WINCHESTER — As a new principal is sought for Handley High School, Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum shared a sobering 24-page review of the school at Tuesday night’s School Board meeting.
The report shows, among other things, that Handley could jeopardize its full state accreditation status if it continues to have high dropout and chronic absenteeism rates.
Accreditation is based on standardized test scores, graduation rates and absenteeism rates.
Van Heukelum shared the report’s findings following calls from the public for more transparency from school officials amid administrative upheaval at Handley. Principal Mike Dufrene, who has been Handley’s principal for the past five years, recently announced he was leaving at the end of the current school year to become principal at Hampshire High School in Romney, West Virginia. His announcement came on the heels of rumors that his contract at Handley wasn’t being renewed, which sparked an outcry from many parent and student supporters.
What happened with Dufrene’s contract remains unclear — neither the board nor Van Heukelum would comment about it Tuesday night — but Van Heukelum acknowledged the backlash the he and the board have received over it.
“It’s no secret that the last three weeks have been somewhat tumultuous for our community,” Van Heukelum said. “Certainly the School Board has taken a lot of heat or speculation regarding Mr. Dufrene and his exit from Handley High School.”
The report Van Heukelum presented Tuesday night was compiled by various department heads in the school division’s Central Administrative Office. Reports of this nature are typically generated as part of the principal recruitment process and shared within the division, but not made public. However, because of comments made by members of the public at a recent School Board meeting about the need for more transparency from city school officials, the board asked Van Heukelum to share the report with the community.
“We’re happy to do that,” Van Heukelum said.
Some of the report’s findings show:
Handley’s state Standards of Learning (SOL) average scores have dropped four to nine points in reading, writing, history and science over the past three years. However, the average math SOL scores have improved by seven points over the same time period.
Chronic absenteeism has been a consistent problem at Handley for the past six years, with 19.6% to 24.19% of the school’s approximately 1,300 students missing at least 18 days or 10% of the 180-day school year.
The dropout rate increased from 2.43% for the Class of 2015 to 7.1% for the Class of 2019, reaching level 2 accreditation status. If a school has level 2 or level 3 status for four consecutive years, the school will receive an “Accredited with Conditions” status.
Handley’s graduation and completion index dropped 4 points within the past five years from 95.2 points to 91.4 points. But even the lower score is still considered a level 1 status for accreditation, which is the best that can be earned.
Handley is currently fully accredited, and accreditation waivers have been issued for 2020 to public schools across the state because of the coronavirus pandemic
The report also contained data from several student and staff surveys. One survey administered in February by the Department of Criminal Justice Services indicates that 84% of students who responded said “I like this school” and that “teachers and adults treat students with respect.” However, in the same survey, only 52% of teachers said “I feel physically safe at this school” and only 36% of Handley staffers said they trust one another.
“This one hurts my heart a little bit,” Van Heukelum said about the survey’s findings on teachers feeling safe at school. “To think that 48% or almost half of our teachers would not agree to that is something that, you know, I don’t want any teacher in our school division to feel. That’s well below the state average.”
School Board member Karen Holman noted there’s a disconnect in the findings, with most students saying they feel respected by teachers but nearly half of teachers saying they don’t feel safe or respected by students.
Van Heukelum agreed, adding that it’s up to Handley’s next principal to dig into the data and analyze it.
In another survey conducted by Winchester Public Schools through Panorama, with responses from 962 students and 111 teachers, only 31% of students reported that they felt a sense of belonging at Handley.
Another survey completed by the Department of Criminal Justice Services found that 66% of Handley students said they are treated fairly regardless of race or ethnicity while 44% of respondents said students are teased or put down because of their race or ethnicity.
The report Van Heukelum shared also noted a “disproportionate discipline rate of special education, African American and multi-racial students” across all schools in Winchester Public Schools, including Handley, which is the city’s only high school.
“In 2019, the African American suspension rate was almost three times the population and the multi-racial suspension rate was almost four times the population,” the report said, referencing suspension data collected by the Virginia Department of Education.
“How is this not a failure of all of us?” School Board member Elyus Wallace asked. “Somebody fell asleep at the wheel.”
Van Heukelum said there is shared ownership of the findings, including himself. Van Heukelum has been the superintendent of the division since 2016.
“Certainly, this is my data too, and I don’t shy away from that,” Van Heukelum said. “That is certainly a part of my evaluation [by the School Board], as it should be.”
At the beginning of Tuesday night’s meeting, School Board Chairwoman Allyson Pate said she and the board were appreciative of the “time and energy” that came from the public comments expressed about Dufrene and his tenure at Handley.
“We heard the pain and anguish expressed so passionately. We heard the frustration and questioning as to how we perform our duties as a board. We heard your hopes and expectations for our children and our community,” Pate said. “But throughout I also heard that we have a common goal. That goal being doing what best meets the needs of Winchester Public Schools today and tomorrow. Now and in the future.”
A job posting for Handley’s next principal was posted by the school division last week.
Attending Tuesday night’s business meeting held virtually from the Central Administrative Office at 12 N. Washington St. were Winchester Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum, School Board Chairwoman Allyson Pate, School Board Vice Chairwoman Marie Imoh and board members Bryan Pearce-Gonzales, Richard Bell, Karen Holman, Mike Birchenough, Elyus Wallace and Erica Truban. The meeting was publicly held through Zoom.