Drug rehab center causes community debate

August 28, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

Community members are organizing efforts to oppose the construction of a drug rehabilitation center near Capital High School with claims that county agencies have agreed to give money to the project without voter input.

The construction project gained momentum last week when the Kanawha County Board of Education voted to donate 50 acres of property to the T-Center, a proposed residential treatment facility developed by the Kanawha Valley Fellowship Home.

While the center was discussed at only one meeting, board members and Superintendent Ron Duerring spoke about the proposal ahead of time, assistant superintendent Thomas Williams said.

The 4-0 decision was met with fierce criticism in the following days, something board President Robin Rector did not expect to happen.

She said the backlash can be owed to a lack of communication.

“People didn’t hear about this because it was the summer,” she said. “And it just so happened that pieces of this were finalized when school started and people were paying more attention.

“If I have a regret, it’s that we didn’t spend more meetings discussing this,” Rector said. “We probably could have and should have spent more time communicating what this was.”

School board officials don’t see their decision as something that warrants controversy, though.

Rector said the board saw a need in the community and decided to jump on the opportunity to make use of unused land in a positive way.

Good intentions have not swayed the opinions of parents and others who oppose the deal. Some worry the proximity of the center could harm students by bringing unwanted drug activity into the area.

Rector said she understands the concerns people have, but guarantees students will be safe because patients at the center will be on “lock down” with limited visitors privileges. While the center is across the street from Capital High, it will sit on a more secluded tract, further up the hill.

Rector also said people who suggest the center will bring drugs to Capital demean the school, as well as its students, teachers and staff.

“It’s sad that people would make a connection,” she said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Capital. This is about a piece of property owned by the board.”

Others oppose the project because the board donated the land instead of selling it to fund facility upgrades or build a football field for the school.

The land was last appraised in 2008 at nearly $500,000, but the property sat on the market for more than a decade with no buyers.

“That would have been our first choice, but the market has to be there,” Rector said. “There has to be a buyer.”

While the board didn’t lose money on the land through property taxes, Rector said donating the property was the right business decision. Because the land will be turned over to the T-Center, the county will now be able to collect taxes.

“That’s potential revenue coming back into our system.”

At their last meeting, board members were uniform in their praise for the center even though Pete Thaw chose not to vote due to a conflict of interest. His son was involved in the project development.

Members noted the center’s potential to educate youth and families afflicted by substance abuse. West Virginia has one of the highest overdose rates in the country.

The school board isn’t the only county agency to consider partnering with the T-Center.

The Kanawha County Commission was expected to pledge $200,000 to the $10 million project at its meeting Thursday, but opted at the last minute to postpone the decision until a center representative can discuss the proposal with the Capital High community.

Commissioner Dave Hardy agreed to table the motion, but said the commission will continue to work with the T-Center to raise awareness about the proposal.

W.Va. students fall behind on college readiness exam

August 27, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

West Virginia high school graduates tested below the national average on ACT’s college readiness exam this year, a new report has found.

The state’s composite score of 20.6 — on a scale of 1 to 36 — has remained the same for the past four years and continues to come short of the national average of 21. Only 21 percent of ACT test takers score higher.

While students outperformed their national peers in English and reading subtests with scores of 20.4 and 21.4, they fell behind in math and science with scores of 19.5 and 20.6. The national averages for English, reading, math and science are 20.3, 21.3, 20.9 and 20.8, respectively.

The test, which consists of the four subcategories and an optional essay, is used by admissions offices to decide if a student is ready for introductory college courses. It also determines whether a student from West Virginia is eligible to receive the Promise scholarship.

Of the 11,191 high school graduates who took the test in 2014, 68 percent are considered ready for college-level English. Less than half are prepared for college reading, math and science, and only 19 percent of students are ready for all four.

Each subtest has a different benchmark that determines college readiness. A student who meets or exceeds it has a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a freshman-level course in that subject.

According to the report, the majority of students are not prepared to succeed in a postsecondary setting, as only 26 percent of American high school graduates meet all four ACT benchmarks.

