Back-to-School 2018: PG Schools’ Williams talks new school year, addressing problem areas

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 3, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

Renee Williams

PRINCE GEORGE – This week, the doors to Prince George 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 Renee Williams after she was re-appointed to the position by the Prince George School Board earlier in the summer 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, Williams talked about some of those successes, which included two of the county’s schools – South and Walton Elementary – receiving Virginia Board of Education Distinguished Achievement Awards for their performances during the previous school year.

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.

“Anytime that our schools are recognized for their achievement, we applaud our teachers and students and we are proud of that,” Williams said. “In fact, that is one of our goals is to improve student achievement and to have been selected for this award by the Board of Education was certainly one of the highlights of the year.”

During the previous year, Prince George Schools excelled in the classroom, as is evident by the state-level recognition, and on the field as both the Prince George High School Boys Baseball and Girls Softball teams won state champions following command performances, along with wrestler Jakob Kennedy earning a state wrestling title, the first for Prince George High School.

“That really brought a lot of excitement to the county and to our parents and students,” she shared. “Everyone was certainly excited about that and are still glowing about that and it really says a lot about our athletic program here.”

In addition, Williams talked about the impact of the implementation of the school division’s salary scale as a positive in the areas of personnel and teacher retention. In May, the Prince George School Board adopted the teacher salary scale that was crafted following a detailed study by Evergreen Solutions, which found that the school system had “too many steps in the Instructional Salary Scale, multiple steps were frozen in the first ten steps of the Instructional Salary Scale, the Non-instructional Salary Scale had too many grades, [and the] Instructional and Non-instructional salary scales were not aligned,” among others.

The results of that study served as the foundation of both the instructional and non-instructional pay scale. According to school division documents, through the new teacher scale, the starting salary for teachers was adjusted from $42,111 to $42,657.

The new teacher scale includes 35 steps, as opposed to the previous 40-step scale, which is intended to correlate with years of experience, though experience and steps may not match exactly as the division moves to the new scale. Even with the changes, supplemental pay for education beyond a bachelor’s degree will remain the same for the upcoming year. Teachers can make anywhere from $500 in additional pay for having 12 credits over a bachelor’s degree to $2,400 for holding a doctorate.

“Being able to realign our salary scales was important and a positive for us,” Williams said. “Our teachers hadn’t received a significant pay increase in a number of years and that realignment enabled us to be able to go forth with looking at how we can keep our steps in line as we go forward from this year.”

She added, as of mid-August, the school division was in a better position in terms of vacancies, noting they had fewer openings at that point than they did at the same time last year. At the time of the interview, the school division’s employment portal listed 27 individual openings, 20 of those being in the area of teaching. Of those openings, the posting date on some go back as far as November of 2017, including a firefighting and EMT teacher job at Carson’s Rowanty Technical Center and a physical education teacher position at N.B. Clements Jr. High School.

In addition, of those 20 teaching position openings, five are in special education and three are in Pre-K through 6th grade.

Williams said the central office and administrators have been actively working to address those openings.

“We continue to have our administrators go out and help recruit at local colleges and universities, that has really played a key role in our personnel efforts,” she explained. “Another thing that has been important and we think will help us is the State making some changes to the provisional license program where, if you have a provisional license, you had to have earned your license in three years. Now, I can extend that five years as superintendent so we are looking to see how that can help us retain some teachers.”

Those teachers play a key role in reaching those student achievement goals, both within the school division and by the Commonwealth through Standards of Learning benchmarks and other requirements. As of the 2017-2018 school year, seven of the county’s eight schools were fully accredited by the state, while N.B. Clements Jr. High School was “partially accredited; approaching benchmark-pass rate.” As Prince George County Public Schools works to continue to increase student achievement, Williams explained their areas of focus and what they are doing to get better results and outcomes from their students.

