BRISTOL, Va. — If Virginia lawmakers repeal a controversial A-F scale for public schools, Highland View Elementary Principal Pam Smith may receive some of the credit.
The scale for rating schools was adopted in 2013 at the urging of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell as a way to measure school quality based on student test scores. But the law was never implemented. The 2014 legislature delayed it two years and bipartisan efforts to repeal it are now working their way through committees.
Last month, Smith shared the story of her school with members of the General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, through her new role as a liaison to state Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Galax.
Originally, Smith was selected to merely advise the senator and his staff on matters dealing with public education, but recently she had the opportunity to do much more by testifying before a Senate subcommittee and full committee on the problems with the scale as it relates to Highland View.
More than 80 percent of Highland View’s students live at or below the federal poverty level for family income, there is significant transiency — students transferring in and out of different schools as families move — and many stay with family members or friends because they have no permanent home.
“I just spoke from the heart and told the story of Highland View,” Smith said Wednesday. “We have 188 kids. My issues are neglect, trauma, and mental health. Before we can deal with any academics, we have to meet the needs of these children. When I testified and told them all of the issues I deal with here and what we have to do as a school to meet the needs of our children — much less come up with this pie-in-the-sky number of SOLs — we are not a failing school.”
Highland View is in the third year of state warning for academic shortcomings on standardized tests. But those standards tell only part of the story, Smith said. When asked by the committee what she hoped to accomplish, Smith pulled no punches.
“I want you to revisit A-F,” she testified. “It labels my school and other schools like me as a failing school when the things we are doing for the families and the children are well above and beyond what other schools are doing that have an ‘A.’ If poverty is the guide, we’re [Bristol school division] 120th out of 132. You would expect our reading and math to be the lowest and we’re not. We’re defeating that stigma.”
Following her testimony, she was approached by other lawmakers, organizations and an aide to First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who sought a meeting to learn more about a unique breakfast program Smith instituted to maximize time students are in the classroom.
“I was expecting to see Mrs. McAuliffe, and we were talking about the food program she would like to start and in walks the governor who just got out of the hospital,” Smith said regarding an injury in which he suffered broken ribs. “He asked why I was there so I told him and told the Highland View story. He asked that I come back and be an advocate for the first lady’s breakfast program.”
Smith was asked last year to apply to become a legislative liaison by the Virginia Association of Curriculum and Development, an organization that includes public school educators and principals, colleges and universities and works to promote instruction and education.
She said it was an honor to be selected last fall and credits Carrico with allowing her the platform to speak out.
“Sen. Carrico opened the door and pushed me through it,” she said.