Top school stories reach beyond classrooms

The Virginia Gazette

This year, Williamsburg-James City County Schools saw a technology program thrive, its fourth middle school and restraint/seclusion policy come under scrutiny and its board set to transform with five new members.

Here's the top issues/stories about education in 2015:

Fourth middle school project

The project to build W-JCC School's fourth middle school at the James Blair site has a slew of supporters and retractors.

Those who want the project to move forward have said student enrollment projection numbers show the district will need a new middle school by 2018.

Budget constraints that linger from the recession forced city and county officials to break the more than $29 million project in two phases, district officials said.

Those opposed to the project say the district's enrollment numbers have changed in recent years, and the area will not need a 600-seat, then a 900-seat, three-story middle school.

Critics have also questioned the choice of building the middle school at James Blair after demolishing most of the school and whether the intersection of Ironbound and Longhill Road can handle bus, business and other traffic around the school.

In November, voters chose two of three reform candidates in November who are opposed to the project.

This month, the fourth middle school project got the green light from Williamsburg's Planning Commission for a special use permit to go with a height variance to eventually allow the school to be three-stories.

Williamsburg City Council will vote in January on whether to approve the planning commission's recommendation.

Shake-up on the school board

An active Republican Party in James City County helped boost two of its three candidates to the non-partisan board who oppose the fourth middle school project.

Reform candidates Holly Taylor and Sandra Young won in Stonehouse and Berkeley districts, defeating incumbent James Nickols and the College of William and Mary professor John Riofrio, respectively.

Another reform candidate, Petra Nadal, was defeated by W&M professor James Beers.

Existing Board member Heather Cordasco is also leaving after losing her bid to serve Roberts District on the James City County Board of Supervisors.

After 12 years on the board and decades in Williamsburg-James City County schools, Elise Emanuel stepped down from her appointed position on the board. She endorsed her replacement, Julie Hummel.

Hummel was appointed to the school board earlier this month by Williamsburg's City Council.

In a surprise move, the board's first and only Hispanic member, Joe Fuentes, resigned from the board, effective in January. Officials have not yet said who will replace him.

Bring your own device to school

A W-JCC Schools program called "Bring your own device" grew in popularity in 2015, after starting out slow in 2014.

Bring Your Own Device allows students to use their own computers, tablets and other technology at school. Participation wasn't mandatory, but many W-JCC students embraced the option, with more than 70 percent of high school students participating in the program in 2015.

The BYOD project is also being tested out in other districts across the state, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

Division adopts first restraint/seclusion policy

Parents and special education advocates spoke during the public comment period at three meetings to oppose a draft of a seclusion and restraint policy for W-JCC Schools.

The policy determines how and when a school official can put their hands on a child or separate them from other students.

It's a new policy for the district, and in the coming years will be one required for all Virginia school districts, thanks to a new law passed in the General Assembly this summer.

Those opposed to the district's policy said it allowed school officials to use mechanical restraints, as well as use restraint and seclusion for discipline or to protect school property, which was not what federal officials who designed the policy had intended.

After the public outcry, the board tweaked the new policy, removing lines that would allow school officials to use restraint or seclusion to quell disturbances or to direct the movement of actions of a student disrupting the learning environment.

The division's new policy does allow officials to use seclusion or restraint in some non-emergencies, to prevent imminent destruction to school property as well as the use of mechanical restraints.

They passed the policy this month with the agreement that it would be revised as new state and federal guidelines come out.

Canty can be reached at (757) 345-2341.

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