Thursday, December 10, 2015

State Releases Southbridge School District Review Report

The state issued the result of its review of the Southbridge School District today. The report is based upon interviews conducted by personnel from DESE’s Center for District and School Accountability from October 19th to October 22nd

The release comes a day before the district is scheduled to host a visit from DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

Below is the Executive Summary of the report (excluding the district profile and a description of the review process) .

Leadership and Governance
Leadership in the Southbridge Public Schools is currently in a state of disarray. Since 2010, the district has been unable to sustain consistent leadership at any level. The constant change in district and school leadership is symptomatic of the discord that has taken place on the school committee, which has not adhered to its appropriate roles and responsibilities. The school committee has involved itself in the operations of the school district in order to advance personal interest, and interviewees told the review team that the school committee recently exerted its influence into the personnel matters of the district and misappropriated district funds. 

At the same time, the school committee has not paid sufficient attention to important responsibilities associated with district turnaround or to attracting, developing, and retaining an effective leadership team. The district has not chosen a superintendent through a formal search since 2010, despite seven changes in the superintendency since that time. Stakeholders within the school community and town officials agreed that the constant change in leadership has been detrimental to district improvement. The loss of faith in the school committee’s ability to select a superintendent was expressed vividly by a vote of no confidence in the school committee taken by the Southbridge town council last spring. The school committee should focus its attention on its legally mandated responsibilities and conduct all of its work in a transparent manner. The committee’s priority should be restoring stability to the district and its leadership.

Curriculum and Instruction
While the elementary level is making progress in documenting its curriculum, the middle- and high school levels have completed little or no work in this regard. Each elementary school has Instructional Resource Specialists (IRSs) for both ELA and math to provide ongoing curriculum and instructional support and embedded professional development to teachers, and elementary teachers have sufficient common planning time (CPT) to collaborate on curriculum and lessons. However, curriculum units at the elementary level do not consistently reflect the principles of Understanding by Design.

At the middle/high school, teachers are struggling to document the curriculum, and time, expertise, and personnel to support meaningful curriculum work are scarce. While middle-school teachers have CPT each week in cross-subject teams, high school teachers have no real CPT. The district has not developed the role and responsibilities of department heads to provide sufficient instructional support to teachers, and it has provided limited training to prepare teachers to develop curriculum. The middle- and high school levels each have only one IRS to cover all content areas, focusing on instruction.

Districtwide in observed lessons, classroom instruction was not appropriately differentiated to account for differences in the learning needs of all students. Classroom climate characterized by respectful behaviors, routines, tone, and discourse has not been well established across all schools. In contrast to observations at the elementary level, in observed lessons at the middle/high school there was a low incidence of instructional practices characterized by rigor and well-structured lessons and of students taking responsibility for their learning and being purposefully engaged in tasks that promote critical thinking.

The district should take steps to complete K-12 curriculum in all subjects. It should ensure thatcurriculum materials are high quality, cohesive, aligned to appropriate standards, and aligned vertically between contiguous grades and horizontally across grades and schools. It should also ensure that there is a common understanding across all schools of rigor and high expectations and that instructional practices consistently encourage students to develop critical thinking skills, cultivate understanding and application of knowledge, and support differentiation and a positive learning environment. The district should develop sufficient mid-level content-based leadership in grades 6-12 to more actively monitor instruction through non-evaluative supervision activities and to provide teachers with frequent formative feedback.

The district is operating without a balanced and comprehensive assessment system that would provide the needed data and evidence to measure student progress and achievement and guide instructional decision-making, particularly at the middle/high school. It also does not have the technology infrastructure to manage and share data efficiently.

The elementary schools have begun to establish the culture and systems to generate and useassessments and assessment data for continuous improvement. The elementary assessment system represents a balance of benchmark/diagnostic assessments, measures of student growth and proficiency, and frequent formative assessments. Regularly scheduled grade-level meetings and Instructional Leadership Team meetings provide a collaborative forum for elementary teachers to discuss student data and progress and use data to guide curricular and instructional decisions. The middle/high school has not developed an effective and coordinated approach to assessment.

Without a complete, aligned and documented curriculum, it is impossible for the middle/high school to  have a completely aligned and articulated assessment system. As a result, groups of teachers collect and analyze little coherent data other than MCAS results. Further, there is inadequate time and expertise to systematically collect, analyze, and use what limited assessment data there is to improve teaching and learning.

District and secondary school leaders should build teachers’ ability to develop and use multiple forms of assessments in order to deliver appropriately designed curriculum and instruction. They should also establish a more systematic process to ensure the effective use of data districtwide.

