Gains and new challenges mark the school year

Former superintendent of Schools James Weiss. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

For the 2,100 students, the staff of more than 500, and the 14 school committee members that comprise the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools, 2012 was a year filled with many new challenges and some outstanding accomplishments. As I sat down to draft this essay, I created a list of 15 or 20 things to include, but I decided to limit my comments on three areas — student achievement, changes for the staff, and the future of education on the Vineyard.

In the area of student achievement, there have been significant changes to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or MCAS. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was one of a limited number of states to receive a waiver from the US Department of Education shifting how student achievement is measured. Rather than 100 percent proficiency by 2014, the goal is now closing the gap in achievement for all students year after year. Happily, all our schools were rated as Level I schools — that’s the highest. The West Tisbury Elementary School was one of only 64 schools to receive a Governor’s commendation for outstanding achievement, and the Oak Bluffs School led the Island with outstanding growth. Its fourth-grade girls, for example, had the highest percent scoring advanced in the state in ELA (English Language Arts). Tisbury fourth-graders demonstrated the highest achievement in ELA in the state, and 97 percent of 10th graders at MVHRS scored proficient or higher in English.

MCAS is only one measure, and anyone who attended a High School Committee meeting and saw one of the student spotlights, cheered on a sports team making the state tournament, or were captivated by our celebrated student musicians can attest to the success of our young people. Mike McCarthy, MVRHS Guidance Director, detailed for the community where our students go after high school. Ivy League, big state school, smaller focused college or university or local community college — our students were accepted and attend all of these.

And let’s talk about the community service undertaken by students at all levels. Recently, for example, the Tisbury Business Association honored Tisbury School student Amanda Bernard for all her hard work, and there was also the work of the Young Brothers to Men at providing Thanksgiving dinners to needy Islanders, which nearly brought their principal to tears as he described the joy this work brought to many. And how about Eric Tattersall and our football team pulling victory from the jaws of defeat in the last minutes of this year’s Island Cup game? What a game!

There were also many new challenges for our staff as the year progressed — from a new state-mandated evaluation system to health insurance reform to negotiations again. As part of the Commonwealth’s efforts to improve student achievement, we are implementing a very stringent professional educator evaluation system for everyone from the superintendent to principals to classroom teachers. This new system is based upon a set of standards that truly measure an educator’s content knowledge and pedagogy, and then adds actual student academic growth and community feedback.

We have undertaken a great deal of training for evaluators as well as staff to implement this system, which appears to be going well. For evaluators, this new approach is extremely time-consuming and forces our administrators to focus on instruction and not management — a good idea but sometimes difficult to actually implement.

The previous three-year master agreements for our five bargaining units are all set to expire on June 30, so we have entered negotiations with the teachers to be followed by discussions with the smaller bargaining units. On the management side, the local communities are represented by both school committee members and town officials like selectmen or FinCom members.

As we ended the last school year, Governor Deval Patrick pushed forward a public employee health insurance reform bill aimed at saving local towns and school districts money on health insurance by shifting the cost of health care to the employees. Like other municipalities and school districts, the MVPS implemented these changes for this school year as part of the Cape Cod Municipal Health Group (CCMHG). Unfortunately, there have been many start-up problems with this new system here on the Vineyard. We have worked collaboratively with the two Teachers Associations and the local town administrations to resolve these issues and move forward positively.

As I look toward the future, I see three challenges for the Island’s school system. First, we continue to need to develop quality programs to meet the diverse needs of all our youngsters. These struggles begin with a growing population of special needs students requiring more and better programming and continue to finding ways to provide challenging enrichment programs for our more capable students. There has been some excellent work here on the Vineyard as demonstrated by the Shared Services programs like Bridge and Project Headway and the “pilot” math enrichment program at Edgartown, but clearly more is required. The struggle is to find the resources for these new endeavors — the finances, the appropriate spaces, and the able staffers.

A second challenge for our system involves our facilities — whether it is maintenance of our present facilities or upgrading those that are less than appropriate. The Tisbury School, for example, needs extensive work or a totally new facility to meet the needs of the 21st century. Its classrooms are too small, there are too few of them and its common spaces, like the cafeteria, are totally insufficient.

Our high school needs to spend significant dollars to replace the aging and leaking roof over much of the building, and the present superintendent’s office is too small, in need of significant improvement, and is not handicapped accessible. While the remaining buildings are newer and presently in better shape, we will need to devote the needed resources to maintaining them or they too will become inadequate.

Finally, I believe that we need to continue our efforts at outreach, helping our stakeholders become more aware of the wonderful programs and students we have and the shortcomings that do plague us as well. Too often the only time local citizens hear about school is at Town Meeting time, and that is not enough. Far too few citizens are aware of our Island-wide Events Calendar or read the local school’s online newsletter or my monthly update. I truly want to see our schools as the center of each community, open to learners of all ages.

As we closed school just prior to the December break, a new priority was thrust upon us by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Vineyard schools are basically safe places for children, but we have learned that there are no guarantees to this safety. I have been pleased by the professionalism of our staff and the measured yet clear response by the broader community. After the start of the New Year, we will reconvene our local and Island-wide crisis teams and assess what more needs to be done. The MVPS will continue to do whatever it can to provide a safe and comfortable place in which our children can learn and grow.

I have had the pleasure to be the Vineyard’s Superintendent for almost eight years now, and it continues to be the most rewarding job I have had in my 43 years as an educator. While the Vineyard, like anywhere, has its struggles, our children are truly fortunate to have this beautiful Island and its delightful schools in which to learn.

James H. Weiss is the Superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools.