By Michael Campbell – News Editor
PRINCE GEORGE – Following the Prince George School Board’s decision in mid-December of last year to end a popular school program geared toward preparing middle students for higher-level learning in their high school years, parents urged board members to reconsider their actions at this month’s regular meeting.
On Dec. 15, 2016, the school board voted 4-0, with member Roger Franklin recorded as being absent, to end the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme during a special meeting of the board at their offices.
According to the program’s website, the Middle Years Programme, offered by International Baccalaureate, a non-profit educational foundation that offers international education programs to schools around world, is aimed at students aged 11-16, specifically rising sixth graders, providing “a challenging framework that encourages students to make practical connections between their studies and the real world.”
As part of the IB-MYP, students take “at least 50 hours of teaching time” in eight subject groups, including language acquisition and literature, the sciences, mathematics, and design, among others, while engaging in “at least one collaboratively planned interdisciplinary unit” that involves at least two subject groups. Additionally, those students complete a long-term project, “where they decide what they want to learn about, identify what they already know, discovering what they will need to know to complete the project, and create a proposal or criteria for completing it.”
“The MYP aims to develop active learners and internationally minded young people who can empathize with others and pursue lives of purpose and meaning,” officials with International Baccalaureate stated. “The programme empowers students to inquire into a wide range of issues and ideas of significance locally, nationally and globally. The result is young people who are creative, critical and reflective thinkers.”
According to information provided by the school division, the IB-MYP began during the 2006-07 school year, allowing students in grades six through ten to apply and take part in the program.
That program came to an end in December 2016, with Prince George Public Schools posting a statement to their website stating that the school division “will not be accepting any 5th [grade] students into this program as it will be phased out when the current group of 6th graders completes the program in the 10th grade,” stressing that Prince George Schools “remain committed to the instructional delivery of the program for students completing the program.”
In a later statement, Prince George Schools Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff said, “While the MYP-IB Program is not scheduled to begin another cohort during the 2017-2018 school year, the division is committed to allowing the students already in the program to complete the program which ends in a certificate at 10th grade.”
“The school division also remains committed to student engagement and the development of the life ready skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and citizenship which are not only hallmarks of the program but are also the 5 C’s of preparing students for college and careers as identified by the Virginia Department of Education,” she continued.
Several parents used their time during the school board meeting’s public comment period to voice their concerns about the termination of the program and to make impassioned pleas to the five-member board to reconsider their decision.
“I think you owe the citizens of Prince George County an explanation, especially the families of elementary students who wanted to apply to the IB-MYP program,” parent of an IB-MYP student Sharon Jadrnak said to the board. During her remarks, she said she was “surprised” to learn on the school division’s website of the program’s end and “concerned” that the discussion of the IB-MYP occurred in closed session during the Dec. 15 meeting.
In the special meeting agenda for the Dec. 15, 2016 meeting, posted to the school division’s website the prior day, no mention of student programs was listed on the agenda for the special meeting. The minutes for that meeting, posted to PGS website on Jan. 18, 2017, show that an item titled “Student Matter – Programs” was added to the agenda, but the minutes do not show which of the school board members requested that the item be added to the agenda, nor is the student programs item mentioned in the approval to adopt the agenda, which included amendments to the agenda to allow for the addition of a “personnel matter” and the removal of a “residency matter.”
The agenda was approved by all board members, except Lewis Stevenson, who was listed as absent at the time of the vote, according to the minutes.
While at the podium, Jadrnak pointed to the Code of Virginia, suggesting that the discussion on Dec. 15 “may not be exempt under open meetings law.”
As part of the Freedom of Information Act in Virginia, several items are allowed to be discussed during a public board’s closed or executive session, which is typically laid out before and after a public board enters such session as part of a required disclosure, stating that only items listed in Va Code § 2.2-3711 were discussed during closed session.
According to the Dec. 15 meeting minutes, the “Student Matter – Programs” item was discussed in closed session pursuant to Va. Code § 2.2-3711.A.2, which allows for, “Discussion or consideration of admission or disciplinary matters or any other matters that would involve the disclosure of information contained in a scholastic record concerning any student of any Virginia public institution of higher education or any state school system.”
