Are Poor Rural White Wise County Evangelicals More Antiracist than the Wealthy, Urbane Citizens of Loudoun?


by James C. Sherlock

Many are fascinated with the nationally infamous Loudoun County School Board. Board members seem preoccupied with driving social change without pausing to look at data.  

I have thought someone ought to check how the Loudoun students have been faring in SOLs to see if there are academic issues that need to be addressed.  

State data show that in too many Loudoun high schools Black, Hispanic, immigrant and the poor students performed poorly in math SOLs. The data are presented relative to state average math SOL pass rates for those cohorts, which in many cases themselves are very disturbing in an absolute sense.

It is not a resource problem.  

Loudoun is the nation’s richest county in median household income and neighboring Fairfax County is among the top few. Median household incomes in Loudoun were $142,299 and Fairfax $124,831. The state average median household income was about half Loudoun’s.  

Again as before, 2018-19 remains the base year for assessments because that was the last year that SOLs were not interrupted by COVID and subsequently the last year for which the state has district and individual school evaluation data.

The Loudoun County School Board and its school superintendent need to investigate why students in all racial and social cohorts in profoundly poor Wise County in Southwestern Virginia crushed Loudoun students in high school math SOLs.

Maybe they will learn something. And then perhaps the students will.

You know, real school board work.

That heat map spreadsheet I have generated from state school quality data illustrates where the contrasts lie. Look for the dark green for well above average and red for well below average numbers. Just a glance will give one the idea.

Loudoun and Fairfax County

The Loudoun and Fairfax high school math programs are failing Hispanics, poor kids, and English learners.  

They pay their teachers on average about 30% more than the state average — $65,676 — so that cannot be a factor.  

Loudoun has an incredibly low rate of children living in poverty and has a relatively high percentage of English learners. So I have broken out the SOL performances of economically disadvantaged students and English learners so they can be considered separately. 

The comparison shines a spotlight on the neglect of these students by their wealthy school system.

Again, overall SOL high school math pass rates for Hispanic, economically disadvantaged and English learner students in Loudoun do not even reach state averages. 

Wise County  – a lesson in contrasts with Loudoun

To make the point and look for answers, I posted the same data for high schools in both Loudoun and Wise County and the City of Norton which Wise County encapsulates. (Norton, with a population of less than 4,000, is nonetheless an independent city in Virginia and runs its own school system.)

The two districts in Appalachia serve very poor students with funding from very poor populations.  

Median household income in Wise was $38,888 and Norton $28,909. Their teachers are paid on a level with West Virginia and Kentucky, not Loudoun and Fairfax. But, importantly, both Wise and Norton reach deep to pay teachers considerably more than the local median household incomes.

From this point, I will refer to both Wise and Norton as Wise County.  

Together they have four high schools. Loudoun had fifteen high schools that posted SOL results in 2018-19. Fairfax had 25.

One big contrast is that the Wise high schools are much smaller. Fairfax high schools average over 2,300 students each. Loudoun almost 1,700. Wise less than 500. 

The high schools in Wise are not only much smaller than in Northern Virginia, but also have a considerably lower student : teacher ratio. Loudoun has 12.5 students for every teacher. Wise has only 10.3. Advantage Wise.

Another contrast: Loudoun sent a little over 80% of their high school students onto college; Wise about 60%.  

Advanced programs vs. SOL math pass rates 

In Loudoun close to 40% of the students are enrolled in AP classes; 20% take dual enrollment courses. Lake Wobegone.  

And yet amid all of that high end striving in Loudoun high schools, compared to the rest of the state, relatively large percentages Loudoun students fail the SOL math test, led by Blacks, Hispanics, economically disadvantaged and English Learners. Haves and have nots. Something is very wrong.  

Not sure what it means to SOL performance, by one AP statistic is a major outlier in Loudoun. Only a quarter of the Loudoun students who take the AP courses take the AP exam. Elsewhere that figure approaches 100%. See the Advanced Programs Participation by School Report for 2018-19.  

What is that about? Are Loudoun students falling behind in AP classes? Do the students or their teachers not want to expose it? Something else?

I have four grandsons that have taken AP classes in Virginia schools. They were highly encouraged to take the exams. In their schools if an AP student decides not to take the AP exam, he is subject to an interview to determine why.  

