Education, Latest News

Mon schools face plans, pandemic, petition

First request for charter school doesn’t make it

Eddie Campbell Jr.’s adherence to planning, and The Plan, helped him survive, and thrive, in some pretty extreme environments in the education world.

Such as the time he soldiered on in 20-below temperatures as principal of a high school within hailing distance of the Arctic Circle in Alaska.

Or the time before that, when he stepped off a plane in China — not knowing a soul or a syllable in the native language — en route to a new role as executive director of an American school in Shanghai.

In the pandemic year of 2020, as superintendent of Monongalia County Schools, all Campbell knew was  The Plan, or any planning, couldn’t be more subject to change.

By the hour, even.

“That’s what I really had to learn,” said the Wheeling native, who studied at WVU and began his career as a history teacher and coach in Virginia.

“All of us found out this year that there are going to be times when you just don’t have all the answers,” he continued.

“All of us found out that no matter what you did concerning COVID-19, that there were going to be strong reactions either way.” 

The earliest strong reactions over the summer, though, came in the form of … feathers.

One person’s symbolism 

In that summer of George Floyd and Robert E. Lee (the Confederate statue, that is), the Native American-themed imagery of MHS was suddenly a flashpoint.

One petition was fronted, saying the imagery, with its feathered headdress, “tribal” drumbeats and majorettes with broad, indigenous affectations, was offensive to a people that had been oppressed and insulted enough.

“They are reducing real people to cartoon imagery,” said Bonnie Brown, the coordinator of WVU’s Program for Native American Studies.

“They are degrading sacred traditions to related to regalia, symbols of honor, dance, song and rituals.” 

Not so, countered Brian Lakatos, who graduated from the school on Wilson Avenue in 1991.

Lakatos, who is now a teacher in Monongalia County Schools, said the imagery got him keenly interested in the history of the region and its principal river, the Monongahela, which takes its name from an indigenous word meaning “river of falling banks.” 

The school’s mascot, the Mohigan, is a mash-up of the Morgantown High Annual, the yearbook, which sounds like “Mohican,” the Native tribe.

“I studied our tribes to the north on my own,” he said. “It’s a proud symbol of Morgantown High used in a positive manner.” 

The debate died down as the school year ramped up.

Being in school (and in school) 

Mon parents and students expressed a strong preference for in-school learning as everyone readied for the first day of school Sept. 8 and the pandemic roiled.

The district put together a re-entry plan with options for absolute distance learning and a chance to be in school in a staggered, alternating schedule of classroom learning and instruction via computer from home.

More than 70% chose a mix of in-person learning and remote learning for the year in a survey  — reasoning that some teacher-time in the classroom was better than no face-to-face learning at all.

And, just 90 of the county’s high school seniors opted for the total distance-learning option.

“As you can probably guess,” Deputy Schools Superintendent Donna Talerico said, “high school students really love being in school.” 

How much, though, was what the board would soon be banking on.

Initial investment 

How much would you pay a for a new school? 

Does $72 million sound right? 

That’s what the BOE wanted to know in October, since the pitch will likely be made over the next 10 years.

The aforementioned number, and its kite-tail of zeros, is the projected price of the “Renaissance Academy,” a specialized high school that would be a  showcase of technical education in the county.

Mon’s district made the idea the centerpiece of its Comprehensive Facilities Plan, a paradigm-shifting roll of the dice that must be updated every 10 years.

The 2000-10 edition of the plan saw the construction of a new University High School on Bakers Ridge — and the 2010-20 offering gave Eastwood Elementary, the county’s first environmentally friendly green school to the Mileground.

“When you have a vision,” former BOE president Barbara Parsons of the planning committee said, “you can accomplish anything.” 

It didn’t take long, though, for the coronavirus to reduce day-to-day in the district to a tunnel-vision view.

Quarantines, and quarantines 

Clay-Battelle High’s football team was pulling out of the parking lot for an away game in October when the call came.

“Everybody off the bus, fellas. We can’t play.” 

That’s because a person associated with WVU’s College of Physical Activities and Sport Sciences who had been working with the team as a strength and conditioning coach tested positive for the coronavirus.

The team had to quarantine for the next several days.

Over the next several weeks quarantining became the issue, as  COVID cases began to mount.

Contact tracing was both the balm and the bane of the pandemic for Mon Schools, Superintendent Campbell said.

While it was important  people who may have been exposed self-isolate for safety, it wasn’t long before the county literally ran out of substitutes to staff the temporary vacancies.

A month after the benching of the Cee-Bees football team,  91 students and four employees were quarantined as a precaution after four diagnoses were made at Cheat Lake Elementary, Ridgedale Elementary and Suncrest Middle.

In the midst of that, another group was saying Mon’s school district wasn’t that academically healthy, either.

A case for a charter school 

The proposed West Virginia Academy, which had planned on opening in the Morgantown area, would have been the state’s first charter school.

Charter schools are those public institutions learning that run separate from “standard” schools in the district.

If their directors want, they can have a free-form curriculum and a year-’round calendar.

Such schools aren’t beholden to state-mandated policies or benchmarks.

Except in West Virginia. Under the pioneering law that would allow the creation of charter schools here, the new educational enterprise must answer to the local board of education in its  county, first.

And the 371-page application submitted by the West Virginia Academy,  didn’t pass, Mon’s school district said in November.

Its board of directors, Mon Schools said, didn’t clearly state graduation requirements or fully address background checks for the hiring of teachers, among the several items it deemed as deficiencies.

 John Treu, a WVU accounting professor and dean who chairs the board of directors for the academy, said the county school district was the entity that fell short.

The deficiencies called out, he said, were “vague and largely subjective.” 

And the way the charter statute was written and enacted in the first place, he said, automatically doomed the enterprise.

“While we do not believe any charter application or charter school is perfect, our school and application were specifically designed using best practices from some of the most successful public charter schools in the entire country and our charter school will provide an outstanding academic experience for all who enter,” he wrote in an email to The Dominion Post.

“The fact that the panel of district administrators found our application to be deficient in almost every way only confirms that they would have rejected the application under every circumstance.” 

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