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Community dialogue focuses on education
March 8, 2019

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SHEPHERDSTOWN -- With education garnering overwhelming amount of attention during this year's session of the West Virginia Legislature, Shepherd University hosted an open dialogue about education in the state on Monday, in the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education auditorium. Facilitated by Chiquita Howard-Bostic, chair of Shepherd's Department of Sociology and Geography, the gathering featured three panelists who got the discussion going, after which community members shared their thoughts.

First to speak was Julie Abel, art teacher at Mountain Ridge Middle School in Berkeley County and a contributor to the book "55 Strong: Inside the Teacher's Strike."

Abel shared a lengthy memo she had sent to legislators, urging them to vote against Senate Bill 451, the education "Omnibus" bill that has since been defeated in Charleston.

"I believe we would be setting education back with charter schools and ESAs," Abel said. "We need a clear financial picture of how this would affect West Virginia education."

Abel spoke at length about the class sizes in West Virginia, and the fact that SB451 would have allowed for the removal of any cap on classroom size. Currently, there are no caps on class sizes at the high school level. The cap on lower grades is at 28; however, she said that is not always enforced.

"It's difficult to keep students safe," she said, mentioning she was not opposed to everything in the Senate bill, but thought it needed to be broken out into smaller parts and addressed individually, rather than as a complete bill.

Following Abel was Michael Donnelly, Homeschool Legal Defense Association senior counsel and director of global outreach, and professor of constitutional law at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.

Donnelly shared that he and his wife homeschool their seven children, and believe that home school is an option for many, if not all families.

"There is a huge amount of resources in the public system," Donnelly said. "Home education ought to be a choice."

According to Donnelly, there are now nearly 11,000 home school students in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

"The number one reason for home school rationale is the concern about the environment in public schools," Donnelly said, referencing Abel's comments on safety.

Donnelly also indicated it is unfair to compare home schools with public schools.

"They are completely different," Donnelly said.

The next speaker was retired Shepherd political science professor Hannah Geffert, who raised seven children, all of whom graduated from West Virginia schools.

Geffert said she supported any type of education other than segregated classrooms; however, she did not believe that public money should pay for things other than public school. She voiced what she saw as problems with Senate Bill 451, including that the bill was "mean spirited and an effort to weaken public education."

Geffert said she believes public education is the best way to provide students with diverse differences.

"It's not enough to expose your children to just what they are," she said.

Audience members were then given the floor, to talk about their educational concerns.

"Public education is essential for an educated citizenry," said Shepherd sociology professor Gerry Crawley-Woods. "Home school does not give so much diversity."

Berkeley County Diversity Council Chair Damon Wright brought up another question, one regarding how to judge teacher performance.

"Other than through standardized test scores, how can we judge?" he asked.

Abel responded, saying she believes standardized tests are a huge problem.

"A lot of money is tied up in testing," she said. She went on to say that tests change so frequently, teachers and students do not have adequate time to prepare for them.

Homeschool mother Jamila Fleet spoke up later in the discussion, saying she believes there were many positive elements in the Senate bill.

"The comments you are making and the decisions being made focus on the worst-case scenarios," Fleet said. "Is it fair to hold back high-to-mid-level performing students because of those worst-cases?"

Howard-Bostic encouraged the attendees to think about the discussion and plan to come back for a second dialogue with the area's legislators, following the end of the legislative session. For those who would like to hear the entire dialogue, it is available on Shepherd University's YouTube channel.

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