|By Bob Weaver|
West Virginia's smallest public school has produced exemplary results, in a
a world where bigger is considered better. Pickens School, deep in the
backwoods of Randolph County, has managed to survive dozens of efforts to
close it, but long-time principal Jim Biggs has gone to bat to keep it going
for twenty-seven years.
While county school administrators and Boards of Education are held
hostage to funding formulas and the consolidation movement, Picken's has
become one of the states exemplary schools, based on SAT scores, writing
scores, college entrance and attendance.
This weekend, Sen. Robert Byrd will deliver the commencement address to
the school's three graduates. I will joyfully be there to be with my friend
principal Biggs, having watched his passionate efforts to keep the school
open these many years.
Pickens now has 37 students, grades one through twelve.
Linda Martin and
Beth Spence of Challenge WV, a grassroots program against school
consolidation, said it is like "trying to turn an elephant." They contend West
Virginia got on the consolidation bandwagon about the time large schools
around America were deciding they did not work.
Martin and Spence came to Arnoldsburg this week with Challenge WV to
deliver their message against bigger is better.
Challenge WV co-ordinators meet with Calhoun citizens, including Del.
Bill Stemple and Board member Carlene Frederick
Martin said the State Department of Education has closed 324 schools since
1990, based on a promise it would save money and improve education. "It
has not. Even the amount of personnel has stayed the same," said Martin.
"They are stuck in an old model."
Since consolidation and the school building authority movement started,
taxpayers have invested $1 billion in new facilities, more travel time, bigger
classes and often a decline in educational choices because of the school
Martin said while it has been important to have adequate buildings, the
improvements could have been made on existing structures or building small
schools rather than multi-million dollar complexes. "It seems big buildings
have become more important than education," she said.
Linda Martin, Challenge WV, says small schools work better
Challenge WV says they believe many teachers and county school officials
agree with them, but they seem "powerless to turn the elephant."
Spence said the evidence is overwhelming, "The smaller the school the
higher the achievement." She said West Virginia educational "experts" are
moving in a direction that does not work. "Big schools across America are
being broken up and reduced into smaller units, because they have failed"
she said, "Many of them suffering disconnection and increased violence."
At least 151 more West Virginia schools, mostly elementary, are slated to be
Martin said Ritchie County is a good example related to money. The system
had four high schools, and the citizens were told they would save $300,000
if they were consolidated. "Now there is one school, and they're running a
Politically tampering with education in West Virginia is a bear, since the
school system is the largest employer in 37 of West Virginia's 55
The Picken's story must be troubling to some educational leaders. It will be a
refreshing experience to re-discover Jim Biggs has never encountered a
problem with drugs or weapons, an in-your-face kind of rule making that
Biggs said "We have an atmosphere in an old clap-board building, that
stresses excellence...We don't accept mediocrity."
All the the graduating classes from Pickens have actually gone on to college
for many years.
What a deal in the troubled world of education.
President George Bush has moved forward with educational reform for
America - "Leave No Child Behind." It is a mammoth bill directed toward
accountability, and contains elements fought against or neglected by many
educators and teacher unions.
Some West Virginia educators feel the Bush plan brings hope and promise to
a costly system that often produces questionable results.
Maybe we should all travel to Pickens, West Virginia this weekend and find
some of the answers.