By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
WELCH, WV – The McDowell County Board of Education met Monday, November 4th, 2019 to receive updates from Student Services and the Transportation Department.
Attendance and Afterschool Update
Bonita Miano, Director of Student Services, gave a presentation at Monday’s Board meeting covering truancy diversion, and update on enrollment and after school initiatives.
“Our message through our County to our parents and students is that they need to be here, they need to be on time, all day, every day because attendance matters in McDowell County Schools,” said Miano.
According to Miano, McDowell County Schools is now home to 2,902 students.
“Last year when we submitted the October count, we had 3,090 students so we’re down about 164 students from last year,” said Miano. “We have a lot of students that are moving out of county and more so, out of state. We also have a lot of students that are going to homeschool.”
With 116 homeschool students last year, 136 this year, the trend of homeschooling is growing slowly across McDowell County.
“We probably would have had more than that, but Dr. Barker and I try to pull them towards our virtual online school,” said Miano. “We’ve been successful with some of those, but not all. It’s only available for grades 6-12.”
The process for homeschooling is a simple Notice of Intent provided by Miano or the WV Association of Homeschool. Part of it includes going over how the parent intends to teach math, reading, science and social studies.
“The Legislature has changed it so you only have to do a notice of intent one time. Used to be, it was required every year, now its just one time,” said Miano. “They also have to have a GED or a copy of their high school diploma to home school.”
Homeschool students in respective grades 3,5,8, and 11, are still subject to academic assessment, according to Miano.
“Are there more reasons to home school than not now,” asked Mike Callaway.
“Yes, in high school it used to be they had to have 1 year of college for 9th, two years for 10th grade, but now its just a high school diploma or GED,” answered Miano.
“What are the reasons there that the majority of people do that,” asked Callaway.
“Some of them, it’s for religious beliefs. Some of them believe for some reason that their children are safer at home,” said Miano. “I don’t think its really about the school system but some parents have a hard time letting go of their kids. Those are the two common reasons.”
“Is there any way to monitor that they’re actually at home,” asked Mike Mitchem. “I know one year we had some down in North Carolina instead of being homeschooled. Is there any way we can monitor that?
“No, when we did the notice of intent each year, it was easier to monitor that,” said Miano. “They’re supposed to tell me if they move out of. The county or state, but most do not.”
“Maybe that’s something we need to talk to the State Board about. Maybe have them go back to the legislature and talk to them. How are you telling where these kids are,” said Mitchem.
Truant Offenses and Diversion
“Senate Bill 393, 2015, it’s for truant offenses. If a kid has a truancy offense, somebody needs to oversee that student before it goes to circuit court,” said Miano. “What we have done is implement different individuals in the school systems to help as truancy diversion specialists.”
Some of the programs and individuals working on truancy diversion include: Community in Schools, Community Schools, Graduation Coaches, Social Workers, Project Aware, School Psychologist and counselors in the schools.
“I know we haven’t had the truancy diversion specialist for a couple of years now or more,” asked David Williams. “In any way is that a violation of State Code?”
“As long as you have a truancy diversion person, in which we do, There’s only 15 counties in the state with a school based probation officer. I asked other counties about what they’re doing and they’re basically implementing the same thing as us,” said Miano.
‘Before they send an individual to court, we wanted to make home visits, providing metal health services, principals are making home visits. We’re making phone calls, we’re doing a little bit of everything so to me, we already have those truancy diversion people in our school system.”
“What’s good is we have one in every building, except Fall River but Ms. Miano has been working closely with Ms. Howington in the past,” said Superintendent Carolyn Falin. “We had just one person trying to take care of all the students but now we have identified someone in each school that works specifically with truancy.”
“At the school level, they hold conferences with students and parents, they send letters out, they call parents. I know Fall river has a call log. On one individual we’ve taken to Magistrate Court, we have all the documentation on them,” said Miano. “They track the students progress, home visits, we refer anyone with a lot of absences to our Student Assistance teams. Then if they need any counseling services, we get with Mr. Blankenship to see what’s available for them.”
Miano said the younger kids usually want to come to school, even if its mainly about eating breakfast and lunch.
“But they don’t have anyone to get them up in the morning and get them ready,” said Miano.
“I know it’s a problem in the state now, the homeless students, would they be included in that also,” asked Mitchem.
