Student achievement steady under Steve Constantino

Ryan McKinnon
Contact Reporterjmckinnon@vagazette.com

WILLIAMSBURG — School systems are complex beasts. Running one is no easy task.

When Steve Constantino arrived in February 2011 to take over running the Williamsburg-James City County school division, student achievement was solid, but alternative education, a successful but expensive program for those in danger of dropping out, was in flux. There was no strategic plan that laid out a path to the future.

He was the deputy superintendent of the 107,000-student Cobb County district outside of Atlanta and had written three books on how to strengthen parental involvement in education. He had been principal of Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas when it was named one of Time Magazine's five Schools of the Year in 2001. The Washington Post had profiled his efforts toward parental outreach.

As Constantino exits W-JCC to become the chief academic officer/assistant superintendent for instruction with the state Department of Education, the Gazette is taking a look at the school district he leaves behind.

On Wednesday, the Gazette looked at how Constantino managed the school finances and facilities. Today, the focus is on the people: student academic progress, alternative education, career and technical education and parental engagement.

The students

W-JCC students continued to outscore their peers across the state on SOL tests during Constantino's tenure, and the schools were fully accredited every year of his administration.

Fewer school districts across the state had full accreditation over the last five years. During the 2013-14 school year, W-JCC was one of 36 fully accredited districts; in 2014-15 that number had shrunk to 22.

SOL pass rates across the state fell between 2010 and 2015 due to tougher math tests in 2011 and English and science tests in 2013. The state-wide dip in pass rates is mirrored by a drop W-JCC's rates.

In 2010, roughly 87 percent of students across the state passed their math, science, history and English SOLs. In 2015 that number had fallen to 81 percent. In W-JCC schools, 91 percent of students passed their SOLs in 2010, in 2015 that number was 86.

In W-JCC schools, black students, disabled students and poor students continue to score above the state average for those subgroups. But the district's pass rates for those groups are getting closer to the state average.

In 2010 the pass rate for black, disabled or poor students averaged 2 percentage points higher than the state; in 2015 the pass rates were just half a percent above the state average.

The graduation rate for the district climbed from 84 percent in 2010 to 91 percent in 2015, according to the state Department of Education, and nearly three times as many students took advanced placement tests in W-JCC high schools in 2015 as did in 2010. The number went from 468 (13 percent) in 2010 to 1,329 (37 percent) in 2015.

Alternative education

Constantino became superintendent in the wake of a year of contentious debate over alternative education.

For three years, the Academy for Life and Learning served as the district's primary venue for students who were in greatest danger of dropping out of school. The program operated out of trailers at Eastern State Hospital and Toano Middle School, and eventually classroom space at James Blair.

In 2010 the program moved into James Blair and boasted a 91 percent pass rate on the writing SOL, 89 percent on the reading SOL, 83 percent on the science SOL, 77 percent on the math SOL and 57 percent on the social studies.

Each year the program held an emotional graduation ceremony, in 2010 packing the James Blair auditorium where students and teachers shared their success stories.

In 2010 the program served roughly 40 students and cost $575,000 annually. The high cost and low enrollment prompted constant debate among board members at the time, and Constantino arrived just as the board decided to shut the program down.

At Constantino's first meeting on Feb. 1, 2011, the board voted to close the ALL and replace it with academic mentors, called Student Advancement Coaches, at each school.

In the 2011-12 school year, a student advancement coach began working in each middle and high school. According to a presentation at an August 2012 school board meeting, the coaches served 387 students that first year.

Although the academic coaches were pitched as a cost-efficient replacement for ALL, in 2014 the school division acknowledged that it had no real alternative education program and the board declared alternative education a top priority during its January budget retreat. The budget the board passed that spring allocated $300,000 to "enhancing alternative education options within the division."

That May, the James City County Procurement Office sought a vendor to develop an alternative education program that could be in place by January 2015.

Between July and December 2014, alternative education disappeared from public W-JCC conversations. The topic is not on any board meeting agendas during that time, and there was no public discussion about how the district would proceed.

In December, the district canceled its formal search for an alternative education vendor, and that notice stated W-JCC administration wanted to develop a program internally.

