CALHOUN TEACHER CODY JACK CUNNINGHAM – Beware, School Grades Can Trash Faculty Morale, True Educational Efforts

By Cody J. Cunningham, Instructor Calhoun Middle/High School
MT. ZION — With the release of the general summative assessment [Smarter Balanced test] scores I anticipate a reexamination of Calhoun County Middle/High School to take place and many questions to be asked concerning the performance of the teachers.

Many in the community will ask what is happening. In the end, the teachers and the school will suffer from misguided and unjust scrutiny.

Ladies and gentlemen, we teach. We teach so many grades and disciplines that by the end of the year the newest of faculty members depart for other lands, exhausted.

We teach life skills, career skills, test prep, and we remediate deficiencies of our students.

We host an after-school program providing meals and transportation home, fully funded through grants that are applied for and written around the clock.

We have teachers who teach multiple grades on both sides of the school. We may be considered one school, but our grades are many, 5 through 12 in fact.

We teach, but it is not enough. We need help from everyone in the community.

At each level of development, students grow and encounter different struggles. The same strategies used in an elementary school may not translate well into a middle school or a high school.

When we at Calhoun County Middle/High School go through a revolving door of new faculty members, it is hard to form a cohesive working environment, but we try.

Our problems are legion: from broken homes, broken lives, paycheck to paycheck living and a host of social-emotional problems, and these flood our halls and classrooms. Yet, the core faculty has not given up. We, who are here, stand ready to adopt new strategies and schedules, and we have.

We have implemented a positive behavior management system. The Social Studies Department is doing counseling for careers. We have a three-year mentorship period for new faculty members, we have brought in an interventionist and a technology integration specialist, we have a revamped after-school program, and we have changed our school day scheduling to offer intervention, academic advisement and enrichment in smaller groups for all students grades 5 through 12 every day.

Yet, our glorious federal and state leaders have decided that test scores will count as the majority factor when deciding if a school receives an A, B, C, D or F. These blinded leaders have taken a failed system in other states that punishes the schools for low test scores and have adopted it here in West Virginia.

These A to F rating systems began in Florida in 1999, and even today major changes have taken place in Florida’s system, and they have moved away from punishing schools.

New York City has also moved away from giving grades to their schools.

Virginia superintendents, principals, teachers and professors fought and shot down the proposal in 2013, arguing it would adversely influence low-socioeconomic status areas.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are among the lowest low-socioeconomic status areas in the state.

This blinded system will, unjustly, destroy the last remaining respect for our schools and replace it with nothing but negativity, despair and even lower student and faculty morale.

Here is the problem: For years now, the curriculum standards have changed, testing schedules change, the test themselves change, the teachers in the schools change, the leadership has changed and now we are going to be held to a standard that was not under our complete control when students went through Calhoun schools.

Was it the faculty’s fault that the middle school science and English positions had multiple substitutes and teachers in their classroom?

Is it our fault that we like living in a remote and sparse section of West Virginia that determines our funding?

Is it the fault of the faculty that students come from two elementary schools and then mix together in the fifth grade?

Is it the teacher’s fault when the students put forth such little effort in their schooling that more time is spent disciplining for insubordination than teaching?

We applaud the proficiency rates of the other schools, but Calhoun County Middle/High School is a whole other form of complexity and a different institution. Within one building, a student will go from being 10 years old to 18 years old, from a child to a young adult.

Ladies and gentlemen, this requires much more resources and help than has been previously given to the school.

We the faculty recognize the wake-up call of the proficiency scores, but we ask for time. We ask the community to not focus on the negative aspect of the school scores and focus on what else we do.

Look at the programs that we have in place now. Look how our schedule has changed. Look at the way we are handling our new and veteran faculty, and how we are building a community school.

Instead of criticizing and saying how bad it seems, partner with the teachers and administrators and help us continue the great work being done at Calhoun County Middle/High School.

We need your help, and we need your support.

When the final numbers are released and the postings go up, please think of the impact to student and faculty morale when the criticism pours in.

Remember how we are changing and what we are doing to move forward. Please give us time to improve, partner with us to improve all our lives and those of our students, or I am afraid that all our past two years of efforts will have been for nothing and another steady stream of faculty departures will take place.

No one wants to attend a place, work in a place or be a part of a place that many in a community think is incompetent and lazy. Partner with us and allow our changes to continue building a better Calhoun County. Thank you.

– Cody Jack Cunningham is a social studies teacher and vice chairman of the faculty senate at Calhoun County Middle/High School. This commentary is excerpted from comments he made to the Calhoun County Board of Education.