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Roanoke County School Board members draw backlash for at-risk student comments

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Two Roanoke County School Board members clarified comments made at last week’s school board meeting regarding at-risk students.

While the school board was hearing a presentation from school officials about early Virginia Standards of Learning test scores and tutoring options for students needing extra help on Aug. 11, Tim Greenway asked if there were ways to help identify some of the “bottom feeders,” when referring to struggling students, while Cheryl Facciani said students who “look alike” would be able to be tutored together if the instruction was done online.

Greenway and Facciani

Tim Greenway and Cheryl Facciani

Greenway used the term in the midst of trying to figure out how to best help those students going forward, but it still drew criticism from parents on social media.

The Vinton District board member was asking Ben Williams, RCPS’s director of assessment and research, how students falling behind could be better identified.

“I worry more about the at-risk students … The poor, less engaged [students] from a family aspect … Is there a way we can go in and assess … It sounds like most kids are coming back [doing well] and that’s all wonderful. Most is not catching those bottom feeders that we need to push up a little bit,” he said during the meeting.

Despite his support for at-risk students getting the extra help they need to succeed in the classroom, many parents took to Facebook to express their umbrage with his use of the term “bottom feeders.”

Greenway posted an apology on Facebook on Monday.

“Helping struggling students succeed,” his apology started. “For folks who thought I meant anything other than the above I sincerely apologize and even with this particular meaning I should have chosen better words at our last board meeting.

“I make no excuses. I should have used better wording, period.”

When asked Tuesday if he wanted to elaborate further on his comments made during the meeting, Greenway responded via email to The Roanoke Times with a copy of his Facebook apology.

Greenway also stated in his apology that helping at-risk students is an issue he cares deeply about.

“I will, however, continue the fight for more funds and more resources (tutors) for our most ‘at risk’ students … Please listen to any prior board meeting and listen to my comments in those meetings,” he wrote. “I’m a tireless champion to see that our most vulnerable gain access to whatever is needed to make them successful while at Roanoke Co Public Schools.

“I too was an at risk student long ago. Thank you and I will not reply to any comments.”

County schools’ spokesman Chuck Lionberger responded to a Roanoke Time’s query about Greenway’s use of the term.

“From the moment he joined the school board, Mr. Greenway has been a strong supporter of academic achievement and opportunity for all students,” Lionberger wrote in an email, also acknowledging Greenway’s online apology.

While discussing the need for more tutors in the county’s schools, Facciani brought up the idea of online tutoring as a possible alternative when in-person tutoring was not available.

She said while online learning is not a solution for all students, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, but believes it can be a valuable resource for some students.

Facciani then made a comment about at-risk students that also drew the ire of some parents following the meeting.

“Not every kid learns well online,” she said. “I know some parents don’t like it, but actually the data out there supporting it is fantastic … It’s really high-quality teaching.

“And then you can take a kid from one school in a certain demographic, you could take another kid, and you could put those three kids together that all look alike, think alike and behave alike … and you could put them with the same designated tutor.”

The part about putting students together that “look alike” also drew criticism online.

Facciani responded via text when asked about the comment this week.

“Research suggests focused instruction or ‘high dosed’ tutoring programs that use evidence-based models, can meaningfully increase learning and effectively improve achievement in students who are at risk for poor learning outcomes,” she wrote Wednesday. “Groups that have commonalities tend to perform better when placed with peers with a similar background.”

Williams said he believes most of the tutoring positions needed can be filled with in-person instructors, but alternative methods like online tutoring might also be needed.

All school board meetings are streamed live and are also available to watch after that

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Sam Wall covers Roanoke County and Salem. He can be reached at (540) 981-3356 or

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