By Amir Vera, The Progress-Index
PETERSBURG — The school year began with the opening of a new institution for gifted students in the city.
It’s known as the Blandford Program for Mathematics and Humanities for students in grades three through seven who are either gifted or high performing. There are currently 190 students enrolled in the program. After receiving presentations from Dr. Joseph Melvin, superintendent of Petersburg Public Schools, the School Board approved the program Nov. 5, 2014. It is located on East Bank Street.
“Speaking with parents, some of them had considered taking their children out of the school system because they felt as though they didn’t have the options,” said Kenneth Pritchett, School Board chairman. “This gave them an option because we even had some parents who brought their children back into the Petersburg School System this year. We had parents that had their children in private schools and put their children back in Petersburg this year.”
Wayne Carter, coordinator of the Blandford Program, was brought in July 1. He was previously the principal at Matoaca Middle School. Carter said his vision for Blandford was to be a unique learning opportunity for students that participate in real world exercises.
“The intent is to look at real world issues that we can address from our level to at least give students familiarity with doing that type of research and even providing information to experts and city leaders. I want the students to be apart of their education,” he said.
Students, Carter said, were chosen last year on a criteria-based process.
“Students who were identified as gifted were given the option to participate in the school. Students who were considered high academic achievers were given the opportunity to apply to be apart of the school,” Carter said. “The selection criteria included an essay, recommendations from community members, teachers and parents and then a basic commitment from the parents as far as participating in the curriculum here.”
Likewise, Melvin said teachers were given the choice to move to Blandford. They had to undergo interviews by Carter, who said he also brought in teachers from outside Petersburg.
“The criteria was basically teachers who were interested in our program who bought into my concept and my vision for this program who were compassionate, caring about students and courageous enough to want to be a part of this program,” Carter said. “I’m looking for people with heart and a commitment to education. Preferably, we wanted teachers who have an understanding of gifted instruction.”
In terms of scheduling the different levels of students, Carter said for now sixth and seventh grade students are on a rotational, or departmentalized, schedule like traditional middle schools. The third, fourth and fifth grade students stay in one classroom. Carter did say, however, that fourth and fifth grade students will be on the departmentalized school schedule by the second week of school. Melvin also added that the seventh grade students who will be in eighth grade for the 2016-2017 school year will continue at Blandford into their eighth grade year.
“We decided to do that because what we needed was a few years to plan a transition for those students at the high school,” he said.
As far as funding, Melvin said neither additional funds from the School Board fund nor state funds were utilized for the Blandford Program because many of the students were already Petersburg students.
“With teachers and full-time employees, because we decreased the number of students by 190 students going there, the available spaces for the teachers moved there too. So there was no increase in teachers or increase in funding, it was just moving students and teachers,” Melvins said. “The only additional funding was for the coordinator/principal, a couple of food service, part-time employees and part-time custodians.”
Prior to becoming a gifted education school, Blandford was home to the alternative school for students with disciplinary issues, which Melvin said had 18 to 20 students on a daily basis. Melvin said these students are now housed at the I.B. Pittman building, which is next to the Appomattox Regional Governor's School, and does not have a kitchen or cafeteria. Melvin said the school division brings in meals for the students from food services.
The Blandford Program has also brought a lot of optimism to the community, especially for those who live in the immediate area of the school.
“Now that there are more children are in their community, they know there is an opportunity for them to volunteer in their community.” Pritchett said. “One of the expectations of the students in the program is that they should outperform students in our regular schools. We’re excited to see the results at the end of the year.”