Rethinking Early Childhood Education

Our students in rural Southwest Virginia face a larger number of challenges than youth in other areas of Virginia. Our children and families deal with issues such as high rates of child abuse and neglect, being raised in a single parent household, exposure to alcohol or drug use, living below the poverty level, and being raised by grandparents. These challenges contribute to a number of youth failing to transition successfully into adulthood.

Many of these students lack the skills to find and hold a job or handle the day-to-day responsibilities of independent living. In addition, these same challenges cause many youth to choose to leave the area for higher education and employment. This trend is leading to a shrinking workforce and a growing percentage of retirement-aged persons in rural counties of Virginia.

The work of rural K12 is supplemented both internally and externally by a wide variety of community organizations and individuals. Such school-community partnerships are vital to the success of small rural schools and students from low-income backgrounds.

In a recent report commissioned by the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia titled Doing More with Less, researchers recommended supporting a position where a local education insider can serve as an advocate for the schools by coordinating partnerships that meet district objectives. Likewise, the Communities in Schools (CIS) Model seeks to bring a highly trained school-based site coordinator who works with school staff to identify students at risk and aggressively seeks partnerships and obtains community resources to minimize the impact of poverty on students. These students receiving intensive services are tracked and measured for their academics, behavior, and attendance on a national data management system. Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 10.07.23 AM

The More with Less Report also recommends that leaders consider ways to increase engagement by low-income and minority families in school life and decision-making. ExCELL’s Mission is to bring together families, early childhood educators, community resources, and early literacy specialists to ensure that children receive the necessary learning opportunities for the development of critical early language and literacy skills.

 Under the Communities in Schools umbrella, the Early Childhood Education Partnership Project will target students and families in grades PK-3, and focus on targeting Pulaski County Public Schools and PK programs within Pulaski County’s Smart Beginnings of New Unknown
River Valley network. Site coordinators will be trained in the Communities in Schools (CIS) Model and may be initially employed by communtity parners such as New River Valley Community Services and/or Pulaski County Department of Social Services.

In year two, the Literacy Institute of Virginia Commonwealth University will be providing professional development and classroom-based coaching, 1437738_originstructional materials, and family connection and home-literacy materials.

Communities In Schools is an evidence-based organization that partners with other groups and organizations to deliver the human, financial, and community resources to help children succeed in school and in life. Each year, goals will be set and data collected and model-large
analyzed in the areas of promotion and retention, attendance, classroom grades, standardized test scores, homework completion, and eventually graduation data.

By leveraging our internal and external partnerships, we hope to provide intensive early childhood program services that promote healthy child development, school readiness, and parental skill development. These services would include an engaging and enriching high quality preschool experience that focuses on home visitation, health, and family engagement and services.


 Alleman, N. F. and Holly, L. N. (2012). Doing more with less: The role of school-community partnerships in the academic success and postsecondary aspirations of low-income students in small rural schools in Virginia. Richmond, VA: The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Reauthorization and Student Support

Over a decade has passed since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law. For nearly seven years, we have heard that reauthorization was right around the corner. So it is important to consider that changes to the law will impact our next generation of 21st Century student learners. IMG_2991

In rural Southwest Virginia, our school leaders understand that to improve the performance of our lowest performing students, we need to address the issue of rural poverty. A child who is hungry does not care about reading or math.

I am hopeful that Congress will recognize the importance of passing a law that encourages our school leaders to provide wrap-around services to address the issue of poverty, further eliminating the barriers to learning for our lowest performing students. Our local school leaders will also need the resources and the flexibility to implement research-based practices in addressing poverty.

I am also hopeful that Congress will consider the impact of the Communities in Schools’ (CIS) model of integrated student support services. Organizations like Communities in Schools of Virginia establish strong partnerships and relationships with local school districts that typically serve at-risk student populations. logo-cis

Within each CIS school, a highly trained, school-based site coordinator works with school staff to identify students at risk and aggressively seeks partnerships and obtains community resources to minimize the impact of poverty on students. These students receiving intensive services are tracked and measured for their academics, behavior, and attendance on a national data management system.

