For the past 15 years, I have had the honor of serving the state of West Virginia while working with the incredibly dedicated staff at the West Virginia Department of Education. For more than two of these years, it has been my privilege to advance this work and the vision of the West Virginia Board of Education (WVBE) as State Superintendent of Schools.
Even during the unprecedented ebbs and flows of a global pandemic, we stood together as a united front advocating that every child in the state felt the presence and support of one caring adult.
Prior to being named State Superintendent, I spent 13 years working at the Department of Education. From my work shaping West Virginia’s early childhood program to be a nationally renowned model of excellence, to my work ushering the state through the Common Core debate and revision of all content standards by West Virginia teachers, I have been steadfastly committed to public education.
In tandem with this work, I was committed to assisting the state through a transition in vision while serving as interim Secretary of Education and Arts and later interim Secretary of Commerce. In each of these roles, my commitment to the state and its children never waned.
As I reflect on the past two-and-half years that I have served alongside the WVBE as the State Superintendent, I take great pride in the record of our work. In March 2020, life was shuttered, but we had to make sure the needs of our children were met. Within 48 hours, our team worked with county nutrition directors and created a mechanism to ensure children were fed while schools were closed to in-person learning. We partnered with Gov. Jim Justice, his executive Covid response team, and other federal, state, and local entities to build structures that ensured services were delivered to children and families.
Kids Connect internet access, weekly food distribution, the return to in-person learning, and vaccine distribution to educators and students were only a few of the challenges we faced and conquered with creative and innovative solutions. Even then, our jobs were not done.
The WVBE and the WVDE collaborated with state public health officials providing not only guidance and protocols to promote safe learning environments, but the Board was also vigilant to address unexpected and collateral pandemic challenges through emergency meetings, continuous communications, and waivers when necessary. Many of you were on the frequent calls with county superintendents with me to reassure them of our dedicated support during the uncertainties. For that, I will always be grateful.
While the pandemic may have preferred we stay locked away and separated from each other, we knew that our children needed the safety and security of caring adults and the continuity of support of our public school system. We created the Office of Student Support and Well-being and quickly implemented well-researched best practices to reinforce the student mental health infrastructure because the social-emotional and behavioral needs of our children were more profound as they returned to school.
With more than $1 billion in federal pandemic relief, our Office of Federal Programs created processes to assist counties in applying for, receiving, and administering these dollars, ultimately passing the majority of the WVDE allocation of these funds through to counties. This allowed them to offer robust summer and extended learning programs to children through the Student Opportunities for Learning and Engagement (SOLE) initiative to address the loss of learning and time.
While I cannot mention all of our accomplishments here, I will add that the work of the relaunched TeachWV Pathway to Teaching Initiative is off to a tremendous start. We believe that this platform will not only open the door to teaching from professionals seeking new careers but will also allow communities to nurture the next generation of educators and provide teaching opportunities to keep them close to home. This effort has reinforced our relationship with the Higher Education Policy Commission as we have partnered to address the teacher shortage.
As important as all of these initiatives are, one project stands out as especially dear to me. The students of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (WVSDB) and the work of that venerable institution are always at the forefront of my mind. I have developed a special connection with the school. From the beginning of my administration until this very moment, I have made the WVSDB a priority. My team and I have been a consistent presence on campus to work through the challenges that exist – from facilities to services and instruction and more, we continue to give the WVSDB a level of support it has not had in many years.
I have a vision of what the WVSDB can become as a resource to serve children and families of our state, region, and beyond. All of the foundational elements have been laid, but they need the commitment of a full-time leader and visionary to solidify the work and see it to completion. I believe that the totality of my career, and my close ties to the Hampshire County community, including my personal residence there, have made me uniquely qualified to lead the school into the future.
I have often felt like a wartime leader whose entire tenure as State Superintendent has been under the shadow of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Today, the needs of our public education system are more profound than they were previously. Together we have fought the challenges presented to us, and yet, we still have much work to do.
I commend the work of the West Virginia Department of Education throughout my tenure. The professionals and staff have been dedicated public servants who continue to elevate the support of public education everyday with their talents, skills, and compassion. Although they may not be in our schools daily, they represent the caring adults who are committed to keeping families connected with the provisions that only public education can provide. Their hard work has been a consistent source of pride and inspiration for me. I will always reflect fondly on our time together and our shared and collaborative purpose of supporting and protecting the children of our state.
Above all, I want to thank our teachers and service personnel, the true heroes who have served the state and our students tirelessly. As I have said many times before, if ever we doubted the important role of educators in the lives of children, we now know. From day one, we have relied on these individuals to be the caring adults that kept children and families connected to our schools and the supports the education community provides. They quickly pivoted to online instruction making every effort to maintain open lines of communication with our students. They prepared and boxed meals and delivered them on bus routes. When those meals went unclaimed, our concerned school staff members circled back to find out why children were not showing up to get their school-provided food boxes. They know the children of our state and stood in the ever-expanding gap of need to keep connected to them. I cannot express how much their love, nurturing, and care for our students has meant to me personally, and to our communities, and our state.
As I close, I look forward to the new challenges ahead, and I am excited at the prospect of starting the new school year at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. I thank the Board for the responsibilities it has entrusted to me during this time of challenge and change. Each of member is to be commended for their hard work and dedication, and for the ongoing support of public education.