Questions remain for Valley Head school closure
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles focusing on the plans to close Valley Head Elementary School for the 2017-18 school year. The second article is scheduled to appear Monday.
VALLEY HEAD — Valley Head Elementary School’s planned closure for the upcoming school year weighs heavily on the small community, where many people have unanswered questions.
Why did the county Board of Education decide to close an updated, structurally sound school building when so many others need major, costly repairs? How much money will the school closure truly save? What will happen to the building and the adjacent library? And while the list of questions goes on for Principal Melissa Wilfong and others, the biggest one is this — how will it affect the students?
“We do what we can to meet each kid’s individual needs because we’re so small,” Wilfong said recently in her office, noting the school has a staff of six people who currently serve 26 students. “Once they get in a large classroom …” she trailed off, and then shared her worries about the children struggling or falling behind in larger classes.
“I understand the financial situation, but there has to be a better way,” she said.
Randolph County’s leaders point to shrinking enrollment and a bleak financial picture as the reasons behind the closure of Valley Head Elementary School for the 2017-2018 school year.
The Randolph County Board of Education voted unanimously in January to close the school and transfer its students to George Ward Elementary in Mill Creek, a move that followed a series of emotional public hearings and meetings where parents and community members pleaded with county leaders to keep the school open.
Randolph County Superintendent of Schools Pam Hewitt said the proposal to close the school in Valley Head was based solely on financial constraints tied to decreasing enrollment and large declines in revenues. She said fewer students are in the school system overall every year — the county has lost 86 students in just a matter of months, and more than 420 in the past few years.
The state Board of Education also has placed Randolph County on a “watch list,” which means the county must provide monthly financial reports and is under a higher level of scrutiny.
Hewitt said proposed school closures and personnel cuts have been the toughest parts of her job, and she understands that it’s an emotional issue.
“None of these decisions are easy on anyone,” she said, adding that the school closure is not a reflection on Valley Head Elementary or its personnel. “Right now we have more schools open than we can afford.”
Hewitt’s initial proposal to the board last year suggested closing Valley Head Elementary as well as Homestead Elementary School in Dailey.
The board unanimously rejected the proposal to close Homestead in December, following concerns about classroom locations, exact student placement and transportation questions. However, a severe windstorm damaged that school’s roof March 1, and its 109 students have been attending other schools since then.
Most of the classes have been transferred temporarily to George Ward Elementary, while preschool students are attending Beverly Elementary and fourth- and fifth-graders are attending Tygarts Valley Middle/High School.
Board members learned Tuesday that major electrical upgrades that could cost at least $70,000 are required at Homestead before the state fire marshal will allow students to return to the building. So while roof repairs and asbestos abatement at the school should be completed this summer, it’s extremely unlikely that the needed electrical work can be completed by August, even if the school board could find funding.
Teachers from Homestead Elementary who have been sharing classrooms at George Ward Elementary said the conditions have been very crowded, and they worried that the situation will only get worse once Valley Head students are sent there in August.
“With Valley Head coming in to the building as well, we’re worried about how all that is going to come into play. And it’s not just staff, it’s parents,” said Homestead teacher Johanna Smith during this week’s board meeting.
Andrea Buck, who has two children attending Valley Head Elementary and serves as president of the school’s Parent/Teacher Organization, said she is worried Valley Head students will get overwhelmed in a new school.
“How many kids are going to be left behind? What about kids with special needs?” Buck said. “I’m not trying to down anybody, but when the classroom is bigger, I don’t think it’s possible to give every kid the same level of attention.”
Students at Valley Head have been combined into a class that serves kindergarten, first and second grades, as well as one that serves third, fourth and fifth grades. Buck said this has allowed the students and staff to form a tight bond, and the students have been able to make big improvements.
Buck said she’s worried those educational gains could be lost when students are transferred to George Ward.
“Some of them might not even be in class with anyone else they know,” she said.
Out of Zone
When Wilfong started teaching at Valley Head Elementary 22 years ago, she said the school enrollment usually was around 60 students. Although this year it is stands at 26, she said 32 students are “out of zone” and allowed to attend George Ward Elementary.
Valley Head used to have a preschool program, but it was closed about four years ago because there would have been just two students enrolled at that time. Wilfong said the very next year, there would have been 12 students, but the preschool never reopened at Valley Head.
Once the little ones attend preschool at George Ward and become comfortable with that school, she said it makes sense that their parents want them to continue attending at that location.
Wilfong said the county has an out-of-zone policy that isn’t being enforced. There also are policies regarding lengthy bus rides, particularly for elementary students.
“If they’re going to have all these policies, they need to follow them — county and state,” she said.
Wilfong said many of the parents whose children will be affected have indicated they will start homeschooling rather than send them to a larger school or on a longer bus route.
Parents who previously spoke out against the school closure asked county Board of Education members to consider whether students would get the same level of attention and instruction if they are consolidated with another school. They also said the school closure would tear apart the community.
Board President Donna Auvil said she understands the impact that the school’s closure will have to Valley Head, and she knows the staff members worked very hard and did the best they could to serve multiple grade levels at once. However, she said she truly believes that George Ward Elementary will be able to offer additional resources for students.
