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In defense of Norfolk Public Schools: The truth is, they are fantastic

There’s something that I need to tell you that’s rather important. Something you may not expect and may initially scoff at, but just hang in there with me:

Norfolk has amazing public schools.

Phew. I’m so glad to get that off of my chest. I’ve been dying to tell you for weeks now. I know that you’re surprised; you’ve heard so many terrible things, so many rumors, from so many people. I’ve heard them all, too. And it wasn’t too long ago that I was nervous about sending my kids to NPS too, but here we are loving it. There has been quite a lot of noise and many heated conversations in our community this summer about Norfolk’s new school budget, most of which lack any type of data or understanding about funding and distribution of resources, but fear not. I’m here to set a few things straight for you and provide a little bit on context to show you just how great our schools are.

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First, let’s just get it out of the way. The budget increased this year by 3.6% from around $315 million to $326 million. But, that increase just doesn’t go very far in a district where there are so many varying needs. 10 teaching specialist positions had to be removed, leaving a few schools without any reading and math specialists all together, a few schools having to share, and the rest with either a full or part time specialists. If you’ve been paying attention to this discussion in our local newspaper, you’ve seen how hot people are about this reduction in teaching specialists. Mostly the complaints are coming from some of our most successful schools, which were pointed out in the Virginia Pilot this week as being some of our most “affluent.” What first needs to be analyzed is the use of the term affluent; it is a very subjective term that is not easily defined. While Ghent School is in a more affluent part of town, it is a lottery school and has a mix of students from middle class and lower income neighborhoods. However, it performs well. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when positions need to be shifted and redistributed that schools that are doing well don’t have as big of a need as schools that are struggling. And yet, people are still surprised.

Parents at Larchmont, Ghent, and Taylor wrote dozens of letters to school officials complaining about the injustice of their children losing reading and math specialists; that their children are doing well because those specialists are there. How dare they penalize the most successful and redistribute based on need? This is where we need a bit of context and understanding about these positions: how they are funding and how they are placed. Last year, Norfolk had 68 city wide teaching specialists. Once the new budget was approved they removed 10 of those positions leaving 58 city wide specialists. This was back in June and there was nary a peep from any parents in west Norfolk. After that decision was made in June, it was then time for officials in the division to place the specialists. Once it was discovered that Ghent, Taylor, Larchmont, Tarallton, Mary Calcott, Willoughby, Ocean View, and Sewells Elementary Schools would be now sharing specialists, the letters streamed downtown in droves mostly from parents with students in Ghent, Larchmont, and Taylor. Where were these letters when the school board was making their budgeting decisions in the Spring? And importantly, why did they assume that their schools would not be considered when reductions needed to be made?

Many parents are concerned that the decisions of placement were made based on affluence. However, it needs to be pointed out that only 3 of the aforementioned schools are not Title I schools. The other 5 are. So, affluence was not a factor. The decisions of placement were based on the number of students at each school, achievement (or accreditation), and need. Affluence may be a resulting factor in which schools had their specialists reduced or removed, but it was not a variable in deciding. What I would like to ask the parents complaining about this decision is if they would ever consider moving to a neighborhood that is zoned for the schools that receive full time teaching specialists or ask to have their child sent out of zone so that their children who are struggling in math and reading can receive that assistance. No? Why not? My sense is that they believe those schools are not good enough for their children, for whatever mythic reason, and choose to send their children to schools that are fully accredited and lacking teaching specialists.

The second piece in this discussion is how teaching specialists are funded. There is no state wide mandate for reading specialists at our public schools and Norfolk is the only school division in Hampton Roads that pays for city wide teaching specialists out of their own local operating budget; our school district actually pays $5 million for all 58 of our teaching specialists, both math and reading. While Virginia Beach provides reading specialists to all of its elementary schools, both full time and shared, they rely on state funding and do not provide math specialists to any school that is not Title I. While it is up for interpretation concerning statewide priorities in terms of how and which type of specialists are provided to each of our schools statewide, it is important for us to acknowledge that Norfolk has done a very good job of prioritizing both reading and math specialists for our students.

While many scoff at the $122,076 that the board will be spend on traveling for professional development workshops this year, which is quite a lot of dough, if not too much, there is more to see in this budgeting picture. While our district has one of the smaller school budgets in Hampton Roads, it spends more per student than any other, which includes its commitment to providing 58 city wide math and reading specialists.

Images from Norfolk.gov

While money spent is not a complete and accurate metric with which to measure how well a school division prioritizes its students, Norfolk does offer a budget that attempts to manage the various needs found across our district. While it is not perfect and there is a need for better fiscal and budgeting decisions from our board and administrators, the numbers tell a picture of how our city leaders actually to value and prioritize our students. We must work at looking at facts instead of reading sensational local news articles that disregard the actual numbers and instead rely on insidious rumors and myths about our schools. If you have never visited a Norfolk public school, let me invite you to do so. Go take a tour. Talk to the principals. You could even go to a school board meeting. Or even better, send your children to our public schools. It’s important for us to get a more realistic understanding of our schools and our neighborhoods when we enter into these debates and conversations. Because Norfolk is a great city that has great schools. We just have to make a conscious cognitive shift away from what we hear and what actually exists.

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