Learn what's brewing at "coffee with the principal"
A meeting with a school principal, no matter how positive, can be an anxiety-laden experience for parents when it takes place across a desk in an office. At Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), however, parents had a standing invitation throughout the school year to dispense with formality and meet with Principal Margaret (Peg) Regan to discuss school issues in the relaxed setting of a good old-fashioned coffee klatch.
Just as its name implies, "Coffee with the Principal" includes eye-opening beverages, plus decadent pastries prepared by the culinary department, served up in the library conference room every other Tuesday morning, from 8 to 9:15 am. Attendance varies, but averages around 10 to 15, and includes mothers and fathers of current students and seasoned veterans who have already shepherded offspring to graduation.
Regional high school principal Peg Regan. Photo by CK Wolfson
One of the "coffee alumni" is Rufus Peebles whose daughter Mariah graduated one and a half years ago. Mr. Peebles, a psychologist in West Tisbury, said he likes to come back to the coffees "to keep informed about what the school is doing." He exemplifies what Ms. Regan says is one of parents' best resources, someone whose child has been through the high school experience.
The coffees got started in 1999 when Ms. Regan became principal. Noticing the sparse attendance at evening Parent-Teacher-Student Organization (PTSO) meetings, she and PTSO president Pam Carelli decided to offer parents an alternative with the morning coffees.
Although at first they did not set meeting topics, they realized they needed some structure to make the discussion more of an exchange of ideas. Setting an agenda also provided the opportunity to bring in guest speakers, such as faculty members, to lend their expertise on specific subjects, Ms. Carelli said.
Many of the meeting topics dovetail with issues as they arise during the school year, such as scheduling, testing, youth leadership, school policies and the program of studies, to name a few.
"Discussing these topics at the coffees lets parents know what is coming up in students' lives and gives them some context when they receive information sent home," said Ms. Regan.
Parents also may suggest meeting topics in advance and sometimes want to discuss particular concerns or issues they or their children have, Ms. Regan said.
At a coffee a few weeks ago, parents learned about a new advisory group program under consideration for next year, and a possible pilot program to allow a select number of seniors to work on research-based projects independently outside of school during their last semester.
In order to comply with accreditation requirements from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), Ms. Regan said the high school must adopt a formal program to follow and support every student. She envisions a program in which students would be assigned to advisory groups of eight, overseen by herself and the high school staff, including the assistant principals, faculty, teaching assistants, and school nurse.
The advisory groups would meet regularly for discussions, providing a "safe haven, a place to be comfortable," Ms. Regan said. She asked for parents' input on possible topics for advisory group discussions. For freshmen, they suggested discussing how to cope with feeling overwhelmed while adjusting to high school, how to develop study skills, and how to balance sports with academics.
In addition to the advisory program, assistant principal Steve Nixon surfaced the idea of a pilot program to help keep seniors interested and keep them from losing interest and "disappearing" their last semester. Under the guidance of a faculty mentor, ten seniors would be allowed to work on an independent project on a subject of their choice involving hands-on research activities, a written report, and a presentation before a project committee.
Parents liked the idea of giving seniors some independence and the opportunity to explore a specialty interest. They suggested inviting business and organization leaders to meet with the students to share their tips for making effective presentations.
Last week's coffee focused on gender differences and their effects on classroom participation, motivation, learning styles and grades. While boys seem to respond better to competition-based class activities and more hands-on learning, today's educational system puts more emphasis on standards-based teaching, Ms. Regan said.
In addition to gender differences, parents observed that factors such as personality traits, birth order, and adapting to adolescence also figure into students' performance in the classroom. Speaking from his experience in attending an all-boy's high school, Mr. Nixon drew laughs when he reminded the parents, "There is no doubt about it - boys act differently when girls are in the classroom!"
As the coffee concluded, Ms. Carelli asked all of the parents to return for the last "Coffee with the Principal," scheduled for June 6 at 8 am. The format will be somewhat different, as it will serve as an open-house program to welcome parents of incoming freshmen and help acquaint them with the high school. Letters went out last week inviting parents of eighth graders Island-wide to attend.
After a half-hour coffee reception and a building tour for them, freshman guidance counselor John Fiorito, teachers from several departments, and some veteran parents will participate in a question-and-answer session.