Although few community members attended the 13 follow-up community conversations Lynchburg City Schools held since its initial event in January, the division looks forward to making progress.

In January, LCS hosted its first-ever community conversation in which more than 100 community members went to Heritage High School to provide input as the division works to develop its five-year strategic plan.

The event focused on reading, special education, chronic absenteeism, family and community engagement and alternatives to suspension.

After each session community members had the opportunity to sign up to be notified of future meetings regarding each focus area.

Between February and May, the division held 13 follow-up conversations with participation at each meeting ranging from zero people to 11.

“Community conversations, to me, is crucial just for the dialogue and also the understanding of each other so we can work hand in hand to meet the needs of the children because the school division can’t do it by themselves. We are a community of one,” said LaTonya Brown, LCS director of student services.

Superintendent Crystal Edwards said although she would have liked to have had more community participation in the follow-up meetings, she was grateful for the initial event in January, which provided “tons of great feedback.”

“I might even look at it as the community felt heard and felt like, ‘OK, you’re in a good place to roll with this and move forward. We may not necessarily need to come to all the follow-up meetings,’” Edwards said. “I am overall extremely pleased with the amount of community support, transparency — even on things that may not be the most exciting or the best — but you know what, all we can do is grow and get better.”

Lynchburg resident Phil Stump, who attended both alternative to suspension meetings and the family and community engagement meeting, said the conversations were “a wonderful idea,” but he doesn’t see the division trying to reach out and hear from communities of color.

“I think this was a wonderful beginning effort, but it really needs to be thought through more carefully and to be more aggressive in really getting out and listening to the community,” Stump said. “I would just say in the future if they can publicize it really wide and send multiple reminders to people about [the meetings].”

LCS Coordinator of Student Services Anne Bond-Gentry said some of the meetings’ locations could have played a factor in low participation, and Stump agreed. Some of the meetings were held at the division’s information technology building at 3550 Young Place by River Ridge mall.

Although 40 people attended the chronic absenteeism portion of the community conversation in January, zero attended either of the two follow-up meetings. One was held in March and another in April at the IT building.

“It’s a little frustrating. But it also shows us exactly what’s happening outside in the community. To me, it’s a perfect example of the fact that people are not taking school attendance as serious as they need to,” Bond-Gentry said.

Chronic absenteeism is missing at least 18 days of school within a year, including excused and unexcused absences. Chronic absenteeism now is a factor in school accreditation. Bond-Gentry said although there are fewer students with unexcused absences, the number of students with excused absences is increasing.

During the initial community conversation, community members developed a list of possible causes for students to be absent and what the community and school division can do to help raise attendance.

Some of the reasons included missing the bus, sickness, lack of support from the family or the school, fear of peers and dozens more. Participants also suggested the division communicate the importance of attendance, enforce truancy consequences, provide positive incentives and more. For the community and parents, participants suggested they help provide transportation to school, make students value education, train mentors and volunteers to explain and show why school attendance is crucial and more.

As a result of no participation at follow-up meetings, Bond-Gentry said she worked with truancy officers and those the division works within the court system to create a plan for a “blitz campaign” in September to bring more awareness to the issue of chronic absenteeism.

Eleven community members attended the only family and community engagement meeting in March, which was the highest turnout for any follow-up conversation.

In small groups, participants discussed how the community can support and enhance engagement with the school division and how the division and community can work together to strengthen engagement.

Participants suggested getting more involved to make their voices heard, creating partnerships with resources in the community, volunteering for mentoring, reading and math, working with faith-based organizations and more. Another suggestion included having a community resource fair for everyone to see what services are available.

Ethel Reeves, LCS director of community engagement, said next steps include providing professional development opportunities regarding engagement and building more partnerships within the community. She said the division has at least 150 partnerships already.

Stump said although the family and community engagement meeting had “a lot of good brainstorming,” he felt the “real concerns of the community didn’t get expressed fully.”

“It seemed like a lot of the discussion was how the school district could mobilize parents with special talents or needs to help the schools rather than the school listening to what the needs are. Both are important, but there wasn’t enough attention, I thought, to listening,” he said.

Four people attended the first alternatives to suspension meeting, which Brown facilitated in March, and three people returned for the second meeting in April.

