As 2007 gets under way, the Vineyard schools are swimming in challenges.
The West Tisbury School principal left for active Marine duty last weekend, the Edgartown School principal leaves today after resigning in November, the Oak Bluffs School principal will take a leave of absence next year and one of two assistant superintendents will retire at the end of this school year.
Meanwhile, a pending change in the way towns pay for regional school systems threatens to strain regional relations, as all of the towns are already facing tight budget years. In fact, after a fairly impassioned discussion on Tuesday night, the West Tisbury finance committee voted to not recommend approval of the West Tisbury School budget at town meeting this spring. All the while, school budgets cannot be set in stone, since it is a contract negotiation year with all non-administrative staff.
There has also been added strain on the Edgartown School since it became the first Island school to not meet an annual progress requirement on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test this year.
And as Edgartown finds ways to tweak the curriculum and increase classroom hours in math, it is only a matter of time before the other Island schools are unable to meet rising score requirements.
The task of addressing these concerns ultimately falls on the shoulders of superintendent of schools Dr. James H. Weiss. In light of this, Mr. Weiss came to the Gazette on a recent morning to talk about the state of the Island's schools.
While Mr. Weiss considers all the issues normal and manageable, he has some concern for the morale of staff and students in the short-term.
"The leadership a principal provides in a school is so important, it does cause some insecurity in the school," Mr. Weiss said. "Of the six principals on the Island, there are three that will be new or interims over the next year and a half."
Mr. Weiss has secured an interim principal at the West Tisbury School and an interim leadership team at the Edgartown School, buying time in the search for longer-term solutions. The turnover of school administrators and staff is higher everywhere these days than it has been in the past, Mr. Weiss said.
"I think people are getting used to that," he said. "I don't think it's that there's something wrong with us," he added, noting the reasons for the departures of each administrator are different.
Mr. Weiss views the coming year-long leave of absence of Oak Bluffs principal Laury Binney as positive for the school. Since returning to work after a serious operation, Mr. Binney found he doesn't have the same energy and enthusiasm he had in his last 10 years as principal of the school, Mr. Weiss said.
Instead of going to another school system, Mr. Binney requested to take a break with the expectation he will be more effective when he returns.
If the Vineyard schools were all one school system, Mr. Weiss could shift school administrators at his will to fill in gaps, taking care of personnel situations faster, he said.
"In a perfect world, (Oak Bluffs assistant principal Carlin Hart) would be interim principal of the Oak Bluffs School," Mr. Weiss said, but it's possible that Mr. Hart will apply for the principal position in Edgartown. "It's like musical chairs," he said.
Many things would be different if all six Island schools - seven counting the Charter School - were all one school system. Although all of the Vineyard towns can attest to the challenges presented by regional school systems, there are advantages to be had by sharing resources.
"There is some move on the part of the school committees to - not regionalize, although that word does come up - but to cooperate," Mr. Weiss said. "We have, fundamentally, a good school system that will be made better as we become better at working together on every level. When I leave here, if there's an impact, that is where it will be."
Steamlining the elementary and middle school curriculums is another of Mr. Weiss's goals, to ensure that all students get equivalent educations in the same grade level at every school, and enter high school with equal preparation.
"Because of the way we're structured, we have not done that to the extent we should," Mr. Weiss said. "As it is, the schools have diverged significantly."
At a similar school system in New Hampshire, Mr. Weiss was charged with this task and met significant resistance; the schools pulled for local control at the expense of the betterment of the whole community.
The Edgartown School is in the process of looking at other curriculums on the Island - and across Massachusetts - for ideas on changes to raise its scores on the math portion of the MCAS standardized test. This fall, Edgartown became the first Island school to fail to reach a portion of its annual yearly progress (AYP) mandated by the state.
"We found out some very simple things," Mr. Weiss said. For example, while middle-school students were getting full hours of most academic subjects and over an hour of English language arts every day, they were getting less than a full hour of math. That has since been changed.
The MCAS bar rises every year for every school through AYP, and perfect scores are expected for all schools by 2014.