It is unknown if scholastic records of specific students were disclosed as part of the discussion in closed session and requests for clarification on this matter sent to school board chairman Kevin Foster and vice-chair Stevenson was not returned at the time of this report.
Following Jadrnak, other parents spoke on the impact the IB-MYP has had on their children, many praising the program for the success that their children have had inside and out of Prince George Schools, while others asked for the county to, at least, keep the program active until the school system is able to find an alternative.
“When my daughter was in fifth grade, she made straight A’s but was not identified as a gifted student,” Michelle Bowen told the board. “I wanted a program that focused on rigorous curriculum but would also make her into a responsible citizen,” she said, thanking the board for allowing her daughter to have that opportunity, but encouraging them to reverse course and reinstate the program.
“You have pulled the rug up from under a bunch of ten-year-olds and I hope you reconsider this,” Shelia Minor, a parent of two young PGS students said. “The decision that was made on Dec. 15 should never have occurred. I want my children to be challenged and, I assure you, my eighth grader has received that, and more, from this program and I want the same for others.”
“The IB program provided an experience that has enriched their middle school years and prepared them for the honors and dual enrollment classes they are a part of right now,” Tonya Humphrey shared. “I feel, by removing such a worthwhile program, we are taking a step backward in what we offer our advanced and high-end students.”
For school board member Roger Franklin, while he appreciated the passion of the parents and community in regards to the program, he told parents funding for the program was a key factor in their decision.
“The problem is, as you know, everything costs a dollar, and there are only so many dollars,” he remarked. “Not to use that as an excuse as I have heard some points that were very good, but we, unfortunately, have to make choices and this is part of it.”
Those points were echoed by vice-chair Stevenson, who stressed that the decision of the board was not made in haste and was taken with careful consideration.
“I can assure you it was not a rash decision,” he told parents in attendance. “It wasn’t made on [Dec.] 15th. We took a vote that night but we have been talking about this for the last three years,” adding that staff has been involved and were aware of the discussion surrounding the program’s future and that the matter has been discussed openly during meetings.
“The fact that the vote finally came down and people took notice doesn’t mean that we haven’t been discussing this,” the vice-chair continued, saying that he and the board will ask school staff to pull data to learn what the percent increase of students in advanced placement and dual-enrollment courses as it related to IB-MYP, with the origins of the program coming from a decline in enrollment in those courses during the early 2000’s and the school division’s desire to better prepare students entering high school for those more intensive courses.
He added that the passion shown by those parents who wish the see the program continue could be echoed by the parents of students who are unable to make the IB-MYP program due to its limited number of slots and would want that restriction taken off the program, to give everyone or no one access.
“When your kids are involved and you want it, that’s great, but when your kids don’t make it because there are only so many slots, those parents would argue their kids are no less important than anybody else’s,” he said.
For school board member Reeve Ashcraft, a recent graduate of Prince George High School, he said that he shared classes with students in the IB-MYP program and received the same rigor and intensive coursework that his peers in the program did, but didn’t get a certificate, given that he started in the school system in ninth grade and was ineligible to take part in the program. He continued by saying, in the time following the Dec. 15 vote to end the IB-MYP program, he received three calls from individuals who disagreed with the board’s action, but he was contacted by “dozens” of students who felt the money could be spent in other ways.
“I am looking at a number of three versus a number of students I know well enough, who take their schooling very seriously that wouldn’t lie to me and I know they are telling the honest truth,” Ashcraft said. “Unfortunately, I know we can get students up here that will say, ‘Yes, we appreciate the program and it did amazing things for us,’ but, it would be surprising to get students up here who agree the board’s decision and would also like to work with us on something that we could do better.”
Taking many of the items discussed by parents at last week’s meeting, Stevenson announced that further discussion of the IB-MYP program will take place during the board’s upcoming work session on Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.
Copyright 2016 by Womack Publications