Student safety, avoiding longer bus rides, and preserving the community’s identity were just a few of the many reasons given as to why St. Paul School should be able to keep the sixth and seventh grades.
Well over 100 people showed up Oct. 16 at the Cana school to attend a public hearing concerning the grade structure at St. Paul, which currently houses students in grades K-7. Nine citizens spoke during the hour-long public hearing about a proposed plan by the Carroll County School Board that would potentially place 6th and 7th grade St. Paul students at the newly named Carroll County Middle School for students in grades 6-8.
April Delacruz was the first to speak. The mother of three, two of her children currently attend St. Paul. She wished that St. Paul could offer honors classes, a foreign language, a variety of technology programs, but she didn’t know if it could.
“Our kids should have access to everything that other kids have,” Delacruz said. “College is very competitive and not having access to honors classes and foreign language may be one factor that could keep my kid and yours from not being accepted into a college of choice because another kid was chosen instead.”
She said advanced classes, sports and a better sense of belonging are her reasons for partially supporting the integration proposal. However, she didn’t feel she had been informed enough to get behind it 100 percent.
“With the closure of Woodlawn Elementary and the influx of even more students into Hillsville Intermediate, I am concerned that education will be hindered rather than enhanced due to class overcrowding,” she said. “I am also concerned that younger students will be blended in with much older students on the bus and at school.”
The next to speak was Barry Towe. When looking into an area, the first place industries look at are schools. He said it’s not a good selling point to companies when children will be bused an hour to 90 minutes to school. Towe said St. Paul did offer foreign language and other honors classes when he attended the school.
“Regardless of what you do about the grades here, please consider that, to reinstate those classes here. They helped me to pursue my goals and I ended up with a masters’ degree. Without the opportunities I had here, I don’t know if that would be the case,” Towe said. “It’s a viable school with 400 students. Its a growing community. Normally you don’t deny accessibility to schools where an area is growing. The school provides an identity to the community and every grade that’s taken away, a little bit of that is lost.”
A former member of the Carroll County School Board, Phillip Berrier was the next to speak. Berrier said he felt like he can read the pulse of the people in Cana.
“I feel that the majority do not want to see the sixth and seventh grades moved to Hillsville. We basically lost two schools already and now you are taking away sixth and seventh grades,” Berrier said. “Personally I feel we already have too many schools in Hillsville. We want the optimal learning situation for our students.”
Additonally, Berrier said Fancy Gap Mountain is dangerous with heavy truck traffic on Interstate 77, dense fog and the potential of boulders falling. St. Paul School is the best school in Carroll County, Berrier said. He’s heard that statement countless times from Central Office.
“It has the best students, best administration, best teachers. You can’t beat St. Paul School. It’s just a great teaching and learning environment,” Berrier said. “Why would we want to leave that? You can’t do that in Hillsville, drive 20 miles and be involved. There is good PTA involvement.”
Berrier said he knew changes would be suggested for St. Paul when the recommendation was made for Woodlawn School to be closed and for 9th grade students to be sent to CCHS.
“I never supported it and I would never support moving sixth and seventh grades from St. Paul. It would be over my dead body if I were on the board,” Berrier said. “I don’t think the move is economical, it’s not a better learning environment, and I don’t know a single person who is for moving. Give us a level playing field and we’ll be fine. The less time we have to spend in Hillsville, the happier we are.”
Donnette Leonard said the proposal to bus more St. Paul kids to Hillsville is not acceptable. Putting 10-year-old kids on the bus with high school students for up to three hours is not a good situation.
She also claimed that St. Paul carries the district as far as SOL and testing scores, and that three of the last four CCHS valedictorians came from St. Paul. She said funding for the 88 students in 7th grade at St. Paul equals to about $825,000.
“That’s about $1 million that would no longer come to St. Paul, but go to Hillsville,” Leonard said.
Ronald McCraw spoke next. He feels like St. Paul is the strongest school in the county. But putting impressionable 6th and 7th graders on the bus for up to three hours a day with students in grades 8-12 is not a good situation. How many people that work commute two to three hours a day for a job, McCraw asked?
“I remember when the eighth and ninth grades were taken away, we were painted as unreasonable,” McCraw said. “I challenge you to go up the mountain and tell some of these other schools you have a plan to ship them down the mountain to St. Paul and see what kind of reaction you get.”
Jamie Cain said St. Paul is a great school. Its kids need the same opportunities as kids above the mountain.
Joy Leonard was a member of the board of supervisors when the county was seeking financial support to get elementary schools constructed. The board worked diligently and traveled to Richmond and Washington to do so.
“We want sixth and seventh grades left here,” she said. “What we fought so hard for, we don’t want to give up.”
She felt like 8th and 9th grades need to be brought back to St. Paul. But if 6th and 7th grades are transferred to Hillsville, how long will it be before more funds are cut and 4th and 5th grades are also taken away.
“The State of Virginia will say there’s not enough children left at St. Paul to support that number of kids,” Leonard said. “Will they look and say we don’t have the funds we need to keep St. Paul open and take our kids to Fancy Gap? I know that can happen if we don’t try to work and keep what we have now.”
Fancy Gap District Supervisor Phil McCraw was the next to speak. He wanted to make it clear that he was not speaking as a supervisor, but as a longtime resident and business owner of Cana. He began by asking a series of questions.
“Why would anyone want to move to Cana knowing that from the sixth or seventh grade on their children were going to be riding a school bus two hours a day? Why would we uproot children from their community before it is necessary and in the process destroy a sense of community? Why was this presented at a St. Paul staff meeting prior to the start of school as part of a bigger plan from the beginning? And if this is part of a bigger plan, why did the school board waste 10 million dollars renovating St. Paul? Are we going to empty St. Paul one grade at a time? Those who say St. Paul will never be closed need to look no further than Vaughan School, which is located in another area of Carroll County and realize that anything is possible,” he said.
McCraw said it appears to him that Cana is the community that doesn’t really matter, that keeps losing, but it expected to continue to pay its fair share of taxes.
“I will close by saying I feel as if I must be a voice for the vast majority of the parents, children, community, and of reason,” McCraw said. “In short, leave St. Paul School alone.”
Patricia Sebens was the last speaker. She summed up everyone’s thoughts by saying keeping the 6th and 7th grades at St. Paul is about equity and dignity, efficiency and safety.
At the end of the public hearing, School Board Chairman Brian Spencer addressed the crowd.
“This is no preconceived notion of the board. Four of five of us are new to this,” Spencer said. “This is about our children, and as long as we all keep that in sight, then we will win.”