Wise County offers very few AP classes. Wise students take dual enrollment classes at an overall rate slightly higher than Loudon students, but in advanced classes combined Loudoun students take a great many more.  

As an aside, Wise County sent 7% of its students to Governor’s schools. Loudon about 1%.

Wise students performed phenomenally well in SOL mathematics. 

Wise County Black, Hispanic, disadvantaged and English learner students actually lead the way, outperforming white students as a cohort. Central and Union High Schools in Wise had 95% Black pass rates overall. Not a single high school in Loudoun achieved that rate.

Those kids’ SOL math performance absolutely buries the performance of their counterparts in Loudoun.  

Black SOL math pass rates were 60% or below at Loudoun’s Dominion, Loudoun Valley, Park View and Potomac Falls High Schools. Their counterparts in Wise achieved between 85% and 100% pass rates on the same tests.  

Are the poor rural white evangelicals in Wise more systemically antiracist than the wealthy and urbane citizens of Loudoun?  

Wouldn’t that be something?

Career and Technical Education and Math

Wise has a far more robust Career and Technical Education program. More than 50% of Wise students receive a CTE Industry Certification through instruction and practical experience in high school; about 25% of Loudoun and Fairfax students.

You may ask what that has to do with math instruction. It turns out that it means a lot.  

The Wise County Career and Technical Center at Mountain Empire Community College offers coursework on its own campus.  Students from the 3 Wise County and 1 Norton City high schools travel to the WCCTC campus, most for 1/2 day.

Some offerings are three-year programs. They lead to certifications in such career paths as pharmacy technician, building trades, welding, automotive technology, criminal justice, culinary arts, electrician, drafting, cyber security, HVAC, nurses aide, small engine technician, and others.

From the Student Handbook you can see that they take CTE very seriously.

“A strong math and science background is recommended for students attending the Career and Technical Center. (i.e. Pre-Algebra, Algebra l, Physical Science, Earth Science)”.

I expect that many students target these valuable career-making certifications early on. They may apply themselves to the study of math for the simple reason that they can see how they will use it.

What matters?

I have not sat in a Loudoun or a Wise County classroom. We spoke above of student motivation for math for use in CTE, low student : teacher ratios and the rather intimate size of the Wise high schools, but there are of course a lot of other things going on.

The VDOE tracks multiple measures of school quality.  

They include the “assessments” — SOL performance — as well as enrollment demographics, college and career readiness measures, finance, learning climate, teacher quality, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) data, and measures of the readiness of kids to begin kindergarten.

I have looked at all of those, but will not address them all here. There will be more reports in this series.

What is it in the teaching and learning culture in Wise that results in such widespread high school SOL success?  

I defer to Matt Hurt Ed,D, previously the Director of Curriculum and Instruction in Wise County Schools and since 2014, the Director of the famously successful regional Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP) centered in Wise. The program started as a consortium of Southwest Virginia schools and has recently expanded into central Virginia.

He explained the policy approaches that improved the performance of Wise County Virginia students on state Standards of Learning exams. It boiled down to:

  1. The CIP used SOL data to define academic shortfalls.
  2. The superintendent’s office, principals and teachers consulted with principals and teachers whose students had excelled to define best practices,
  3. They assigned responsibilities to fix the problems;
  4. They gave principals and teachers both the authority and control over resources to match their newly defined responsibilities and held them accountable.

That is the short version. Matt is much more eloquent.

Bottom line

Loudoun County High Schools have a lot to answer for in math instruction, but systemic racism cannot be targeted as one of them based on these data.  

For every Loudoun high school that posted dreadful Black SOL math pass rate results, there is one whose Black students did comparatively well. Same with Hispanics, economically disadvantaged students and English learners.  

But none of those cohorts of Loudoun students were competitive with their counterparts in Wise. Not even close.

Perhaps armed with that information, the Loudoun County School Board can move forward to solve actual problems. It may wish to consider that it spends phenomenal amounts of money to get sub-par results.

Contacting Matt Hurt at the Comprehensive Instructional Program in Wise would be a good place to start. And talk to the principals of the successful high schools in Loudoun.  

