(05/31/2002)
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 funding formula.

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 closed.

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 deficit."

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 counties.

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 works.

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.


Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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