Change is happening quickly these days at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS).
The high school also had a lot of change in the two years before Sara Dingledy was hired as principal in 2016. For example, the MVRHS graduating classes of 2017 and 2018 learned their readin’ and writin’ under five different principals during their high school careers.
Sixth-year principal Steven Nixon left in mid-year 2014, and the present superintendent, Matt D’Andrea, filled in. Gil Traverso was hired in 2015 on a three-year contract. Traverso got great reviews from students and staff, but left abruptly after one year for a bigger job just weeks before school began. Stalwart Peg Regan, longtime MVRHS principal, came out of retirement to steer the course during yet another search for a principal.
When Dingledy was hired in 2016, D’Andrea, superintendent of schools, was clear about her mission. “We have a great staff there, but what’s been lacking is a consistent vision, and [Dingledy]’s going to bring that there, and bring the instructional leadership that we need,” he said. That’s a polite term for “we’re tired of steering with one hand and bailing with the other.”
Sara Dingledy uses the word “accountability” often at public events and in meetings. You can tell it’s important to her in her work as the third-year principal of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS).
“I think people want and need to know what’s expected of them, that it’s important to be reliable, and to know what to expect from others. Kids, parents, teachers, and administrators want reliability and predictability,” she said.
Her end goal is a community culture that includes all the stakeholders: kids, parents, teachers, administrators, the public, and the officialdom who oversee the education function. Dingledy’s philosophy has been shaped by her own life experience in some less than ideal settings. She has been in poor Mideast communities, taught in U.S. suburbia and in New York’s inner city schools. The dynamic everywhere included common elements. “Not militant accountability, but kids want high expectations. Kids are consistent in that way, and they rise to high expectations,” she said.
If you’ve experienced healthy organization building, then you’ve also experienced a phenomenon in which results are higher than expectations in those scenarios. Shared culture has that effect, as continuing long-term MVRHS success in athletics, in national arts and debating competition, for example, has shown over time.
Observation of the work going on at MVRHS at close hand makes clear that the goal is a shared culture based on trusting interdependence among the stakeholders. Dingledy and education officials never publicly reference the recent past, but her intentional work does address a culture of constant leadership change in the two years before she joined the school in 2016.
Dingledy, originally from Connecticut, worked for 17 years in the New York City school system. She founded the Westchester Square Academy in the Bronx in 2012 as a part of a New York–based program, New Leaders for New Schools, an initiative for educators to start their own New York City high schools. Previously, Dingledy was assistant headmaster of the Brooklyn Latin School, was a social studies teacher, and was one of three founding teachers of the Martin Luther King Jr. High School of Art and Technology.
Dingledy has a varied background in and out of education, working for nonprofits here and overseas in posts that had an education component, then earning a master’s degree and school leadership certification after deciding that education was her life work. She and husband Dan Doyle have two children, Lucy, 7, who attends the Charter School, and Lorenzo, 5, who graduated from pre-K last week.
The language of organization building can have a feel of psychobabble, unless it’s accompanied by specific, concrete action. “Much of it isn’t rocket science,” Dingledy notes. For example, the MVRHS handbook has long had language prohibiting the use of cellphones in educational settings. Dingledy made it stick. The high school handbook has been rewritten in clear, understandable language so that the school community understands policies and procedures. This year, the high school has a standalone athletic handbook, written in a similar style.
Then there is the unglamorous work of building communication lines and setting up points of contact for staff and students to use. A new computer system in 2018 links school data to provide a complete profile of students across their academic lives, including attendance, grades, and schedules, athletics, guidance, and perhaps extracurricular activities. Historically the data was captured by individual element, but the elements were not linked to one another. “That’s not really an accountability issue, but a way to keep track and to make sure we put the right people using the right systems in front of kids,” she said. One teacher offered this example of additional knowledge: “I run into a student in the halls and ask how the game went on Saturday. With the new system, I can know the kid has been admonished for spending too much time in the halls rather than being in the classroom, so I have the opportunity to reinforce the desired behavior as well.”
Still, change is difficult and some teachers are opting to retire. Dingledy does not have staff turnover numbers but believes they are not abnormal. “We have lost some great teachers who’ve served kids here for a long time but we’ve also got some bright people, ready to go and eager to serve kids,” she said
The disciplinary process is now under Dhakir Warren to administer a policy built on intervention rather than a hasty punishment. To that end, students trained as peer facilitators allow other students to use a new flextime period to seek out peers as sounding boards and for advice on handling school culture. The disciplinary code of conduct in the new handbook is explained in a simple format which includes the step-by-step remedial action, typically involving several intervening remedial steps, not a “knee-jerk” disciplinary process, Dingledy said, adding that the system will provide a complete picture on attendance rates and absenteeism at the school. “We will be able to see the entire picture. We keep attendance records, we have the data. But it’s important to know, for example, whether a kid is cutting school or just one class repeatedly? Teachers want to know that,” she said, citing an opportunity for healthy intervention.
Anecdotes indicate the changes are working. For example, upperclassmen used to be able to claim they were visiting colleges to plan a long weekend vacation. Now they have submit their plans in writing. Seniors get four days a year for college visits, juniors get two days. One parent of a college-bound student said she has read the policy and insisted her kid complete the paperwork in a timely fashion.
The same teacher who offered the hall-walker anecdote said staff feels supported by Dingledy. “She’s accessible. You can walk in and explain your problem. She listens and takes action,” the teacher said, adding, “When Sara walks the halls, she knows the kids by name. Kids love that.”