West Virginia students have a good opportunity to improve though. The report found that 10 percent of test takers were often one or two points shy of meeting a benchmark and that improvements could be made by getting more students to take college preparatory classes.

In a statement, Superintendent Charles Heinlein applauded the class of 2014, but said there is still work to be done. “Students, teachers and parents must continue their unwavering focus on preparing our young citizens for future personal and professional success,” he said.

In its 2014 profile of West Virginia, ACT outlined ways to improve scores and increase college readiness. It suggested providing better access for all students to take the test. Only about 65 percent of high school graduates took it at least once, a 3 percent drop from 2010 but nearly 10 points higher than the national average.

It also suggested encouraging students to develop college and work ready skills regardless of their postsecondary plans, making sure they are taking the right courses, evaluating the rigor of those courses and providing guidance based on a their career and college aspirations.

While only 73 percent of West Virginia’s 2014 high school graduates are now enrolled in a two- or four-year college, 95 percent reported they aspire to pursue a postsecondary education. More than 20 percent were potential first-generation college students.

The ACT is administered in all 50 states and is the predominate college-entrance exam in West Virginia.

Students who earn a 22 composite score and at least 20 points in each of the four subtests are eligible for the Promise Scholarship as long as they maintained a 3.0 grade point average in high school. It provides $4,750 each year.

There are six test dates scheduled between September and June, but students are not required to take it.

A railroad that connects us all

August 21, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

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I recently wrote about a group of Kanawha County students who rode a special New York Central passenger train to school in the early- to mid-1900s. Riders who are still living are now in their 70s and 80s. While their memories dim with age, they fondly remember their time on the train like it was yesterday.

After days of research, talking to a dozen riders and hiking through the woods surrounding little hillside communities like Quick and Coco searching for the remaining tracks, I realized there was more to this story than what could be contained in one article, which I have linked below for those who have yet to read it.

Former students remember train ride to school.

Once the story printed, I started getting phone calls from people who rode the train, relatives and others who had information or stories to tell.

It pained me to know several wonderful anecdotes had to be left out of the story, but getting a flood of new stories made it clear I had to do a follow-up. These stories are too good not to be told.

Christine Quinn, 71, called me the day the story printed and told me she was one of the hundreds of kids who rode the train. She also had one of the most heart-warming stories I’ve ever heard.

When she was a young girl, she would board the train in Quick and ride it to Blakeley, where her two friends, Gayle and Deanna Ryans, lived. She said she and her friends had an agreement to take turns riding the train so they could spend one night a week with each other. One week, Quinn would ride to Blakeley, and then her friends would come to her house in Quick the next week.

“That was the only form of communication we had,” she said.

The girls did this until the train was decommissioned in 1959, after which, the trio lost contact.

Without the aid of telephones or social media, Quinn essentially stopped seeing her best friends despite living only 10 miles apart.

But what’s a good story without a reunion?

Quinn, who now lives in St. Albans with her husband John, said she went to introduce herself to a new neighbor recently. Expecting to just welcome her to the neighborhood, Quinn instead was reunited with an old friend.

Quinn didn’t realize it at first, but her new neighbor was the younger sister of her two childhood friends. Through the simple gesture of saying “hello,” Quinn was able to reconnect with her friends through their sister. She said they now see each other regularly.

There are many more stories left to be told, which I will save for another day, but one thing is certain: without that train, many life-long friendships never would have been formed.

It connected people then, and it still connects them today.

Scripps Spelling Bee offers early enrollment

August 20, 2014 by Samuel Speciale
West Virginia speller Varun Kukkillaya at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

West Virginia speller Varun Kukkillaya at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

I like spelling bees.

I don’t know if it’s my love for language or my competitive nature, but there’s something about the national bee that’s exciting.

This year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, which aired on ESPN networks in May, was about as  engaging as any sporting event could hope to be. The dramatic spell-off, which ended in Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe being named co-chapmpions, and the confident, yet heartbreaking elimination of fan-favorite Jacob Williamson made the Bee the most tweeted and talked about event that week.

We’re still months away from the 2014-2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee, but the start of school also serves as the start of Bee season.