“Yes,” answered Miano.
“How many do we have in McDowell County,” asked Mitchem.
“The last count was 80 some, we get a lot from our shelters like SAFE,” said Miano. “Some schools do a little bit more than others when it comes to filling out the forms. Sometimes parents don’t fill them out and then we can’t provide services.”
“We do have two initiatives in our after school programs that I’m excited about,” said Miano. “At Iaeger, Mr. Hamilton has the Youth for Youth, a NASA program for grades 3 through 5. NASA gives them a challenge, this year it was to build a pressure suit to protect astronauts from the dangers of being in a vacuum. He works with these kids two days a week during the after school program and they try to come up with ways to beat that challenge.”
Mount View High School, through help from Fairmont State College, has two individuals trained for robotics now.
“20,000 teams from 50 counties, 1,700 competitions worldwide. They have to build robots and code them to pick up blocks and stack them,” said Miano. “They’re just getting started at Mount View with that. We’d like to take this next year to River View High School so both could compete in this competition.”
Transportation Department Overview
Adam Grygiel, Director Transportation Department, gave the Board a presentation next regarding what it takes to get students to school and back each day.
“We have 57 total buses with 42 regular runs every day, extra buses in case of breakdowns or maintenance needs. We have to have those during inspection,” said Grygiel. “Thomas-built buses have issued a recall that will affect us. To what extent, we haven’t received that information yet, but we do have 11 Thomas buses and the seat foams have been recalled nationwide.”
“In the truck fleet, there are 25 vehicles including maintenance vehicles, Driver’s Ed cars, the Superintendent’s car, myself and Mr. Chapman’s vehicle,” said Grygiel. “We have three mechanics but what really keeps it going is Cindy Smith. She really keeps things going good at the department.”
State Inspection Reports
“Our buses have to have preventative maintenance every 20 days. If we have them on the lot, they have to be inspected. Every 20 days they bring in buses and go through them,” said Grygiel. “I’m not saying they tear down motors every time but they do have to check certain things and preventative maintenance, brakes, tires, things like that checked every 20 day.”
Grygiel guided the Board through a list of inspection reports, driving their attention to the older buses among the fleet.
“Usually when you see an older bus, like from 2003, you start seeing them out of service because you start getting into a lot of maintenance costs to keep them on the road,” said Grygiel. “Sometimes we have to decide at the end of the year do we auction them off or continue to put money into those buses. Just depends on the amount of repairs it needs.”
Grygiel explained that each driver has a copy of the maintenance schedule, informing them when to bring their bus in for inspection.
Bus Video Equipment
“Not all buses have the same system, technology has advanced,” said Grygiel. “GPS equipment works fine in most of the county, but in some parts we don’t have it. We can’t monitor the speed of the bus because we don’t have a signal.”
Digital radios are available in all schools, the central office and buses, working where the GPS won’t.
Grygiel demonstrated a video feed for the Board, showing coverage of the driver, what’s in front of the bus, everyone that steps on the bus. Another bus featured a rear monitor to see the students on board.
“About 90% of the time we can see everything on the bus,” said Grygiel. “With the side on camera, you would actually see the license plates of any vehicles that were to run past a stopped bus.”
All new buses within the last 4 years have the advanced camera system while 3 older buses have been upgrade, an estimated cost of $3,500 per bus.
“How many buses have the equipment now,” asked Falin.
“About 15 out of 42. Some of them have not been updated. If I know the life of that bus is just another year or two, I keep band-aiding the old system up enough for coverage because I can’t see putting that much money in a bus if we’re going to let it go in a year or two,” said Grygiel. “The ones we know will be around for awhile, we will update to a new system. It helps us out a lot.”
Attendance is a big issue across every level of McDowell County Schools, Transportation Department included.
“If you notice in 3 months, we had one day where 8 drivers were off. 8 people out of 42 is hard to come up with to cover,” said Grygiel. “That’s not saying they are all absences, sometimes you have trip adjustments or you have buses on an elementary trip.”
In September, three or four people had to be covered every day according to Grygiel.
