Steady progress, vexing problems - in schools, a catalogue of challenges face community
It has been a short two and a half years since I arrived on Martha's Vineyard to assume the position of superintendent of schools, and I was pleased to get Times' news editor Nelson Sigelman's request to write for the New Year's edition of The Martha's Vineyard Times, chronicling what I have experienced in that time and what I see for the future. Even though I was a superintendent in New Hampshire for 18 years, the unique qualities of the Vineyard, and especially its schools, take time to acquire and hopefully understand, and one pays a price for not taking the time to do so correctly.
Initially, I was struck by the Island's dedicated staff, school committee members, and the broader community, as well as the expansive educational programs that the MVPS offers with a focus on helping every student gain the experience and skills needed for life after school and off-Island.
Our schools offer small classes with teams of professional educators leading the learning and devising instruction tailored to the individual needs of every student. A broad range of support services is also available in the Vineyard's six schools, in large part because the schools represent the only vehicle for providing such services. Once a student graduates from his/her local kindergarten through grade eight school and enters the world of the Regional High School the breadth and depth of courses, programs and activities offered becomes even richer. There is truly something for everyone at this level. Island students travel everywhere to gain a broader life perspective, including skiing in New Hampshire, exchanges with a British elementary school, and high school international trips to places such as Spain, Germany, Austria, or Canada. Rarely have I seen such a wide range of experiences.
By any measure, all these efforts appear to be paying off. Students demonstrate good progress on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, both individually and as groups. Martha's Vineyard Regional High School students pass their MCAS tests for graduation in increasing numbers well above the state average, and our SAT results are above those of the state in critical reading and mathematics, with 81 percent of the class of 2007 taking this important measure of college readiness. More than 75 percent of graduates in this class went on to college, with many attending outstanding institutions across the country. At the elementary level, our students have led the state on some MCAS measures (science and technology twice) and continue to demonstrate progress in English/Language Arts and mathematics. Beyond these assessments, our students excel in the arts, as well having participated in regional and statewide music festivals, drama competitions, and juried exhibits. And our athletic teams are competitive in their leagues, making it all the way to championship tournaments in many sports.
Schools working together
As I have visited individual classrooms and watched individual teachers, I was also struck by the disjointed nature of the schools that make up the entity we call the Martha's Vineyard Public Schools. In many respects, that entity doesn't really exist. In its place are four elementary districts and a high school that sometimes, but not always, work closely together. Instructionally, I have continually advocated for something I call "a planned, ongoing and systematic program" that offers every student a core of common experiences upon which he/she can continually build. This curriculum, while not lock-step and not all that is taught, should be coordinated from kindergarten through grade 12, ensuring that students from any Island-school graduate with a common knowledge base upon which they can build their own individual educational experience and future. Assistant superintendent Marge Harris started to work on such an approach, and I hope new assistant superintendent Laurie Halt will be able to bring that work to its conclusion. Clearly, our students will be even better served if we are successful at achieving this shared vision.
There are two very significant threats to this important work ahead of us - declining enrollment and the scarcity of capable, licensed educators. First, let's look at the enrollment issues we face. Each year, we work with the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) to project our school enrollment. This group of professionals uses a time-honored method called "cohort survival," and it appears to be telling us that our overall student numbers will continue to decline for the foreseeable future. In the most recent projections, NESDEC expects the high school to continue to decline, reaching into the upper 600s, say 685, by 2012. At the elementary level, the overall decline will continue as well with only one school bucking this trend. Oak Bluffs will basically maintain its present enrollment of around 405, while the two other down-Island schools will decline, but only slightly. Enrollment at the two up-Island schools is expected to fluctuate, but ultimately show a slight decline as we approach 2012. This overall decline will place additional stress on the development of budgets and the breadth and depth of the programs we can continue to offer. This year's Martha's Vineyard Regional High School budget battles are the first signs of what we can expect into the future.
Staffing has always been an issue for Island schools, and unfortunately we can expect that trend to become even more problematic over the next few years. Nationally, the pool of trained and fully licensed teachers, specialists and administrators continues to decline. This trend is due to many factors, but the NCLB rules, the extremely difficult bureaucracy at the state level - especially in Massachusetts, and the failure of educational salaries to keep pace with other professional groups, pushed many out of the classroom. The added difficulties of living on the Vineyard and the financial stresses we call "Island factors" certainly don't help.
A case in point can clearly be seen with our present search for a new high school principal. Initially, we had a great response to our advertisements and outreach efforts with 35 to 40 candidates showing interest and making contact. While we still have many outstanding candidates in the pool, after scoping out the Island and its housing market, many individuals called back to indicate that they had re-considered and would not submit an application. We had a great deal of difficulty securing the services of capable world language teachers this year, as well leading to some adjustments to our overall program. This was especially the case for licensed Spanish teachers. For another example, you can ask student services director Dan Seklecki about his inability to find capable speech and language therapists or the lack of a bi-lingual school psychologist to work with out Portuguese-speaking students.
