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Williamsburg asks joint school district to improve city students’ performance as potential breakup looms

Williamsburg and James City County have run a joint schools operation since the 1950s. But that may be on the way out. (Image via Shutterstock)
City and county residents surveyed by consultants generally agree something needs to be done about the academic achievement of Williamsburg students, who lag far behind their peers from the county.

A recent study shows Williamsburg students underperform compared to James City County students in the same joint school district.

As Williamsburg mulls breaking away from its joint school district with James City County, city leaders want to know what the district is going to do to improve the performance of Williamsburg students.

This comes after a feasibility study from the city on creating an independent school district laid bare the stark difference in academic achievement between students from Williamsburg and their peers from James City County.

Williamsburg’s students are less likely to graduate and lag far behind those coming from James City County in every testing category, according to data provided in the city study. The difference is often double-digit percentages.

In third grade math, for instance, 78% percent of James City County students pass standardized tests, while just 57% from Williamsburg do while attending the same school district.

“We can’t have this information and be like ‘Oh, well, I guess we’ll just keep on keeping on the way things are,’” said councilwoman Stacy Kern-Sheerer.

The study also notes Williamsburg students are more likely to be Black or Hispanic than those coming from James City County. City students are also more likely to be economically disadvantaged, English language learners and homeless than their county counterparts.

Residents of the city and the county told consultants that regardless of whether the city breaks away to create an independent school district, something needs to be done about Williamsburg student achievement.

“That something may be stay together. That something may be not stay together. But at this point, no matter what people think the end result should be … we can’t have the data and the information we have now and just pretend we don't,” Kern-Sheerer said.

The council voted unanimously Thursday to send a letter to school district administration asking for a plan to improve Williamsburg student performance, how much it would cost and how long it would take.

The letter demands the plan by July 31.

The City of Williamsburg announced in June 2023 it would study splitting the school district it’s run with James City County since 1955.

Officials said feedback from an earlier resident survey was one of the reasons they were looking at ending the long-standing arrangement, though the survey didn’t ask about or mention ending the joint school district or the city creating its own.

Leaders noted that a lot has changed since the district was created, including the balance between the two localities.

The two localities had roughly equal populations in 1950, between 6,000 and 7,000 residents each, according to the U.S. Census.

Seventy years later, Williamsburg grew to more than 15,400 residents, while James City County exploded to 78,200.

James City County students now outnumber those from Williamsburg 10 to one in the school district.

Mostof the 70 Williamsburg and James City County residents who responded to surveys or submitted comments in person said they were split on whether an independent school districtis the best way forward.

Several told the consultants they thought the public needed more information, like what such a split would cost the taxpayers and what future enrollment is expected to look like.

Note: Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools is a member of the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, which holds the broadcast license for WHRO. WJCC Schools Superintendent Olwen Herron is on WHRO’s Governing Board of Directors. Read WHRO’s statement on editorial integrity and independence here.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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