A Closer Look

Posting Date: December 04, 2014
Expires 2/28/15

VHCS becomes Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador

Vestavia Hills City Schools this week became the first school system in Alabama to be named a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador, district spokesman Whit McGhee announced Wednesday.

This program, overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), forms a two-way relationship between VHCS and the National Weather Service to help build weather preparedness and weather resiliency within the Vestavia Hills community, McGhee said.

“Being a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador creates a partnership between us and the weather service that fewer than ten school systems in the U.S. presently have,” McGhee said. “It allows us to provide our local forecasters with critical information during weather events, while they in turn provide us with weather guidance and resources to help educate our students and our community about weather safety.”

WRN Ambassador Logo

The Ambassador certification came this week as VHCS completed a comprehensive review of the district’s weather policies and communication protocol. Several school districts’ weather plans came into focus following a January snowstorm that stranded hundreds of children and adults at schools around central Alabama. Though some local meteorologists took the blame at that time for an inaccurate forecast, VHCS administrators say the experience provided valuable insight to help the district watch and prepare for future storms.

“We try to look closer at weather trends in the days leading up to a storm now,” VHCS Director of Safety and Security David Howard said. “In the January snowstorm, we had multiple days in a row of sub-freezing weather. When the temperature stays that low, a dusting of snow has a much greater impact on the ground than it normally would.”

The review of the district’s weather policy led to the following updates:

- VHCS will now consult directly with meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Birmingham via a live chat as a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador. District administrators will also communicate with city officials and other over-the-mountain superintendents to ensure that school closings and delays are conducted smoothly.

- Parents will receive notifications about weather events through VHCS’ rapid notification system (SchoolCast) as well as social media and local media sources. Whenever possible, the district will now alert parents to the possibility of a closing or delay before a final decision has been made.

- Whenever possible, delays and early closings will occur two hours from normal opening and closing times. Buses will adjust their arrival times accordingly. Schools will make every effort to serve all meals planned for the day when a delay or closing occurs. Field trips scheduled for the day of a weather event will be canceled. Normal checkout procedues will remain in effect.

As the city heads into the chill of winter and the turbulent spring severe weather season, VHCS Superintendent Sheila Phillips says the school system is more prepared than ever to make informed weather decisions.

“Our weather decisions will always err on the side of caution,” VHCS Superintendent Sheila Phillips said. “We will make those decisions with the best interest and safety of our students and employees in mind.”

Posting Date: February 26, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

Superintendent's Message, March 2015

Note: "Superintendent's Message" is a monthly column published in the Community News of Vestavia Hills.

As winter turns to spring in Vestavia Hills and we edge closer to the end of another school year, I am reminded of the level of work we are able to complete through the contributions of our Partners in Education. This year, more than 100 local businesses, organizations, and community members joined with us to offer financial support and a dedication to the work of our schools, faculty, and students. These partners enable us to achieve much more as a system than we could otherwise do on our own. 

As a superintendent, I have seen first-hand that “it takes a village” to create an environment where our children can learn without limits. We are blessed to be one of the school districts in Alabama where this vision has become a reality. As we reflect on the accomplishments of this year and those that are still to come in the months ahead, I offer my thanks to our Partners in Education for their pivotal role in supporting the work we do on behalf of our children.

— Sheila Phillips

Posting Date: February 17, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

From the State: ALSDE corrects ACT Plan score report

Montgomery, Ala. – The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) has issued a statement to all City and County superintendents concerning the posted test results of the 10th Grade ACT Plan assessment given last year.

Due to an error in data calculation by the ALSDE, the test scores published on January 20, 2015 were incorrect. Since then, the test scores have been corrected, validated, and will be reposted to the ALSDE website, www.alsde.edu in the Data Center under Assessments Reports on Tuesday, February 17, 2015.

Specifically, the ALSDE inadvertently used preliminary benchmarks when calculating results on the 10th Grade ACT Plan, instead of the final benchmarks. As a result, the new statewide level of student proficiency increased by 10 percent in English (from 51% to 61%) and increased by two percent in math (from 17% to 19%).  Both the preliminary and final benchmarks in Science remained the same, so there was no change in reported Science scores.   

