federal No Child Left Behind regulations were first implemented eight years ago.
Graves wants people who think poorly of his school to see it for themselves.
"I challenge anyone to come here any time unannounced and visit. They'll see caring teachers and engaged students, not a bunch of rowdy, disruptive students or an office full of kids in trouble," he said. "Yes, studies show that students in more privileged homes have a leg up on less advantaged students when it comes to test scores. But when you've got 700 students like John Adams, you're going to have more teachers and more variety of courses. If our enrollment increases, our offerings would increase, too."
George Washington High had the second-highest WESTEST scores in the state this year, while South Charleston High School ranked 36 out of 113 high schools.
South Charleston High School principal Mike Arbogast said the issues that have surfaced with redistricting talk has motivated him to better promote his school and has him valuing his staff and students more than ever.
"I don't know where those comments come from. We recognize positive character and good behavior, and we're constantly preaching about the importance of representing our school in a positive way," he said about last week's remarks. "My teachers here make me believe in the public education system every day."
South Charleston High has the state's only International Baccalaureate program and offers a variety of foreign language classes, in addition to creating "global classrooms" through online classes where students communicate with others from across the world, Arbogast said.
He said some of the same criticisms he's heard about his school is what he values most.
"We're a diverse school, but we embrace that. We learn from each other, and I love that about our school. We have different races, religions and ethnic backgrounds and come from all walks of life," he said. "That's what the real world is all about."
Superintendent Ron Duerring said children are in good hands in Kanawha County regardless of which school they attend.
"I think in all our schools we have a lot of good people -- a lot of wonderful families and parents, and it doesn't really matter to me what school you go to. I think our children are in good hands in good communities with parents who care about them," he said.
No plans have been finalized for redistricting at this time, according to board President Pete Thaw.
"We're going to proceed with this but we're not going to do it in the dark. You're going to see every move. It's going to be a long time, but these doors are always open," Thaw told parents at the board meeting last week. "You'll know when we get close to something, but we're not near anything. We hardly know where we are on this."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.