Early enrollment starts today, which allows teachers, school administrators and PTA leaders to sign their schools up for the Bee at a discounted rate of $130. Early enrollment ends October 15, after which regular enrollment extends to December 12.

Enrollment takes place exclusively at www.spellingbee.com.

Once enrolled, the school will receive resources needed to run a classroom or school spelling bee, which will take place later this fall and winter. From there, winning spellers will move on to county and regional bees.

The 2014-2015 Scripps National Bee is expected to include 11 million participants this year.

Back-to-school photos: Part Two

August 18, 2014 by Samuel Speciale
Loraly and Aiden Pozzi sport new back-to-school outfits. Loraly and Aiden attend preschool and kindergarten at Clendenin Elementary.

Loraly and Aiden Pozzi sport new outfits for their first day of school at Clendenin Elementary.

Everyone likes a sequel. Let’s hope this one is more “Empire Strikes Back” than “Jaws: The Revenge.”

Sequels capitalize on the success of a first installment. In this instance, the Kanawha County back-to-school photos the Daily Mail received last week were so positively received that we want to extend it another week to include Putnam County, which started today.

So, let’s go over how you can submit your back-to-school photos to the Daily Mail.

It’s simple. You can share your photos with the Charleston Daily Mail on Facebook (be sure to click “Like” while you’re there), you can tweet them to @charleywest on Twitter or you can send them to @charleywestv on Instagram. You also can email them to sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com.

Please include names, ages, grade level and the school your child attends.

If you live in another county and would like to participate as well, please indicate which county you live in and when the first day of school is.

Like I said last week, the start of school is an exciting time, so don’t let that enthusiasm wane over the course of the year. Have a great school year Putnam County!

Share your back-to-school photos with the Daily Mail

August 11, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

Today is the first day of school for Kanawha County, and it’s bound to be an exciting year.

First, we have the opening of the new Edgewood Elementary School, which has been termed a school of the future. Employed with progressive, project-based learning, the entire county is watching and hoping this new direction will help students excel in one of the lowest-performing districts.

There’s also the pending rollout of the county’s iPad program. Teachers and principals received their devices this summer and were given the opportunity to attend training seminars to get them ready to employ technology in the classroom. Students won’t get their iPads until later in October, but school officials are already excited about the changes they are seeing.

Lastly, there are policy changes regarding the school calendar. This is the first year that the Board of Education can schedule make-up days after the scheduled last-day-of-school if the county fails to meet the mandated 180 days of in-school instruction. The new policy allows the board to schedule class until June 30. While it is unlikely to happen, the board may also cancel spring break if the required days can’t be made up in June.

With all the changes set to come this year, it’s easy to lose focus on what’s most important — the students. So, we at the Daily Mail are asking you to share your back-to-school photos with us so we can catalog them here for everyone else to see.

Students, are you happy to be reunited with friends? Snap a picture and send it our way. Parents, are you especially proud of the school supplies you were able to get for an insanely good deal? That’s a picture we want to see.

Ours is the culture where there’s a themed selfie for each day of the week. So, I’m sure you and your children have back-to-school photos on your phone that you are dying to share but not sure how best to do that.

So, here’s what you can do. Like the Charleston Daily Mail on Facebook and send us your back-to-school photos. If you have Twitter,  tweet them to @charleywest or @wvschools. You say you’ve graduated from text-based social media and prefer the uninhibitedness of Instagram? Tag @charleywestv in your post. Or, if you’re old-school like me and feel more comfortable using email, you can send them to sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com. Please include names, ages, grade level and the school your child attends.

The first day of school is always an exciting time, but let’s keep that level of enthusiasm going throughout the rest of the year.

Good luck students, and have a great school year Kanawha County!

Free speech rights for college students at risk

August 7, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

While a company imposes its owner’s beliefs on employees because our courts say corporations are people with First Amendment rights, there is debate whether those same rights should be extended to a college student who can vote and fight (and die, I might add) for their country.

This may sound shocking to some, but censorship on college campuses is a very real thing, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, an independent federal agency tasked with fighting for Americans’ Constitutionally given rights, has recently issued startling statements that indicate its leader thinks free speech isn’t something a college student is even entitled to.