I suspect the multiple sources will provide answers that correlate.

If that is something that the Loudoun County School Board and Superintendent Eric Williams can find time to do. 

Or care about.

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47 responses to “Are Poor Rural White Wise County Evangelicals More Antiracist than the Wealthy, Urbane Citizens of Loudoun?”

  1. CJBova Avatar

    Thank you for another profoundly disturbing report. Hoping it may garner enough attention to produce action.

  2. William O'Keefe Avatar
    William O’Keefe

    How do you reconcile this with the fact that Loudon and Fairfax school districts are ranked 4&6 while wise is 15th?

    1. John Harvie Avatar
      John Harvie

      My suspicion is per student expenditures in Loudon far exceed those in Wise. Also suspect parents’ and teachers’ education attainment levels mirror this.

      Have no data to support that but might be an interesting comparison. One might expect the gap to be even wider than 5 to 15 but for efforts in Wise to excel.

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        The linked spreadsheet has the figures to which you refer and many more.

      2. WayneS Avatar

        Wise – 97% graduation rate – $10,056 per student per year
        Fairfax – 86% graduation rate – $16,186 per student per year
        Loudoun – 92% graduation rate- $17,344 per student per year

        Data source is, which ranks the schools as noted by Mr. O’Keefe, in his previous comment.

        Wise County schools have higher student proficiency ratings in both math and reading (94 & 86) than either Loudoun (86 and 84) or Fairfax (85 & 81).

        It makes me wonder what criteria uses, and what weights they apply to those criteria, when assigning their rankings.

        Wise County schools do rank significantly lower than Loudoun and Fairfax where “diversity” is concerned. To me, though, “diversity” should not receive very much weight when comparing the quality of schools, since a given school district has no control over its “diversity”. Wise County schools are also rated lower than the other two for “college prep” which would rightly be weighted fairly heavily.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          The folks at are so precious.

          As you indicate, Wise County schools educates the kids who live there, who are white by a huge majority. They are also some of the poorest kids in the state.

          College prep is important for kids who want to go to college. CTE is equally important to those who don’t.

          I suspect Wise County high schools don’t have their own Olympic pools for home swimming meets either. Was that rated?

          1. DJRippert Avatar

            But they also speak English as their first language. Any comparison between NoVa and non-NoVa schools has to account for English As a Second Language.

          2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            The folks in Wise may speak English, but it sure sounds different than English in other parts of the state.

        2. John Harvie Avatar
          John Harvie

          Thanks. Believe the UVA extension in Wise might help in that will raise the college prep numbers. Maybe also make teacher continuing ed more available.

          Also bet you’ll get some blowback from the SJWs on “diversity” should not receive very much weight when comparing the quality of schools, since a given school district has no control over its diversity. I agree, of course.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock That organization combines “reviews and data”. I used the official data posted by VDOE. Someone else will have to reconcile it.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Jim Sherlock has done the basic work of diving into the details of the data to develop the comparisons. It is hoped that someone at DOE or the Secretary of Education’s office will take note and try to figure out what some jurisdictions are doing right that other jurisdictions can use to their advantage. It could be smaller schools. Perhaps there are different family cultures. Perhaps the teachers are better motivated. If so, why? Obviously, it is not primarily a resource issue. The implicated localities and the state agency should be looking for answers.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Smaller schools with more neighborhood cohesion. My guess is that the teachers in Wise County live in the same areas as their students and their students’ parents. Teachers in NoVa rarely live in the collection areas for where they teach.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        That is so true! I taught for many years in Loudoun. No chance I would have lived in Loudoun the land of my birth. Too expensive. Fauquier was so much cheaper.

      2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        I think you are right. I also think that the care and professional approach that Wise takes with its CTE programs is a big factor.

        BTW, Loudoun recruits teachers heavily in Jefferson County West Virginia, right across the Potomac. The recruiting is successful because Loudoun pays $20,000 a year more than Jefferson County. You can imagine how well that is received by Jefferson County schools and parents.

        Loudoun, of course, does not care. Sort of a Droit du seigneur attitude. They believe West Virginia citizens should just be richer if they want to keep their teachers.

  4. Publius Avatar

    Devastating to narratives…
    Fascinating deep dive.
    Thank you for the analysis.