Here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I am fortunate to work with caring educators who understand the importance of establishing a system of wrap around services in our challenged schools. I am hoping that Congress will provide us with the resources and flexibility to collaborate on developing an appropriate system of student support that works best for each locality. Since NCLB represents the federal government’s largest financial investment Unknownin K-12 education, this bill provides the best opportunity to address poverty’s impact on student success in the classroom.

An Outlet for Coal: The Coming of the Railroad to Pocahontas

In 1852, G.W.L. Bickley in his book History of the Settlement and Indian Wars of Tazewell County, Virginia asked the question: “When shall we have an outlet for this coal? Bickley’s question and his assessment of the intrinsic value of coal to Tazewell County were certainly an idea ahead of its time. An answer to his question would be offered over thirty years later with the first shipments of coal from Pocahontas.

Since the coal could not be transported to distant markets, the land was considered worthless by outside investors. Thus, the major hindrance to the development of the coalfields in Pocahontas was the lack of transportation for the coal. Although a system of railroads linked much of the nation by 1870, railroad companies had not penetrated the Appalachian Mountains. IMG_0531

Prior to the construction of the railroad, the Pocahontas coalfield region had little in the way of cities, towns, or villages. In 1872, the possibilities of such a railroad to connect coal resources to outside trade markets moved one step closer to reality when the New River Railroad, Mining, and Manufacturing Company received a charter from the Virginia State Legislature. The charter allowed the company to construct, operate, and maintain a railroad from the New River Depot in Pulaski County to Mercer County, West Virginia.

Meanwhile, Colonel Thomas Graham acquired a majority of the stock from the New River Railroad, Mining, and Manufacturing Company. He went to work securing the coal-laden lands, and used his influence to encourage the building of a railroad into the Pocahontas coalfield region. The construction of the railroad into the region during the 1870s was slowed by an economic depression.

However, in 1879, a narrow gauge railroad was constructed from the mainline of the Norfolk and Western Railroad in Radford, Virginia to the future town of Pocahontas, Virginia. Since there was interest on the part of the Norfolk and Western Railroad in connecting with the railroad systems of Ohio and the northwest, the extension into Pocahontas would soon become an integral part of that plan.IMG_6062

In 1881, Frederick Kimball, then Vice-President of the Norfolk and Western, became interested in expanding the railway into the Flat Top Coal Region of West Virginia. Kimball believed that the rich coal deposits could provide cheap fuel for his railroad and would allow the Norfolk and Western Railroad to compete in the profitable eastern coal trade. The single gauge line from Radford to Pocahontas was purchased by the Norfolk and Western Railroad, which began construction on a standard gauge railroad. Upon completion of the land survey, construction of the railroad into the Pocahontas coalfields was begun on August 3, 1881.

The installment of the line was both difficult and expensive. However, despite bad weather and mountainous terrain, progress on the new line went quickly. In March 1883, the 75-mile line reached Pocahontas, Virginia. The transportation of Pocahontas coal to the tidewater region had officially begun.

The first train arrived in Pocahontas on March 10, 1883 to begin hauling a pile of 40,000 tons of coal that had already been extracted from the mines. Mrs. Harriet Eliza Lathrop, the mine superintendent’s wife, described the historic arrival of the first train:

 I was just plain excited the day it did arrive and could hardly settle down to do anything intelligently; finally we heard the locomotive whistle down the line, and I assure you no operatic music ever thrilled me as that sound did, and the freight train with a dilapidated looking passenger car on the rear was a beautiful sight. Everyone turned out to see and welcome it, with cheers and shouting.IMG_0545

The Norfolk and Western Railroad loaded the train’s first car with Pocahontas coal for its own use and a second car was decorated for transport to Norfolk, Virginia. This car was consigned to Mayor William Lamb for free distribution among the people in that city. There a band, flags, and numerous curious individuals greeted the train. Finally, after over three decades, Bickley’s question had been answered. An outlet for this valuable resource was found and a region had sprung to life.

