Chris Schulz Published

State Of Emergency Implemented For Berkeley County School, Harrison County Schools Consolidated

A vacant classroom with rows of wooden desks and chairs.Arria Belli/Wikimedia Commons

The West Virginia Board of Education (WVDE) issued a State of Emergency for Martinsburg North Middle School (MNMS) in Berkeley County at its monthly meeting Wednesday, citing issues with safety and academic rigor.

Jeffrey Kelley, assistant superintendent of district & school accountability, reported the results of a Targeted School Environment Assessment that discovered dozens of Title IX violations, hundreds of fights and what one teacher quoted in the report called “an air of chaos” at the school.

“The West Virginia Learning Environment Survey taken in October ‘23 revealed 53 percent of students at Martinsburg North reported feeling safe at school,” he said. “This was compared to a statewide result of 80 percent of students who reported feeling safe at school.”

Martinsburg North is one of 21 schools in West Virginia identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement in the 2022-2023 school year. Identified schools represent the state’s lowest-performing schools and receive intensive support and technical assistance from the WVDE to address critical areas of need.

Based on 2023 West Virginia General Summative Assessment data, 24.12 percent of the school’s students were proficient in English language arts and 5.69 percent of students demonstrated proficiency in mathematics. Both these numbers represent a decrease from 2022 achievement levels and are below the statewide proficiency average for middle schools of 54.1 percent in English language arts and 47.4 percent in mathematics.

Several board members, including Victor Gabriel, expressed shock and dismay at the report.

“This doesn’t happen in West Virginia,” he said. “Evidently, we have a flaw and we’re going to make sure that flaw gets taken care of.”

Jeffrey Kelley, assistant superintendent of district & school accountability, presents the findings of an April site visit to Martinsburg North Middle School to the West Virginia Board of Education May 8, 2024.

The Martinsburg North report was in stark contrast to the meeting’s opening, when the board recognized three exemplary practice schools.

One school from each programmatic area was honored for illustrating outstanding school practice in one or more areas of the West Virginia Standards for Effective Schools. Sherman Elementary School in Boone County, Mountaineer Middle School in Monongalia County and United Technical Center in Harrison County were this year’s honorees.

School Consolidation

The board also approved several mergers and closures of schools in Harrison County.

Liberty High School will be merged into the existing Robert C. Byrd High School, and Mountaineer Middle School and Washington Irving Middle School will be consolidated into a new Liberty Middle School to be housed in the vacant Liberty High School building.

Board president Paul Hardesty told community members that came to speak to the board against the mergers that they are simply the latest in a growing trend of school consolidation across the state.

“Our space utilization statewide is 51 percent,” he said. “Miss Sullivan asked about the funding formula. That’s where we rise and fall in public education and lately, because of hemorrhaging enrollment, we are falling.”

Board member Debra Sullivan previously questioned the wisdom of punishing communities for an outdated school aid formula that no longer reflects the state’s population. Public school enrollment has fallen more than 10 percent in West Virginia since 2016.

On Wednesday, she expressed concern over the size of the proposed consolidated schools.

“You’ll have about 1,100 students in that school, I think it would make it the largest high school in the county,” Sullivan said in reference to the consolidated Robert C. Byrd High School.

“Are we going to revisit class sizes and classrooms and utilization at some point to reflect today’s needs?” she said. “We have students who need more support. That takes having, I think, more staff as the superintendent said, but also it means having fewer children in a classroom. Twenty-five fifth graders is hard to manage anymore.”

Phones In Schools

During board member reports near the end of the meeting, board member Christopher A. Stansbury discussed the potential of banning cell phones across all West Virginia schools.

“May being Mental Health month, one of the things that I had a request for information on is dealing with cell phone use in public schools and some of the mental health consequences that we’re dealing with,” he said.

Stansbury cited data coming out of Norway, where cell phones have been banned in most middle schools (grades 8-10) over the past 10 years. 

“They found that there were fewer psychiatric consultations, they had less issues with bullying, they had higher GPAs and test scores,” he said. “Results were strongest, best for girls and then also in schools that had the strictest bans. I think that’s something that we as a board need to take a look at.”

The idea of a statewide phone ban was met with supportive comments from board members Nancy White and F. Scott Rotruck, who said he had been engaged in some independent research on the matter already.