Morning coffee with the principal
Tuesday morning at 8 am. Dina Bardwell and Jennifer Estabrook, mothers of incoming freshman at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), with new teachers and expectations, and about to attend principal Steve Nixon's twice-monthly Coffee with the Principal.
"This is really helpful to understanding how the school works," Ms. Estabrook says while sitting at a large square table in the library conference room.
Her son, Taylor McNeely, began high school classes last month. Ms. Bardwell's son, Ian, is also an incoming freshman. Both women are first-time high school student moms, and both attend the coffees regularly.
Ms. Bardwell believes entering high school is a rite of passage that creates more separation between parents and their children: "It isn't like elementary or middle school where parents are in the school all the time doing things," she says. "This (meeting informally with the principal) is a great way be in touch with kids and the school."
A gathering of about 20 parents, mostly mothers, sample muffins, sip coffee, and chat. The conversations cease abruptly when the Mr. Nixon takes his seat. A low-key, open, and efficient man not given to speechifying or pomposity, he welcomes the parents, introduces the attending staff, and explains that each coffee has a specific agenda designed to support a partnership between educators, parents, and students.
The two topics being discussed this Tuesday are sports and standardized tests. Mike McCarthy, director of guidance, offers explanation of standardized testing.
Mr. McCarthy says that the school recommends only honors sophomore students take the PSATs (preliminary scholastic aptitude test), held in the fall, which are a precursor to the SATs, important to college-bound students.
"That's because honors students already have the required math background in algebra and geometry," Mr. McCarthy says, adding, "Our concern is about self-esteem, that the PSAT be a good experience, not a self-fulfilling experience of failure."
Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Nixon disagree with a strategy adopted by several states, including Maine, to pay for PSAT testing by sophomores. "Much of that is an attempt by schools systems to get data, to establish a baseline for analysis and to measure weaknesses in the education system," Mr. Nixon says, noting that in 2008 the high school scored 30 points higher than the Massachusetts average in some areas of testing. Massachusetts PSAT scores ranks second in the country, he says.
Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Nixon say that planning is going on at the middle school level to provide additional math skills that would better prepare high school students to succeed at the PSATs earlier in high school. Mr. Nixon points out that meanwhile students are given state-mandated MCAS tests that they are required to pass in order to graduate.
Mr. McCarthy says that establishing a successful approach to PSAT testing is also important because, "In junior year, many students are competing for inclusion in the National Merit Scholarship program," important both for receiving scholarships and for college admission applications.
"Being relaxed is important in testing," he says. "We find that the second-time students take PSATs, scores increase 60 points because they've been through it and know what to expect."
The parents have questions. One asks about being "blitzed with programs selling SAT training and preparation, and Mr. McCarthy suggests several effective low-cost preparation alternatives. "Be careful of claims that promise a 60-point improvement in test scores," he says. "Experience is that the kids will get that anyway in a retest."
As the subject turns to sports, Sandy Mincone, the school's new athletic director, reports on the status of MVRHS teams. The Vineyard competes in golf, field hockey, football, and soccer during the fall. In early October, was in the middle of the standings in every sport. She reports the teams are "holding their own in the first year in a new conference."
Ms. Mincone advises parents of athletes to take a new health test related to sports injuries, a word association and mental clarity test to establish a baseline against which athletes can be tested later in the event of a head injury, such as concussion. "It's free, we do it right here, and it takes 10 minutes," she says. "Please make sure your kid takes it."
Time for some practical matters: administrator Colleen McAndrew circulates information sheets and volunteer sign-up sheets - papers that might otherwise remain in the bottom of a backpack.
In the question and answer session that follows, parents are assured that school attendance is normal despite the presence of various flu strains on the Island.
And then, questions asked and answered, class is dismissed.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.