Residents fight to keep schools open

U.S. Route 119 South was dotted with signs aimed at those attending Monday’s Barbour County Board of Education public hearing on the proposed closing of Volga-Century Elementary School.

The signs, with messages like “We love Volga-Century Elementary,” “We love small schools” and “Save Volga-Century Elementary,” echoed the sentiments of the more than 20 speakers who addressed members of the board during the hearing.

The multi-purpose room at Volga-Century Elementary was packed with concerned parents, students, teachers and community members who cheered as each speaker presented reasons why they want Volga-Century Elementary to stay open.

“We are a family here,” Rachel Blackburn, who teaches first and second grade at the school, said. “Smaller classrooms mean better education. We have more time for individualized learning compared to a school with 400 to 500 students. Smaller schools equal a better education.”

Blackburn said she drives the more than 70 miles each day from her home in Elkins because she likes what the school offers her students.

Board president Robert Wilkins reminded the speakers that everything they said would be recorded and typed up by a stenographer to be part of a final record. Wilkins said the record will be used to help make the decision on whether or not to close the school.

In mid-August, the Barbour BOE proposed closing two elementary schools, Volga-Century and Mt. Vernon Elementary, in order to save about $700,000 annually and avoid major renovation costs. The board set public hearings at the two schools, and one at Philippi Elementary School, where the children from the closed schools would attend in 2014. The board will make its final decision on the closure during meetings scheduled for Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.

Volga-Century School was designed to hold 180 students but currently only has enrollment of 74. The school has no kindergarten nor pre-school program, and no cooks. Bagged breakfasts and lunches are delivered to the students from Philippi Elementary School.

Katelynn Alt, a former Volga-Century student, presented board members with a petition to keep the school open. The document had been signed by 196 people.

“I just want to point out some of the good things about a small school,” Alt said. “I have a strong academic base because of my studies at Volga-Century Elementary School. I have teachers I still talk to today because of how they helped me through the years.”

Another former Volga-Century student, Dr. Taylor Phillips, spoke about the importance of small schools.

“I recently moved back to the community to practice family medicine,” Phillips said. “I am a product of Volga-Century school and an example of what Volga-Century is capable of and what small class sizes mean. I graduated from Philip Barbour, and went to Fairmont State College because of its small class sizes.”

Danielle Ervin and her son, Haden, spoke about the impact closing the school would have on the students.

“I can come here any time I have a question or concern,” Ervin said. “Teachers can do this because they do not have too many students. There is time for one-on-one work between students and teachers. I am concerned that when the students are placed in larger classrooms, they will lose the one-on-one interactions.

“The way I see it, your job is to do what’s best for our children,” Ervin said. “I feel that if you shut these schools down, that you don’t have our children’s best interests in mind.”

Haden said he loved his school and asked board members to keep it open.

Brandy Workman, a former Volga-Century student, said the numbers everyone was looking at were not important.

“You have removed kindergarten, pre-k and now you are going to move the fifth grade,” Workman said. “You cut our hot breakfast, you took our cook, you removed half of our teachers and half of a custodian and half a principal. It is no wonder we are set up for failure. Nothing should be more important than academic progress. Even with individualization and combined classrooms, our test scores still show.

“The reports show that parking at this school is an issue,” Workman said. “It’s an issue because the parents support this school and come to activities. I think the most important thing that has been lost is what’s best for the children. Not the bottom dollar, not the square footage, not scoreboards, not parking spaces, utilities or other bills. Our priorities need to change to be what is best for the children.”

Concerned parent Jeffrey Davis stressed that the members of the board of education were the ones who would ultimately make the decision whether or not to close Volga-Century and Mt. Vernon Elementary.

“You need to hold these people accountable,” Davis said. “They are the ones who will make the final decision.”

The board will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Mt. Vernon Elementary School for a public hearing regarding the proposed closure of that school.

Contact Beth Christian Broschart by e-mail at Follow her on Twitter @IMT_Broschart.