The Albemarle County School Board on Thursday discussed closing B. F. Yancey Elementary School after learning that the school could lose some major funding, and that enrollment at the Esmont school is declining.
At a work session on Thursday, division staff told the School Board that Yancey is in danger of losing $395,000 next year in federal grants that support educational programs and services.
“Those funds have been really important in a school that is small, that is really working hard to make the changes they need to make in terms of results,” said Superintendent Pam Moran.
Yancey has for two years received a $253,000 School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant supports professional development and tutoring services from the University of Virginia.
“There are some indications that this could not be forthcoming in the coming year,” said Jackson Zimmermann, director of fiscal services for the school division.
“[Yancey] has been told to spend all money by Sept. 30, with no carryover, which is pretty unusual for a three-year grant.”
Yancey is Albemarle County’s smallest elementary school, with 120 students enrolled this year. About 75 percent of the students at Yancey come from economically disadvantaged homes.
The school last year was denied accreditation by the state after falling short of performance benchmarks for Standards of Learning assessments. In 2016, 50 percent of Yancey students earned “advanced” or “proficient” scores in English, and 44 percent did so in math.
“We haven’t seen proof of improvement yet,” said School Board chairwoman Kate Acuff.
Moran said the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed by Congress in 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind Act, would eliminate the classification of low-performing schools like Yancey as “priority” schools for federal funding.
“Whether or not the school is called a priority school, the issue is still there,” Acuff said. “That is a pretty catastrophic loss.”
Yancey also might lose a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant for its Club Yancey after-school program. Those grants have brought the school $142,000 annually since 2014.
The 21st Century Learning Centers have been struck from the Department of Education’s budget for 2018, which is pending approval by Congress. Zimmermann said that Yancey is unlikely to receive a new grant even if the national program is preserved.
Club Yancey is also supported by about $9,000 in donations each year. However, Moran said that donations to the program have decreased significantly this year.
School Board member Pam Moynihan said the potential loss of $395,000 in grant funding for Yancey made her think about the benefits of closing the school and redistricting its students to Red Hill Elementary and Scottsville Elementary.
“As a school board, we are responsible for consolidation of schools when necessary. In this case, I’m wondering whether a study might be appropriate,” Moynihan said.
School Board members were also concerned about declining enrollment at Yancey.
Chief operating officer Dean Tistadt said the school’s enrollment for 2017-2018 was projected at about 105 students. In 2008, Yancey enrolled 168 students in Kindergarten through fifth grade, with 15 additional preschool students.
“Families are fleeing to urban areas,” said Zimmermann. “There is no development in [the Yancey] area at all. As the region urbanizes around Charlottesville, the cost of commuting becomes greater.”
Elementary schools outside of Albemarle County’s designated growth areas have fewer students than before, Tistadt said.
“It’s pretty clear that the limited development opportunities in the county’s Comprehensive Plan are having an impact on school enrollment,” he said.
“The declining enrollment is a real problem,” said School Board member Steve Koleszar. “When a school gets too small it can have a negative impact on student learning.”
Koleszar said the division should not rush a decision to consolidate schools.
“Whenever we shortchange the process we betray ourselves... and we betray the trust that we have with our community,” he said.
“The most important thing for me is always keeping children at the center of our thinking,” Moran said. “That is why we exist.”
Acuff asked division staff to provide the school board with data about school climate and enrollment at Yancey, as well as information about how closing the school would affect bus routes for students, and professional development for teachers.
Three people attending the meeting spoke against closing Yancey.
Lucian Jackson asked the School Board to consider how losing a community school could affect individual children, particularly Yancey’s African-American students.
“We like to go to school with kids who look like us — at least some of them,” said Jackson, who serves on the board of the All God’s Children Child Development Center in Scottsville.
“African-Americans are constantly being tossed into environments where you ... assume your role as a minority.”
Christine J. Thomas of Esmont told the School Board that she had been fighting to keep Yancey open since the 1960s.
“This business of trying to close Yancey every five to 10 years is outrageous, and I’m sick of it,” Thomas said. “We live in a predominantly black neigborhood, but we are humans just like everybody else. We want our children to go to school in our community.”
“We don’t care if other children come to our community to go to school — we welcome them” she added.
Julian Waters, a senior at Western Albemarle High School who is running for the Samuel Miller District seat on the School Board, said that the county should try to encourage development near Yancey before closing the school.
“Closing Yancey is the last thing anyone wants to see happen,” Waters said. “And it would do nothing to address the issue of the declining population in the region as a whole.”
Samuel Miller District incumbent Graham Paige said at the meeting that Yancey was frequently used for community events, and that some students would have to take long bus rides to Red Hill or Scottsville if Yancey closed.
“I have long been a voice to keep Yancey open,” Paige said in an email.
“My questions and comments indicated my concerns, and these will be points that I intend to keep in the forefront when staff presents its report.”