BOE holds heated discussion at MMS

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The board of education held a special meeting June 16 at Marlinton Middle School to discuss ongoing issues and concerns.

Teachers, parents and students shared their views on the education provided at MMS and how the students are striving.

The discussion about MMS began at the May 26 meeting when the board discussed issues at the school which may have led to two students transferring to Green Bank Elementary-Middle School.

Teachers and parents were upset with the way the discussion was handled – in open session – and wanted to give their side of the story to the board.

At the beginning of the special meeting, board president Emery Grimes apologized on behalf of the board for the way the issues were handled at the May meeting.

“Board members get frustrated, too, and I think you were hearing frustration,” Grimes said. “We get a lot of calls and we, as board members, we didn’t handle that situation very well. We didn’t handle that as professionally as we should and for that I will apologize to the teachers and the staff at Marlinton Middle School.”

Principal Joe Riley began the conversation by saying it is important for all parts of the school system to work together to offer the best education to the students.

“What actually comes out of this meeting sets the standards and the tone for next school year because we’re down to the end of the year now,” he said. “We want to make a move forward positively so that next year, we can say that we made progress. For us to work properly, all parts must work and function together for an end result. I feel like sometimes we’re not working together, but against each other. We need a system that works because the ultimate sacrifice is the kids if the system doesn’t work.”

While the school isn’t perfect, Riley said the staff and faculty put their best efforts into the students.

“We really need your support in order for us to be successful,” he said. “We know as a school we’re not perfect. We know we’ve got things that we need to work on, but there are a lot of things you don’t know about Marlinton Middle School and we want to present that to you tonight.”

Health and physical education teacher Cathy Mitchell shared information on the characteristics and mentality of middle school aged students to give the board an idea of what the teachers deal with on a daily basis.

“I know that every one of you has raised a middle school child, but I don’t think every one of you has been in the same room with twenty of them at the same time,” Mitchell said. “Here’s three characteristics I found doing research – characterized by mood changes, begin to struggle between their reliance on adults and their desire for independence and undergoing major intellectual and social and emotional changes.

“I thought ‘wow.’ However, those three characteristics are from an article about the terrible twos,” she continued. “In further research, one of the things you find out is the time period from that eighteen month to twenty-four month to three year old group and the time period that we have, that is the most drastic changes that any kid goes through and really a vulnerable stage for a lot of them.”

Mitchell further explained that sixth graders usually still act like children because they are fresh out of elementary school, seventh graders are more rebellious and bicker more, and eighth graders have matured and are more mellow.

“I’ve often said that seventh graders are taken over by alien beings from outer space for part of their year because they just, they go wacky,” she said. “Seventh grade is hard. It’s a hard, hard year. It’s hard for their teachers. It’s hard for their parents. It’s hard for them and then, as they enter eighth grade, the aliens give them back to us.”

Mitchell said she shared the information in hopes it would help the board understand the struggles seen at Marlinton Middle School. She added that MMS should not be compared to Green Bank Elementary-Middle School because the middle school students in Green Bank are not isolated like the ones at Marlinton.

GBEMS science teacher Anne Smith said she fully agrees with Mitchell. She notices a difference in the middle school students at Green Bank because they are still near the elementary school and see their elementary school teachers in the halls and the office.

“What Mrs. Mitchell said about middle school students is spot on,” Smith said. “I see all of that. I also see eighth grade students going into the office because they’ve been in trouble – they’re mad, they’re fuming, they’re so angry they could just spit – and then their second grade teacher walks in. They melt because they see that second grade teacher and they know that second grade teacher as a second grader who they loved. They have that diffusion that this school doesn’t.”

Several teachers shared their opinions and concurred that the biggest issue they face is a lack of communication between them and the board of education.

Math teacher Theresa Rhea said she is very disappointed in the way the board discussed issues at the May meeting and asked that if the board members have issues with teachers, to visit the teacher or call them directly.

“Nobody is coming to me,” she said. “Not one single parent contacted me for the first two nine weeks when supposedly all the problems were going on and like I said, I know it’s not perfect. I put my email address out there. I put my phone number on every contact that I’ve given to parents. I have been begging parents, board office people, board members to visit my classroom.”

