LaTanya McDade is starting her first year as Prince William County’s new school superintendent focused on two very different tracks.
In the near-term, she faces the day-to-day challenge of trying to educate almost 90,000 students during a pandemic. But with hopes to outlast the pandemic in her current position, she’s also looking farther out at ways to reshape parts of the division for the better.
As chief education officer in Chicago, McDade earned praise for introducing more advanced international baccalaureate classes to more students and schools, as well as overseeing improvements in graduation and dropout rates.
During her final months in Illinois, she also was a public face of the district’s push to bring students back into school buildings, an effort that put her in the middle of tense negotiations with the city’s teachers union. This year in Prince William, no such fight is necessary.
But McDade remains steadfast in her administration’s decision not to allow parents to back out of in-person learning and switch their children to virtual learning, putting her at odds with some families who have launched petitions and asked for help from the School Board.
McDade and others from the division have said the policy is strictly about planning and logistics around teacher assignments, schedules, curriculum and more. But McDade has been a persistent advocate for in-person learning and the importance of avoiding further school closures to keep children in school this year. She reiterated that in an interview with InsideNoVa last week, where she also discussed plans for allocating the $72 million that the division will receive from the American Recovery Plan Act.
“The impact of the pandemic on learning, this will be multiple years of recovery that will impact generations of learners, and so it is so critically important for us to be in school in person,” McDade said. “Nothing takes the place of in-person learning in the classroom with a high-quality teacher and student engagement and peer-to-peer interaction. Nothing can take the place of that.”
Full enrollment numbers for this school year have not been released by school divisions in the state, but before the first day Prince William school officials said about 97% of students planned to return to school in-person, with just 3% opting to stay virtual. Keeping those 97% of students in school will rely on limiting the spread of COVID in schools and a strict testing and quarantining regime for students and staff exposed to the virus depending on their vaccination status.
Quarantines to be expected
Through last Tuesday, according to numbers released by the school system, the division has had 255 cases of COVID among students, teachers and staff in the month of August, with 128 of them coming since schools opened Aug. 23. Many, though not all, had close contacts in schools.
The division’s enrollment fell for the first time in many years last fall to just over 89,000 students, and so far, the division has avoided complete school shutdowns like those in some other Virginia counties.
School Board Chair Babur Lateef said parents and staff shouldn’t panic when they hear about students or teachers needing to quarantine – that’s part of the system designed to keep classrooms and schools open.
“Quarantines, you may hear of them. They may happen here and there and students being asked to stay at home and that’s another tool of mitigation,” Lateef told InsideNoVa. “Quarantine is something we’ll use just like masks. … I think that’s something we’re going to face as long as this pandemic continues. I’m not sure that’s going to go away.”
Along with the first day of school, last week also brought the release of the state’s Standards of Learning test results, showing a significant decline in scores for students in both Prince William and across the state. McDade says last year’s learning loss only reinforces the need for in-person education to continue this year, and with extra help from the federal government.
New teacher assistants proposed
This week, the school system will submit a detailed proposal for how it would use the federal recovery plan money to the state’s Department of Education. Core to it is a plan to add one teacher assistant for every 500 students in “focus and priority schools,” as well as one math specialist support position for every school “identified as prioritized.”
The proposal would also fund additional one-on-one and group tutoring for students in need. Identifying those students will happen through teacher assessments, attendance and test scores as well as a survey the division has sent to all families about academic and social/emotional needs coming back to school.
“There are so many different metrics that we will be taking into consideration to do the analysis of where we need to provide support. We’re also relying on the research that’s currently available… about unfinished learning,” McDade said. “And one of the things that has come out of that research … high-dosage tutoring, making sure that we’re focused on acceleration and not just remediation.”
High-dosage tutoring takes place three or more times per week, and with the help of the stimulus money that the school system will soon receive, McDade plans to make it available for more students who need it.
Challenges in hiring
Lateef said the biggest challenge related to the money will be finding people to fill the positions. The division is already slightly more understaffed than in a normal year and nearly every state in the country is facing a teacher shortage of some kind, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The tutoring positions, though, could be slightly easier to fill because they offer more flexibility in terms of time and don’t have the same requirements as teaching and assistant positions do.
“The biggest chunks of money are going to go to human resources,” Lateef said of the plan. “There’s been good success across the country on these kinds of tutoring programs and we’re really hopeful for that.”
Beyond the immediate challenges of COVID, McDade has a number of long-term goals for the division that she’s working to lay out with the School Board in a four-year plan.
Among them is increasing access to “high-quality, rigorous, culturally-relevant” curriculum for the increasingly diverse student body. “Recognizing not just the challenges but the triumph of a diversity of people that make up the country that we live in,” she said.
She also wants to make more resources available for students as they transition into post-secondary education, “recognizing that our job does not end when we hand off the diplomas on stage.”
And she told InsideNoVa she will bring a “customer-service approach” to the division’s interactions with families that sees families as “clients”: “Making sure that we’re open, we’re honest and we’re transparent in our communication.”