State Superintendent of Education, Dr. Tommy Bice said although the number of students proficient in English and math shifted upwards, there remains much to do in the challenge to make sure students are prepared for career and/or college.

“It is important to remember these scores reflect a new assessment with more rigorous academic expectations than the previous Alabama High School Graduation Exam.  These new assessment results create a new baseline, aligned with the expectations of our technical schools, two-year and four-year colleges and business and industry and are to be used to design instructional programs and curriculum at the local level to continually move students toward college and career readiness” Bice said. ”

Bice said the ALSDE accepts full responsibility for the error in reporting inaccurate testing data, and has put in place procedural safeguards to insure that all data released is reviewed and validated prior to release. That said, he is confident that students are now being assessed by a balanced and meaningful system that informs parents and students, while assisting teachers with strategic instructional plans to ensure every child graduates and that they graduate prepared.

Posting Date: February 10, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

VHCS Foundation awards 2014-15 grants

The board of directors of the Vestavia Hills City Schools Foundation has awarded 13 grants totaling $61,000 to the eight schools in the Vestavia Hills system and to the Vestavia Hills Board of Education.

The Foundation currently has a grant-making endowment of over $2.2 million. The principal endowment is invested, and only the interest earned on the principal is used to fund the annual grants. Since providing its first grants in 1999, the Foundation has awarded $728,000 to Vestavia Hills city schools and the Board of Education. 

Grants awarded this year will provide schools with curriculum enhancements for reading, math and science; technology-related equipment; and professional development for teachers. In addition, the Foundation’s $28,000 grants to the Board of Education will provide training opportunities for every teacher in the Vestavia Hills school district to further implement the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards and to further integrate technology into classroom lessons.

The Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, provides funds each year to Vestavia Hills educators for technology improvements, classroom enhancement projects, and professional development training for teachers. All Vestavia Hills teachers and the Board of Education may submit grant requests to the Foundation each fall.

The Foundation’s endowment is funded by contributions from parents, grandparents, and other community-minded residents and companies who want to ensure Vestavia schools have access to funds for educational improvements. The Foundation is able to provide a perpetual source of funding for schools that is not federal or state controlled and can never be prorated in times of financial hardship.

“The financial support our schools receive from the Foundation makes an important difference to the achievement of our students and the academic experiences we have come to expect in our community,” said Vestavia Hills City Schools Superintendent Sheila Phillips. “I have seen first-hand that it takes a village to create an environment where our children can learn without limits. Funding from the Vestavia Hills City Schools Foundation helps to make this vision a reality as we continue the pursuit of excellence on behalf of our students.”

For a complete list of the grants awarded this year, visit www.vestaviafoundation.org.

Vestavia Hills City Schools Foundation 2013-14 Grants

Vestavia Hills Elementary – East $4,280
Purchase iPad minis to create lab for Kindergarten students.

Vestavia Hills Elementary – West $4,158
Purchase Chromebooks to create a class set, purchase 32 copies of Numbers Talk-Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies, and purchase two ipads for media center.

Vestavia Hills Elementary – Liberty Park $4,250
Provide professional development opportunity for K-5 teachers to work on effective instructional strategies, develop formative common assessments, integrate writing into the curriculum, and vertically align CCRS curriculum.

Vestavia Hills Elementary – Cahaba Heights $2,312
Purchase FOSS  Hands on Science modules for every classroom.

Vestavia Hills Elementary – Central $4,500
Purchase Chromebooks to create a class set.

Pizitz Middle School $5,500
Purchase Chromebooks to create classroom mini labs, provide funds to help start a community garden.

Vestavia Hills High School $8,000
Purchase Chromebooks to create a Visual Arts lab.

Vestavia Hills Board of Education $15,000
Provide summer professional development opportunities for district’s 500 teachers to fully implement the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards in English, Math and Content Literacy in Science and Social Studies. 

