Change, from the grassroots


The school year that begins today across the Island is one of important firsts for public education here. Two of the biggest changes — in the way we feed our children and the way we evaluate our teachers — may seem unrelated, but the parallels run deep.

To my conversation last week with Dr. James Weiss, our superintendent of schools, I brought a blast from the past which is either funny or frightening, depending on your point of view: three weeks’ worth of Vineyard school lunch menus from September 1987, 25 years ago. A litany of potato puffs, French fries, pasta, peanut butter and fluff on white bread and sugary desserts, they’re a culinary royal road to obesity.

The federal government, which sets guidelines for its school lunch program — about half the children in our Vineyard schools get the subsidized lunch — has been ratcheting up the quality of what our schools serve our kids for decades. And after a dozen years of batting it around, Massachusetts recently passed its own school nutrition law that takes aim squarely at the problem of childhood obesity.

Thanks to all these new top-down rules, school districts across Massachusetts face an overhauled set of standards for school lunch menus, beginning this week. The new rules pile on the fruits and vegetables, and are far more specific about them — including, for the first time, limits on starchy vegetables and a weekly requirement for dark green and orange vegetables. They place lower limits on salt, call for less meat and now allow schools to serve only 1% fat or entirely no-fat milk. The new rules also specify that at least half the grains served at lunch be whole grains.

“USDA recognizes that these proposed changes are significant and may pose a particular challenge to implement,” the Department of Agriculture said when posting its new rules in the Federal Register this January. But Superintendent Weiss says, “Most of the Island schools were already there or well on their way there when these new standards came out. That has to do with the whole farm-to-school movement.”

The Island Grown Schools program, launched at the end of 2007 by the Island Grown Initiative, has helped bring vegetable gardens to every Island school and greenhouses to several of them. The IGS gleaning program, started in 2009, has been harvesting more than 10 tons of food from Island fields each growing season. Dr. Weiss says that from the beginning, he has supported this new program: “I’ve encouraged our school leaders — our principals and cafeteria directors — to participate. It’s become a pretty well-developed movement across the Island, with school gardens, with education around healthy Island-grown food wherever possible, with the notion that we want to get away from the old school lunch menu to something healthier.”

In another big change at school, today begins the first year of public education in Massachusetts since the commonwealth was exempted, by President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, from the onerous terms of NCLB, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This federal law has been screaming out for revision since 2007, but our paralyzed U.S. Congress hasn’t gotten around to it. Recently, rather than watch every public school in America be labeled a “School in Failure” as unattainable standards clicked into place, the Obama Administration has been taking a quid-pro-quo approach, offering waivers to states who agree to pursue certain promising new approaches. One of them is to change, radically, the way school districts evaluate their educators.

Eight years ago, during his first summer here as superintendent, Dr. Weiss read through all the files for the Vineyard school district’s staff. He was shocked by what he found. “It was miraculous,” he recalls: “99.9999999 percent of our people were the best in the world. They were all sixes on a scale from one to five. There weren’t any comments of, ‘You could do a better job if you tried this.’ There really wasn’t any differentiation – everybody was wonderful.”

Three years ago, the Vineyard school district started a new program called the professional growth system in an effort to enrich the way teachers are evaluated and encouraged to improve. It wasn’t perfect, says Dr. Weiss: “Like anything we do without much data, there were some flaws in the program early on, and we had to fix them. But this September, the state is requiring every school to go to a new evaluation system, and for many school districts it’s a quantum leap. For us, it’s more of a step.”

The first packages of information have been going out to Island teachers all this week, Dr. Weiss says. “We want to roll this out in a methodical way over the course of the year. We’re not saying, ‘Here it is today: now you’ve got to know it all.’ We’re going to introduce this and unpack all the details to make teachers comfortable with it. Then we’re going to go into the classroom and observe teachers and show them how what we’ve discussed plays out there.”

The new evaluation system provides for small groups to help teachers improve their practice through training, observing, and working with each other. It’s based on work by the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education which, Dr. Weiss says, “has done a phenomenal job of creating a teacher supervision and evaluation model that focuses on the pedagogy, the practice of teaching, and on the student outcomes, to determine who is successful and who isn’t.”

The whole idea is to give our teachers evaluations that are more like the food our school cafeterias are serving today, less like the Tater Tots of a generation ago.

Says Dr. Weiss, “The changes in food from the 1980s to now, and the changes in teacher evaluation over that time are of the same order of magnitude. These are two big changes in education that are happening across the country. But for us, they’re not quite as big, because we’d already started doing them.”