 Brewster, Thomas. An Historic Coal Mining Community and  Its School: A Study of Pocahontas High School 1908-1991

The Case for School Funding

In fiscal year 2009, the school-operating budget in Pulaski County totaled $45,456,333. Today, our operating budget is $43,809,162 – approximately $1.6 million less than it was six years ago. During these past six years, while experiencing decreased funding now totaling $1.6 million, our school system has also been forced to absorb cost increases for new programs, VRS contributions, health insurance, and utilities. How have we managed six years of decreased funding and increased costs? The answer is simple: as the share of the operating budget for employee salaries and benefits has increased to 87 percent, our reductions have transitioned from operating expenses to negatively impacting employees, salaries, benefits, and student programming.

Our state basic aid continues to decrease and as a result, our teachers and staff members have received only minimal pay increases twice since 2008. In addition, the cost of living or step increases provided by our salary scales have been eliminated each year due to inadequate state funding. While we continue to fall further behind in employee compensation, we ask our teachers and staff to absorb increases in their share of employee health insurance, and we require our school employees to “do more with less.” Unknown

In addition, each year we continue to eliminate teaching and support staff positions. Instead of valuing and retaining our most experienced teachers, we are forced to track their retirement notices as a means to balance our budget and avoid further reductions-in-force. Our supervisors have increased property taxes twice for a total increase of nine cents in order to offset decreases in state funding. However, as has been the case in all divisions, we have reduced, cut, eliminated and frozen salaries.

The Governor’s proposed budget does provide some relief by not creating more cuts and by reducing the employer share of the VRS contribution. However, we must begin restoring previous reductions.

As a result of unfunded mandates and diminishing state funds, we find ourselves having to eliminate important line items from our budgets, such as school maintenance and construction. Both are needed to provide for a twenty-first century learning environment that prepares our students for college and workforce opportunities and schools that attract new families and economic development into our county. Furthermore, we lack the ability to recruit and retain the best employees due to low salaries and streamlined benefits.  IMG_2991

As State revenues increase, we are hopeful that the Virginia General Assembly will immediately increase the state’s share of funding for public education to the level of quality that is prescribed by them in the Standards of Quality and expected by all of the Commonwealth’s citizens.



Thomas Brewster is Superintendent of Schools for Pulaski County

Chris Stafford is Director of Finance for Pulaski County 

Partnerships Help Students Chase Big Dreams

A panel created by former Governor Bob McDonnell and tasked with eliminating unfunded state mandates recommended that we stop requiring our public school students to create career and college plans. With respect to the panel, that idea is harmful to our children and their future. Two out of every three jobs available in Virginia will require a college credential before the end of the decade. That is the reality into which our students will graduate.

Instead of eliminating career and college planning, we should expand it and we can with some creative partnerships.

Kathy Kleppin helps student Hannah Gray with her career plans.
Kathy Kleppin helps student Hannah Gray with her career plans.

We challenge our students to dream big as they work through Pulaski County Public Schools. Thanks to our partnership with New River Community College, our students have more tools than ever before to pursue those dreams. Further, that collaboration ensures that the material we teach our young people is applicable to the careers available in a rapidly changing economy.

Innovative programs within that partnership are helping students connect their studies directly to good-paying jobs and even earn an associate’s degree, sub-associate’s credential or even a bachelor’s degree from a university. Perhaps the best part is the access our students have to an expert that can help them chart the way, a community college Career Coach.

Career Coaches are community college employees who work in our public high schools. They help students create career and college plans, often helping families understand just how accessible and affordable college can be. They supplement what our school counselors can provide.

Often guidance counselors are busy assisting students with academic and personal needs, leaving little time to assist them with exploring their academic and career options,” Vest states. “There’s not enough hours in the day to meet the needs of every student. The Career Coach steps in and compliments our work,” said Pulaski County High School Lead Guidance Counselor Chrissi Vest.

