Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus

Upshur County Schools superintendent outlines accomplishments ahead of evaluation

TENNERTON – One important issue that was discussed during an executive session at the most recent Upshur County Board of Education meeting is the superintendent’s evaluation.

At the Feb. 9 BOE meeting, the board adjourned into executive session to discuss Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Stankus’s performance evaluation per W.Va. State Code.

The Upshur County BOE slated a special session on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 to continue discussing the evaluation, and said that no action will be taken on the item until the next regular BOE meeting which is scheduled for Tuesday, February 23, 2021 at 6 p.m. at the Buckhannon-Upshur High School Auditorium.

Ahead of the evaluation, during the same BOE meeting, Stankus, who began leading the Upshur County School system on July 1, 2018, Stankus provided BOE members with a three-page handout detailing ‘what we have accomplished together.’

Stankus spoke to BOE members and those gathered at the BOE meeting saying she had some points to bring to the attention of the board.

“As I reflect on the three years in which I have had the honor as serving as superintendent of Upshur County Schools, I revert to the beginning of my tenure – it has taken over two years to build the leadership we now have in place,” Stankus said. “However, I also understand that I would not be here tonight to share in the accomplishments of Upshur County Schools without the teams and leaders who are sitting in this room tonight.”

Stankus asked the directors and school administrators to stand because she wanted to recognize them.

“Much of our rebuilding has taken place as we maneuver our school system during the pandemic,” she said. “Much of our central office leadership has changed which includes the treasurer, special education director, new director of safety and preparedness, new transportation director, new child nutrition and wellness director, new facilities director, new secondary curriculum director and we have two technology specialists in place to help us achieve an advanced level of teaching and learning. Quite honestly, I do not know what we would have done without Mr. Oldaker and Mrs. Yocum during our one-to-one device deployment.”

Stankus reminded the BOE that there are two new vice principals and a new principal at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, as well as new principals at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School and Union Elementary School.

“Yes, indeed, there have been a lot of changes in leadership in Upshur County,” she said.

Stankus said when she first came into the position as superintendent the school system was facing the renewal of a levy. Academically, she said Upshur County Schools had been identified as one of five counties in the state needing a system of support with the focus of leadership based on five years of data prior to her taking over – a designation which she said could have led to a mandated state takeover and a loss of funding for the county.

She said as she began her tenure, Upshur County Schools had been designated as a financially distressed county and is continuing to climb up from the ‘financial watchlist.’

“Working through the lens of those overarching challenges, it brought us to a point where we identified areas that were impacting each of those challenges,” she said. “We determined which of those needed our intense attention. These areas were addressed with high expectations and we became very cohesive because we were working hard, and we were working together.”

Stankus said the team is focused on working toward the foundational growth of effective teaching and learning.

“We are ready to rebuild our image as Upshur County strong. We want to be at the top level in the state. We want to build that quality of education in our community that helps with economic growth, that helps us as a school system to be fiscally responsible with a return on that investment. Most importantly, we are ready to provide the type of education Upshur County families want and deserve from us. Our students deserve nothing less,” Stankus said.

Stankus said in the beginning of her tenure, she worked to develop messaging, make pamphlets and talk to the community in Upshur County about educating students.

“This levy was the beginning of something very positive with our community,” Stankus said. “We have a demonstrated support – the levy passed with a 2-1 margin – that is the largest margin in the history of levies in Upshur County. Not only was it a huge passage rate, but community partners supported our levy – City Council, County Commission, the Lions Club, Create Buckhannon, SUBA – all of these entities wrote letters in support of the levy. That had never happened before. We came together as Upshur Strong and we passed this $18-$20 million levy over a five-year period.”

Stankus said they faced a work stoppage in February 2019.

“That was trips to Charleston, but we stuck together again,” Stankus said.

Another point Stankus talked about was academic achievement.

“Another thing that is very telling is that during the pandemic we are building relationships,” she said. “We are working with our families and because of that, we are one of only two counties in the state who increased our enrollment. Sixty-seven students came back to school in Upshur County – that is about $300,000 in financial gain that was spent on the kids – our county did not lose any money because of enrollment.”

Stankus pointed out that the dropout rate has improved and said they are focusing on achievement.

“We changed the way we are serving our low-income students and we made every school in Upshur County a Title l school,” she said. “That is huge! We are writing more grants to bring in more funding than we were spending. In terms of safety, we got a $309,000 grant to upgrade our cameras.”

She also talked about other grants received while she has served as superintendent which provided funds for updated phone systems; made entryways up to code with Safe Schools Entry, provided PRO Officers; and provided three facilitators for the Communities in Schools program. Grants were also secured to address substance use, assist with at-home internet access and purchase items for the comfort closets in Upshur County Schools.

“We have done a lot of good together,” Stankus said. “During this time, we have people who have earned the two top awards possible in our state. Brian Allman from B-UMS won the Milken Educator Award and just this year, we have Erin Anderson who is the 2021 West Virginia Teacher of the Year.”

Stankus pointed out when the pandemic broke out, other counties were struggling with remote learning and trying to acquire devices for students – but Upshur County had already entered into an agreement with Apple and one-to-one devices were ready to go into the hands of students.

She said the plan had been to build a new middle school in the county, but when they reached out to the community, they learned they thought it better to have a new high school.

“We changed our plans because we are responsive to what our community is telling us,” Stankus said. “Our community has said they want more career/technical and hands-on learning and more skill-based programming. We are going to do that, and we have a plan to do that.”

Stankus said the BOE and leadership from the county came up with five goals upon she will be evaluated.

“People are watching what we are doing here in Upshur County,” Stankus said. “We are being recognized across the state for what we have done here to address food insecurities during the pandemic. Our community has not wanted for food. Now Mr. Vincent is even working on a program where we are going to FedEx a box to students who are fully remote and cannot make it out to curbside pickup.”

Stankus thanked community members for their support.

She also mentioned she is working on equity in education.

“Our students who do not have internet bother all of us,” Stankus said. “How can we say you have ‘access’ when students do not have internet? That is something we are working on with the Upshur County Development Authority.”

Stankus said her number one goal when she thinks about the 4,000 students in Upshur County schools is safety and security.

“We believe we are looking forward and planning to that end,” she said.

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