Pathways expansion put on hold

With a $5 million increase in next year's proposed budget, Williamsburg-James City County School Board members knew they had to make cuts.

The expansion of Warhill High School's Pathways Program to Jamestown and Lafayette is the first major expense to be eliminated, a reduction of roughly $200,000.

At the Tuesday night meeting, the board decided to delay the expansion. They cited the tight fiscal year 2017-18 budget and an impending evaluation of Warhill's program.

The assessment is underway by a team at the College of William and Mary and results are expected this summer.

"I think the cost was something that we had never been able to fully understand," Chairwoman Kyra Cook said Wednesday. "I think also, based on what the evaluation data tells the administration, the implementation could look different, we just don't know yet."

Warhill's program grew out of two state innovation grants — $50,000 to plan and $50,000 to implement — and a partnership with William and Mary. With a focus on hands-on, project-based learning and career preparation, Pathways is touted as an alternative to traditional high school.

Last fall, 100 students from across the district entered the Warhill program. Teams at Jamestown and Lafayette have been sharing a third $50,000 state planning grant to develop the program at the other two high schools.

Warhill's program will continue into its second year as planned; the future of the other two programs is less certain.

The budget

Of the $5 million extra Superintendent Olwen Herron is asking for this year, $3 million goes toward required increases, such as employer contributions to the Virginia Retirement System, and $2 million is allocated to instructional priorities like Pathways.

The fiscal year 2017-18 budget accounted for $25,000 in instructional materials, $20,000 for transportation and $53,000 for technology per each of the three schools, school spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said.

With only Warhill moving forward, the Pathways costs are cut by two-thirds.

There was some concern at the Tuesday meeting about whether the division would have to pay back the $50,000 grant if the Lafayette and Jamestown programs don't move forward this year, but that doesn't seem to be the case, Overkamp-Smith said. Herron is still confirming with Virginia Department of Education representatives, Overkamp-Smith said.

Where the program stands

Information about the Jamestown and Lafayette programs has been shared with the community, but the applications period wasn't set to open until May.

The Warhill applications will still open then, with 100 slots to fill. Rising ninth graders from around the division are eligible to apply.

No students were turned away from the program last year, but that may change, Overkamp-Smith said. Now that more families are aware of the program, the two-school delay could increase the number of students applying to Warhill's program, she said.

Overkamp-Smith said there has been significant interest in the two additional programs, partly because many students want to stay in the school they're zoned for. This delay also may deter some students from applying at all, she said.

Going forward

The progress made on planning the additional programs hasn't been in vain.

"I don't think (the team) feels that they've wasted any time, they really see the value of the direction that this program was going to take students," Lafayette Principal Anita Swinton said.

With the School Board decision, the work hasn't stopped, it has only shifted directions. Instead of planning a Pathways implementation, the Lafayette team is starting to look for ways to implement Pathways' ideas in classes, like project-based learning, Swinton said.

Jamestown, too, is planning to incorporate project-based learning everywhere possible, Jamestown Principal Catherine Worley said.

"In general, we have learned so much through this process, our teachers are so excited about continuous improvement," Worley said. "Regardless how fast we move forward on it, we are going to move forward.…We are moving forward with innovation, with project-based learning. It just won't be on the grand level that Warhill is."

The disparity presented when limiting Pathways to Warhill is cause for concern, said board member Julie Hummel (Williamsburg).

She left the board with some words of warning Tuesday after they agreed to hold off on the program.

"I caution all of us, when we are creating new programs, that the creation of the new program not, all of a sudden, result in an equity issue with the other high schools," Hummel said. "I add the Pathways at Warhill to Project Lead the Way at Warhill … along with the partnership with Thomas Nelson so actually three really nice options for high school students that are in the attendance zone for Warhill.

"It shouldn't matter where you live what kind of experience you have."

The topic will be revisited at the board's next meeting, a work session on March 7. Also on March 7 is a public hearing on the budget, an opportunity for the community to provide feedback.

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

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