A team of off-Island educators found mostly good things to say about the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School during a 10-year accreditation visit last April.
In a 134-page report released this month, the New England Association of Schools & Colleges Inc. (NEASC) evaluated the quality of the school’s educational programs.
NEASC sent a group of reviewers to the high school last April for a four-day critique.
While they did not withhold criticism, the committee largely commended the Island’s regional high school, highlighting meaningful instructional methods, alignment of the curriculum with the Common Core and the collaborative formation of school-wide beliefs.
The study involved interviews, a review of school documents, and a self-study prepared by school staff members and stakeholders.
Committee members shadowed students, interviewed parents and observed classes while in session.
The result is a lengthy report broken into two main areas of critique: teaching and learning standards, and support of teaching and learning standards. Each of these areas is divided into sections culminating in a list of commendations and recommendations.
In the report, reviewers lauded the school’s active use of its core values and 21st century learning expectations, which are reviewed and assessed regularly they said.
They commended the school culture, describing it as safe, positive and respectful.
Further, they praised the “dependable funding” supplied by the district and surrounding community.
The guidance department received a favorable review, though the reviewers noted the large size of the case load.
“The school has timely, coordinated, and directive intervention strategies for students, particularly identified as special needs and at-risk students, that support those students’ achievement of the school’s 21st century learning expectations,” the report says.
Still, they pointed out several deficiencies school-wide and provided recommendations for improvement.
The report said teachers are not given enough time to plan together, and cross-disciplinary planning was not enough of a priority. Only 44.2 per cent of the staff believes that the curriculum emphasizes cross-disciplinary learning, according to a survey conducted by Endicott College.
“While some small groups of teachers collaborate on their own time, this is not a school-wide occurrence,” the report found.
Principal Stephen Nixon said to properly address the need for faculty collaboration, the school would have to amend the block scheduling system.
“It would have to be built into a schedule where you totally change the time constraints within the schedule,” he said, noting that the administration has already begun discussions about its effectiveness.
Cross-disciplinary planning is one of three items requiring urgent action, which the school district must work to address by September, in a special progress report.
The report must also detail efforts to install a new roof and conduct a formal evaluation of the heating ventilation and air conditioning system.
The third item calls on the school to improve equity by holding all students to high expectations, and removing “all barriers to self-nomination” for courses.
“While most students interviewed said that they feel valued, students taking classes on two of the lower academic tracks oftentimes feel disenfranchised and do not feel as though decisions are made based on what is best for them,” the report said.
Mr. Nixon said the high school has already begun to assess what is known as ability level separation or tracking in play at the high school, which divides kids into College I and College II for much of the core academic areas.
“Anytime you have a system of levels in place, there will be a perception that one level is better than the next level, but that is not necessarily the case at all,” he said. The administration is experimenting with the current freshmen, who are enrolled in heterogeneous science and English classes. History is taught to mixed-ability student groups in all years.
At the high school committee meeting Tuesday, Mr. Nixon said heterogeneous instruction works best when the teachers are trained in differentiating the content of their lessons. But a preliminary survey showed 70 per cent of teachers found the heterogeneous system to be effective, the principal said.
Reviewers were particularly blunt in their criticism of the leadership structure, which they said favored the central office, and deprived the high school of leadership power. “The principal’s decision-making authority has been compromised by the tendency of the superintendent and assistant superintendent in micromanagement of the school,” they wrote. “According to the self-study, teacher interviews, department leaders, central office personnel and school leadership, it is clear that the building principal does not have the autonomy to lead the school and institute his vision.”
Further, they criticized the blurred lines of the administrative contracts, which lead to role confusion, they wrote.
Schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss said the report revealed confusion about management domains. “I am not sure that the members of the visiting team understood our structure,” he said.
He said the job descriptions overlap, but that he and Mr. Nixon understand their separate roles. The challenge is to convey that to the staff and community, he said.
“While Dr. Nixon is in charge of the building, I am in charge of the district and where those lines intersect is something that can be difficult to understand,” he said.
Mr. Weiss plans to retire in a year and a half, and said he’d like to clarify the roles before the next superintendent takes the helm.
He said he was hired not to regionalize the curriculum in the schools, but to coordinate it, kindergarten through 12th grade.
Therefore curriculum is developed in concert with the elementary schools.
“That is kind of a joint responsibility,” Mr. Weiss said. “Steve’s responsibility is 9 to 12, but it has to fit into the context of the K to 12, and that is hard for some people to grasp and want to grasp.” Overall the superinßtendent and principal said they were pleased with the report. “It basically speaks for itself,” Mr. Nixon said. “You have to look at the fact that there are only three areas that were prioritized for working on right away, that is really good. There was nothing glaring that took anyone by surprise.”