Delores W. Cook, President of the West Virginia Board of Education
Turn on the TV, radio or pick up a newspaper these days and everyone it seems is talking about the economy. As job losses continue to mount across the country, the pressure on public schools to do more with less is growing. In fact, all state agencies in West Virginia are dealing with cuts in funding ranging from 1 to 8.5 percent.
Such economic difficulties make education more important than ever. That’s one reason we at the state Board of Education, along with state Superintendent Steve Paine, applaud Gov. Joe Manchin and the West Virginia Legislature for passing important education legislation during the recent special session. The governor included bills to create school innovation zones and to provide extra assistance for students in danger of not having the necessary skills to advance from the third and eighth grades. Both bills did not fare well in the Legislature's regular session earlier this year.
The School Innovations Zones Act, which the governor included as an education priority in his State of the State address, is designed to encourage pilot projects at schools around the state. It gives the state board and the Department of Education the option to waive certain rules and policies to give teachers and principals greater local control over the curriculum, schedule and staffing in their schools.
Giving teachers the opportunity to make changes in their schools is an important step to implementing research-backed 21st century teaching and learning, an essential component of state Board of Education and Department of Education’s 21st century improvement plan called “Global21: Students deserve it. The world demands it.”
Global21 helps public schools expand instruction models and guide all children toward mastery of higher level core subjects and complex concepts, including problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.
Innovation zones will allow schools to serve as pilot sites for implementing Global21, including new ways to teach today’s techno-savvy kids so that they graduate from West Virginia schools with the intellectual capital and finely honed skills needed to excel in a competitive digital world.
The student achievement bill also is an important part of this effort. This bill will make sure struggling students get the additional help they need at crucial times in their educational careers. As a former classroom teacher, I know that if children don’t master certain critical skills by the third grade, it is difficult for them to catch up. Eighth grade also is a pivotal point for children. If students don’t have certain skills before entering high school, those high school years will become a real struggle.
West Virginia’s eight Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs) will likely play an important role as we work to implement this legislation. At a time when many of the state’s 55 county school districts are struggling with their budgets, they rely more heavily on RESAs to provide needed services and cost-saving benefits.
RESAs are able to use their basic funding allowance to leverage additional dollars and provide training, coordinate training or facilitate training for thousands in PreK-12 public education, adult education, public safety, private businesses and others. The regional agencies help counties reduce waste and redundancy that can result from 55 separate county school boards, with 55 administrative staffs, payrolls and purchasing offices.
RESAs also play an important role in offering technical assistance to low performing schools; high quality professional development; training services to other state agencies, emergency first responders and the private industry; and technology repair and training to school districts.
Providing cost-effective support and flexibility will help West Virginia schools change to meet the greater demands of the knowledge economy. Even though change can be an extremely daunting and difficult process, it can be a catalyst for enabling us to do what is in the best interest of our children.
Those of us who adapt to changing times and embrace new ideas and new teaching strategies will help our children prosper in the global economy of the 21st century. I’m proud that in West Virginia we’re doing just that.