At emotional hearing on Southbridge schools, some urge state takeover
SOUTHBRIDGE – Parent and local businessman Joseph Daou asked the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Monday not to take control of the school district of more than 2,200 students.
Speaking at a public hearing called by the state, which is considering running the underperforming district through a process called receivership, Mr. Daou urged the board to give “the new School Committee” a chance.
Mr. Daou then offered that some school children are disruptive, resulting in others losing focus. Worse, he said, when a teacher tries to correct the behavior, the educator, in turn, gets in trouble. The teachers here need more freedom to resolve problems, he said.
But sentiment concerning whether the district should be taken over by the state appeared to be about 50-50.
The state board could vote on receivership of Southbridge on Tuesday. Chairman Paul Sagan said the board had not reached a conclusion or fully debated the decision.
In tears, parent Cynthia Nalia said her son encountered trouble during the first week of school at Eastford Road Elementary School. Ms. Nalia said she was turned away when she asked for corrective action.
“You guys are fighting for Southbridge schools, but yet you’re pushing people away when they have a concern,” she said, adding that “I definitely feel Southbridge needs” to be taken over, and further alleging that “principals cover up for teachers.”
Parent Jose Cartegena also welcomed a takeover. Mr. Cartegena said that in his six years dealing with the district it has never been easy and is always a fight. He suggested that the state needed to be made aware of “bullying that goes on from administrators to teachers.”
Meanwhile, teachers and administrators wore red, the schools’ colors, in a show of solidarity.
Joan Sullivan, president of the Southbridge Education Association, told the state board that members of the union are vital to the success of any state plans to improve the district, and that teachers are dedicated to students’ success.
She said the union was also advocating for students to receive the resources and support they need.
“We’re not Lawrence; we’re not Holyoke,” the other two districts run by receivers. The union leader said 72 percent of Southbridge students are in high needs categories, and programs are needed specifically targeted to their academic, social and emotional needs, as well as for their families. She noted that the district presently has only one social worker.
First-grade teacher Judy Cournoyer has worked in the district 29 years, which she said is probably more time as a classroom teacher than her last five principals combined.
During the past 10 years, she said, she’s worked under a revolving door of administrators. In those years, the district spent too much time changing programs and ideas without ever waiting long enough to see what was working for students.
Ms. Cournoyer went on to say that, even if a student that does not speak English when he or she arrives in a classroom, the teachers do their best to help that child, even if it means having another child translate what teachers are saying. When a child arrives and is emotionally upset, the teachers do their best to help them and keep all the children in the class safe.
“The challenges of working in this district are great, but there are many great teachers who have worked very hard to meet these challenges,” she said.
Lisa Rousseau, who works in the district’s finance office, said she has worked under five different business directors since 2009, which has made her job difficult.
“We need a huge, huge change in the business office,” she said. “The budget is totally out of control, which we all know.”
Ms. Rousseau also asserted that the deletion of a director for English Language Learning, in a community with a high population of Spanish-speaking children, was beyond comprehension.
She told the state board that most Southbridge administrators and much of its staff have been hired because of who they know, and not for what they’re qualified to do. She added that she maybe would lose her job for such a suggestion, but needed to speak out for the schoolchildren.
Maritza Knight, who was hired two months ago to teach high school math, said the department does a tremendous job teaching large classes and covering for missing math teachers.
Ms. Knight said Hispanic students need role models of similar ethnic background who speak their native language to help inspire them to achieve higher levels of academic success, which would close the achievement gap.
State Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester is recommending that Southbridge be taken over as a step of last resort. The district was designated underperforming in 2004 by the state, and the state went through a number of attempts to support the district, he said.
He called the district’s low levels of literacy and math achievement alarming, with year-to-year progress lagging that of students elsewhere in the state.
Turnover in Southbridge’s leadership is astounding, Mr. Chester said, making it virtually impossible to make steady progress.
If the board votes in favor of his recommendation, Mr. Chester said, the state would move quickly to appoint a receiver.
Mr. Chester said the state had no intention of requiring that Southbridge faculty reapply for their jobs, although the receivership statute allows for that. The state did not have faculty reapply for jobs when it took over Holyoke and Lawrence, he said.
“My assumption is most of the teaching staff in Southbridge is very strong staff. We need to build on what you do to turn this district around,” he said.