Math coach Joanna Burt-Kinderman said it is important to take this as an opportunity to grow and become better educators, instead of people who continually throw mud and fight one another.

“We’re in a pickle here,” she said. “We’ve been pointing fingers towards problems and people rather than joining hands where struggles exist to lift ourselves up together. Unless and until all of us take an honest look at ourselves and claim our own responsibility; until we chart our own path forward to be growth minded, solution driven, respectful and open to the expertise and the questions and the feedback of others; until we turn our backs on gossip and start communicating with each other when we hear things, we’ll never realize the true potential of our schools and we will – each one of us – fail our students.

“I can do better and I sincerely hope all of you can, as well,” she concluded.

Board members expressed concerns regarding discipline, stating they have received complaints that the discipline practices at MMS are not fair.

Riley said discipline is a very difficult part of the education system – a part he still struggles with.
“Any time I make the decision on a kid on what I’m going to do with discipline, I’ve got to go home that night and think ‘did I do the right thing,’” he said. “There have been instances where I’ve gone back and I rechecked myself, and I’ve brought kids back because maybe I put them out too long, and after I thought about it, I made the wrong decision.”

Riley said it is difficult to compare the discipline of students because each student is different and sometimes, the same offense by more than one student does not call for the same punishment.

“Every kid is different,” he said. “Every situation is different. When I think about discipline, there are instances that no one else knows except me, sitting in that office and the kids that are in there, of what is actually going on. I make that decision based off what I know in that office. [Superintendent] Dr. Bechtel doesn’t know it. You all don’t know it. Sometimes, my staff doesn’t know why the decisions are being made.”

When it comes to discipline, Riley said what he needs most from the board is trust – trust that his decisions are the best ones for the students.

“I ask that you trust me that I’m making the right decision,” he said. “There’s always going to be complaints whenever you make decisions about kids discipline. There always will be. You’ve just got to trust that I’m making the right decisions.”

While several parents spoke up and showed their support for the teachers and the school by saying their children have excelled at the school and did not have issues at all, there were parents who also shared their disdain with the board for the conversation at the May meeting.

Parent Sam Gibson said he believed the reason the meeting was taking place was not to discuss the teachers and the students, but to discuss the actions of the board and its members.

“This is the reason we’re here and I think that it’s time to get some things out in the open,” he said. “What we cannot have anymore is our board – the people who work for us – punch us in the gut and drive a stake through the heart of parent and teacher and student relationships. That’s not going to happen anymore. You cannot do that.”

Gibson added that in the “real world,” he would have been fired for acting the way the board did at the May meeting.

Although board members are elected officials and are not employees, Gibson lodged a complaint, asking for two board members to be fired from their positions.

“I want to read my complaint – Dear Pocahontas County Board of Education, please accept this as my official complaint and request for this board,” Gibson read. “Due to your most recent irresponsible and slandering comments and remarks about the students, parents and staff at Marlinton Middle School, I request that Emery Grimes and Jessica Hefner be fired immediately. I request that the remaining board members follow standard operating procedures to fill these positions and not disrupt business in our school system. Also please note and add this complaint to the next agenda of regular scheduled Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting for follow up, discussion and action.”

In response, Grimes said the board of education is in place to work for the children of the county and to ensure they are provided the best education possible. While concerns about MMS were not initially discussed in a proper manner, Grimes said it is the focus of the board to ensure the school is successful.

“If we’ve got problems here, we need to correct them,” he said. “If we need to send you resources to help you do that, we are willing to do that. We are all in this together. If Marlinton Middle School fails, we all fail. That’s why we’re asking the questions of the staff and Mr. Riley because we want to know these things.”

Grimes suggested holding a forum with the board at the welcome back to school picnic where a majority of the parents will be present.

Reading/language arts teacher Stephanie Burns and Burt-Kinderman both gave presentations on the progress of the students in those two fields, which will be covered in a separate article in next week’s edition of The Pocahontas Times.

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