"There are plenty of schools that are in this situation or will be shortly," Mr. Weiss said, noting that Edgartown School is getting a head start on reevaluating its curriculum. This pressure on schools has made the test a subject of contention for educators and parents who are concerned that schools will "teach to the test" rather than focusing on quality education that encompasses more than the core subjects.
"Everyone's not on the same page with this issue," Mr. Weiss said, but the test does generate some valuable information, he said. "We get very good data on how our kids are doing on a daily basis." Mr. Weiss contends that schools generally don't have enough ways of assessing the quality of education in a school.
"We - we in education - have not been good at looking at ourselves and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute,'" Mr. Weiss said. "MCAS has filled that void and that's a measure, but it's not the only one. I think we need more and more ways of assessing kids."
One such assessment is a writing sample he requires of every Island school student in kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as in the high school. The samples are graded Island-wide rather than in the individual schools.
"There's a perfect way of assessing how you're working with youngsters," Mr. Weiss said. He calls writing "thinking at the end of a pencil" - a phrase he picked up from the book The Learning Leader, which he asked every school administrator to read this summer.
"We're pretty good on the mechanics stuff," he said, but the analytical thinking could improve. "We need to get back to the thought process of debate."
Putting aside the state's idea of what constitutes a good education, Mr. Weiss said he would like to see education take on a more global focus.
"We are a European-focused school system," Mr. Weiss said. "We don't think of the world when we teach world history - it's European history."
He said he would also like more world languages available to students, such as Asian and Middle Eastern languages.
"It's also the notion of competition on that larger field," Mr. Weiss said, since today's students will indeed grow up to participate in a global economy. He applauds the amount of travel that Island schools sponsor - including international trips - and says that Vineyard families travel more than any community he has worked in.
In the meantime, the six Island towns must cope with the realities of school budgets and tensions over who pays what.
"Not only do you have that aggregate wealth formula, this is a tough budget year in all of these communities," Mr. Weiss said. "Up-Island right now is going through some real angst around its budget."
An imminent change in the way towns pay for regional schools - using a wealth-based state formula that has been around for over a decade, but that managed to elude the Vineyard's attention until last year - especially will affect up-Island towns, which are members of two regional districts.
On the Vineyard, Tisbury stands to pay over $200,000 more for the regional high school in fiscal year 2008 than it would using the long-held enrollment-based formula to calculate the town's assessment. Chilmark would pay over $120,000 more and West Tisbury would pay $70,000 more under the state formula next fiscal year, while it would mean a savings of nearly $270,000 in Oak Bluffs, $117,000 in Aquinnah and $29,000 in Edgartown.
The Tisbury board of selectmen and members of the Tisbury school committee and school advisory committee met Jan. 11 with Cape and Islands state Senator Robert O'Leary at his office in Boston about the issue. Selectman chairman Tristan Israel asked Mr. O'Leary for legislation that would allow Vineyard towns to advance to the end of a five-year transition in the state formula that is exacerbating the difference between the state assessment formula and the local formula that has been used for decades.
Most of the contention surrounding the state's wealth-based formula comes from a general inability to understand the criteria that go into calculating a town's wealth - and ultimately, the portion of the total cost of the regional school that they owe. Even town treasurers, accountants and the one person on the Island that knows the most about such matters - assistant superintendent for business affairs Amy Tierney - have not been able to crack all of those questions.
"Public finance - it's hard to explain," Mr. Weiss said. "I wish it were simpler so the normal person can understand it." He said his best strategy is simply being as open and communicative as possible with the public.
Ever cool-headed and upbeat, with a Palm Pilot in his pocket that has every high school sports game digitally penciled in, Mr. Weiss's outlook for the Vineyard schools is positive.
"It's exciting because it's challenging," he said of his role as head problem-solver. "You never know what's going to happen by 10 o'clock."
In his first year as superintendent, he said, he was known for handling transportation issues. In his second year, he knows he will be known for handling changes in principals. He said he hopes that in his third year, the focus will go back to education.