Meanwhile, Hewitt said the county’s transportation director has continued to study the bus routes for students who will be affected by the school closure, and the routes will meet state guidelines.
As for the out-of-zone issue, Hewitt said parents have the option to request their children to attend a school in a different zone for a number of reasons. Each request would be considered by the school’s principal and it also would depend on if there is enough room for extra students.
“All of our schools in the county have out-of-zone students if there’s room,” she said.
Parents normally are responsible for transporting their child to the out-of-zone school, but Hewitt said Valley Head is different in that a bus route already exists to take older students into Mill Creek.
“Most of the time, we don’t have a bus going by that same direction for an out-of-zone student,” Hewitt said, saying a child who lives in Glenmore and wants to attend Jennings Randolph Elementary School in a different part of the Elkins area would not have a bus route already going the same direction.
“We already have a bus going from Valley Head to Tygarts Valley Middle/High School, and it’s right next to George Ward. … So folks at Valley Head were upset because the county allowed these children to ride on the bus (into Mill Creek) but it wasn’t any additional cost.”
The small town of Valley Head, like much of Randolph County and the rest of West Virginia, has experienced an aging population.
“There aren’t many young people in Valley Head,” Wilfong said.
The town is fairly secluded, she said, noting it lies 32 miles from Elkins, 32 miles from Marlinton and 32 miles from Webster Springs. However, many residents work at nearby Snowshoe Mountain Resort, located just over 11 miles away in Pocahontas County.
Wilfong said she remembers discussion years ago about the possibility of creating a school that would serve Valley Head and Snowshoe children and prevent lengthy bus rides.
“Nobody’s really, really looked into that as far as I know,” she said.
Sally Adkins, a retired educator who serves as chairperson of the Valley Head Elementary School Local School Improvement Council, agreed that leaders should consider a cross-county school.
“A zone stretching from Elk Mountain to Elkwater would be logical,” Adkins said recently. “Where is the leadership? Where is the creativity and vision for our children?”
Other counties such as Lewis and Gilmer have created cross-county schools, and it’s an idea worthy of review, said Brad Smith, director of finance for Randolph County Schools.
He said ideas mentioned in the past included a cross-county school to serve the Valley Head and Snowshoe areas, as well as a school that could serve students in the Harman and Canaan Valley areas across the line between Randolph and Tucker counties.
“Those have both been discussed over the years as options,” Brad Smith said. “It would require the boards to do some research.”
He also said the West Virginia School Building Authority would have to sort out the funding details.
Terrence Beam, superintendent of Pocahontas County Schools, said prior county officials, including past Superintendent Dr. Jim Phares — who headed both the Pocahontas and Randolph school systems at different times — had looked into the idea a few years ago. At that time, there was the possibility of a land donation for a school site near the base of Snowshoe Mountain. Beam said the land donation fell through and the property has a new owner, and he does not know whether Pocahontas County Board of Education leaders would be interested in pursuing the idea again.
There are 32 students who live in the Snowshoe and Slatyfork area and currently attend Pocahontas County schools, he said, adding they do have a substantial bus ride.
For Buck and her children, the length of time on a school bus is a major concern. Buck actually lives in Pocahontas County near the border with Randolph County, so she drives her children to Valley Head Elementary School each day. She said they would be on a bus about 65 minutes if they attended Marlinton Elementary School, and it would be too hard on them.
She said to her knowledge, there are about 25 children who live in the Snowshoe/Slatyfork area who are homeschooled so they don’t have to travel so far to attend school.
“For the high school, it would be an hour and a half on the bus,” Buck said. “That is a long day, and a lot of parents in the Snowshoe area homeschool just because of the bus ride.”
She noted many Valley Head parents also are discussing the possibility of homeschooling instead of sending their children on a bus to Mill Creek, which could take about 50 minutes one way.
Buck said she’s considering that option herself.
She said her oldest child, who’s now in 10th grade, attended Valley Head Elementary, and it would be wonderful if the school could somehow stay open.
“Every day I pull in (the school parking lot), it’s sad,” she said. “All my babies have grown up here. It’d be nice if something changed.”
She said she absolutely would support a cross-county school, but she doesn’t know if it would happen.
Hewitt said that if the total number of students would still be less than 100, a cross-county school for Valley Head and Snowshoe might be difficult to create.
She added the main issue with Valley Head’s closure was the low enrollment, while the main factor with the proposal to close Homestead Elementary was the building’s need for so many costly repairs, including electrical updates and new heating and plumbing systems.
“As our population continues to decline and our revenues continue to decline, we have to look at our efficiency,” Hewitt said, noting other elementary schools in the county generally range from 250 to 300 students.
“With the drop in revenues, there have to be adjustments in how we operate, and with those adjustments come the very difficult decisions, such as school closure and reducing personnel,” she said, adding Randolph County’s size also is a hurdle.
“We’re a big county, and we have to look at everything, and that includes funding and trying to operate in the most efficient, effective way in providing services to our students.”
— Monday’s article will include information about the closure’s approval process, details about the county’s financial situation, questions about the future for the Valley Head school building and other issues.
Source: Elkins Intermountain