There’s Something in the Water at West Point — and It Ain’t Lead

by James A. Bacon

One of the consistently top-performing school districts in Virginia is that of the town of West Point, a Tidewater mill town whose economic mainstay is a paper plant. Somehow, year in and year out, the West Point school district delivers superior results, at least as measured by pass rates in the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. The table above shows how West Point clobbers the state averages in English reading and writing, history & social studies, and math. What the table doesn’t show, but previous posts on Bacon’s Rebellion have, is that this gritty mill town has the one of the top pass rates of any district in the state.

Here’s one question that you’d think Virginia policy makers would be asking: How does West Point do it? Clearly, West Point is not an enclave of socio-economic privilege. Might the schools there be doing something that other school districts can learn from?

For clues into what is going on at West Point, I turned to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (CI) report on K-12 funding trends. (In an earlier post I had criticized the report in a knee-jerk reaction, for which I apologize. The report contains a lot of valuable data.)

Don’t look to state funding. While state aid to K-12 education (adjusted for inflation and the number of students) fell 8% since 2008-2009 across the state, it fell 15% for West Point. The town made up much of the difference with local revenues, but inflation-adjusted revenues were still slightly lower in 2017-18 than in 2008-09. The town invested 264.8% of the minimum required of localities in the state’s funding formula — compared to a 113.3% state average. That was, in school funding lingo, a strong “local effort.”

Despite flat inflation-adjusted funding and a 7% increase in enrollment (40 students), West Point managed to add 12 teachers and instructors, eight support staff, and four more counselor/librarians for a total of 24 more staff. Someone in the school administration must have a sharp pencil to have pulled that off.

West Point does have a demographic advantage. Its students are less poor and have fewer disabilities than the state average, but the discrepancy is modest. According to CI data:

  • 5% of all school-age children lived in poverty in 2017 compared to 13% statewide.
  • 31% of all students were provided free or reduced- price lunch in 2018-19 compared to 45% statewide.
  • 11% of all students had a disability compared to 13% statewide.

West Point schools generated controversy recently when the school board fired a French teacher for his refusal to address a transgender student identifying as a boy by his preferred pronouns. That exercise in political correctness overshadowed the fact that West Point is a high-performing school system.

Fiscal data takes us only so far. The explanation for the West Point phenomenon probably arises from non-fiscal factors.

Is it possible that West Point does a better job of teaching to the test — pushing lower-performing students over the line while spending less time and focus on more advanced students? To the contrary. The performance gap between West Point and other school systems is even more marked for “advanced pass” SOL scores, at least for reading, history and science.

I don’t know what West Point’s secret is. The explanation, whatever it is, may discombobulate my pet theories about K-12 education — or it may confound the Victimhood and Grievance Narrative that has become increasingly prevalent in the Northam administration. One of these days I hope to find out.

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31 responses to “There’s Something in the Water at West Point — and It Ain’t Lead”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    What’s in the Water at West Point schools?

    It is easy to guess, and almost as easy to show. Send five excellent, broadly experienced, and honest teachers into the West Point classrooms for a week. For sure, those five teachers will come away with the answers. Why? Because, for the kinds of teachers, those answers are hiding in plain sight.

    Why do we never do this? Just talk and wonder endlessly, as if we are neutered? Education today is all politics, political correctness, class and race grievance, run by those promoting all of that nonsense, instead of focusing on how best to educate kids, the answers to which we had mastered by the end of the 19th century.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I haven’t looked at Salem lately, but of course that’s a college town that used to show great results. I remember back in the 80s, when Salem made the decision to separate its schools from Roanoke County, I was asked by the paper to take a look at that. They wanted me to write a story that Salem was making a mistake, but I saw some advantages to Salem. That high local financial effort for West Point means more than money, it is a sign of a community that places high value on education. If they feel that way about the classroom, they may show the same commitment in the homes.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      If you give the right principal the right tools and support, that principal can fix the education of the kids at that school without any more money. The real problem is that that most public school SYSTEMS will defeat, fire, and drive out of the school and its system, those who know how to fix it, and try to fix it. Of course today that corrupt school system has captured far too much of the community, who now too often believe the falsehoods they are told, or they have not the energy, knowledge, or capacity to escape the system that is ruining their kids.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    West Point, Va – a town of about 3,000 people with a family median income of $56,000 and 1.7% living below the poverty line. Separate school district from the county (only one of two towns in Virginia with independent school districts separated from the county). Single high school. Very low asian and hispanic / latino population (leading me to believe that there are few people not born in America in West Point, but that’s a guess).


