By James C. Sherlock
The shooting at Richneck Elementary was a tragedy by every measure.
I am not going to discuss the shooting itself here.
I will instead offer a summary of the school’s state quality data so we can get a sense of the environment in that school. It is located across I-64 from Fort Eustis in a neighborhood described in The New York Times as “generally safe”.
Fort Eustis hosts General Stanford Elementary, the highest performing elementary school in the Newport News Public Schools system. In a neighborhood generally considered extraordinarily safe. Hooah.
Bullets at Richneck? I note in a report from the New York Post that:
A grandmother of one of Zwerner’s students said another pupil brought “bright gold bullets” to school last week, but it’s unclear if its same youth in custody, FOX3 reported.
I asked the mayor’s office earlier today to confirm or deny that report and inquired at the state level as well, but had not heard back by publication time. We are left to wonder which kid in Ms. Zwerner’s class may have brought bullets to school the week before the shooting.
We know that under the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) discipline system, of which Richneck was an early adopter, bullets would have constituted an office-managed offense. So the principal would have made the decisions.
We can just hope that the grandmother’s story was wrong or, if not, that it wasn’t the same kid.
Virginia Law, Chapter 12.1, Section 63.1-248 requires social services departments to investigate all suspected reports of abuse and neglect. Child Protective Services is a specialized continuum of casework services to abused, neglected, or exploited children and families. The focus of the service is identification, assessment, and service provision in an effort to protect children, preserve families, and prevent further maltreatment.
The schools are mandated reporters.
Bottom line on this part of the story: a six-year-old bringing bullets to school is prima facie neglect. If that happens, Newport News requires CPS be called. No exceptions.
Moving on. But we’ll move on to describe statistically the school which the child who fired the gun had apparently been in for one-and-a-half years, Richneck Elementary. I will skip back and forth with years as supported by the data, so it is worth paying attention to those transitions.
Enrollment in 2022-23 is 558 in grades K-5. 86 in kindergarten, 100 in first grade. Total enrollment is down from 627 two years earlier. Sixty-one percent of students are economically disadvantaged, higher than statewide (44%) but slightly lower than the division’s 64%.
Richneck Elementary has a majority of Black and Hispanic students, but not exceptionally so. Students are 22% white and 3.4% Asian, both higher than division averages.
Five percent are English Learners.
Accreditation. 2022 accreditation status presented here is based on performance over a three-year average of school years 2018-22. Last year accreditation was waived. So this is historical data.
Schools performing at Level One or Level Two on all school quality indicators are rated as “Accredited.” Here are the accreditation indicators for Richneck.
Level 2 is “near” the state standard or improving. No judgement is attempted in this report on the state standard itself.
Richneck posted a level 3 (performing below the state standard) math achievement gap for Students with Disabilities with a 26% pass rate compared to 39% statewide.
Let’s translate those historical levels to actual achievement numbers in 2021-22.
Academic Achievement and Gaps. Richneck SOL pass rates 2021-22 vs. Virginia elementary schools statewide were very poor.
- Richneck: all 61%; economically disadvantaged 51%; Black 44%.
- Statewide: all 73%; economically disadvantaged 59%; Black 60%. ‘
- Richneck: all 56%; economically disadvantaged 44%; Black 37%.
- Statewide: all 66%; economically disadvantaged 52%; Black 49%
- Richneck: all 57%; economically disadvantaged 54%; Black 44%
- Statewide: all 65%; economically disadvantaged 49%; Black 46%
Learning climate. Chronic absenteeism last year at Richneck was 25% . Newport News Public Schools average was 29%. State average was 20%.
Newport News Public Schools is a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) division and Richneck was an early adopter.
Richneck was no stranger to weapons and violence, but as an elementary school did not approach the dangers of Newport News middle and high schools.
In 2021-22, Richneck reported the following under the category Behaviors that Endanger Self or Others:
- Assault: Intending to cause physical injury to another person – 2
- Assault and Battery: Causing physical injury to another person – 1
- Striking Staff: The use of force against a staff member when no injury is caused – 2
- Threatening, intimidating, or instigating violence, injury or harm to a staff member or members – 1
- Threatening, intimidating, or instigating violence, injury or harm to another student(s) or other(s) – 1
Those numbers put Richneck in the low middle of the Newport News elementary schools in that year.
Richneck reported weapons offenses in three of the five years prior to 2021-22. Some of the weapons offenses numbers in other Newport News schools on that spreadsheet in non-shutdown years will get your attention.
No weapons offense data are available for 2021-22
Finance. In 2021-22, Newport News Public Schools spent considerably less per pupil ($10,852) than the average Virginia school division ($12,492), and a bigger percentage of that expenditure on other than instruction (38.2%) than the state average (32.6%).
Newport News provides a far lower percentage of its school expenditures from local funds (25.8%) than the average division (46.9%).
Teacher quality. Student-teacher ratio in 2019-20 in Newport News K-7 was 14.37 to 1. Statewide it was 12.97 to one in that same year. Provisionally licensed teachers were the same 8.1% as the state percentage.
Out-of-field and Inexperienced Teachers were 2.1%, statewide 1.1 % that same year. In Title 1 schools, those percentages were 0.8 Newport News, 1% statewide.
Half of Newport News teachers had a masters degree and 14% a doctoral degree. Those together totaled about the same as statewide.
ESSA. The Every Student Succeeds Act data are years out of date, as they are statewide due to suspended collection during COVID.
School readiness. Newport News Kindergarten Students’ Public Preschool Experience in 2021-22 (46%) was much higher than the state norm (29%), though COVID dropped both down to that point.
Kindergarten students meeting full literacy benchmarks (83%) in 2019-20 virtually matched the state average (82%)
Bottom line. Richneck is an average elementary school in an underfunded, poor-performing, violence-prone division.
It would be generally daunting for a first grader, softened hopefully by his teacher and classmates.
Abby Zwerner had a great reputation as a teacher.
But one of her first graders shot her, reportedly intentionally, with what The Virginian-Pilot is reporting was his mother’s gun.
The questions about the report from a kid in Ms. Zwerner’s class that another kid was showing bullets in school days before the shooting – true or false? And if true was it the kid that later shot her? – will hang over this story until answered.
Today I could not get either answer at the state level or from the Mayor’s office. I honestly don’t think either office knew the answer.