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Will Thomas

Virginia Home-Schoolers Top 40,000 for First Time

By Will Thomas, VCU Capital News Service

Alycia Wright, a Short Pump resident, used to have her own classroom where each day she taught dozens of middle-school students. That all changed after Wright had her fourth child and decided to begin home-schooling her children.

“We tried it for a year, loved the freedom and we have not stopped,” she said.

A licensed middle school teacher for 12 years with a master’s degree, Wright initially made the switch to home schooling as a financial decision: It meant saving on private-school tuition for her two daughters. After experiencing a year in the home-schooling community, Wright was more than happy to continue home-schooling her children.

Wright’s children are among more than 1,000 home-schoolers in Henrico County, where the number of students being taught at home has risen 130 percent since 2006.

Home schooling involves more than just parents teaching students. Wright praises professionals from the community who are willing to teach her children and other home-schoolers.

“Our science teacher is a veterinarian,” Wright said. “The history teacher is actually the curator of the Virginia Historical Society.”

Last year, the number of home-schoolers in Virginia eclipsed 40,000 students for the first time – an increase of 50 percent in the past decade, according to newly released statistics from the Virginia Department of Education. The agency has been collecting and reporting data on the home education population since 1994.

If home-schoolers constituted a school division, it would be the seventh-largest district in the state.

“It’s become more commonplace, it used to be regarded as somewhat fringe,” said Karen Skelton, president of the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers. The nonprofit group, which began in 1993, provides advice and other assistance to home-schooling families.

Skelton lives in Annandale in Northern Virginia. Both of her children are home-schooled graduates.

Skelton said that every month, she hears from families frustrated with their local schools. She believes this is a major reason why more Virginians are turning to home education.

“Customizing one's education to fit the learning style – to me, that has been the biggest (reason for the) increase,” Skelton said.

She said home schooling has grown in popularity nationwide with parents becoming more involved in their children’s education. “You learn together as a family, and you do more hands on things. People come to it with an idea of, ‘This could be a real positive experience and a new lifestyle.”

Another reason for the increase in home schooling is that parents want to provide hands-on help to their children who may have learning disabilities, said Yvonne Bunn, director of legislative affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia. That group was formed in 1983 – the first home education organization in Virginia.

Bunn said parents often approach her with questions about home schooling. “They ask me, ‘All right – give me the facts. Tell me what the outcomes are, and I want to make a choice that’s the best thing for my family.’”

Parents are especially concerned about their children’s academic success. Bunn tells them that home schooling produces excellent results.

“We have some of the highest levels of standardized achievement tests scores. Our kids are going to college; they are getting into universities with scholarships,” Bunn said.

Editor's Note: Homeschooling in Emporia-Greensville is down 38% from 2011.

Law requires mental health training for school counselors

By Will Thomas, VCU Capital News Service

RICHMOND — More than 20 percent of children in the U.S. have or have had depression or other serious mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Soon, school counselors in Virginia will be in a better position to help identify students with such problems. Beginning July 1, a new state lawwill require school counselors to receive more training in the recognition of mental health disorders and behavioral distress.

“Mental health can get better with intervention. Without identifying it, it will only get worse,” said Dr. Donna Dockery,the director of clinical practice in the counseling and special education department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Senate Bill 1117 was sponsored by two Democrats from Northern Virginia – Sen. Jeremy McPikeof Prince William County and Del. Vivian Wattsof Fairfax County. It states that anyone “seeking initial licensure or renewal of a license with an endorsement as a school counselor shall complete training in the recognition of mental health disorder and behavioral distress, including depression, trauma, violence, youth suicide, and substance abuse.”

The law strengthens the Virginia Department of Education’s existing regulations for school counselors. Dockery said it’s important that counselors be able to recognize the signs of mental illness.

“We treat the physical pain; let’s treat the mental pain,” she said.

Dockery said young people today often have a lot of anxiety and must deal with traumatic events. With the help of counselors and families recognizing these situations, students can get the help they need.

McPike’s legislative assistant, Devin Cabot, said that under the new law, the state will establish guidelines for the mental health training that school counselors must complete.

“We are very focused on the new trends of bullying and teen suicide,” Cabot said.

In the past, Cabot said, school counselors in different school districts might have received different training. McPike’s legislation will provide a more uniform approach, she said.

Local school officials are taking measures to educate themselves about the new law.

Chris Whitley is the public information officer for Hanover County Public Schools. Hanover school officials are waiting on guidance from the Virginia Department of Education before moving forward, Whitley said.

School districts will be affected by more than a dozen bills that were approved by the General Assembly during its 2017 session and signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The Virginia Department of Education is working to ensure that school divisions are aware of the new laws.

Reporters provide insights from ‘Behind the Bylines’

By Will Thomas, VCU Capital News Service

RICHMOND –An anonymous tip about a death in a Virginia jail brought out the best in Richmond Times-Dispatch enterprise reporters Katy Burnell Evans and Sarah Kleiner.

“It fuels you to bring justice and find out what really happened,” Evans said.

Evans and Kleiner received the Virginia Press Association’s Award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service for their reporting on the death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a mentally ill inmate who died in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth while awaiting transfer to a state hospital.

Evans and Kleiner were on a panel of six RTD reporters who took the stage at the Virginia Historical Society last week. “Behind the Bylines” gave the audience an in-depth view of the RTD reporters’ everyday work. The editor of the Times-Dispatch, Paige Mudd, said the purpose of the event was not just to generate revenue but also to expand the newspaper’s audience.

Kleiner and Evans both cover stories involving mental illness. They told the audience the back story of their award-winning coverage of Mitchell’s death amid their frustrations with criminal justice agencies in Virginia.

“I think one of the things that stuck with me through all this early on was not what they were telling us maybe so much as what they weren’t,” Evans said.

Evans and Kleiner filed numerous requests for documents and were repeatedly denied. But they never let up and eventually obtained documents that showed Mitchell had fallen through the cracks of the justice system.

The role of reporters is to help people who do not have a voice, said RTD crime and courts reporter Ali Rockett. “There are some times where you have to be a human first–you’re a reporter second.”

With their stories, journalists shine a spotlight on developments that have a big impact on the lives of Richmond residents, Rockett said.

Also speaking at the panel discussion was the RTD’s newest member and its first meteorologist, John Boyer. He said engaging with the audience is key to good journalism.

“People will ask me questions about things that I really don’t know the answers to,” Boyer said. For example, some may wonder about pollen counts, “but I didn’t study plants.” So Boyer does research to find the answers.

With the prevalence of weather in television news and mobile apps, Boyer has had to find different ways to appeal to his audience.

“I don’t want to be just more noise in a room of all these different forecasts,” he said. Instead, Boyer tries to “come at my coverage in a way that helps you see what’s important about this forecast.”

Tammie Smith has been a staff member of the RTD since 2000. Although she started as a health-care reporter, she is now the newspaper’s retail reporter.

“I think I covered health care for more than 20 years, and I just felt like I need to try something different,” Smith said.

She chuckled as she asked the audience who had been to the grocery store or the mall that day. “It’s another beat that touches consumers in just about every aspect of their life,” Smith said.

Another member of the panel was government reporter Michael Martz. “I tend to focus on policy that affects people,” he said. “It’s about knowing who your readers are.”

“Behind the Bylines” was the last event of the season for the RTD’s speaker series. The newspaper plans to resume the series in the fall.

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