    1. Single school district for a middle class town
    2. Low costs of English as a Second Language
    3. Very small territory (6.1 sq mi), everybody knows everybody
    4. Relatively high incomes viewed in terms of cost of living

    You’re basically dealing with Mayberry. My guess is that the place attracts retired people but that’s just a guess. If so, lots of properties paying property taxes without children in school. Money to spend.
    Looks like a great place to live.

    The real key seems to be walling themselves off from the surrounding county.

    They also seem to have an active tuition-based “attend West Point High” program (described on their web site):

    TMT – what do you think, McLean and Great Falls form an incorporated town called McLean Falls and wall ourselves off from Fairfax County? Establish our own school system? It would be worth doing just to watch the liberal heads explode.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I have long resisted the idea of splitting up Fairfax County. But recent developments have caused me to change my mind. One is the refusal of FCPS to address the excessive overcrowding of McLean High School by boundary adjustments until the Schools review school boundaries countywide based on Social Justice Theory. (I have no kids in FPCS and mine went to Langley.)

      The Second is the “hinted at plan” to force all of the students residing in Great Falls to attend South Lakes HS, again based on Social Justice Theory. (And again, I don’t have any personal stake in the fight.)

      There is no authority under state law to discriminate against students based on residence, family income or social status. It’s offensive to the very idea of public schools.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Yeah, the Fairfax County School Board’s OneFairfax plan probably needs a whole post rather than just a comment. Typically sneaky and incompetent BigEd / liberal thinking. Langley is operating at 85% capacity while McLean is at 115%. What does the School Board want to do? Move Great Falls kids who are going to Langley to Herndon and bus Herndon kids into Langley.

        I guess just moving the Langley / McLean border a few miles to even out the utilization would be too simple and straight forward for the SJWs and virtue signaling yo-yo’s on the school board.

        The worst of it is that the Fairfax County School Board is lying like a rug and propagandizing like Joseph Goebbels on this whole OneFairfax hallucination. However, some very diligent citizens have taken the school board’s dishonest “fact sheet” and shoved it right up the board’s nose.

        The BigEd politburo across America has come up with a new theory. Since they can’t fix bad schools (because the BigEd educrats are incompetent) they will break down good schools, ship the students around on buses during rush hour, makes the bad schools slightly less bad without actually helping the students who are failing and make the good schools mediocre. They will then throw their shoulders out of joint patting themselves on the back congratulating themselves on their educational miracle.

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          Agree. It should be a separate topic.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Jim. It’s because they pay teachers well and recruit them. This is contrary to your usual arguments about being cheap on ed spending

  5. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Don has hit upon the “secret”: a small, homogeneous school district. I assume most of the families of the paper mill executives live in the town. Also, the paper mill is a great source of tax revenue for the town; also, helps to keep tax rate down for homeowners. (All that machinery and tools tax, Steve.) The place stinks, but the response of the residents is “Smells like money!”

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      That is ridiculous. What next? It’s a crime to take your schools seriously. It’s a crime to insist that, and in fact, make them work. It’s a crime to educate your kids. Come in, Dick!

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I don’t understand your criticism, Reed. I did mean to criticize the town, nor do I think my comments implied any criticism. I was merely pointing out the advantages that West Point has, which could well explain its better results.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Dick – Then I must have misinterpreted the meaning and implication behind your words ” The place stinks, but the response of the residents is “Smells like money!”

          Sorry about the misunderstanding, Dick.

          1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            The “stinks” remark refers to the paper mill. It does stink.

          2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            So did the big plant down the hill and down wind from Randolph-Macon Academy and Front Royal stink when the wind blew from across the Shenandoah River. But everyone there in the early 1960’s were doing great, in fine fiddle and health, eating great qualities of fatty meats, and huge rich thick shakes at the Dairy Queen on the far side of the hill below RMA. Front Royal reached its high water mark there in that time of fatty meats, monster chocolate shakes, and stink. Deep historic lessons are hidden there even now in plain sight.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Yes. so a couple of things.

      Is this a multi-school district or a single-school district where ALL kids regardless of economic status attend the same school?