Here in Pulaski County, our Career Coach is part of our team that provides a comprehensive network of support for students.

Many of my students are potential first generation college students, so it’s important for me to assist students on how to navigate the transition from high school to workforce or higher education opportunities,” said Kathy Kleppin, the Career Coach serving PCHS.

Our Career Coach begins each year by creating awareness about the services she provides and building relationships with students and families. She uses technology to keep in constant touch and she uses tools like the Virginia Education Wizard, a free online career education resource developed by Virginia’s Community Colleges. The Wizard allows students to create a profile to explore careers that connect with their interests and abilities, the education necessary to access those careers and even how to pay for that pursuit.

Career Coaches also help our teachers integrate career education concepts throughout their classes by providing valuable professional development, resources, and technical assistance. This strategic focus on career education awareness is not just for our students, but it involves our school leaders, teachers, counselors, staff members, families, and other community partners. It is important that we are all aware of the abundant current and future career opportunities that exist for our students.

We are not alone when it comes to understanding the value of these Career Coaches.

The State Superintendent of Louisiana, John White, recently asked a high school counselor about the frequency in which she met with students to discuss their careers, goals and options. To his amazement, the counselor answered that she might typically meet with a student one time over the course of four years for career counseling services. White described the encounter as a “humbling experience” and demanded immediate changes, namely adopting the Career Coach model created here in Virginia.

Our partnership with the community college provides a link for students and families to the resources they need to see beyond high school. This college and career focus provides an achievable transition from their K-12 experience.

Students need a goal beyond high school graduation. We all recognize that merely improving our graduation rate is not enough; we have to prepare our students to be college and workforce ready.

Jamie Escalante was right when he said that students rise to the level of expectations set for them by the adults in their lives. If we fail to provide them with high expectations and the necessary resources to dream big, then we fail to provide them with the benefit of a true education. Increasingly, Career Coaches are essential to helping us deliver that benefit.

Dr. Thomas Brewster is the superintendent of Pulaski County Public Schools. He is also a member of the Virginia State Board for Community Colleges. 

Rich Hill: The Rural Poverty-Schools Resource Mismatch

Thomas Brewster is the superintendent for Pulaski County Public Schools in Pulaski County, Virginia. Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, contributed to this post.

From 1960s “urban renewal” to 1980s crack dens and, most recently, the demolition of much of Detroit after it lost two-thirds of its residents, the scope of inner-city American poverty is clear. But we do not yet fully grasp the challenges facing today’s rural communities – what it’s like to live in small towns, and their residents’ difficulty with finding stable, sustaining employment. As part of its series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, The New York Times offered an intimate peek into the combination of rampant unemployment, hunger, drug and alcohol addiction, high incarceration rates, and lack of educational opportunities that plagues places of concentrated rural poverty like McDowell County, West Virginia.

 Read the Full Article at


Bringing on the School Year: A Note to Faculty and Staff

Tabula rasa, means “blank slate” in Latin, and a new school year presents opportunities for new beginnings, new faces, new classes, new courses, and new resources. Tabula rasa cannot produce transformation. However, the new school year gives us all the opportunity to make new plans, design new strategies, and implement new ideas.IMG_3036

Over the past several years, we have worked hard on the implementation of the new teacher and administrator evaluation tool. We will continue to review these instruments, gather feedback, and monitor the fidelity of the instrument’s use across the district. In addition, we have organized a district-wide Multi-Agency School Safety Team that continues to assist with orchestrating mock drills, assisting crisis teams, and making security recommendations for our buildings and grounds.

We have many aspirations and visions for the district. We will seek to provide professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators related to our new Comprehensive Plan, with an emphasis on continuing our collaborating district and school level PLC teams. We will also be refocusing our efforts IMG_2785on encouraging and embracing creativity as part of learning, finding ways to incorporate and integrate STEM, art, music, drama, wellness, technology, and culture into our classrooms and across the curriculum. We will continue to strengthen our partnerships with the local community college by expanding dual enrollment opportunities, adding programs like Teacher Cadet and Criminal Justice.

