On Tuesday of this week we are finally going to get to see the Southbridge School Committee for the first time since their September 23rd meeting. It will be interesting (should I say amusing) to see how they will deal with the flood of misinformation, ineptitude and finger-pointing that has characterized the last three weeks.
At that time, you will recall, the Southbridge Superintendent of Schools announced that students who had taken the MCAS as sophomores in 2013 had never been given the opportunity to be retested during all of the 2013-2014 school year.
While Superintendent Gardner did not use any specific numbers, it was widely known that the assumption was that some 38 students were affected.
A week and a half later Brian Lee reported on October 4th that the number of students who had “missed” their opportunity to retake the exam had dropped to six in math and ELA.
Suddenly the focus changed from MCAS retests failing to be given to EPP’s (Educational Proficiency Plans) not having been written for the students in question.
In a lengthy letter to the Worcester Telegram Amy Allen-Magnan, former SMHS Principal, completely debunked the claims that MCAS retests had not been given. On the other hand she took “full responsibility” for the failure to produce EPP’s.
In the interim The O’Zone reported on October 2nd that Joe Shortsleeve of Channel 4’s I team was looking to talk to students who had not been retested. That investigation apparently ended when the Boston Herald reported on October 10th that Mr. Shortsleeve’s contract with the CBS Boston affiliate had not been renewed.
Finally we had Becky Newell’s report on Monday night’s meeting of the “Committee of the Whole”.
So after all of this, where do things stand?
First and foremost what we should not lose sight of is that this year’s MCAS results were abysmal. Despite former Superintendent Nembirkow’s pledge that this year’s results would show an improvement they did not.
Second, current Superintendent Gardner’s report of students having been deprived of the opportunity to retake the tests was just plain wrong.
The tearful recriminations and vivid recounting of war-room like tactics with all hands on deck and white-boards and schedules being brought out demonstrated that the school committee, at least the core elements thereof, were fully on board with that assessment.
Keep in mind that they were aware of these results before they were made known to the general public. All of these actions leading up to the Superintendent’s report reflected an absolute belief that students had been deprived of the opportunity to retake the MCAS all of last year,
Following that presentation, however, reports began to emerge, notably on this blog, that the public had been misled. Suddenly the Superintendent did an about face and began speaking of failure to produce EPP’s for the students in question.
At this point Mrs. Allen-Magnan’s letter comes into play. After going through a detailed accounting that demonstrated that students had, in fact, been retested, she jumps to embrace the number of 38 students that has no relation to her earlier figures.
She then goes on to say:
With regard to students not being placed on Educational Proficiency Plans last year, I take full responsibility. I had a conversation with the guidance department in early November, 2013, regarding the implementation of EPPs, and who did them the prior year, and were they done yet for this year. In an email correspondence, I was told the following…”the procedure at SHS, Cole Ave was that the ELA and Math Department heads wrote the EPPs, and we stored them here in guidance. Last year, during the transition to SMHA, the principal at the time did not follow that procedure (I was not the principal). However, all students in the Needs Improvement (category) for MCAS Math have been scheduled for the 4th year of math needed to meet EPP requirements for graduation.”
Unfortunately, our ELA department head was on maternity leave for the first quarter of the school year, and the math department head was out on leave, and we did not know if or when she would be returning. Consequently, I had a conversation with with our newly appointed math department head on November 20th, 2013, regarding the formulation of EPPs for the juniors and seniors. The development of EPPs was begun, but I was remiss in following up to insure that they were actually completed and implemented. For that, I take full responsibility. However, those students who qualified for EPPs were given schedules by guidance that reflected the course work needed to achieve their competency determination for graduation. All staff was taking the necessary steps for these students to achieve and succeed; however, appropriate EPP documents were not filed.
During last Monday night’s meeting Superintendent Gardner emphasized Mrs. Allen-Magnan’s statement that she took “full responsibility” for the lack of EPP’s. The details of Mrs. Allen-Magnan’s statement indicate a far more convoluted situation.
According to Brian Lee’s report on October 4th, “Ms. Gardner said 19 EPPs had not been completed for last year's juniors in English, and 28 had not been created in math. The superintendent said this year's new administrative team had to sort through last year's scores to figure that out.”
According to Mrs. Allen-Magnan appropriate EPP documents were not filed, but “those students who qualified for EPPs were given schedules by guidance that reflected the course work needed to achieve their competency determination for graduation. All staff was taking the necessary steps for these students to achieve and succeed”.
I cannot say why Mrs. Allen-Magnan took the step of falling on her sword. Perhaps she was seeking to exculpate subordinates who had failed to follow through on their responsibilities. However, if there is any truth to her statement, then there should not have been the major effort to establish what EPPs needed to be completed as Mrs. Gardner’s statement would imply. It certainly does not justify the initial reports of failure to even offer the retests.
Another fact to keep in mind is that Mrs. Allen-Magnan herself went on medical leave in February of this year.
What all of this does illustrate is an appalling lack of communication and backup in the administration of SMHS.
Throughout this Mrs. Gardner has emphasized that such matters were not the immediate concern of a superintendent. However, during this period that was not her role. She was employed as the district’s Director of Teaching and Learning (formerly called Curriculum Director). According to Becky Newell’s notes she was asked about this by Dr. Raymond Page.
Dr. Page asked, “Why wouldn't the curriculum director be a part of the process?”
Ms. Gardner kept saying that is the high school teachers’ responsibility; the only time director of curriculum gets involved is when results come in for the director to seek teaching opportunities.
Don’t EPP’s fall within the range of “teaching opportunities”?
This is especially difficult to comprehend given the emphasis placed on this year’s MCAS results by former Superintendent Nembirkow.
Additional insights into the current situation are provided by Mrs. Newell’s notes on Monday’s meeting.
We have Mr. Osborne’s remarks that, “Mr. Osborne stated that when we own the budget, he will have a better handle on it.” The obvious question is “Who owns this budget now?”
Additionally we have the plan to fund a new PE teacher by drawing money from textbooks and professional development. Given the extent to which the town has bent over backward to meet the school department’s needs, including transfers from the landfill enterprise royalty account, are we to now understand that money allocated for textbooks and professional development was essentially unnecessary?
Finally we have Mrs. Gardner’s remark that she was not a “budget person”. If she is not a budget person, if as curriculum director she wasn’t aware of what was going on with MCAS, if she made a faulty report to the school committee and the town about failure to retest MCAS students, exactly what are her qualifications to be superintendent?
Sitting atop this chaos are the school committee personnel who have been in place and overseen this tragic situation.
By their own standards they have failed the students and the town in improving the situation. Things have only gotten dramatically worse.
According to Mr. Osborne at Monday’s meeting, “… a DESE auditor has been in and gave them a clean bill.”
If this is what the DESE audit says is a clean bill, then it is clear that they aren’t planning on doing anything. They want no part of Southbridge and its problems.
What has become disturbingly clear is that the school committee (for the most part), and the administration, are not to be believed.
The situation remains, as it always has, in the hands of Southbridge residents.
We will see if they really care.