Monday, February 1, 2016

The Real Problem With Southbridge Schools

The DESE Board's level of concern about the Southbridge Public Schools grew following the release of a recent district review that found:
  • Southbridge was among the lowest performing districts in the state in terms of the percentage of students who scored Proficient or Advanced on the 2015 MCAS assessments;
  • 34 percent of students at Southbridge Middle/High School failed at least one course in 2015;
  • 19 percent of students at Southbridge Middle/High School were suspended at least once in 2015;
  • The needs of English language learners were not being met, and the district was out of compliance with regulations regarding English language learners; and
  • The district has had seven superintendents and seven high school principals since 2011. 

Of these five highlighted reasons for the state takeover of the Southbridge school system, only the last two are within the realm of problems that can be directly fixed by state action.

An article in yesterday’s Worcester Telegram was titled “Southbridge school administrator says special education improving, but challenges remain”. In that piece Colleen Culligan, the district’s director of pupil personnel services, defended her role in the ongoing local educational crisis.

She said there are "people in the community who are speaking in ways that do not represent the work that has been done in Southbridge."

Ms. Culligan went on to note that. “I and our department are deeply moved by the stories we hear every day from our most fragile and vulnerable population of children, and their parents,” she said.

The district’s most senior central office administrator, Ms. Culligan said she arrived in November 2012 to a scathing mid-cycle review about how special education programs were run, with many compliance infractions and “huge complaints" against the department from 2009 to 2012.

Since that review, things have improved, “without question,” she said.

Among the items that indicate progress, she cited the following:

o   A good working relationship with the Department of Program Quality Assurance, the 
     special education arm of the state. Together they have cleared up all compliance concerns.
o   To divert schoolchildren from court, the department expanded systems of care by 
     partnering with Harrington Hospital's GB Wells Human Services Center, YOU Inc., 
     and the new Family Resource Center.
o   Partnering with the state Department of Children and Families has addressed truancy and 
     absenteeism at the elementary level.
o   Outside agencies are doing school-based counseling to support staff for students' social-
     emotional needs. Pupil personnel services also partnered in a grant for pregnant and 
     parenting teens.
o   Guidance in teaching and a number of structures were created, in spite of three consecutive 
      budget cycles that have led to the special education budget being cut each year.
o   A comprehensive action plan for special education includes professional development for 
     all educational assistants for the first time this year.· 

In my reading of this list I was struck by one distinct shortcoming. For all the talk of data-driven program’s and their evaluation there were no statistics presented to substantiate that these initiatives had borne any fruit. Only in the case of the first item were any results cited.

Over the years, requests for behavior specialists and social workers have been made but not addressed for high-needs students, she said.

“In the time that I’ve been here we’ve seen the addition of only one adjustment counselor at the middle-high school for 1,100 students, despite requests for more,” Culligan concluded.

In my consideration of the issues mentioned both by the state and by Ms. Culligan I have concluded that there is one overriding factor that has a greater bearing on the crisis in our schools than any other.

That issue is the prevailing socio-economic climate from which the student population is drawn.

In Southbridge 73.3 % of students are listed as “High Needs” and 61.4% are considered “Economically Disadvantaged”.

According to the DESE these terms are defined as follows:
High Needs: Calculated based on the number of high needs students, divided by the adjusted enrollment. A student is high needs if he or she is designated as either low income (prior to School Year 2015), economically disadvantaged (starting in School Year 2015), or ELL, or former ELL, or a student with disabilities. A former ELL student is a student not currently an ELL, but had been at some point in the two previous academic years.
Economically Disadvantaged: Calculated based on a student's participation in one or more of the following state-administered programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Transitional Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC); the Department of Children and Families' (DCF) foster care program; and MassHealth (Medicaid).

For purposes of comparison, in Lawrence 81.9 % are reported as “High Needs” and 63% are considered “Economically Disadvantaged”. In Holyoke the corresponding numbers are 79.6% and 67.6%. The state averages are 43.5% and 27.4% respectively.

The point that I take away from this is that the structural problems in the schools, most notably the lack of administrative stability and continuity can be addressed by the state. But the underlying and root cause goes beyond their scope of authority. Indeed it goes beyond that of the former school committee as well.

As I have been saying for the 5 years that I’ve been writing this blog (and well before that), the problem of economic growth lay with the town council and the town manager. We have yet to see what, if any, initiatives will be taken by the new Director of Economic Development. Similarly so for our new town manager.

It also remains to be seen what action the council will take in light of the pending end of (to this date) wasted landfill revenues.

It is one thing for the town council to issue a letter of no confidence in the school committee. It is quite another for them to realize that much of the problem resides within their purview to address. 

It will be interesting to see if they adopt any sense of urgency in finally confronting their role in this crisis.


  1. An old adage about ED Reform and underperfoming schools and school as applied to the Southbridge School System is: Trade the administration, teachers and staff from the best school district in the state with that of Southbridge and the Southbridge Staff will be highly successful and the staff from the best district in the state will fail miserably. (The fact of the matter is that demographics does matter and comparing a district that is lily-white with great economic advantages to a district that is populated by minorities who are economically challenged with an abnormally high ELL and Special Ed population is down right ridiculous.)

    The State can bring stability to the administration and streamline administrative policies and spending but it cannot change the demographics. The pool is just too small and the ones who can swim leave the district through moving or through school choice.

    There is one possible way to change the way the state uses test scores to evaluate the schools is to use the test scores and graduation rates of the students who opt out of Southbridge Schools after the eighth grade be aggregated with Southbridge. Schools like Bay Path and others reap the benefit of our more successful students. We spent the money for 8 or more years of education as opposed to their 4 year investment. (this would be an excellent study to perform to prove the worth of Southbridge Schools.)

    1. Totally agree, well stated

  2. Until Southbridge addresses the problem of "White Flight" the problems will continue. I totally agree with the previous comment.


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