Human Resources and Professional Development                      
The district has been making increasingly effective use of quality, evidence-based, growth-oriented supervisory practices and procedures. However, the district’s efforts to collect and use student and staff feedback for teachers and administrators and to identify district-determined measures of student impact have badly faltered. The district has done little to address either of these initiatives and is currently out of compliance with both of these requirements.

The district’s professional development program (PD) is seriously hampered by the absence of a well defined and collaborative leadership structure, the absence of clearly articulated goals that are aligned with district needs and improvement priorities, and insufficient embedded and regularly scheduled common planning and meeting opportunities for all staff.

The district should prioritize the development of a comprehensive, coordinated, and collaborative PD system that promotes professional growth and practice, advances district goals and priorities, and significantly improves student achievement. It should also undertake prompt and appropriate action to implement all components of its educator evaluation system, including the collection and use of multiple sources of evidence to inform the evaluations of both teachers and administrators.

Student Support
The district has not established an effective tiered system of support across all grade levels. At the elementary level, the district has begun to implement positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) activities, most of which began in fall 2015. However, as of last year, two interventionists at one elementary school were shifted to teacher roles, leaving a void in support personnel. At the middle/high school, classrooms are unstable. The district has high rates of in-school and out-of-school suspensions, which can be linked to disruptive behavior as well as to chronic absence. Compounding this issue is widespread ineffective classroom management evidenced by disrespectful behavior by both teachers and students in observed classrooms. Teachers at both the middle- and high-school levels continue to struggle with approaches for effective classroom management that can prevent, defuse, and redirect disruptive student behaviors.

Further, the district is not providing sufficient support to ensure that English language learners (ELLs) are able to fully participate in the academic program and succeed in learning. There is only one English language development (ELD) teacher position for all ELLs in the middle-school grades, and the one ELD teacher position at the high-school level is currently vacant. Districtwide, there is no ELL director for over 350 ELLs, and 30 teachers do not have SEI certification. The district does not have resources in place to provide adequate communication between key district staff and newly arrived ELLs and their families, the vast majority of whom speak Spanish.

The district should enact a multi-pronged initiative to identify and address the multiple nterconnected issues related to student behavior at the middle/high school. It should convene an advisory committee to review district needs and benefits related to creating diverse options and pathways at the middle/high school that would help all students to graduate and to be prepared for success after highschool. District leaders should oversee the immediate implementation of a tiered system of support (including instructional and social-emotional supports) for all learners.

Financial and Asset Management
The student population in Southbridge schools has changed over the last 15 years, reflecting changes in the town. Students from low-income families composed 37.2 percent of enrollment in 2000, compared with 76.3 percent in 2014. The number of students tuitioned out through school choice increased from 75 students in 2006 to 239 students in 2015, for a total tuition expenditure of $1,361,992. The district opened a new middle/high school in 2012, funded without an override by using its bonding capacity and MSBA reimbursements. The district maintains its schools effectively and has a capital plan.

School committee members and municipal officials voiced concerns about financial management and  reporting. Bills have gone unpaid, deficits and surpluses have not been accurately projected, and expenses have been posted to questionable accounts. School committee members said that they found financial reports “cursory” and the finance director in fiscal year 2015 was unable to give them the financial information they needed. However, changes in leadership and reporting made in summer 2015 have been well received by the school committee and town officials.

Town support for the schools has consistently exceeded the required net school spending level, but the increase approved for the fiscal year 2016 school budget was less than in previous years, and less than the increase in Chapter 70 aid. The fiscal year 2016 budget process was characterized by ineffective communication and little collaboration between the school committee and town officials. Ultimately, the school committee did not address the pressing requests for staffing and leadership to meet the needs of a growing ELL population.

School committee members, administrators, and town officials should continue their recent efforts to communicate and collaborate more effectively. Communications about day-to-day financial management issues as well as budget development are needed to reduce tensions, to improve transparency, to ensure proper financial management, and to adopt a budget that can meet both district and town objectives. Special attention should be given to creating financial and budget reports that are complete, transparent, and accurate and that satisfy the needs of the school committee and the town.


  1. This report is a stunning indictment of the Southbridge school department. Current member of the school committee can try to put the blame on their immediate predecessors, but the mess existed long before that bunch of clowns. A one year hiccup where Southbridge High was level 1 hardly established any kind of meaningful pattern. This situation has persisted for over 15 years and it has to be stopped. The only responsible action is for the state to take over the district and clean up a situation clearly beyond the ability shown by any local politicians to correct.

  2. I agree with Face reality. Enough is enough. This has gone on for way to long with no improvement. It’s time to bring in some real professionals with the tolls to fix things.


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