Manassas schools look to improve test scores

September 22, 2011

 Manassas school officials are implementing several initiatives this year to address ailing test scores and growing concerns that the schools are not performing at the level they should be.

“We are concerned, because we are not getting very good results,” Manassas Vice Mayor Andrew Harrover (R) said. “There is a realization out there that the perception of the schools is not favorable, and test scores are not where they should be. We have a challenging demographic, but we can do better.”

When looking at the Manassas school system’s state report card, area schools’ ranking and complaints from parents, city officials said, the schools don’t fare well.

In The Washington Post’s High School Challenge this year, Osbourn High School was ranked 174th out of 184 high schools in the Washington area, and state records show two of Manassas’ eight schools — Weems and George Carr Round elementary schools — made Adequate Yearly Progress Report last year.

Last school year, 78 percent of Manassas students passed the English performance test, and 79 percent passed the math test, compared with the state passing rates of 88 percent and 87 percent, respectively, according to state data. The passing rates in Prince William County and Manassas Park were higher than the city’s, data show.

“Some of our testing is not where it needs to be, and we are well aware of that and working on that,” Manassas School Board member Timothy J. Demeria said. “But the criticism we have been taking isn’t fair. We have great kids and teachers who do great things.”

Demeria said the schools are trying to cater to a changing and more challenging demographic. In 2005, the schools served about 6,500 students; 23 percent were on the free- and reduced-lunch program and 30 percent were classified as Limited English Proficient students. Last school year, Manassas served 6,900 students; 45 percent were in the reduced-lunch program and about 41 percent were classified as LEP.

“Every year, we get more and more kids coming to school hungry and not able to speak English,” Demeria said. “We are changing things to meet the student population, but it is a moving target.”

Demeria said the School Board worked with staff to create initiatives for the upcoming year to improve performance.   

A freshman academy was established at the high school level to provide more resources to students who struggled in eighth grade, and a “best class period” was created so students could get more help from educators.

The school system requires that students who take Advanced Placement classes take the AP exam, school Superintendent Gail Pope said. There is a three-year grant to pay for the tests.

Literacy coaches have been added to Metz Middle School and Osbourn, officials said. Coaches will work with teachers to implement literacy programs that will help students comprehend and retain what they read. Pope said they are also working to align the curriculum for all grade levels.

To improve the School Board and City Council’s relationship, an Education Forward Committee was created. The group, which includes three members from each governing body, has met several times and will continue to do so occasionally to discuss the schools’ progress.

The new initiatives are funded within the fiscal 2012 schools budget, officials said. The city budgeted an additional $250,000 for the schools this year, but that money has not yet been allocated, city officials said. School officials need to come up with a specific plan for the one-time money before the city will approve it, council members said.

Demeria said that although the School Board recognizes the need to address test scores that it is important to look beyond numbers. Students who graduate from Manassas schools, some who overcame great obstacles in their personal lives to become successful, go on to study at universities across the country and win awards, he said.

Council members said that they agree that “great things” do happen in the schools but that they are concerned the overall image is hurting the community. When families look to move into a community, the school system is one of the first things looked at.

“I have received evidence that realtors steer people away from the community because of the schools,” council member Mark Wolfe (R) said. “I’m interested in how our schools are perceived by people outside of Manassas. When a locality has a reputation of having good schools, people want to live there.”

To improve the image of the schools, Demeria and council members said they would like to create a coordinated public relations plan between the city and the schools. School officials said some information is out of date and doesn’t reflect what’s happening now at the schools.

“The city and the schools need to do a better job of telling our story,” Wolfe said. “We aren’t as good at publicizing why Manassas is a great place to live and work.”

These initiatives are just the beginning, school officials said. The School Board has discussed other ideas that include starting a required pre-kindergarten program, having year-round school, implementing uniforms and rebuilding various facilities.

Pope said she expects to see “solid” academic achievement improvement  in at-risk students after the initiatives get started this year and “continued progress” with students in the elementary and middle schools.

School officials said, however, that if Manassas wants to see some of the long-term ideas come to fruition, it would require feasibility studies and an investment by the City Council.  

“Our new initiatives are great, but this is a long process,” Demeria said. “We have to keep going at it, inch by inch, and keep targeting our kids. If you keep working on it, eventually the scores will come up and match the great school system we have.”

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