Martha’s Vineyard school chief takes stock


For the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) — its five school districts, six school committees, 550 staff and 2,100 students — 2013 was a year of change and challenge. These changes and challenges featured a great deal of personnel work, ever increasing pressure on resources, significant state and regional oversight, a new professional educator evaluation system, a renewed emphasis on school security, and an increased number of students with special needs. Thankfully, due in large part to the dedicated educators who work in our schools and the commitment of the broader Island community, the MVPS continues to provide an outstanding educational experience for the young people who enter its buildings.

As the year began, members of the All-Island School Committee’s negotiations team concluded successful negotiations with teachers, cafeteria workers and custodians. In each case, the discussions resulted in three-year agreements, adding two additional student contact days over the term of the contract. Discussions with education support professionals (ESPs) are still ongoing and will hopefully begin with the secretaries in early 2014. The process for these last two groups is clearly taking much longer than we would have liked.

During 2013, the schools on the Island hired almost 100 new staff members, from teachers to custodians. Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School saw the most change, as a larger than usual number of teachers retired at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. There were numerous changes at the administrative level as well. West Tisbury Principal Michael Halt accepted a position in California, which left the Vineyard to seek a new principal and a new assistant superintendent, as Laurie Halt accompanied her husband in his cross-country trek. Interim director of student support services Donna Lowell-Bettencourt was selected to fill the principalship leaving an additional vacancy at the superintendent’s office. After lengthy national searches, we were fortunate to hire Matthew D’Andrea as our new assistant superintendent and Philip Campbell as our new dtudent support services director.

The year was marked with the implementation of the new state mandated educator evaluation system, which covers everyone from the superintendent to classroom teachers. The clear purpose of this process is the improvement of teaching and learning and the dialogue around these efforts. While complicated, this new approach focuses on a set of standards that describes what good teaching looks like and then measures each educator against those standards. This continued implementation will add District-Determined Measures (DDMs) of student achievement to the process and then finally community feedback about the success of our efforts as educators.

Island schools saw increased scrutiny this year as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) conducted its six-year Coordinated Program Review of each individual district’s programming in special education, civil rights, vocational education and English language learning. While our educators provided the DESE team a wide range of information, this effort was focused mostly upon compliance with state and federal regulations, and we will certainly have work to do as a result. Additionally, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) had its cyclical visit by a team from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, focusing upon accreditation. While the results of this visit are not yet available, the team’s report will help MVRHS meet the challenges of its ever-changing educational mission.

With the tragedy at Sandy Hook in Connecticut fresh in everyone’s mind, Vineyard schools worked closely with the Island’s emergency officials to meet the challenge of improved student safety. Each school developed an improved safety plan, conducted a wide range of emergency drills and looked closely at their individual facilities for needed safety improvements. Every school has seen an increased police presence with the regional high school placing funds for a School Resource Officer (SRO) in its budget for FY15. The buildings themselves have undergone significant safety improvements. Some have re-keyed their doors, others have constructed new entrance paths, and still others have installed panic buttons. All of this work continues as we take seriously our responsibility for student safety.

Administrators and school committee members are well into the development of the FY15 school budgets, which will see increased stress on resources for students with special needs, a renewed focus on building maintenance and the implementation of the newly negotiated contracts. Even with the long-term planning initiative for the superintendent’s shared services programs, the significant increases for Island-wide special education programs have caused concern at the local level. The increased number of students needing assistance and the level of the programming for highly impacted individuals has meant that our special education costs continue to grow. Enrollment shifts at the high school have also had a significant impact upon individual town assessments for FY15.

With all of these challenges, our curriculum work has continued and is focused upon efforts at improving student writing, adding the Lucy Calkins writing program at many elementary schools, and measuring success at the middle level by the use of a portfolio system. Elementary schools are working on ways to increase student programming in mathematics, selecting new texts and increasing emphasis on algebra at the middle level. At the high school, much work has been done to increase the range of programming available to our students by the implementation of a revised Grade 9–12 alternative program and the creation of a new special education program for those needing therapeutic support. Both new endeavors are still in the evolving stages but show great promise.

The MVPS brought 2013 to a conclusion with much work unfinished, a situation which will set the tone for the new year.

James H. Weiss, the superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools, has been at the helm since July 2005.