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Parents, students plead for small school’s future

By Mike Scott

Over 120 parents, students, faculty members and Wyaconda residents filled the gymnasium  at the Wyaconda C-1 school.
“Our task tonight is to gather information which will be shared at the state Board of Education meeting,” said Tom Quinn, Interim Assistant Commissioner.
Quinn outlined the district’s struggling performance over the past several years, noting that state law requires DESE to intervene when a district fails to achieve accredited status for two consecutive years.  Wyaconda was placed on the unaccredited list in May of 2006.
“These are the things that could happen,” Quinn continued.  “The district could be attached to an adjacent school district, of the board could appoint a special administrative board to run the district.”
A special board would consist of an administrator and two patrons of the district.  It would replace the elected body.
“Our goal is to maintain service and education opportunities for your students,” Quinn said.
Quinn then opened the floor for audience comments.
Donna Austin asked how the state board determines whether a school is closed or taken over by the state by appointing a special board.
Answer:  No specific rules or regulation determine what the state board would decide.
How do our scores compare to districts taken over?
Answer:  Wellston is the only other school, and its test scores are “suspect” due to “testing irregularities.  That is not the case at Wyaconda, where there is a history.
Dr. Harlo Donelson of Memphis praised the Wyaconda staff.
“This staff has a desire to educate youngsters,” Donelson stated.  He explained that other small schools, such as Rutledge, Granger and Bible Grove were closed because the parents knew their students weren’t getting what they needed.
“That’s not the case here.  If you close this school system, you are not doing the right thing,” Donelson added.
Sixth grader Michaela Newberry said, “It’s going to be hard on all of us if you close our school.  “We get better attention from our teachers here.  I wish the little kids, kindergartners, and first and second graders, could have as much fun learning here as I did.”
Former Wyaconda superintendent and principal (1993-94) and now profession at Culver-Stockton College, Terry Shearer, spoke about the importance of smaller learning communities.
“I was hired by two large school districts to create smaller learning communities.  Every child gets significant, loving, caring, intelligent attention,” Shearer said.
Shearer spoke of Culver-Stockton students who have interned at Wyaconda, and returned with praise for the district and students.
Shearer attacked the influence of standardized testing on education.
“We are bedeviled with standardized tests and have given upon really educating our children,” he said.  He added that  federal No Child Left Behind requirements, which will require all schools to assure that every student achieves levels of achievement,  are “unreasonable and unrealistic–not to mention stupid”.
“Wyaconda has shown growth in many areas.  I am impressed with the quality of the staff and talent of the teachers.  Wyaconda has bravely and courageously refused to be a test prep factory,” Shearer said.
Tina Townsend, principal of the neighboring Gorin R-III district, discussed the decisions the  Wyaconda board has faced in recent years. 
“A few years ago, the district had to choose between finances and student performance.  The financial challenges have been met, and the student performance is improving.  Not all achievement can be measured by standardized tests.”
Townsend also asked that if the final decision is to close Wyaconda, that the area of the district in Scotland County be allowed to go back to Scotland County.
Townsend also asked why the state takes action after two years of unaccredited status, while the actual timeline only allows the Wyaconda district to have MAP tests only one time before the state board will decide.
Parent Lisa Bourgeois stated that if families are forced to attend a big school (Scotland County or Clark County), that many families would move into the Luray or Gorin districts, and Wyaconda businesses would suffer.
Wyaconda School board member Joe Humes had good things to say about his district.
“We have the best staff we have ever had here.  This is a fantastic school and I would hate to lose it.  All the children that have left here to another district, and gone on to succeed, got their foundation here,” Humes said.
Board member Elvin Pruett explained to the crowd that the board could take a different course of action.  The Wyaconda board could vote to annex into an adjoining district, for example, Gorin.  That move would would require the issue be put on the April ballot, where Wyaconda voters would have to approve.  The voters in the adjacent district would not have to approve, but the school board would have to approve of the annexation.
Another option might be a petition to change
to boundaries of the district, allowing the Scotland County  portion of the district to become part of a Scotland County school district..
When it was over, Administrator Karla Matlock felt that it was a good meeting.
“I was impressed by the number of people who spoke tonight. Everyone kept themselves under control, and this is very emotional for people.
Matlock noted the crowd’s preference for Scotland County.
“There was strong support for attending Scotland County, and I think those who favor Clark County just didn’t speak up.  Both are very good districts, and either school would be fine for our students.”
From the DESE standpoint, the next step is to discuss the issue at a State Board of Education meeting, tentatively scheduled for March.
The Wyaconda School board met in special session Friday night to consider their options.  According to Matlock, they decided not to pursue any annexation proposal as a board.  However, they expect that members of the public will begin a petition to place an annexation issue on the ballot.
“I’ll be surprised if there is not a petition,” Matlock said.