      So what is the breakdown for Asian, Hispanics and Blacks as often reported when castigating other school districts?

      Finally – what do the school districts adjacent to West Point show in the SOL and demographic comparisons?

  6. Maria Paluzsay Avatar
    Maria Paluzsay

    `I will speak to these comments as a mother who moved from James City County to the City of West point to put my kids in WP schools, then for family reasons had to leave WP and chose Upper York County because of the school system; and also and as a seasoned Realtor who focuses my business on school zones.

    Don is partially correct. West Point is a small town with a single school complex and a relatively homogenous population. However, that is not completely true – there is a poor side of West Point proper, and there are minorities (although they are not singled out as minorities as they are in most places). I was a well educated White woman living in a poorer, minority neighborhood, but we didn’t have any sense of race division, which carries over into the schools. There was no sense of color being relevant to academic ability or success, or expectation for that matter.

    Maybe that is it – expectation. Small schools, extremely qualified, handpicked teachers – they expect their students to learn. West point teachers rarely leave – why is that? Is it pay? Is it benefits? Is it teaching conditions – facilities, equipment, additional training, support and respect of the administration? I’d say yes to those things because as my kids have made their way through the schools in another top performing county, I’ve found that here as well – on strictly a school by school basis.

    So yes, it’s money (by the way, West Point has double taxation – county and city – so this quality is paid for by residents as well as the paper mill). Yet there is so much more to the picture, and I think it is respect and expectation. West Point teachers are respected because they teach these kids what they need to know. They are given the tools, training, and freedom to teach how the kids learn. They are not paranoid that some school administrator is looking over their shoulder. When my kids were at the York County Arts Magnet, those teachers were respected and given freedom to teach. School life was very similar to school life in West Point. When the two district elementary schools merged to one middle school, the difference was obvious in the kids. (It’s not family economics, the wealthier neighborhoods went to the underperforming school). Still, teachers were allowed to teach and “do their own thing” – they were given that respect.

    Now I have one in the only high school in York County that doesn’t score well, I am looking for that missing piece, and I still think it is respect. I don’t see any respect for the school from the school board or the rest of the county, and that carries over to the administration not respecting the ability or needs of the teachers, and that carries on down to the kids, who don’t have much respect for the school. It’s not funding, York County is well funded – we even get federal aid because we have so much military presence. Where the money goes, I have no idea, certainly not to these teachers, who even have their copier privileges limited. So please don’t tell me it’s the money, it’s not. Funding is just an excuse. West Point prides itself on its school system and respects its teachers. It expects them to do whatever it takes for each student to learn. It expects the students to do their part. THAT, from a mother who has been there, is the difference.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      So the REAL QUESTION is – can what West Point does – be replicated at other school systems ?

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Sure. It happens in many places every single day. Thank you for chiming in, Maria, and I think you’ve hit on a key word – respect. Respect for education as a goal, respect for the schools and teachers, and respect for the students (high expectations can be seen as a sign of respect.)

    2. djrippert Avatar


      Great comments. Thank you.


      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Ditto – thanks Maria for sharing your views – and do continue!

    3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      In my view, Maria Paluzsay has made the most profound, powerful, and useful comment on the key missing ingredient that all our schools must have to succeed in educating our kids. Without Maria’s “missing” piece we will never solve our education decline in this country, nor solve its many sub-parts, like various gaps between kids. Unfortunately, some elements within higher education and politics appear to be actively working to expand this divide, deepening the loss of respect crisis and growing anger problem, and I fear this is being done by some for private advantage, including the sense that it increases their relevance, and power, forgetting that kids and our society are being ruined in the process. Her comment also has relevance to far broader and growing deeper divides in this nation. We all ought to read her comment again and again, let it sink in deeply, and come back to it again and again. They are the best words on the subject of education that I have ever read on this blog.

      Below is a small part of her profound comment stated above.

      “I was a well educated White woman living in a poorer, minority neighborhood, but we didn’t have any sense of race division, which carries over into the schools. There was no sense of color being relevant to academic ability or success, or expectation for that matter.

      Maybe that is it – expectation. Small schools, extremely qualified, handpicked teachers – they expect their students to learn. West point teachers rarely leave – why is that? Is it pay? Is it benefits? Is it teaching conditions – facilities, equipment, additional training, support and respect of the administration? I’d say yes to those things because as my kids have made their way through the schools in another top performing county, I’ve found that here as well – on strictly a school by school basis.”

