Case Study: Harrisonburg embodies small-town education

It’s October break, and I’m headed home. Interstate 81 takes me through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and, finally, the Blue Ridge Mountains rise up on either side of the highway. I’m home.

Harrisonburg, Virginia embodies smalltown America. The population is 50,000, but when James Madison University is in session, that number jumps to 70,000, according to the most recent census. There is a strong immigrant and refugee community; we’re a Church World Service refugee resettlement city. We leaned Republican in the past, but Obama won the city by 16 percent in 2008 (U.S. House Clerk’s Office, “Statistics of the Presidential and Congressional Election” 07.10.2009). Since then, Harrisonburg has been a blue dot in a sea of red surrounding the county.

So readers, why should you care about my little town? Well, if you’re at Vassar, chances are you care about education (or at least your own education), and Harrisonburg is a great example of what’s right and wrong with American education. Pardon me for being self-centered and only talking about my home school district, but it’s the one I know the most about. I still think there are conclusions to be drawn about the entire American education system, just by taking a microcosmic view at my little town.

Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) serves about 6,000 students. There’s a private high school in the city, Eastern Mennonite High School, but it only serves 340 students, so I’ll focus on the public schools.

First of all, let’s look at spending. Like almost all public schools, HCPS splits its budgeting about equally between state and local funding sources. This means that to spend more on education (barring an unlikely state funding increase), the city has to raise property taxes. Property tax increases are widely unpopular for obvious reasons. Despite this, HCPS is currently in the process of building a new high school, a decision that was opposed by many of the city’s wealthy landowners. There was even a Political Action Committee (PAC) created to oppose the new school. It was called, I kid you not, “Students Over Structures.”

These impediments have had a negative impact. In 2018, Harrisonburg spent $12,827 per student, (Harrisonburg City Public Schools, “Per Pupil Expenditure,” 2018). By the National Center for Education Statistics data, that’s slightly below the national per-student average of $13,440. When it comes to teacher salaries, the news isn’t any better. In a state that pays its teachers an average salary of $50,834— almost $8,000 below the national average—Harrisonburg doles out only $46,175 to its teachers on average, per the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

This illustrates the first issue I see with American public education: We simply do not spend enough on it. For localities, it’s difficult to balance local taxes and better education. The City Council can keep property taxes low and stimulate the local economy right now, or they can raise taxes and invest in the city’s future: There’s a tradeoff. In Harrisonburg, the Census estimates that median household income is about $14,000 below the national average, and around 23 percent of the population lives in poverty. Many localities, including Harrisonburg, simply lack a tax base to draw from.

However, spending isn’t the only metric by which to judge schools. I’d like to highlight several programs that make a Harrisonburg education stand out. First of all, there’s a Spanish language immersion program that starts in elementary school and continues until high school graduation. There’s also a state-sponsored STEM academy within Harrisonburg High School (HHS), as well as an off-campus, application-based Governor’s STEM Academy for students to attend part-time. AP classes are offered, with about 13 percent of HHS students enrolled in at least one.

Another exemplary piece of a Harrisonburg education is the English language learner’s program, which helps those new to the English language get up to speed and comfortable in traditional classrooms. This is especially important because 35 percent of Harrisonburg students were considered English learners as of 2017, according to HCPS demographic data. A further 3.5 percent of students were in their first year of U.S. schooling. Besides English classes for students, adult English classes are offered at one of the middle schools. According to the VDOE, Harrisonburg English language learners perform almost twice as well on standardized writing tests compared to others in the state.

This is where I think HCPS does well and should be emulated. At every turn, their focus is on decreasing achievement gaps. Summit Academy, located within HHS, helps struggling students by providing an alternative learning option. On the Road Collaborative focuses on low-income students, providing college and career prep. The WiSTEM club encourages women to pursue math and science careers. There’s even a restorative justice program that replaces much of the school’s disciplinary system.

Sal Romero, City Council member and Coordinator of Family and Community Engagement for HCPS, noted this as an HCPS strongpoint. “I think one of the things we do well [in the school system] is that we recognize that diversity is our strength, and we build up on that,” Romero said when I interviewed him last year. “We not only find ways to learn from each other, but we also find ways to connect with the broader community.”

The VDOE has several indicators for school quality as part of their accreditation process. HHS performed at or above state average on all academic achievement indicators (Virginia Department of Education, “School Quality Profiles: Harrisonburg City,” 2019). However, the dropout rate is nearly four percent above the state average, and the VDOE labels chronic absenteeism as an issue.

When it comes to postsecondary education enrollment, HCPS is behind the state by four percentage points, according to the VDOE. However, compared to the rest of the state, HCPS sends off five percent more economically disadvantaged students (meaning eligible for free/reduced meals, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and/or Medicaid) to college.

If you’re going to college from HHS, you’re probably going to a state university like the one actually in Harrisonburg: James Madison University. Data collected by the HHS newspaper showed that last year 25 students (out of a class of 450) headed to JMU, 11 went to Virginia Commonwealth University (another large state school), 66 went to Blue Ridge Community College and 20 went out of state. Because so many students decide to stay close, much of the human capital generated from the local school system goes right back into the community.

HHS is only one example of a public school. Across the country, public schools bear the weight of limited budgets, achievement gaps and unique local challenges. Because public schools are largely controlled by local school boards and city councils, each district tackles these challenges in its own way with its own priorities.

Harrisonburg’s priorities are its most disadvantaged students, which is laudable. And based on the data, its approach seems to be working. I think other school systems should strive to center the same commitment that HCPS focuses on.

Furthermore, I don’t think HCPS sacrifices academic rigor in the pursuit of this goal. For my part, I can say I was challenged academically. I wouldn’t be at Vassar without the opportunities HCPS offered me.

Sal Romero summed up my argument pretty nicely. “I was on the State Board of Education, and … I had the opportunity to visit different school systems around the state,” Romero said. “One of the things that was always interesting to see was the support [systems] that different schools have in place for their students. Very few school systems come close to what we do. We put our money where we think is important.”

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