Pocahontas students suspended for protesting academic cuts

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

On Monday morning just after 9am, the students of Pocahontas County High School (PCHS) walked out of their classrooms and assembled in front of the school. They were voicing their displeasure and disagreement with proposed budget cuts affecting academic teaching positions in science and math. 

All year long, this group of student leaders, who reconstituted their student council, have been working to improve student achievement. When they heard their own school board was considering a proposal to cut key academic teaching positions, they sprang into action. 

Riley Grey, a student at PCHS who is a member of student council, said, “I am concerned about the loss of teaching positions because not only does this mean losing valuable and great people as our staff but (also) numerous courses and opportunities that have been gifted to our school.”

PCHS Assistant Principal Christine Campbell works with these students on a daily basis. She said of the walkout, “We are trying to encourage our students to have a voice and advocate for themselves and their programs.”

So during day one of the walkout, the school administration kept a close eye on the process to ensure student safety. They observed student leaders planning activities for students while outside the classroom in order to keep everyone engaged. Students say that their school leadership fed them school lunches and allowed them access to school bathrooms, which they appreciated. 

Later in the day, a county administrator arrived on campus and met with the students. According to Grey, the administrator told the students, “Disappointment is an understatement” in regard to their decision to walkout. 

The Pocahontas County Schools central office has not returned RealWV’s request for comment. 

“The reason students were given (for the cuts) was due to loss of our COVID funds and losing class population,” said Grey. But Grey questions whether there has been a student population decline. 

Since the students didn’t feel heard, on Tuesday morning they walked out once again. They carried signs protesting the academic cuts. 

Then at 11am, the students say they were told to return to the classroom. It was a directive from the central office, they believe. Those who had walked out on Tuesday morning but returned to the classroom the same day would receive one day of in-school suspension. The students who refused to return to the classroom on Tuesday would receive one day out-of-school suspension, they said. 

According to reports from students, 20-30 students returned and received one day of in-school suspension while approximately 50-60 students stayed outside and received two days out-of-school suspensions. In total, nearly 100 students received some form of suspension. 

Budget cuts? 

The Pocahontas County Board of Education met Tuesday afternoon at 415pm. The listed agenda included no personnel items. Anyone who wished to speak as a delegation had to sign in early. A huge crowd of approximately 100 citizens, including many students, parents, and teachers was there. 

(Stay tuned for a story later this week detailing the comments made by speakers to the board at the meeting.) 

For the last few weeks, rumors of RIFs (reductions in force by the county) have been flying. Students believe that science, math, and potentially a history teaching position have all been targeted for removal. 

Publicly available minutes from previous meetings do not show any major personnel changes looming. In response to students speaking out against cuts Tuesday night, administrators told the crowd nothing was set in stone yet. 

Board member Sam Gibson did speak out prior to the meeting, voicing his displeasure with the proposed cuts. 

“This came from our central office,” he said of the proposed cuts. “I find it completely unacceptable that our department heads and the honorable Pocahontas County Board of Education and our students were not respected enough and consulted with before this action was taken. 

“At this time the board has not been informed as to what is happening in almost two weeks since it went public and I honestly do not know if any RIF (reduction in force) notices have been issued or not. At this time the board does not know why these cuts are rumored to occur.  At this time we do not know what positions are rumored to be cut.”

“I strongly oppose any personnel cuts that will result in loss of programs for the students of Pocahontas County,” he concluded. 

Board member Morgan McComb said via email, “The Pocahontas Board of Education has (per state law) not been brief on any staff changes and will not officially be until the board meeting that it is proposed at.”

Alumni reaction

Gabriel Walkup is a graduate of PCHS who now manages a chemistry lab in Philadelphia. He is troubled by the proposed cuts. 

“By removing those positions, several courses will likely no longer be available to the students, such as AP and Honors courses and Calculus,” Walkup said. “Not only do I believe PCHS prepared me for my future in sciences from a general learning perspective, I believe that it was the teachers that cultivated my curiosity and kindled a passion for chemistry. My courses in Honors Chemistry and Calculus helped me to enroll in WVU’s Honors Chemistry courses for my first year there.”

He also appreciates what current students are doing by protesting the cuts. “I think it would be hard to imagine anyone not sympathizing with them when it so heavily affects them and the opportunities that will be available to them.

Fredricah Gardner is another recent PCHS graduate who is watching what’s happening closely. She wrote a letter to the Board members recently to make her case against the cuts. “Today, I am proud to say that I am a successful project engineer in the energy industry, all thanks to the foundation laid by my STEM teachers during my high school years…There can be no justification for jeopardizing the future success of these students by cutting resources from one of the most successful departments in the school and the county…I implore you to reconsider the allocation of funds or explore alternative solutions that uphold our commitment to providing future generations with hope and opportunity, not despair.”

What’s next?

RIley Grey attended the Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, as she always does. She sits on the Board as a student representative.

She begins her out of school suspension Wednesday. But she says her mission lives on.  She and her fellow students plan to come to school with signs to convey their message about the academic cuts. They also plan to spend time in Marlinton spreading their message. 

At the conclusion of the board meeting Tuesday night, the conversation returned to proposed academic cuts during “Matters of the Board,” an opportunity for board members to discuss any issues on their mind. 

Sam Gibson asked the source of the budget deficit and why these academic cuts were a necessary step? 

Sue Hollandsworth, board president, noted that what is happening in Pocahontas County is no different than what is happening in other counties. Other board members wondered if their issue could be remedied with a new approach to scheduling? Or if this was an unfortunate financial reality they would have to accept? Or if consolidation would be necessary? One board member wondered if they were offering too many “high level” courses at the high school when resources could be better utilized elsewhere?

No resolution was reached, and the board seemed poised to continue the discussion at a series of budget sessions, though they have not yet been officially scheduled. 

Stay tuned to RealWV for updates on this story.

Riley Grey is a Pocahontas County High School student. She serves on student council and as a student representative to the Board of Education. She, and dozens of other students, were suspended on Tuesday for protesting academic cuts at their school. They vow to keep fighting the cuts.

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