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m GLAD that we have pointed out a PUBLIC SCHOOL that “works” and apparently needs no non-public private/charter school to fix it!

    Are we saying that the difference is that West Point has “respect” and that is the difference?

    Is that the fundamental difference between West Point and the many, many schools in Va that has awful SOL scores?

    Do Asians also do better in West Point and Hispanics and Blacks worse like the other schools we talk about her?

    One has to wonder if all we have to do is send Richmond Administrators and Teachers to West Point to “learn”?

  8. John Butcher has supplied me with data that sheds light on West Point schools. The school system spent about $500 more per student than the state average — most notably in the “instruction” category — but had among the lowest teacher salaries in the state. The low teacher salaries would explain how despite a reduction in inflation-adjusted spending over the decade, West Point schools actually added new teaching and support positions.

    Another point worth exploring, and this ties into Maria Paluzsay’s observation above about “respect.” If we ask how can West Point get away with paying its teachers less, one possible explanation is that the teachers enjoy their jobs more. Perhaps they feel appreciated more than teachers in other school systems. Perhaps the schools do a better job of maintaining discipline and they actually get to follow their passion of teaching. Just a theory.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      those are really subjective things… how would you measure it ?

      how would you define what it is and use it as a model for other schools to emulate?

      How about the “gaps” between whites, Asians, Hispanics and blacks?

      I just don’t think holding West Point up as an example of a “good” school but using subjective factors really helps us understand how to improve the schools that need improvement and it just leads to more condemnation of those schools without really saying how they get better and in fact just advocate abandonment to “charters”.

      that’s not a reasonable conversation… I would expect Butcher and others to lay out what they think are the factors that lead to better schools if they are slinging this much data… Just can’t point to West Point and say “good” and Richmond and say “bad”, need charters.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        What’s not subjective is the structure. Spotsylvania Courthouse is a Census Designated Place in Spotsylvania County Virginia. It has a population approximately 1.5 times bigger than West Point. Now, imagine that Spotsylvania Courthouse didn’t just have its own elementary, middle and high school but was its own school system too. Any decision regarding local funding would go to the Spotsylvania Courthouse schools and nowhere else because Spotsylvania Courthouse would be an incorporated town with a school district separate from Spotsylvania County. How would taxpayers in Spotsylvania Courthouse feel about paying more in taxes knowing that the money would go to the very schools their children attend? How many people in the 8.6 sq mi of Spotsylvania Courthouse would personally know the teachers at their children’s schools?

        Put finances aside – why should counties run school systems. Why should residents of Fairfax County have to yield to a cadre of nameless, faceless school system bureaucrats in a county of 1.7 million people? Why not have autonomy by school pyramid at the neighborhood level? Like West Point.

        Many school rankings rate Thomas Jefferson the best public high school in the US. But TJ is a competitive high school taking only the brightest students so that doesn’t really count vs all high schools. Virginia’s second best public high school? George Mason – the single high school in the tiny Falls Church City school district (separated from surrounding Fairfax County). Are you starting to see a pattern?

        Bureaucracy never makes anything better. Why do counties like Fairfax operate a single school system?

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          re: ” Why not have autonomy by school pyramid at the neighborhood level? Like West Point.”

          so you’re in favor of neighborhoods funding only the neighborhood school?

          Would you also do away with state-imposed SOL testing?

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Often times Jim’s theories are my facts. This is one of those times.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    One big problem is that if the paper mill shuts down, west point might just as well sink into the york river

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      That’s essentially what has happened to Front Royal. Once Avtex shut down – the town lost it’s major employer and hundreds of jobs.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Wrong! Incompetence and corruption shut the town down.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    what does the West Point school look like demographically?

    does it have Asians, Hispanic and blacks?

    do the SOL scores for those Demographics look like other schools with the same SOL gaps between blacks/Hispanics, Asians and whites?

    Let me introduce a new term that does not use race to differentiate.

    It’s called SES.

    If we measured SOL scores with regard to SES – what would it show?

    Would the correlation between SES (without regard to race) and SOL scores hold true across schools and school districts?

    If there is an actual – quantifiable correlated relationship between SES and SOL scores – what would we do different if that correlation was true at West Point as well as Richmond schools?

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