  5. J. B. Kelly Avatar
    J. B. Kelly

    My grandfather, J. J. Kelly, Jr., was superintendent of Wise County schools from 1917-1963. I’d like to think that his work then might have helped lay the foundation for today’s results.

    1. J. B. Kelly Avatar
      J. B. Kelly

      Here’s an interesting article consisting mostly of a transcript of an interview with him from 1959, including a number of insights into the schools (and of his life, including meeting my grandmother) during that time:

      Not sure whether and how that contributes to the current discussion.
      But for those with an interest in or connections to Wise County and its schools, it’s fun to read. For me, anyway. 🙂

  6. WayneS Avatar

    “Are poor rural white evangelicals in Wise County more antiracist than the wealthy, urbane citizens of Loudoun?”

    Probably, if by antiracist you mean someone who genuinely strives to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Of course that is exactly what I mean. It is the only “antiracism” that matters.

  7. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    At one time, early 90s, Plano, Tx., was the darling school district within the Dallas ISD. Lots of income. Lots of young upwardly mobile professionals. BMWs. Mercs. Big houses. High achievers in schools. Also, the teen suicide capital of the country.

    Money ain’t everything, nor is the lack of it always nothing.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      That is one on the core messages of my research. First time we have totally agreed in a long time. Thank you.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        So comparatively, what are the ingress and egress rates of the two counties?
        Lots and lots of factors and pressures play into those numbers. When did learning stop being fun and become the ultimate measure of childhood success?

  8. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    I love Wise County. Home to Ralph Stanley, Governor Linwood, and George C. Scott! Don’t forget the birthplace of “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. Wise County. Named for Governor Henry Wise who was in office as secession broke out. Wise considered declaring John Brown insane and committing him to an asylum. But after meeting Brown, Wise was convinced he was of sound mind and stood by his sentence to hang. An able general during the Civil War who was one of Lee’s last stalwarts at Appomattox. I love the political graveyard.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Sorry, Dickenson County, next door to Wise, was the home of Ralph Stanley.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Birthplace. Most of Doctor Stanley’s life is spent in Wise.

  9. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    New super in Loudoun. Williams is long gone in Texas now. Ziegler is the new guy. And he is in way over his head. Great post Captain! Wow! Less really is more.

  10. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “One big contrast is that the Wise high schools are much smaller. Fairfax high schools average over 2300 students each. Loudoun almost 1700. Wise less than 500.”

    This is probably a big contributing factor for what you are seeing. It has long been known that smaller schools tend to produce superior results academically. The advantages of larger schools revolve around extracurricular activities and advanced course opportunities and benefit the students who are predisposed to excel – for any number of reason. Smaller schools tend to compete pretty well when it comes to opportunities for scholars but they also have fewer children who fail because marginal students are less likely to fall between the cracks. None of this is news.

    I must say that having fought the small schools vs big school fights here in Loudoun, it is always the fiscal Conservatives who push for bigger schools simply to drive down the capital cost per student for new construction. They try to argue that it also reduces operating per student costs… that is simply false. In the end the Conservatives usually win and ultimately as a result of over development we end up with factory schools. Of course they don’t face these problems in Wise.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Did that debate actually happen? If so, when? And when did fiscal conservatives control the Loudoun school board? Those are real questions. I’d like to know. If you are correct, the big vs. small school discussion is worth revisiting.

      1. Loudoun School Board was controlled by Republicans up until 2019.
        One small quibble, TJHSST is a Governor’s school and Loudoun sends kids there. If Loudoun no longer participates, that’s a recent change. There are no other Governor’s schools in NOVA.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          I have just investigated your comment. I have changed the column and the linked spreadsheet to accommodate the results.

          Detailed state records at
          list no Loudon students in Governor’s schools and have not for years. That is the reference I used.

          But they do list 278 students, about 1%, who go to a Governor’s STEM academy, so I’ll call that TJ and change the text and spreadsheet linked in the column. As an aside, that is not the category used by Fairfax for TJ.

          It is still true that Wise sends 7% to a A. Linwood Holton Virtual Governor’s School. See

          I went to the state website lists Loudoun as a participant in TJ.