In February 2015, the district opened the Learning Lab where students take online classes from 2-6 p.m. each day in order to stay on track for graduation. The first semester 12 students took classes with a 64 percent SOL pass rate; and last school year 30 students attended the lab, according to district spokesperson Betsy Overkamp-Smith and Stephanie Bourgeois, senior director for student services.

But the Learning Lab is not alternative education, Overkamp-Smith said. She said people often assume alternative education is only for students with discipline problems, but the learning lab is for any student who is struggling in the mainstream school setting.

Last summer, the Learning Lab moved from James Blair to the annex at Lafayette, a move that raised questions about parity among the high schools. School advocates questioned why the school with the highest population of minority students and free and reduced lunch students was being forced to take on a program that brought more of the county's neediest students to Lafayette.

These frustrations were compounded when Warhill High School, which already had Project Lead the Way, was awarded a grant to develop an innovative program for 100 freshmen.

The lack of public discussion on the most recent evolution of alternative education stands in contrast to the debate over ALL in 2010.

Former board member Jim Nickols said he thinks he remembers Constantino updating the board on the status of alternative education during board meetings in the summer and fall of 2014, but he can't remember if it was from the dais. And he said the board was swamped with work to get the fourth middle school built, so it was a difficult time for board members to stay on top of every issue.

"By the virtue of the fact that no one said anything, we can assume they were happy with the direction the superintendent was going in with alternative education," Nickols said.

Parental Engagement

Constantino came to the district with a reputation as an expert in getting families more involved in their child's education

When he was hired, he already had written three books on parent and family engagement, and in 2001 he was recognized by Time Magazine for his commitment to family engagement. Time named Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, where Constantino was principal, one of its five schools of the year.

"He's a strong communicator who really knows how to engage and involve parents and school communities," said Board Chair Jim Nickols after Constantino was hired in December 2010.

The community had ample opportunity to give their feedback on the schools shortly after Constantino arrived. He and the board began a year-long strategic planning process. In order to develop a 5-year vision, the district held 28 community forums and focus group workshops with more than 400 participants giving feedback on the schools, according to a 2011 Virginia Gazette article. The school also sought public input via surveys on the website.

In 2012, Constantino created the role of Coordinator of Family and Community Engagement, and one of the main objectives of the district's strategic plan it rolled out in summer of 2012 was to "Build trust and authentic partnerships with families and the broader community."

Toward that end, the district held seminars for parents at Central Office. The "Parent Academies" began in 2014, and taught parents about how to help in their child's education.

School Spokesperson Betsy Overkamp-Smith said close to 100 people have attended the academies, and the district hopes to increase parent participation this year.

Laura Tripp, the W-JCC PTA Council President for the upcoming school year said Constantino came to most of the PTA Council meetings during his first four years. She said he did not come to the meetings last year, but he sent Felicia Highland, Coordinator of Family and Community Engagement.

But not everyone has been pleased with Constantino's level of engagement.

Several advocates for Lafayette voiced frustration over Constantino's unwillingness to engage with them on the issue of school equity.

Lori Erwin, parent of a Lafayette student, has been part of an effort to get an auxiliary gym built at the school. She said Constantino did not seem interested in engaging with the parents involved in that movement.

'Master of the stage'

Constantino's profile as a speaker on the national circuit grew during his time as superintendent. He traveled across the country, speaking on family engagement. His company, The Constantino Group, promoted him as a "master of the stage," and "one of the most sought after keynote/endnote speakers and workshop leaders in the United States."

But Constantino's dedication to his side job as a speaker at conferences gave critics easy fodder.

At the 2016 National School Boards Association Conference in Boston in May, Constantino spoke on family engagement. A full-page bio that accompanied a handout from his talk did not include any mention of Williamsburg-James City County.

Constantino's personal twitter account offers a glimpse at his travels, with tweets from speaking engagements all over the country.

His contract allows for outside work, as long as he gets the prior approval of the board.

Several board members said Constantino notified them whenever he planned to be out of town, but did not seek permission. Copies of emails obtained by the Gazette via the Freedom of Information Act show Constantino notifying board members of travel, but not seeking permission.

"We have never been asked about his traveling," said Sandy Young (Berkeley). "Maybe (board chair) Mr. Kelly gives him permission."

"If he's getting permission, I don't know who he's getting it from," said Jim Beers (Roberts).

