Community Organizers Pitch Solutions to School Board After Arcadia Threats

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By Stefanie Jackson – At Arcadia High School, two alleged threats of violence made recently by students prompted local members of the activist group, Virginia Organizing, to speak at the March 19 Accomack school board meeting to raise awareness of a bill passed by state legislators that may help the school division prepare for potential future threats.

“Recent events at Arcadia High School have refocused the community’s concern regarding school safety and school resource officer responsibilities,” stated Lorna Gagneux, of Virginia Organizing.

Senate Bill 1214, co-sponsored by Sen. Lynwood Lewis, will require all Virginia school divisions that employ school resource officers to have a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement outlining the roles and responsibilities of school resource officers.

Willie Justis, a local leader of Virginia Organizing, called the bill a “protective mechanism for both the school division and law enforcement.”

Virginia Organizing is willing to assist the school board in drafting the memorandum of understanding, Justis said.

Gagneux asked the school board to “communicate with the public” and solicit input before writing the memorandum of understanding.

According to the Virginia General Assembly website, Gov. Ralph Northam approved the bill March 18, and it will take effect July 1.

Members of Virginia Organizing also addressed the Accomack school division’s efforts to recruit and hire a highly qualified, diverse teacher workforce.

Accomack is one of seven Virginia school divisions selected to receive Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) grants promoting diversity among public school teachers.

Accomack will get $4,216; the maximum award is $10,000.

The money will pay for tutoring and testing fees to help provisionally licensed minority teachers achieve full licensure. In Virginia, before obtaining professional teaching licenses, teachers must pass the Praxis tests, standardized tests designed specifically for teachers to assess their basic knowledge of the subjects they teach.

According to data acquired by Virginia Organizing, Accomack schools hired 53 new teachers for the current school year, and only three, or less than 6 percent, were nonwhite.

But Accomack student enrollment as of May 2016 showed that 60 percent of students were nonwhite. Of 5,322 students, more than 39 percent were white, about 37 percent were black, and 21.5 percent were Hispanic.

Karen Downing, of Virginia Organizing, suggested that more of Accomack’s future teachers should be local.

“Instead of a school-to-prison pipeline, we should be building a school-to-teaching pipeline by investing in career paths and incentives to ignite an interest and passion in elementary age children to become teachers,” she said.

They should be encouraged to continue pursuing a career in education “as they go into middle and high school, with the hope and anticipation that they will return to the Shore, thereby increasing the pool of qualified teachers,” Downing said.

She also cited Accomack’s retired teacher population as a potential resource in the classroom and as mentors for new teachers.

In another matter, Connie Burford, of Bloxom, suggested Accomack high school graduations be broadcast live for graduates’ family and friends who can’t attend due to military obligations or other reasons, such as the limited number of tickets allotted to each graduate.

“I do know that we have the capabilities to do this,” Burford said.

She suggested having “trial runs” by live broadcasting the grand marches at the high schools’ upcoming proms.

School board member Gary Reese said Burford had a “great idea” and several others agreed.

Burford believes parents would also be interested in getting copies of the broadcasts as mementos of the occasions.

“I go back and look at my son’s kindergarten graduation, and I find it really entertaining to see how far he’s come.

“Just think about parents now, ten years from now, when they could go back and look at their child’s high school graduation, compliments of Accomack County school systems.”