New MVRHS principal visits, chats with staff and parents

Incoming MVRHS principal Sara Dingledy, sitting next to Dr. Rufus Peebles, spoke with a group of parents and staff members Tuesday morning. – Photo by Sam Moore

Over freshly brewed coffee and breakfast pastries, parents and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) staff members chatted with newly hired principal Sara Dingledy Tuesday morning in the library conference room. It was Ms. Dingledy’s first visit to the school since last month’s announcement that she had been selected to be the new principal.

The informal conversation included a discussion of student cell phone policy — she prefers students leave cell phones at the door — how to handle tardiness, and how best to allot enough time for lunch. She also received the gift of a box of Chilmark Chocolates.

Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea selected Ms. Dingledy [pronounced dingle-dy] following a several-month-long search process. She is the current principal and founder of Westchester Square Academy in New York City. The school has about 570 students and 65 staff members, 45 of whom are teachers, Ms. Dingledy said. She intends to move to the Vineyard with her husband and two children this summer.

The position begins in July, but she is already at work preparing for her new job. “I think it will be good to use February and April when I’m out here to get to know the staff more,” Ms. Dingledy said. “Before I craft a vision for what I want to start doing here, I think it’s important to get to know the community and hear other people’s visions.”

Pledge to be present

School adjustment counselor Amy Lilavois said she had heard from students that Ms. Dingledy instituted a no-cell-phone policy in New York, and asked her to elaborate on her strategy for dealing with students’ cell phone usage during school.

According to the student handbook, Vineyard high school students are allowed to have their phones at school, but they are not to be used during class or while in the library, unless otherwise authorized by a teacher for legitimate purposes.

At Westchester Square Academy, Ms. Dingledy said the student’s cellphones are collected at the beginning of the day and distributed after the final bell. There are metal detectors at the entrance of the school, she added, which cuts down on the ability of a student to try to sneak a phone in.

“There’s no drama about collecting,” she said. “And the kids like it; they say all the time that they’re happy there’s no phones.”

She said her inclination is to enforce a no-phone policy, but she is open to advisement from school leaders. Elaborating on the educational philosophy that underpins the policy, she said, “You can’t have a place where you’re competing for the attention of students in that way.”

Should the school adopt a no-cell-phone policy, she said, the goal would be to make it a positive change, such as implementing a “pledge to be present” campaign.

“It would be hard if you just say, No, and then people have to enforce the discipline; that’s a cycle you don’t want to get into,” she said. “Making it corny is fun …They pledge to be present with each other and with the teachers, and they hold themselves accountable, so it’s not a negative thing.”

Island Grown School’s director Kelsey Head asked about lunchtime and how to keep students from being hungry during the day. She said that students are provided only 18 minutes to eat lunch, and some eat as early as 10:40 am.

Ms. Dingledy said proper nutrition is necessary. “I think eating is important; I see it tied to mental health stuff; I see it tied to behavioral issues,” she said. “If they’re not eating and they’re not eating healthy, it’s a huge problem.”

Ms. Dingledy said if students are hungry or rushed, it’s a matter of scheduling and looking at the school’s priorities. She said a master schedule can address those kinds of functional problems.

“You think about time together as a community, you think about lunch, you think about sports, and the CTE [career and technical education] program, and making sure there’s enough time for people to really dig in and do it,” she said.

Asked about her policy for students showing up late to school, a problem that’s escalated at MVRHS in the past month, Ms. Dingledy said her current school has a “late table” where students sign in. If the lateness persists, school leaders make phone calls home. Chronic offenders are given a detention. She emphasized rewarding the students who do consistently show up on time.

“Make it meaningful; if they’re not showing up, it’s because they don’t want to show up,” she said. “Just making sure that there is meaning attached right when the bell rings and right when the day starts, that there’s some sort of significant thing that they don’t want to miss out on.”

Speaking to Ms. Lilavois, she said the mental health of the students is a primary focus at her current school.

“My experience is coming from a place where there’s just constant crisis, so I just think mental health is the foundation, the most important thing for kids,” she said. “You can build the pyramid afterwards, but I just don’t think you can overplay your hand when it comes to mental health.”

She said her goal for the school staff is to utilize their skills and place them in areas where they love working.

“I love to have fun at work; I just want there to be a sense of fun and progress and that people enjoy each other and enjoy coming to work, and that they enjoy working with the kids but also working with each other,” she said. “For me the best strategy is putting people in places that they love and doing what they love to do.”

Additionally, she said she’ll look into implementing a uniform grading policy, and she stressed the importance of holding school assemblies and having balanced scheduling throughout the day.

“I’m excited about being here, because I think it’s amazing how many options kids are able to have,” she said.

On his way out the door, Tony Peak of Vineyard Haven, one of the few parents in attendance, praised Ms. Dingledy for her goals. “I’m encouraged,” he said. “I enjoy your attitude very much.”