          “The following school divisions participate in the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology: city of Falls Church; and the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William.”

          So I made the changes. Thanks.

        2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Not true. The flip did not happen until 2011. I know I taught there.

      2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        Also, Republicans were in the majority on the Board of Supervisors during the late 90s and early part of this century, during the time when growth in Loudoun really took off.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          I never mentioned political parties.

      3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        The debate over keeping or closing the small elementary schools of Loudoun County raged for quite some time. I believe the current standard ES size is 900 students (doubled in less than 20 years) as opposed to 200-300 for some of the oldest ES in the county. The same pattern of size growth was also applied to middle and high schools.

        The latest of a long string of conservative school board members to take up this battle was former Chairman Eric Hornberger who fought annually to close the small community-based schools of western Loudoun in particular and transfer those students to the large new schools they recently built purely for his claim of saving money. He was very successful at shifting Middleburg and Hillsboro to charter status – again for supposed fiscal reasons. Thank god he is gone.

        This has been a battle for LC parents for some 20 years from when they first tried to close Hamilton Elementary. We hope that with the ideology shift on the SB, the threat is over. We shall see.

  11. William O'Keefe Avatar
    William O’Keefe

    There’s a lot of mucking around in the weeds here. Is this a case where Occam’s Razor applies? Has demographics been taken into account?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      “Mucking around in the weeds” is what folks say when they don’t like the data.

      Of course demographics have been “taken into account”. A Black kid is Black, a poor kid is poor, a Hispanic kid is Hispanic. The results are the results. Read the spreadsheet.

      1. William O'Keefe Avatar
        William O’Keefe

        There is a saying in analysis that goes torture the data until they confess; torture them too much and they will confess to anything. My point is that if the students in Wise are predominantly while while those in Loudon are racially mixed, that might explain much of the difference. As would home life and teacher quality.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          I provide both the overall student body statistics and the components of the overall performance broken out by race, poverty and English language learners. Pick one. Wise wins.

        2. Jesse Avatar

          I thought racially mixed learning environments were the best- most conducive to learning? If you are making the opposite argument, be ready for personal attacks from the left.

  12. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “They pay their teachers on average about 30% more than the state average — $65,676 — so that cannot be a factor. ”

    Sure it can, and I beg to differ, in your analysis, it does. The State average is tertiary in a heads up match. In Loudon, a teacher makes ~50% of county median income (household?), and in Wise, it’s ~125% of county median income.

    Status-wise, i.e., prestige and pay, in one county the average teacher is from the lower middle class; upper middle class in the other. Makes a difference.

    One of the fastest falling job statuses in this country is in the teaching profession. In the 1970s, and for years before and after, the MOST prestigious job was a college professor, numero uno, above POTUS. Today, I doubt it’s in the top 20. A change in the business model of education that has led to the decline in effectiveness in the teachers.

    Call me elitist, and in this case, you’d be right, but you want BOBs for teachers.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      You reassert a point that I made in the column about how well Wise County pays their teachers compared to the median in that County. Good for them. It does make a difference. Loudoun is welcome to make that assessment.

      As Jim Whitehead and I pointed out above, though, many Loudoun teachers live elsewhere, like Fauquier and Jefferson County West Virginia right across the river where Loudoun actively and successfully recruits teachers.

      I have a relative who lives in Jefferson County and was a principal there. She saw the stress that put on their ability to retain teachers.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        It’s not just income to living. In Wise, those kids see the value of college every day, not only as a way out, but a way up… and really up. Atitude counts. That person in the front of the is a top 10%’er.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          UVa Wise County is a godsend there.

          1. Paul Sweet Avatar
            Paul Sweet

            So is Mountain Empire Community College.

          2. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Had a friend who used to teach there. Always meant to drive out to visit. Too late now. Wish I could say they retired. Thought seriously about funding a scholarship in their name. But, life happened.

            Relatively speaking 60% of Wise students see a BS/BA as affluence, whereas 80% of Loudon students see it as insufficient to make what Mom and Dad make.

  13. […] context read my report yesterday.   Only 60% of Park View’s Black students passed SOL math tests.  70% of its […]

  14. […] context read my report yesterday. Only 60% of Park View’s Black students passed SOL math tests; 70% of its […]

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