Unique management environment
Managing the schools on the Island, I am learning, is also a rather unique experience. While regionalization is a term that strikes fear in the hearts of many Islanders - those who truly embrace the notion of local control - doing the business of schools in at least a collaborative manner would make some sense. Recently, some in the community have taken me and the superintendent's office to task for "building a top-heavy administration." While managing the largest enterprise on the Island - more than 600 employees, 2,100 plus clients, over 614,000 square feet of building space, five bargaining units, and a total budget of almost $50 million - is always going to be a challenge, I know we could do a more efficient job if we could do it only once or even twice, and not in six different ways.
Just for example, our office is responsible for developing the five school district budgets in conjunction with the building principals. Since each one is a separate political entity governed by differing management approaches, we need to draft at least three or four very different types of documents so they can be reviewed at different times by six different finance committees, six different boards of selectmen and ultimately six different annual town meetings.
Then there's the assessment debate
Probably the most significant issue facing our efforts at running an efficient school system for the Vineyard is the recent imposition of a new regional assessment formula by the Commonwealth - the so-called statutory method. For as long as anyone can remember, the costs of the regional school districts - the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and the Up-Island Regional School District - have basically been assessed to the local towns using an enrollment-driven approach. The more students who attended school from a local community, the more that community paid toward its operation - kind of a pay for services approach. Thanks to the forced use of the statutory method, which is difficult to explain and even more difficult to understand, the balance that has always existed among the towns has been thrown out the window, and numerous disputes and problems have resulted. One selectman commented that use of the statutory formula and the abrogation of the "contract" included in the regional agreement has set back all efforts at regionalization or even collaboration among the schools and towns by decades. While this new approach may make sense for those over on the mainland, and I'm not even sure of that, it clearly has upset the balance of life on the Vineyard and makes no sense for us. If only we could get together and find a solution to this vexing problem.
Bus and labor lemonade
When all seems less than positive, and I begin to question my move to this wonderful Island, I do think back on the dedicated
people I have the pleasure to work with and the two or three really positive experiences I have had the good fortune to participate in. Sometimes you just need to turn lemons into lemonade, and thanks to our crew of bus drivers, a creative business administrator, help from the VTA and the Cape Cod Collaborative and some risk taking school committee members, that's exactly what we did. As we approached the opening of school in September 2005, our bus contractor basically reneged on his contract, leaving us without bus service and forcing us to take on the management of the fleet over the Labor Day weekend. Not only are we still running the bus system, but we have also managed to save well over $500,000. That's real money that can be used for our students and for lowering local expenses.
A second very positive experience can be found during recent negotiations with our five bargaining units. For many years, health insurance has been a costly expense for the two regional districts with most school employees selecting the most expensive indemnity plans because they "appeared" to be the best. Moving the associations from that position was extremely difficult. Taking on a new approach this past year, we offered a positive incentive for switching to a less costly and in many cases better plan. After paying out the incentives to the dozens of employees who switched, the two regional districts were able to save well over $100,000 in the first year alone. Again, real money that can be used for more education-related expenses.
On the curricular front, we sought to raise the bar this year in mathematics, moving all middle level instruction toward algebra, as suggested by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). To jump-start this process, we began an eighth grade honors algebra program where top mathematics students from all Island elementary schools come together to take Algebra I. Successful completion of this year-long class will give these students entry into the elite Mathematics I, II, III progression at the high school and will help strengthen our overall middle level math program.
As I look toward the future of our school system, I believe there are two significant issues that need to be addressed. First, we will need to find a way to work more closely with the service agencies on the Island - the Martha's Vineyard Hospital and Community Services - to provide an even stronger safety net for children and families that struggle. Often because finding a doctor to treat a child's illness or getting help with family alcohol or drug problems can be a challenge for those who live on the Island, the schools are called upon to do much more than just educate our youth. Working more closely with these other providers would be better for all involved and help students come to school ready to learn and help us focus our efforts at what we do best - teaching and learning.
Second, we must find ways to continue to develop broader programs and services for students with special needs. While our number of identified students is somewhat larger than average for the Commonwealth, we must continually seek ways to meet the unique needs of every student on the Vineyard. Because collaborative day programs like those on the Cape are not readily available to our students, due to travel time, the development of on-Island classes and alternative services must become a priority for the MVPS. The success of our social skills and Project Headway programs can easily be documented, and we should build upon these successes to help every student reach his/her full potential.
Last week, I was visiting with relatives, talking about what I do, and the typical questions were once again asked of me. How did you end up on the Vineyard? What's it like living on an Island? I always gave the same answer. The Vineyard is a wonderful place with great people who struggle with many of the same issues as any other community - providing the best education, keeping costs under control and finding the most dedicated and well-trained teachers and administrators. Yes, living on the Island can make the simple tasks of life a little more challenging, but it's certainly worth it when I drive to Chilmark as the sun comes up to be there for the " morning circle" or when I travel all day without bumper to bumper traffic or even seeing a traffic light. I tell people that I came to the Vineyard to be part of something special, and even after more than two years, a lot of hard work and many challenges, I still feel that way, especially when I go to a school concert, watch an athletic team win or lose, or sit in a kindergarten class watching a five-year-old struggle to read a few new words.
James H. Weiss is superintendent of the Martha's Vineyard Public School system.