There's good news and there's bad news in Newport News. On the good side, 20 of the city's public schools gained full accreditation this year, which is six more than last year. Understandably, this is what the school division played up in the news release that went out with the full list of accreditation ratings last week.
You had to read to the sixth paragraph to learn the bad news: Seven schools were denied accreditation, tied for the highest total for any school division in Virginia. And that number will almost certainly go up, as six more Newport News schools are listed as "to be determined" – which means the denial of accreditation is under appeal.
Last year, the city had four unaccredited schools after the appeals process. This year, the division would have to win all five appeals to avoid doubling that number.
Here is some context: Across the state, 29 schools were denied accreditation. Newport News accounts for almost a quarter of them. Statewide, 2 percent of schools were denied and 81 percent were fully accredited; in Newport News, those figures are 18 percent denied and 52 percent fully accredited.
You didn't have to study algebra at an accredited school to know that those numbers aren't good.
OK, pause and take a deep breath. This does not mean children in Newport News are doomed to be turned away by colleges and shunned by would-be employers. It is not as simple as saying that fully accredited schools produce geniuses and unaccredited schools turn out dunces.
For a school to achieve full accreditation, 75 percent of students must pass the Standards of Learning English test, and 70 percent must pass SOLs in math, history and science. In addition, high schools must achieve a "graduation index" of at least 85 percent. New tougher state guidelines emphasize consistent progress, so that a partially accredited school has four years to achieve full accreditation; if it remains stalled at the partial level, it eventually gets denied.
Some Newport News schools, such as Willis A. Jenkins Elementary, show solid improvement across the board but narrowly miss a couple of the minimum standards. They still go down as denied, even though they are clearly making progress and doing a lot of things right.
That said, some of the denied schools produced numbers that are frankly embarrassing — less than 50 percent passing the English SOL and less than 40 percent on some of the other exams. There is no way to spin those figures that would make them even remotely acceptable.
By contrast, Hampton had just two of its 29 schools denied (with eight "to be determined"). After having 12 fully accredited schools in 2014 and 2015, this year the city has 16. As Hampton schools superintendent Jeffrey Smith told us in a recent meeting with the Editorial Board, you can make all the progress in the world, but if you don't get that seal of approval that says "accredited," you have got problems.
Perception is often taken as reality, and the perception of a school district that is struggling has far-reaching implications. Property values take a hit when schools are failing. Businesses that might consider relocating here will inevitably check the status of the schools as a gauge of the potential local workforce. That's why this situation, while it shouldn't inspire panic, does call for a sense of urgency.
There is no quick fix, but steps must be taken to change the direction in which Newport News schools are headed. It is not as simple as throwing more money at the classrooms, and we do not question the hard work and long hours being put in by our teachers.
But the School Board should not shrug this off, and neither should the parents. Superintendent Ashby Kilgore recently talked with us about new directions and contemporary approaches to education that were enlightening and exciting to hear. These disappointing figures on accreditation do not mean that those new approaches should be rejected in favor of a return to worksheets and multiplication tables, but they do suggest a sharper focus may be needed.
What has changed in recent years that might have caused a downward trend? What are other more successful school divisions doing that could be emulated or drawn upon for inspiration? Which schools and teachers within Newport News are producing the best results, and can their methods be used across the division? These are just some of the questions that could form a starting point.
As always, we urge families to take an active role in their children's education, by volunteering at the schools when possible and by making their homes an extension of the classroom. Help with homework. Review classwork, and help with test prep. Find ways to engage and make learning fun at home. Do this, and you will see the results in the classroom.
Newport News' recent accreditation report is akin to a bright student bringing home a poor report card. The correct response isn't to punish but to focus all available resources on finding ways to improve.