Thornton responds to anonymous attacks

Published 6:26 pm Tuesday, October 30, 2018

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer 

Isle of Wight County schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton is not aware of any personal campaign against him despite a series of anonymous letters received recently at The Smithfield Times. 

The four letters — two including Facebook screenshots — were addressed by Thornton in an interview on Oct. 24. The letters accuse Thornton and, by association, the School Board, of many things, from a hostile work environment to rodents being found at Westside Elementary School. 

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Thornton thinks the letters may stem from myriad changes being made to the school division and curriculum. 

Since Thornton arrived in 2015, his administration has instituted what is called “Deeper Learning,” and “Project Based Learning,” which encourage students to learn by doing. Schools routinely host exhibitions to show off their projects to parents and the community at large. Thornton’s administration also launched an in-county career and technical educational program that includes tracks such as building trades, cosmetology, farming and welding. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Whatever the cause, one of the initial letters cited personnel issues at Smithfield High School. 

“I can’t recommend a teacher for termination unless it’s come up through a principal who has presented a case and there’s reasons. There’s a process,” Thornton said. 

The superintendent also said that there have been plenty of teachers who’ve turned it around after he spoke with them about their performance, and that he doesn’t have to like an individual’s specific style in order to celebrate their talents. 

No one who is fired thinks it is his or her fault, said Thornton.

One letter criticized Thornton for sharing a Facebook video called “A Hilarious Look At The 10 Most Redneck Cities In Virginia” on Jan. 11, 2017, which ranked 10 Virginia cities based on their percentage of white residents and amount of Walmarts, trailer parks, bars, gun stores and Dollar Trees.

In response, Thornton said that he had not been on Facebook before coming to Isle of Wight County, and that he originally signed on to connect with family and friends. “Someone’s really digging and doesn’t like me to go back to January 2017,” said Thornton, adding that he “lived in southside Virginia almost my entire adult life” and wasn’t directing insults at anyone by posting the video. 

Thornton came to Isle of Wight after serving in Mecklenburg County, where Clarksville is located. 

Another letter also criticized the lack of air-conditioning in school cafeterias. 

“The kitchens at Westside and Hardy do not have air in their kitchens,” Thornton said, adding, to his knowledge, they never have since they’ve been built. “That concern was brought up this summer by some of the cafeteria staff, and it was the first time that I’d heard that,” he said. 

Thornton said his administration has been systematically working through a Honeywell facilities report completed a few years ago to replace, update or repair the school infrastructure. 

He said facilities maintenance has been one of his top priorities since coming to Isle of Wight County.

Recently, the Isle of Wight County School Board approved a nearly $78 million capital plan to renovate two schools, build another in the northern end of Isle of Wight, among other upgrades. That plan is now before the Board of Supervisors, which grants local school funding. 

Another letter was concerned about the recent mistake concerning Nightlock devices for the schools. 

Enclosed with the letter was a screenshot of a Facebook post from Isle of Wight County schools Executive Director of School Administration and Operations Mark Mabey to Thornton’s wife, Mary Larkin Thornton. The post included confused and smiley face emojis, which the letter criticized, and a video demonstration of a new door-mounted barricade called the Nightlock.  

Thornton took full responsibility, as superintendent, for the door lock mistake, at a cost of nearly $65,000. The door locks had to be disabled after the division was told it violated the state fire code. 

The door locks were part of an effort to increase school security in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. shooting in February. 

A fourth letter included a photo of Thornton’s sixth grade math classroom. In the letter, the writer, claiming to be a teacher at Westside Elementary School, took issue with a stage and other devices in his classroom.

“It elevates and it draws your attention,” said Thornton about the wooden stage in his room. “Students go up there a lot and have to teach.” Thornton described a visit to the Ron Clark Academy where he learned about the stage and how it helps with the development of oral skills. 

The Ron Clark Academy is a nonprofit middle school that has received national and international recognition for its success in educational development. Educators from across the country visit the Atlanta academy to learn about its most successful techniques. 

The conference room at the division’s administrative offices is also equipped with a stage, and Thornton said some teachers have also had one built for their classrooms. 

The stages cost about $300-$400 to build and are constructed by school personnel, he said. 

As for spending on professional development, another criticism, Thornton said he compares that to research and development in business. 

Thornton said the School Board had also questioned the cost, and by his calculations, has been estimated at less than 1 percent of the school budget. 

Teachers, meanwhile, have valued the training, he said.

“We’re leading the way in a lot of circumstances,” said Thornton of the evolution in the curriculum in Isle of Wight County. 

The lack of textbooks was another criticism. Thornton said that many classrooms have a class set of textbooks, but students are encouraged to seek out other, credible, sources of information on the Internet. Whether textbooks are used is a building, or teacher, decision, he said. 

“I think the days of a textbook are way outdated,” said Thornton. 

One letter said Westside has a rodent infestation. Thornton said that the extermination company that county schools use has not indicated there is a rodent problem and they visit once a month.  {/mprestriction}