In a July briefing on sexual harassment claims and campus speech codes, Civil Rights Commissioner Michael Yaki had this to say:

“Certain factors in how the juvenile or adolescent or young adult brain processes information is vastly different from the way that we adults do.

So, when we sit back and talk about what is right or wrong in terms of First Amendment jurisprudence from a reasonable person’s standpoint, we are really not looking into the same referential viewpoint of these people, of an adolescent or young adult, including those in universities…

…and because of that, and because of the unique nature of a university campus setting, I think that there are very good and compelling reasons why broader policies and prohibitions on conduct in activities, and in some instances speech, are acceptable on a college campus level that might not be acceptable, say, in an adult work environment or in an adult situation.”

To be fair, much of what Yaki spoke about was in relation to supporting codes that ban speech and symbolic expression perceived to be conveying a racist or sexist message.

Now, there is no room for hate or bigotry in the public sphere, but I have two problems with what Yaki’s proposes, and you should too. First: Who is going to determine what makes a message racist or sexist? Second: Past court decisions have already addressed this issue and have upheld the rule that such restrictions on college students are patently unconstitutional.

The law of the land is that students do not have to forfeit their First Amendment rights when they step foot on campus, even when involved in racially and sexually offensive fraternal activities, but I wouldn’t expect Yaki to care about the law considering he violated it 70 times in San Francisco.

More troubling than that is Yaki’s reasoning for limiting the free speech rights of college students. His comments indicate he believes college students aren’t mentally developed enough to have the same rights as an adult, a stark contrast of the Supreme Court’s opinion that the college campus is a “vital center for the nation’s intellectual life.”

While there are cognizant differences between younger and older adults, that hardly justifies stripping students of their rights when they are perfectly able to fight and die for their country whether voluntarily or by draft. Still, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has found that 65 percent of liberal arts colleges have speech codes that violate the First Amendment.

Yaki and the Civil Rights Commission are treading a slippery slope. How long until they and others in power turn to other portions of the population they deem mentally incapable of having the right to speak their mind?

A look at West Virginia’s new superintendent

July 2, 2014 by Samuel Speciale


Decision or indecision?

June 27, 2014 by Samuel Speciale


Pay as you earn, but you still have to pay

June 10, 2014 by Samuel Speciale

President Barack Obama’s expansion of the “Pay As You Earn” program on Monday may have some college goers ready to pump their firsts in victory, but that excitement should be tempered because there’s a hidden gun: You still have to pay. Well, at least for 20 years.

By signing a memorandum to extend such benefits to those who borrowed from the federal government before 2007, the president is certainly helping low-income 20- and 30-year olds who are struggling to pay off their loans in the standard 10-year term.

As part of the plan, monthly payments can be reduced to 10 percent of a person’s income — which is reasonable — but paying less each month means it will take longer to pay off the loan. After 20 years, the remaining balance is altogether forgiven.

It’s bound to help millions of Americans, but it fails to address the underlying problem plaguing higher education: The cost of college has tripled in the past 30 years, causing most students to wager their entire futures on the hopes that a college education will land them a good job.

College tuition has skyrocketed since the 1970s. So has student debt, which now tops $1 trillion.

While 1,000,000,000,000 may not look like much on a computer screen, it’s about 10 times the amount of people who have ever lived on earth. Think about that for a minute.

West Virginians are not immune to loan debt even though college comes relatively cheap for in-state students compared to other states. Still, more than 50 percent of graduates are burdened with at least $26,000 in loan debt.

Those numbers aren’t likely to change anytime soon. According to the latest data compiled by the state Higher Education Policy Commission, almost 53 percent of students attending four-year public institutions in West Virginia have loans. A shade over 11 percent of those students default on their loans.

For a state with a shaky economy and limited job prospects for graduates, lingering college debt is enough to kill any prospect of achieving the American dream in the Mountain State.

College is still worth the investment though, as those who earn a degree on average earn $20,000 more each year than those who only have a high school diploma.

But, at what cost?

Paying as you go may help millions finally pay off their debt, but rethinking higher education at a federal and local level may be the only way to prevent future students from ever entering it.