Orange County High School

According to the state's measure, Orange County High School has had a high rate of chronic absenteeism for the past five years. 

The Orange County Public Schools are fully accredited for the current year, and as a result, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Cecil Snead is feeling “a mixture of satisfaction and pride for our teachers and students for their accomplishments and improvements,” and a desire to keep the momentum building.

Snead pointed to a couple of highlights in response to the recent report from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

The 2019 graduation rate at Orange County High School (OCHS) is 94.18%, and he said he is pleased that figure exceeds the state average of 91.5%. He also is happy with improved scores in math at all levels.

But the superintendent, in his second year at the helm, sees room for improvement. In particular, he wants to cut down on chronic absenteeism at the high school and narrow the achievement gaps in English, as measured by Standards of Learning (SOL) exams.

A whopping 20% of the students at the high school were chronically absent during 2018-19. According to the state website, this is defined as “missing 10 percent or more of the school year, regardless of reason.” Homebound students completing their coursework are not counted absent.

The chronic absentee rate at OCHS has been about the same for the previous three years, and it was even higher, at 23%, in 2014-15.

Wendell Green is in his first year as principal of OCHS. Asked how he is addressing the problem of chronic absenteeism, he said, “Our revised protocol goes above and beyond what the state requires. We are sending a letter home to parents when a student has three unexcused or unverified absences. The state requires that we make a reasonable attempt to contact the parent to initiate an attendance plan when a student has five unexcused or unverified absences.”

He continued, “Our goal is to reduce the overall chronic absenteeism from 20.1% to 17.5% by the end of this school year. Based on the feedback that we have received from parents that have received a three-day letter, this added communication is making a positive impact towards improving our overall student attendance.”

The state’s new accreditation standards are entering their third year. They measure overall academic achievement, student engagement (including attendance) and the academic success of different segments based on race and several other defining characteristics. Success in all of these indicators, as the state calls these broad areas, results in accreditation. In a notable development, students who don’t pass an SOL exam but still show significant academic progress count toward a school’s overall achievement rate.

According to Jim Yurasits, director of testing, data and school improvement, “A school earns the rating of accredited if it has all of its indicators at either level one or level two. Locust Grove Elementary/Locust Grove Primary improved their math achievement gap performance enough to earn a level one rating as compared to last year’s level two.”

Yurasits said, “Orange County High School improved in math enough to upgrade to a level one this year, more than doubling its pass rate in the ‘students with disabilities’ reporting group.”

However, the data on the VDOE website shows that disabled students are struggling on their English SOL exams. At the high school, this group passed at a rate of 53% compared to the state benchmark of 75%. The overall pass rate in English at OCHS was 82%.

The point of highlighting achievement gaps, the state website explains, is to help schools “identify learners in need of additional support and resources.” Orange County administrators have emphasized in the past that students are not singled out for assistance based on race or any other factor. Instead, teachers address academic deficiencies individually. At the same time, the central office has implemented a program to help teachers become more responsive to students’ varying cultural backgrounds.

Yurasits pointed out that Lightfoot Elementary School has made significant strides in math.

He said, “Lightfoot Elementary was able to reduce its achievement gap in math to move from a level three [the lowest level] up to a level one this year by showing significant increases in the performance of students in the ‘black’ reporting group and in the ‘students with disabilities’ reporting group.”

In the English achievement category, Lightfoot’s overall pass rate was only one point shy of the 75% benchmark. Two groups—Hispanic students and English learners—exceeded that mark, and white students were very close at 74%. But the pass rate for disabled students and those with disabilities was 64% and for black students, 50%.

At Gordon-Barbour Elementary School, black students were at level two and disabled students were at level three in English. At Locust Grove Elementary School, disabled students were at level three in English.

Orange Elementary School sailed through, with no achievement gaps noted in either math or English for any group.

At Prospect Heights Middle School, black and economically disadvantaged students were at level two and students with disabilities were at level three in English. Disabled students also were at level three in math. At Locust Grove Middle School, disabled students were at level three in both the math and English achievement gap categories.       

While VDOE evaluates schools across Virginia, school administrators cast a discerning eye on the state standards themselves.

Asked his opinion of the new accreditation standards, which aim for a more nuanced view of how well schools and school divisions are doing, Snead said, “The state is moving in the correct direction with the standards, but there’s more work to be done at the state level in offering our students a more balanced approach toward an education.

“I truly believe that we are locally mitigating those concerns by increasing our capacity to utilize technology for our students as early as preschool and kindergarten. We have also improved the balance by offering our students more structured career and technical education courses and pathways that will meet their interests more pragmatically.”

Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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