by Gene Marrano
There were hugs and welcome back greetings all around as teachers and administrators met again for the yearly convocation that Roanoke City Schools holds every summer just before classes begin. There was plenty to cheer about this year, as School Board Chair David Carson and Roanoke City Schools superintendent Rita Bishop explained during their remarks.
Carson singled out and called to the stage local legislators, including the retiring Bill Cleaveland, who pushed through a vote in the Virginia General Assembly on the last day of the session, establishing a new law that will allow Roanoke City to decide when it wants to start the school year.
Previously, city schools were not permitted to open until after Labor Day, unless snow days the year before made it likely they would again need an early start. Now the school division can decide when the doors will open each year; this year they will open Monday (Aug. 29), before the Labor Day weekend.
“[We] tried to start the school year when we thought it was best,” said Carson, “like [in] 47 other states.” He praised Cleaveland – who spearheaded the effort, Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Ralph Smith, Del. Onzlee Ware and Del. Greg Habeeb for their support, across party lines, in getting the law changed.
The drum line from William Fleming High School greeted teachers and school staffers as they arrived at the Roanoke Civic Center’s Special Events hall, and the debate team from Westside Elementary demonstrated their skills with a timely topic – the pros and cons of standardized testing. The school’s step team also put on a rousing display of their talents, before Carson and Bishop took to the podium to review the past school year and to look ahead.
“We’ve got lots to celebrate,” said Carson, who then ticked off several high notes: a high school graduation rate of 83 per cent, a division record (up from 57% in 2005), and every school academically accredited for the first time ever.
With the number of students in Roanoke receiving free or reduced lunches over 70 percent, Carson marveled at the accomplishment, even as he chafed at the demands of No Child Left Behind and the financial challenges it creates. “You did it,” Carson told teachers to a round of applause, “I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of all of you.”
Third grade, 5th and 8th grade reading scores are at all-time highs across the division; the number of industry certifications given out by career and technical teachers has more than doubled, to over 400 now, from a few years ago; fifty percent of middle and high school students are now enrolled in fine arts classes, up from 33 percent not long ago. “It’s all about them – the children,” Carson reminded his audience, adding “how do we help you help them?”
Bishop was presented with flowers and a resolution from the School Board honoring her service before speaking. As usual she was looking ahead. “It’s all about what comes next,” said Bishop, who spoke of a vision “that the district will be a model for urban education [elsewhere].” Bishop mentioned severely under-performing districts in Detroit and Los Angeles, where high school graduation rates are abysmally low.
“Sustaining our progress is really important,” Bishop warned, ‘[and] it’s going to take all of us…all of the time, everywhere.” Bishop also noted the varied demographics in the school district, which always presents a challenge: “we can never lose that focus on all children – education is the civil right of this century. Our diversity is a source of strength, [and] all students are capable of meeting high standards.”