A back-to-school update from Island educators
For Island students, the signs of summer's end are unmistakable. The Oak Bluffs fireworks remain only a dazzling memory. The Ag Fair grounds stand empty. The Obamas have gone home. It's time to go back to school.
Administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, and school staffs kick off a new year on Tuesday morning, September 8, with the equivalent of a pep rally for educators at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School's (MVRHS) Performing Arts Center (PAC).
On Wednesday, freshmen have the high school to themselves for a half-day orientation, before the upper classes return on Thursday, September 10. The Island's elementary schools also start up on Thursday.
A super perspective
This week, school superintendent James Weiss said that reaching a positive resolution in negotiating contracts with union bargaining units for teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, secretaries, and cafeteria food workers tops his list of goals for the new school year.
"Secondly, we need to come up with very prudent budgets for fiscal year 2011, understanding that these are still difficult times for the Island, and understanding that there is going to be less revenue from other sources, such as the state or the federal government," Mr. Weiss said. With a loss of revenue, he is concerned about what school programs may be affected by budget cuts.
"We need to make sure we offer our students here on the Island a broad education as we have in the past," Mr. Weiss said. "I don't want our athletic programs to get cut or to have user fees. I don't want programs cut that some people might call 'frills' - foreign language at elementary schools, art, music, those things - because they're not really frills. They're an integral part of what we do, and that's really going to be the challenge for us this year."
With most Island teachers returning to their jobs, Mr. Weiss said it would be important to ensure proper training and induction programs for the small number of new teachers hired.
Mr. Weiss also wants to make sure that facility projects at the high school, West Tisbury School, and Chilmark School are completed, and that a search for new space for the superintendent's offices continues.
Putting budget concerns aside, Mr. Weiss said the public school system would continue efforts to provide an outstanding education for all children, including helping students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests and to make adequate yearly progress.
"More importantly, we want to emphasize that our students should continue to be positive learners," he said. "It isn't enough that we teach them; it isn't enough that they take the tests. They really need to be able to learn from all of this. They need to be able to think and do the things that are necessary to be a productive adult."
The Island's public schools will focus on helping children learn in two specific areas, including mathematics and improved writing skills, Mr. Weiss said.
Martha's Vineyard Regional High School
"Our goal is to increase student achievement in the areas of writing and research," MVRHS principal Steve Nixon said this week. To achieve that goal, the high school will work on writing across the curriculum, and will institute a writing lab to give students some extra help.
Beginning this year, freshmen will be assigned one mandatory paper each semester. They will complete eight mandatory papers on different subjects over the course of their four years at the high school.
A school-wide initiative for teachers will address the use of alternative assessment methods and grading.
There are no new programs. Six new teachers hired to replace those who left include Wendy Biddle, history; Pierre Bonneau, French; Blanca De Marco, Spanish; Abigail Southard, music (half-time); Ben Sprayregen, French; and Jennifer Weno, German.
Biology teacher Bill Schwabe retired after 30-plus years, replaced by athletic director Mike Joyce, who formerly taught biology. Physical education (P.E.) teacher Sandy Mincone is the new athletic director. Her P.E. department position will not be filled.
The addition of new safety lighting and railings in the PAC and fire safety improvements are almost finished. Mr. Nixon said new bleachers and a new press box at the athletic field are targeted for completion in time for the school's first home football game on September 11.
Susan Stevens started her first day as Chilmark's head of school on Monday this week. Since she is new to her job, she said her main goal this year is to try to get to know the Chilmark community, Island educators, and the students. As a start, she met with Chilmark School's teachers over the summer and attended the Island principals' retreat.
"I'm trying to get ready to go back to school. I have to get acclimated," Ms. Stevens said, adding with a laugh, "I don't even know what I don't know."
With the exception of herself, Ms. Stevens said there are no new staff members and no new programs this year.
"I see a lot of kids in town that tell me they're excited to come back, and that's always encouraging," Principal John Stevens said Monday.
When asked about his goals this year, Mr. Stevens said one is to continue to provide an excellent education at a reasonable cost. "Another goal is to improve MCAS scores, as always," he added. "And then a big goal of mine is to coordinate all of the assessments that go on in the school, formal and informal, formative, summative, and share the data with teachers and parents and make sure the assessments and their data are driving instruction."
Mr. Stevens is hiring a new teacher's assistant this week to replace one who left. Kindergarten teacher Marie MacKenty, special education teacher Sally Mitchell, and first grade teacher Cindy Douglas are returning from leave to assume their former positions.
Oak Bluffs School
Given a mandate by the town of Oak Bluffs to cut $199,000 from the school budget, principal Laury Binney said, "Working with less resources will be a major focus for us this year."
A proposal to reduce the budget put forward this week includes the elimination of three teaching assistant positions, two of which are unfilled vacancies, and a non-teaching position, as well as many decreased line items.
Regarding his goals for the year, Mr. Binney said the Oak Bluffs School has been working to improve sub-group MCAS scores and will continue those efforts.
The school's focus will be on its overall literacy program, and revising the policy statement regarding reading and writing. "And as always, we'll look at how we treat our social curriculum, responsive classroom for students in kindergarten through grade five, and developmental design for students in grades six to eight," Mr. Binney said.
Rob Oslyn joined the school staff as the new head custodian.
Over the summer Tisbury School hosted an Island-wide English Language Learners program, made possible through a grant from the Tower Foundation. Principal Richie Smith said the school paired up with a summer sports camp to offer a full day to 14 children who needed language support.
When asked about his goals this year, Mr. Smith said,
"At the school-wide level, we want to continue our work in math and language arts."
This year every student will have resource time every day, Mr. Smith said. Instead of pulling children out of an art class for math or language support, for example, they will receive their enrichment and remediation support during their resource time.
West Tisbury School
Principal Michael Halt said his goal this year is to focus on student learning by supporting the Island-wide public school goal of creating professional learning communities, based on collaboration between teams of teachers.
"We're continuing with the eighth grade algebra program we started last year and are very excited about the progress we made, so I'll look forward to seeing that program continue to flourish," Mr. Halt said.
Some changes in faculty this year include Arik Goff, a new industrial technology teacher hired to replace Dan Johnson. Former first grade teacher Susan Huntington will join Teri Mello as a kindergarten teacher. Skye Sonneborn joins the staff as a grade 6-7 ELA teacher, replacing Julie Hitchings, who retired last year. Melanie Sroka-Chaunce, who formerly taught music part-time at the high school, is West Tisbury School's new full-time general music teacher.
"I'm very excited about working with Susan Stevens at Chilmark School, who will be a nice addition to the Island teaching community," Mr. Halt said.
Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School
An addition to the Charter School building over the summer included four new classrooms, two new art studios, and some office space. "It took us three years to plan it, finance it, and build it, so we're really excited about it," said Principal Bob Moore.
The school's enrollment is at 180, its maximum, which includes an increase in high school students to 44, up 9 from last year.
Grade 1-2 teaching assistant Jennifer McHugh is the staff's only new addition.
"Some of the things we want to work on this year are our math curriculum, our technology curriculum, research methods in the high school, and the last thing we'd like to pay attention to is our accelerated learners," Mr. Moore said.