Vestavia Hills Board of Education $3,000
Provide summer technology professional development training to assist teachers in integrating technology into their lessons while promoting problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration skills.

Vestavia Hills Board of Education $10,000
*Provided summer science professional development training to middle school teachers.  Training occurred during the summer of 2014. 

* This grant was secured by the VHCSF and funded by an award from Wells Fargo Foundation.  

Posting Date: January 20, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

Harrelson offers tips to reduce flu exposure

VESTAVIA HILLS (VHCS/AP) — This year’s flu vaccine is doing a pretty crummy job. It’s only 23 percent effective, which is one of the worst performances in the last decade, according to a government study released Thursday.

The poor showing is primarily because the vaccine doesn’t include the bug that is making most people sick, health officials say. This year’s formula didn’t include the strain of H3N2 virus that ended up causing about two-thirds of the illnesses this winter. 

School officials in Vestavia Hills reported a spike in flu cases during the month of December. The number of children getting sick from the flu is higher than in recent years, according to Vestavia Hills City Schools Health Services Coordinator Carol Harrelson. She says healthcare providers are expecting another possible spike in flu cases in February. 

“We’ve seen more children in our schools get it than adults,” Harrelson said. “Flu primarily spreads through droplets from coughing or sneezing that lands on someone else or on surfaces that other people touch.” 

Symptoms can appear within a matter of hours, with fever being one of the few ways parents can tell whether their children have flu or a common cold. A persistent cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches and fatigue are also common, she said.

To combat the virus locally, school officials are encouraging students, employees, and families to take practical preventive measures. 

“It’s an old cliché but it’s still true: Washing your hands often or using hand sanitizer will cut down on the number of germs you’re coming into contact with,” Harrelson said, adding that schools have increased surface cleaning and sanitizing during peak flu season.

If a student contracts the virus, it’s important to keep them at home while symptoms persist, Harrelson said. “You are shedding contagious virus in your environment up to seven days after you get sick, so keeping children at home is a key factor in preventing a real outbreak,” she added.

Even with the limited effectiveness of this year’s vaccine, Harrelson says it can still help to reduce the length and severity of the illness. The school system has been offering the vaccine with no direct charge to students and employees for the past three years; more than one-third of the student body received the vaccine in October via injection or nasal spray.

“It’s still the best we have to prevent flu,” she said. 

Selected excerpts from the Associated Press were used in this article.

Posting Date: January 15, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

VHHS students fund Magic Moment for young cancer survivor

Students at Vestavia Hills High School had a big surprise this morning for a young cancer survivor. 

Connor, a 4-year-old from Birmingham who has been fighting a brain tumor, was surprised this morning with a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando through student fundraising efforts for the Birmingham-based charity Magic Moments. The organization funds wishes for critically ill children in Alabama, like Connor.

The school held an assembly this morning in its gym, which had been adorned with Disney-themed decorations. Students dressed in Disney costumes and played and danced with Connor before the assembly began. Members of the school’s Student Government Association then gave him the news that he would be going to Disney World with his family.

The school raised money for Magic Moments throughout the fall. By this morning’s assembly, students had raised enough to cover Connor’s trip along with a check to the charity for more than $21,000. “It was a privilege to raise money for Magic Moments this year and to make a magic moment happen for this deserving child,” SGA President James Harris said.

Connor, who will turn 5 on Jan. 22, was diagnosed in August 2014 with a brain tumor. Since then, he has been in the hospital or to daily doctors’ appointments, undergoing rounds of intense chemotherapy and radiation. Connor is now in remission from his cancer, and his prognosis is positive.

Posting Date: January 15, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

ALSDE updates website with new Data Center

Realizing the importance of education data to parents, business, industry, and educators, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) has released Phase One of a new Data Center on its website at www.alsde.edu. Phase One consists of the following changes:

1. Report portal— All reports have been moved to various places on the new website and in the Data Center global navigation.