The massive task of leading a school district requires greater attention than Constantino was willing to give, said Lisa Ownby, who is running for the Powhatan District school board seat this fall.

"I thought he was going to be the bomb-diggity," Ownby said "When we looked at his resume we thought he would be great. A year into it he had done nothing. He writes his books and travels a lot. I think he was an absentee superintendent."

But not all board members saw Constantino's travel as a concern.

"While some people might think Steve's work outside the division is a distraction, I would say it is the opposite," said Board Vice Chair Kyra Cook. "It brings added value."

Board chair Jim Kelly said most of Constantino's speaking engagements are at conferences over the weekends, so what he does on his personal time is his own business.

Career and Technical Education

In April the General Assembly passed legislation revamping graduation requirements, placing a stronger emphasis on job training.

"When you and I went to high school … seat time was a big deal," Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, said in April. "And that is going to be gone. And in its place we're now going to have the flexibility to award credits to students who get internships or apprenticeships or go and earn industry certifications."

Miller died shortly after the legislation passed, but the effect of Senate Bill 336 will be long standing.

Beginning in 2018, students will take more core classes during freshmen and sophomore year. For their final two years in school, they can choose between a path to a four-year college, preparation for community college or career training.

The new law reflects long-established trends in W-JCC schools. Career and Technical Education has been divided between tracks since before Constantino's arrival. But the law also places more pressure on districts to beef up their CTE programs.

College-bound students can take classes in engineering and biomedical sciences in Warhill's Project Lead the Way program. Students who want to enter the workforce right out of high school can get certifications in trades like welding, carpentry and auto repair at New Horizons Regional Education Center in Newport News.

Some aspects of career and technical education have grown during Constantino's tenure. Funding allocated in the annual budget has increased 10 percent, from $433,454 in 2011 to $476,261 budgeted for 2016-17.

The Project Lead the Way Program at Warhill offers classes for college-bound students focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The program earned national PLTW certification in 2015, and students from Warhill traveled to the Virginia Workforce Conference and met with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

But CTE training for non-college bound students has stalled.

Enrollment at New Horizons has seen a slight dip during Constantino's tenure, from 129 students in 2010 to 125 students in 2016, according to Angela Standley, the Executive Secretary/Clerk of the Board for New Horizons.

While New Horizons offers an array of programs, students who want to take courses there have to ride a bus 45 minutes and arrange their schedule around taking two morning classes in Newport News.

Students at New Horizons can earn state professional licenses, like emergency medical technician or cosmetology licenses. These are the most demanding courses, and are most likely to lead to employment right out of high school, according to Helen Manns, the former WJCC Coordinator for Career Readiness and 21st century learning.

Manns said New Horizons also offers industry certifications, where students can be certified in specific job skills, like using Microsoft Word. And the training center administers workplace readiness tests and NOCTI exams – both are assessments students can use to show future employers they have a variety of skills.

The DOE totals the number of professional licenses, industry certifications, workplace readiness tests and NOCTI exams administered and reports how many credentials a school district earned in a year.

In total, the number of credentials earned by W-JCC's New Horizons students has increased 32 percent, from 385 credentials in 2010 to 509 in 2015.

However, in Newport News the number of credentials has more than doubled, from 862 in 2010 to 1,901 in 2015. And York County students earned more than four times as many credentials as they did five years ago, going from 282 in 2010 to 1,558 in 2015, according to DOE data.

Brandy Day, the chair of W-JCC's Career and Technical Advisory Committee said the administration did not promote CTE programs, and any progress in CTE is more likely because of pressure from the state than from initiative from administrators.

She said because CTE often serves students less likely to go to college, it tends to get little attention from the administration. And she worries that, although district participation in New Horizons is shrinking, the district's joint ownership of the program will mean administrators will not develop new programs in Williamsburg.

"It is somewhat of a crutch. The district can say we offer (career and technical classes) there," Day said. "But it is important to invest in your community and the kids that you serve."

But duplicating programs in Williamsburg that are already offered in Newport News is a tough sell for school board members, even if it does mean fewer kids can participate.

"The cost to run your own career and tech program have gotten cost prohibitive," said James City County Supervisor and former School Board Member Ruth Larson. "I think we are very fortunate to have New Horizons."

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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