Wise County Schools Superintendent Jeff Perry said a previous governor once called Wise County 'a lighthouse for all school divisions in Southwest Virginia.' Photo by Stephen Igo.
WISE — There's a whole lot more going on for Wise County's school division than two new high schools and a heavily upgraded third, as the administration under the leadership of Superintendent Jeff Perry and the Wise County School Board shape up bold plans to beef up instruction and the curriculum in a big way.
The two new high schools — Union in Big Stone Gap and Central in Wise — as well as the renovated (including new construction) Eastside in Coeburn launched the county's secondary education out of the 1950s and firmly into the modern era.
"Over the last couple of years we've had to focus on consolidation and construction and not 100 percent on instruction and curriculum, and certainly (the new high school facilities) were needed, and that whole issue helped the county move forward from a very divisive issue to other, even more important things," Perry said.
Getting the consolidation matter settled "allowed us to leave the past behind us and move into the future, and now allows us to concentrate on instruction and curricula. It's also allowed us to refocus our budget and refocus our attention to making this school division the best it can possibly be."
For many years the school division's logo has featured a lighthouse. Perry said a previous governor once called Wise County "a lighthouse for all school divisions in Southwest Virginia." Perry said his leadership team has long discussed "relighting the lighthouse."
"The light the last couple of years has been a little bit dim because of things we've had to deal with and struggle with, like the consolidation issue and of course, financial constraints and so forth," he said. "But we've been talking about how we want to relight that lighthouse and show that Wise County is the best school division in the entire region, and among the best in the state."
That doesn't require rebuilding a lighthouse from scratch, either. Perry provided a readout of the school division's performance in the 2013 state Standards of Learning where Wise County students ranked fifth in the state in overall math, fifth in Grade 3 math, sixth in geometry, ninth in Grade 3 reading, 10th in Grade 6 math, 11th in Algebra I, 13th in Algebra II, 14th in overall history, 14th in Grade 11 writing, and 15th in overall science.
"Those numbers demonstrate some of the success we've had," Perry said, "but we know we can do better and we believe we have a plan to get there. Our special education programs are as good or better than anybody in the region, our transportation is as good or better than anybody around. Our operations are without parallel to any school division in our area, and we have a two-year college and a four-year college at our back door that allow us to do many things others can't. We are able to move forward and deal with a lot of things, and we will continue to do so."
In the works is a Comprehensive Instructional Program where the school division is building cooperative networks with the state Department of Education and other school divisions in Region 7 to ensure the highest quality education, Perry said.
"We will make sure the curriculum is covered and sequenced so that all kids get teachers with the very best lesson plans and resources. Our beginning teachers or struggling teachers can be successful, where this can be another resource, and for our top teachers, this will be for them another resource as well," he said.
"At the end of the year what we will have is everything every teacher needs to teach every subject, available at one website, and it will be a fluid document to update, revise and make it better."
Another bold curriculum upgrade is the school division's "Pathways" initiative. Essentially, by seventh grade, students and their parents will be assisted to choose one of six academic routes from grades eight through 12. Those 'pathways' will range from the most rigorous in science, math and technology disciplines to less rigorous but vital college preparation, to studies and training in vocational pursuits.
Students will have the flexibility to change 'pathways' for two or three years, but any upward mobility to the college level preparatory paths will need to be chosen by the 10th grade or certainly no later than the 11th grade. The important thing is for parents and students to know precisely what courses in each grade to expect, Perry said, so good choices can be made long before high school graduation.
Few eighth-graders "have an idea what they're going to be when they grow up," Perry said, "but they should be provided with some general expectations of what training and education is needed to have successful careers in whatever career path they choose."
The six pathways "are not ruts," he said, to lock students into educational pursuits they may find unpalatable at some point, "but we are going to expect all of our students to be engaged in a meaningful and rigorous curriculum all the way.."
Perry said students must prepare for life after high school by having a plan, and working that plan to achieve their educational goals.
Wise County's Career & Technical Center already contains a mind boggling array of career choices under broad categories of business management and administration, education and training, law, public safety, corrections and security, manufacturing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and transportation, distribution and logistics.
The Career & Technical Center "is a big part of our instructional program, and it's going to play an even bigger role," Perry said.
"There is still a little bit of stigma associated with a vocational school, that kids enrolled there can't handle a regular academic classroom. And that's just wrong.
"A kid can come up here (to the Career and Technical Center) and receive career training and certifications, and get as financially secure, or way more in many cases, as many of our college graduates are ever going to get," Perry said. "Somehow over the years we devalued those certification and licensed trades, and the marketplace is screaming for this type of work."
As for faith in the future, faith is always best served when buttressed by a solid foundation, goals and work ethic, Perry said.
"We're very excited about the future. Of course, our budget will continue to be a challenge. But it has allowed us, forced us to focus on what we think is most important in education. We have a very strong school board that is now more focused on doing the right kind of things, and I'm talking about curriculum and instruction," he said.
"Throughout the last couple of years we have put key people in very key positions. I have no doubts at all in saying that we have the best administrators (including principals and assistant principals) of any school division around here. We have some of the best teachers anywhere doing the best job of any teachers anywhere and we've done that by careful placement. We've made some tough decisions, but that has helped us in a financial way and in our instruction and academics way, too.
"Not that it hasn't been, and is, hard during budget cuts, but now we can see getting to a position where we will do all we can with (employee) salaries and fringe benefits, especially health insurance . We will do all we can to prevent layoffs and increase salaries when possible. It's been very difficult to overcome, but that's what we want to work toward as much as possible."
Perry said the county is now blessed with "extremely nice facilities, and probably the best group of principals and assistant principals and teachers around. We have a strong school board, we've got a supportive board of supervisors, and we've resolved a lot of old issues that kind of kept the county divided. Now things have forced us to get together. We have a lot of challenges, but we are really and truly excited about the future."
Perry said he hopes, and is confident, the legacy the current crop of educators will make on Wise County won't revolve around a single issue that has not just been settled, but settled in a wildly successful way.
"When a history of Wise County is written, probably the consolidation of high schools will be a fairly significant chapter in that history. We are proud of the role we took doing that. We had to make difficult decisions but we now have beautiful facilities, and we've resolved those issues," he said.
"But we hope that is not the only legacy we leave. We hope to be known as the ones who brought Wise County back to the top of instruction and curriculum and showed the way forward for others. The ones who relit the lighthouse. That's the legacy we want to leave."