2. Accountability Reporting has ben moved to Assessment Reports > Statewide Reports.

3. Public Data Reports have been moved to Enrollment Reports.

4. Accountability and Assessment Reporting (previously accessed under the “big blue button”) has been moved to Assessment Reports > School Level Reports.

Additional phases of the Data Center will be released as ALSDE moves into a new reporting system. Several critical pieces of school data will be made available on Jan. 20, 2015 on the ALSDE website, including:

Graduation Rate Reporting: ALSDE will be releasing its annual public data on graduation rates by district, school, and sub-groups on Jan. 20.

Assessment Reporting: Last spring, students in grades 3–8 took the first year of new assessments aligned to the Alabama College- and Career-Ready Standards (CCRS), the ACT Aspire assessment in place of the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT). ACT Aspire and ACT Plan scores provide parents with honest feedback about how prepared their child is for college and/or a career after graduation. In addition, the ACT Aspire and ACT Plan align with the ACT assessment that all 11th graders in Alabama now take. The annual aggregate reports will be made available to the public through the ALSDE Data Center on Jan. 20.

Posting Date: January 08, 2015
Expires 12/31/15

Pizitz creative writing students pen novels in competition

The idea of writing a novel of at least ten thousand words in one month would be a daunting challenge for most anyone. But just before the holidays, students in Stratton Brock’s creative writing class at Louis Pizitz Middle School did just that.

When the word counts were tallied at the end of the month, three students had each written more than fifty thousand words. Two of those students wrote more than 125,000 words. By comparison, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit checks in at 95,000 words.

The challenge was all part of National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo,” a nationwide competition that challenges adults and children to write the great American novel during the month of November.

“The majority of students who compete in the competition are in high school, so it’s unique to see the participation of my middle school creative writing students,” Brock said. “Most adults can’t even do this.”

Brock said he encouraged his students to turn off their “internal editor,” a common obstacle that stops many writers from putting words on a page. “I tell them to give in to their writing, and for most of them, that’s a ‘zen’ moment where their output suddenly rises. As they write, quality stories emerge,” he said.

Those quality stories that students penned during NaNoWriMo can even be published through a special agreement with Amazon, Brock said. Some of his students are editing their stories right now to prepare them for submission.

“These students are fiercely motivated,” Brock said. “Now, when I give them a writing assignment, they’ll write twice as much as I ask of them. These kids are really good.” 

Posting Date: December 16, 2014
Expires 12/31/15

New elective courses coming to VHHS

When students begin planning their fall semester this January at Vestavia Hills High School, they’ll have more than a dozen new electives to choose from.

Students will have the opportunity to enroll in four new courses in the Career & Technical Education Department and 12 new courses in the Arts Department. Courses will be taught in the 2015-2016 school year.

The new Career & Technical Education courses will provide students with instruction in software development, Java programming, college accounting, and management principles. The classes are targeted toward students who plan to pursue degrees in business, accounting, computer science, and technology, according to Career & Technical Education Department Chair Deana Goodwine.

To get the word out about the new course offerings, the department will host an “open house” on Jan. 12 at 6 p.m. at VHHS. “This is an opportunity for students to find a place of belonging here and get the edge on some of the most highly-demanded college degrees,” Goodwine said.

The new career and technical offerings join with the Arts Department, which recently received approval of a dozen new courses in visual and performing arts.

VHHS arts teachers led design and creation of the new classes, some of which carry unique titles like “The Perfect Portrait” and “Let’s Get Crafty.” The idea, according to Arts Department Chair Faith Lenhart, is to teach art concepts in a more practical setting.

“We think these classes will appeal to a lot of kids,” Lenhart said. “They’ll make projects like you see on Pinterest and teach art fundamentals and creative problem solving at the same time.”

Lenhart, who works directly with performing arts students, said elective classes like the new ones being offered this fall provide students with incentive to attend school every day.

“Attendance in my classes is almost always 100 percent,” she said. “These courses give them something to hold onto and be a part of. It gives them a sense of ownership and pride in what they do.”