Up-Island school group examines tribal student policies in Aquinnah

The Up-Island Regional School District committee addressed "Indian Policies and Procedures," as well as improvement plans for West Tisbury and Chilmark schools. —Cameron Machell

The Up-Island Regional School District committee (UIRSDC) made a rare appearance on Monday in Aquinnah, where they discussed the district’s “Indian Policies and Procedures” for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), as well as school improvement plans for the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools.

The committee unanimously approved the fiscal year 2017 “Indian Policies and Procedures” for the district during their meeting at the Wampanoag Tribal Building. Matt D’Andrea, Superintendent of Schools, told committee members that the goal of the Martha’s Vineyard Public School System is to ensure equal participation of Wampanoag children in educational programs and encourage communication between the schools and the tribal community.

The highlights of the policies and procedures, according to Mr. D’Andrea, included having the UIRSDC meet two or three times each year in Aquinnah in order to hear comments and concerns from the tribe. If necessary, the committee will establish a task force for modifications to programs, and will meet with tribal representatives to develop educational programs and activities in schools for tribal students.

The policies also assess educational expenses based on participation, and ensure that the completion of the Impact Aid application is done in a timely manner and that the information is shared with tribal members. Renee Lopes-Pocknett, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) educational director, told The Times on Tuesday that Impact Aid is federal money that is given to a school district to make sure that there is equal participation in the education of Indian children, as well as communication between the school district and the tribe.

On Monday night, Michael Marcus, chairman of the UIRSDC, asked how the committee was doing regarding “Indian Policies and Procedures.” Theresa Manning, a committee member, said she was interested in making sure there is a broader communication between the tribe and the superintendent’s office.

“I hope that communication only grows better and stronger, so that kids are getting a really strong education about the culture here,” Ms. Manning said.

Ms. Lopes-Pocknett, who attended the UIRSDC meeting, said she had a productive meeting with the superintendent and other school district members prior to Monday night’s school committee meeting. Ms. Lopes-Pocknett began last October, and she said she aims to fully assess the tribal relationship with the Office of the Superintendent of Schools.

“We’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to come up with some plans that will have a cultural focus, which is important for all students, especially for tribal students,” Ms. Lopes-Pocknett said.

Mr. D’Andrea agreed, and said that they discussed areas where they can improve their relationship, and ways to improve the education of tribal students.

“I think Renee brings us some great experience for her position, and it’s going to be a real beneficial relationship,” Mr. D’Andrea said.

Nefititi Jette, a member of the audience, asked if the policies and procedures covered any kind of cultural sensitivity training for teachers. Ms. Jack was part of the education committee for the tribe for nine years.

Mr. D’Andrea said it does address teachers attending sensitivity training when an issue arises or if otherwise deemed necessary.

“So, it’s reactionary. It’s not something that’s done during the professional [development] days. Is it just if an instance arises?” Ms. Jette said.

Mr. D’Andrea said that although that was correct, in conversation with Ms. Lopes-Pocknett, they discussed bringing cultural sensitivity training to professional development days.

In other business, the School Advisory Committees (SAC) for both Chilmark and West Tisbury presented their improvement plans to the UIRSDC.

The West Tisbury School Improvement Plan looks to review its special education program, which SAC described as a “robust program.” The committee is exploring the performance and the best practices of the program, and looking into new developments in science and brain research.

They’re also examining unstructured time for students, studying recess, lunch, and bus trips. The West Tisbury School wellness committee is hoping to partner with more restaurants and farms to improve school breakfast and lunch programs. The school is also finishing the last two phases of their playground, geared for outdoor learning, where teachers can take their classroom outdoors.

The Chilmark School Improvement Plan focuses on the hallmark values of the Chilmark School: integrated teaching and project-based learning. The advisory committee said those values are reflected in the new science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) approach, an enrichment program that promotes collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.

SAC asked for enhanced communication for better regional partnership, where the parent-teacher organization (PTO) in Chilmark is made aware of issues that are hashed out at the school committee level.

The relationship between the Up-Island towns has been tense recently, since a West Tisbury special committee, created by town selectmen (Nov. 8, 2016, “West Tisbury selectmen agree to participate in Up-Island School Committee”) to come up with what they regard as a more “equitable” sharing of school costs among the three up-Island towns that form the district, concluded that Chilmark should pay for its own elementary school’s operating costs.

Budget talks are underway now for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and consideration of the report and discussions with Chilmark and Aquinnah officials will wait until the completion of the budget season (Feb. 6, “West Tisbury selectmen will wait to grapple Up-Island Regional’s cost-allocation report”).

Enrollment and misconceptions about the Chilmark School have been the biggest challenges, according to the Chilmark SAC on Monday night. There are 43 students currently enrolled in Chilmark, and the capacity at the school is 60 students.

“We’re not drawing children from Aquinnah to the Chilmark School, and that is at the top of our list to understand better,” Lindsey Scott, a member of the Chilmark SAC, said. To boost enrollment, the Chilmark School invites all Island residents who are interested to have a tour of the school.