At the first meeting, the small group reviewed input from community members at the January meeting, which included what participants thought were the most frequent behavior infractions that lead to suspension, what behaviors should cause a student to be removed from school and what they thought were effective alternatives to suspension.

The group also went over offense codes, discipline flow charts, the division’s discipline level system and the division’s Virginia Tiered Systems of Support (VTSS) video. VTSS is a program designed to address the needs of all students by focusing on their behavior, academic performance and social-emotional support.

Brown said the meeting was an opportunity for her to educate and create awareness about the division’s work to change its mindset from punitive discipline to modeling and reteaching positive behaviors and prevention.

At the second meeting, Brown said participants reflected on their own discipline style and implicit biases much like administrators and teachers.

“You have to put your personal beliefs aside, and you have to know your school board policy. But you also have to be aware and cognizant of what’s going on in your community because our school system is a reflection of the community,” Brown said.

Stump said Brown and LCS Supervisor of Secondary Counseling and Alternative Education Dashia Womack had “absolutely excellent” and “very thorough” presentations at the alternative to suspension meetings.

“Even though there were only four of us community members present, they were just really, really prepared, and it was very informative and helpful,” he said

Stump said he thinks the division’s movement from punitive discipline practices to positive behavior intervention supports, Virginia Tiered Systems of Support and restorative justice “are crucial to the lessening of suspensions.” Stump is a member of the Lynchburg chapter of Virginia Organizing, an organization dedicated to challenging injustice within communities.

“If you want to lessen suspensions, you really have to look at more innovative discipline that’s not based on punishment. Suspensions are just totally counterproductive to students’ educational development, and they contribute in a major way to the school-to-prison pipeline, and this was very clear in the presentation,” Stump said.

Stump said he could tell the division is trying to work toward implementing restorative justice practices but needs the funding and personnel to support the implementation.

Brown said next steps include reviewing the student code of conduct, discipline matrix and policies to have them ready for the 2021 school year and implementing alternatives to suspension.

The division separated special education into three subcommittees after deciding there would be too much to accomplish for one group, said Wyllys VanDerwerker, LCS director of special education. The subcommittees were community engagement and one each for student and personnel growth and development.

Because the committees had between zero and four participants, VanDerwerker said the division decided to use its Special Education Advisory Committee, which includes at least 18 community members and is responsible on an annual basis to advise the Lynchburg City School Board on unmet needs of students with special needs, to get more feedback.

After meetings throughout February, March and April, the group came up with multiple goals the committees hope will be included in the division’s strategic plan. Goals include having students with special needs performance meet or exceed Virginia Department of Education state targets, having all LCS buildings be not only Americans with Disabilities Act compliant but more friendly, training all general education teachers to implement the Individualized Education Plans for students enrolled in their classes and more.

At the first meeting dedicated to reading, an LCS kindergarten teacher was the only participant. The second reading meeting brought in two LCS teachers and three YMCA employees. The group discussed the programs available at the YMCA and how the two can work together to address reading gaps among students.

“We want to support Lynchburg City Schools and the children who need this the most, and that’s why the Y is involved with supporting this. I think there are challenges when it comes to making sure everybody is reading on grade level, and we understand that perspective from the Y, and we want to help the city schools address that,” said Jay Parker, YMCA chief operating officer.

LCS Director of Curriculum and Instruction April Bruce said the division is working on a literacy plan, which is “a document that basically says what are the best practices for reading” that will be disseminated throughout the city in places like the community centers. Bruce said she hopes the literacy plan will be available when school is back in session in August.

“A lot of these students are going to after school programs. We’re trying to maximize what those programs are doing as well because those people in those programs want to help support students and to help them be successful,” Bruce said.

Edwards said the input from the community conversations will be taken into consideration when creating the objectives and action plans under the board’s goals in the strategic plan. She said her “ambitious timeline” is to have the strategic plan completed before the end of the summer.

“I’m looking forward to, now having collected all the information, actually get to action and outcomes, which is the part of the strategic plan I love the most because that’s where the rubber meets the road, and you work directly with the students, staff and you get to see change happen right before you,” Edwards said.

Liz Ramos covers K-12 education for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.

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Liz Ramos covers K-12 education for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434)385-5532.

Liz Ramos covers K-12 education for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.

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