“October wasn’t a good month at all. We didn’t have enough drivers to cover one day, with 6 out and 6 on special activity runs, we just couldn’t cover everybody,” said Grygiel. “Towards the end of this month, we had a big problem with roads being blocked. 3 on the 29th, 4 on the 30th, and 5 on the 31st, Halloween, all mainly in the Iaeger/Riverview area.”
Horsecreek, Trap Fork, Trace Fork, were places where a tree was cut down.
“By the time I contact the State Road or somebody, it’s usually too late,” said Grygiel. “The timeframe doesn’t allow for them to clear it up before we have to get out of there.”
“To be honest with you, we have some concerns,” said Grygiel. “Coonbranch, Powerhouse Hill, and No. 4 Premier. Somewhere I have to draw the line and say we have to pull the bus out of an area. I don’t like to, but sometimes road conditions force you to make this decision.”
Grygiel explained that parents often get upset with him, as the State won’t shut the road down but he will.
“They don’t have a bus going through there and will say, ‘We didn’t shut the road down before.’ But a bus with dual wheels, it’s much bigger than taking a car through there,” said Grygiel.
To help with attendance issues, the Transportation Department leans on substitute drivers. 17 are listed, with 5 uncertified retirees that Grygiel doesn’t expect to see back to work.
“With the 12 others, we only have 8 that will work,” said Grygiel. “I’m not saying nothing about the other 4, some of them have medical conditions. They may be back with us but not likely.”
Retaining substitute drivers is also a problem.
“We train them, get their CDL and usually the gas well or coal industry gets them,” said Grygiel. “I’ve found that most of my loyal subs are retirees. They’re here, not going anywhere and will sub for you.”
Balancing the usual routes to school and back to home also involves accounting for school trips. According to Grygiel, there were 2 trips in July, 18 in August, 27 in September and 32 in October, making 79 total activity routes. 9 of them are from Monday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m for after school programs.
Routes needing covered monthly were 24 in August, 54 in September and 93.5 in October.
“That’s with the 8 subs throughout the month,” said Grygiel. “Usually the schools work well with me. Sometimes I have to call the school and ask the principal to hold the kids for me while I double back on a route.”
‘The 42 drivers really make the Department. They do a good job working with me and doubling up to get the kids home. Sometimes we have to shuffle people around to make it work, but they do a good job and I really have to give them credit. They will go beyond and above if there is an issue to get kids to school,” said Grygiel.
Bus Stop Distance Mandated by State
“Is there any regulation about pulling off if there’s only one house somewhere, do they have to stay on the road or can they stop,” asked Mike Vallo.
“I haven’t instilled any rule like that. The State Department doesn’t like us to make stops closer than 2/10ths of a mile between each other. So a lot of times parents get upset about why we can’t stop here and go another 200 yards to get another kid,” said Grygiel. “We make them come to one point because they don’t want to impede traffic that often. What we’ve found is that its hard to get back on the road when we pull over.”
Parents further down the line can sometimes be upset with the buses running too if they stop everywhere, according to Grygiel.
Seatbelts in School Buses
“There are a couple federal agencies that are connected with safety regulations that have been pushing for seatbelts,” said Mike Callaway.
“The Federal Motor Carriers, there’s still a lot of limbo about seatbelts on school buses,” said Grygiel. “I know at the last conference we attended, one district in Florida tried to implement that. They recommended to us not to do it. Not so much that they’re trying to put safety down a notch, but they had more problems with seatbelts.”
With one driver hauling an average of 45 students, Grygiel ensured the students know the optimal time to do something they shouldn’t is while the bus is moving.
“They would take lap belts and web them, three seats back so the driver can’t get past to break up fights,” said Grygiel about the trial run in Florida. “Some kids even would take the belt buckle apart and use it as a weapon like brass knuckles, especially in the high schools so they recommended we do not do that.”
The Federal Motor Carriers’ push for seatbelts in school buses has gained attention from local parents as well.
“A lot of parents ask why we don’t have them, but that’s why we have the high back seats,” said Grygiel. “If you’ve been on a school bus, you need a close proximity between seats. The foam cushion on the back is so thick in case of impact. That’s why we want kids to stay in their seats and not move around.”
The Board commended Grygiel, the Transportation Department and the drivers for the work they do every day.
The next McDowell County Board of Education meeting will be held on Monday, November 18th, 2019 at the Phoenix Center in Welch beginning at 4:30 p.m.