Finally, our School Board is committed to continuing to improve salary and benefit packages for all employees. Thanks to their leadership and despite rising health care costs, employee health insurance premiums for most of our teachers and staff are actually less than they were two years ago. However, the School Board recognizes that salary increases must continue to be a priority during the upcoming year. It is important that we continue to hire, retain, and reward our quality employees.

As we all know, there are many challenges with each new school year. Unfunded state and federal mandates, continued upkeep of school facilities, and seeking the resources to continue our technology upgrades are just a few of the issues facing our district. However, we can all be proud of what we achieve in Pulaski IMG_2991County Schools.

Our improvement rests on our dedicated staff’s effort to “challenge the process” each year. Our staff is always looking for ways to unite behind our commonimg_0915 vision – reach each child with the culminating activity being student graduation and success in life. Have a great school year, and see you at Convocation on Wednesday, August 13!

The Teacher’s Village: Reconnecting McDowell Plan Has Roots in Coalfield History

Reconnecting McDowell County officials recently announced that two structures have been acquired in an effort to create new housing for teachers and other professionals who want to work in McDowell County. Referred to as a “teacher’s village” the housing would assist McDowell County officials with the recruitment and retention of teachers. However, one would only have to look at the coal-mining communities of the last century to understand the origins of such an idea.

Photo Courtesy of Grubb Photo
Pocahontas High School: Photo Courtesy of Grubb Photo

In an effort to secure the most capable teachers, the coal company supplemented teachers’ salaries and built houses called “teacherages” for the female teachers to occupy.  Mining community studies have identified the larger mining communities as providing so called clubhouses for their clerical, medical, and teaching staffs. The Pocahontas Fuel Company built a boarding house on West Water Street for the female teachers to occupy. These buildings were described as comfortable, well arranged, with modern conveniences available at a fair boarding price. The houses were equipped with bedroom suites, kitchen- dinette furniture, and a living area.

The “Teacher’s Clubhouse” was built in 1922 in order to provide adequate housing for teachers arriving in Pocahontas. The home was reported by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph to be “the most modern and complete building of its kind in this section of the State.” The coal company hired a hostess to clean the house, prepare meals, and watch over the teachers. The teachers shared the rent, utilities, and housekeeping expenses. The food was purchased at the company store where the teachers enjoyed a nice discount. The final bill was then divided up among all the clubhouse occupants. The coal company paid the electric bill. Pocahontas High School teacher Hannah Haga recalled $25 of her $110 a month salary going to pay her share of the expenses at the clubhouse.

The coal companies guarded the reputation of their teachers. Their conduct was closely observed and high moral standards were demanded. In most mining communities, teachers were expected to do social work, teach Sunday school, and assist with community activities. Wayne Wright, a Pocahontas High School graduate of 1944, recalled the strict dating policy enforced by the company.

In my courting days, I went with one of the teachers who lived at the clubhouse. When you dated a teacher, they would allow you to go into the parlor. There, a “lady of the house” would sit around watching you. They were very protective of the teachers who lived there.

Mrs. Hannah Haga also recalled the coal company being protective of the reputations of teachers living in the clubhouse:

When you came to work here you had to live at the clubhouse. Every night the hostess would lock the door at 11:00 P.M. You couldn’t marry. The men teachers stayed at Mr. Ellett’s place, but they ate their meals at the clubhouse. And some of the employees of the Pocahontas Fuel Company were allowed to eat there.

In Tazewell County, the school board was also protective of their employee’s image. The school board ordered that no married female applicants would be contracted for the 1932-33 school year. If a teacher married or was found to be secretly married, then her contract was automatically canceled. However, many of the teachers who came to Pocahontas met eligible bachelors, married, and decided to make the coalfields their home. The Teacher’s Clubhouse still stands on West Water Street in Pocahontas today.

Thomas Brewster – 2000, 2014

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