“The key areas we are looking at is our reading and math programs,” the superintendent remarked. “One of the things we started introducing about three years ago was training for our staff, teachers and administrators was about the tiered systems of support. That is where we look at how we can provide support for those students who are not achieving at a level we would like them to. In looking at that, we have implemented several intervention programs. For reading specifically, we have introduced a level literacy intervention program and for writing, we have put in place the ‘Step up to Writing’ program to help our students there. We also have several math programs as well that have helped us, as well.”

She added that the school division was able to attain a grant through the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity grant program that would be aimed at looking at how much technology is in the classroom and how to increase digital learning.

Before students can achieve, they have to get to the school first and the area of transportation has been a point of concern for parents over the last several years, particularly long bus routes, a lack of bus drivers and bus driver turnover, complaints of students being marked tardy for classes due to the buses being late at no fault of the student, or parents carpooling students to get them to school on time due to the consistent delays. When asked, Williams admitted transportation is a challenge they working to deal with, particularly a lack of bus drivers.

“While we have worked this summer to consolidate routes and streamline others, the biggest issue we are facing with transportation is the lack of bus drivers,” she remarked, noting they hosted several bus driver job fairs to held aid the issue. “We recognize that and we are doing all we can to address that situation and it will be interesting to see the recommendations from the consulting team,” referring to the consulting firm Transportation Advisory Group who will bring recommendations to the school division following a comprehensive review of all aspects of the transportation department, from routing to professional development.

In addition, Williams confirmed that the school division will be rolling out a new tool for parents to be able to track their child’s bus along its route so they know where the bus is by simply entering their child’s bus number into some form of an online program. While specifics about the program weren’t available at the time of the interview, Williams said she believes the program will be helpful to parents.

Another matter that was brought during the course of the year was the ending of the relationship between the school division and its residency vendor at a time where concerns about if some students who attend Prince George County Schools and their families are actually residents of the county have gained traction. When asked, Williams said work is still being done to address the matter and they are in active discussions with the school board.

“Our school board has been in discussion about that to try and secure someone to do that,” she said. “They are looking at several options currently, such as if we need a private investigative company, whether we need to hire a retired police officer, but they have not made a final decision on where they will proceed on that but it is certainly on the table for discussion for the 18-19 year.”

As the school year gets underway, the conversation about school security always jumps to the foreground and, in the days leading up to the start of school, Williams said all of the county school underwent active shooter training as part of preparations to resume the school year, but even before the doors reopened, the superintendent said school security for the coming year has been talked about all the way back to the midpoint of the last year.

“One of the things we have done following the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida, we do have three schools that do not have school resource officers – Walton, Beazley and South – and our school board talked with Prince George County Police and they provided funding to place off-duty police officers in those schools,” she said. “It is our plan to go forth with those plans again for the 18-19 school year so we can do the same thing,” adding that she has been told the police department is actively pursuing another grant to bring an additional SRO to the division.

“We are hopeful he gets that grant to be able to do that, but in the meantime, our school board is committed to providing those additional officers to our schools that don’t have a dedicated SRO,” she said.

As students settle into their chairs for the coming year, Williams said the school division remains committed to its strategic goal of “increasing opportunities for students to master the curriculum” by continuing to improve the student achievement in those key areas of reading and math while targeting digital learning as an area for growth, and bringing more career and technical education, CTE for short, options for students.

“We are striving to do our best for each and every student, to make sure they are prepared for the world of work and post-secondary education,” she said. “In doing that, we are looking forward to a positive working relationship with our parents and the community. We can’t do this by ourselves. We need that support from our parents and our community, our Prince George family.”

Williams also thanked the Prince George School Board for reappointing her to serve as superintendent for another year, a position she has held since 2015.

“I am humbled and honored that our school board has continued our relationship in appointing me to the position of superintendent,” she said. “Each member of our school board comes from a different walk in life, through their jobs and education. But I can assure the community that our school board is dedicated to meeting the needs of every student, whether that is instruction, athletics, school security, technology, or anything else, they collectively want the best we can give for students in Prince George County Schools.”

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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