Winnacunnet HS report: Top leaders adversarial

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By Nick B. Reid

Hampton Union, November 5, 2013

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

HAMPTON — A glaringly critical section of a regional school evaluation committee's extensive report on Winnacunnet High School targeted "the lack of a collaborative, reflective and constructive relationship shared by the School Board, superintendent and principal," which has "severely and negatively impacted the ability of the school to achieve its 21st century learning expectations."

Only 16 percent of the staff believes the School Board, superintendent and principal collaborate effectively to ensure the learning expectations of the school are met, according to a survey conducted by Endicott College. The relationship is also called "adversarial," "not collegial or collaborative," and "defensive and tense," creating a "substantial disconnection between and among the School Board, superintendent and principal," according to the comprehensive, 65-page report prepared by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

The organization is charged with accrediting schools and colleges to ensure they are living up to high educational standards. Accreditation is structured in a 10-year cycle of self-study, peer review and follow-up. Winnacunnet wasn't immediately granted or denied accreditation.

The document was created after 17 evaluators stayed at the campus for three days in March, including 43 hours shadowing 17 students for half a day, 24 hours of classroom observation (in addition to the shadowing), numerous informal observations around the school, individual meetings with 34 teachers, group meetings with students, parents, school and district administrators and teachers, and an examination of student work. It evaluated the school's core values, curriculum and instruction and assessed students' learning. Additionally, it focused on school culture and leadership, school resources for learning and community resources for learning.

School Board member Henry Marsh noted some of the positive highlights of the report, including that the average dropout rate has decreased considerably to 1.5 percent.

"When I started on this board we were in the teens," Marsh said, noting also that student attendance is at 91 percent, and that 90 percent of graduating seniors felt the school had prepared them with the academic skills they will need for their future.

Though WHS is labeled a School In Need of Improvement as a result of not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress on statewide NECAP assessments in reading and math, its 2011 results on those tests were praised for their "significant progress," in which the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in reading, math and writing increased by more than 10 percent in each category over the 2010 results.

The school was also roundly praised for its diverse course offerings, its integration of technology despite lacking infrastructure, its professional development opportunities for teachers and its school pride, "which permeates the halls of the school."

But along with the good came some bad, including a few items that School Board Chairman Chris Muns said were "particularly troubling." One targeted a lack of respect perceived at times between teachers and some students in their classrooms.

"There is evidence of an undercurrent of disrespect between staff and students," the report states. "Some instances of staff verbalizing ideas counterproductive to unifying the students from various towns and socio-economic status were observed, including classroom observations that revealed small pockets of diminished levels of respect between staff and students."

Muns remarked that bit "jumped out at me as something that is of concern." He also pointed to a line stating that there was some discrepancy in teachers' expectations of different students.

"If we've taken the time to document in place certain policies and procedures you would think we would enforce them consistently," he said.

Muns also pointed out the comments about the lack of communication between the School Board, principal and superintendent.

"That's certainly something that I think needs to be discussed and looked at so we don't project that going forward," Muns said.

One section of the report specifically targets the principal's communication, saying that the staff recognizes his instructional leadership, but "also indicate that they are often hampered by inadequate engagement and communication." Staff pointed to "a number of instances when the principal and School Board were not united in major decisions impacting the school."

"The staff recognizes that these issues are not solely the responsibility of the principal, but they also believe that better communication and advocacy on behalf of the school is needed," the report states.

One such example in which the school's administration clashed with some members of the School Board was in the drawn out transition toward year-long core classes, which was delayed until the 2014-15 year after months of planning to implement the change for the present year. The report repeated a popular criticism of the current schedule, in which students can sometimes take, for instance, a math class during the first two trimesters of the year, then have the third trimester without math followed by the summer, resulting in the need to quickly get back up to speed the next fall.

"While both faculty and students praise the benefits of the current schedule and availability of electives, the trimester schedule does not allow for continuity in all core subjects, and students note the disadvantages of a class meeting for only two trimesters, stating that the first weeks of the trimester is used for review and not learning new content, especially when there is a gap of two trimester before the next sequenced course," the report states, noting also that, "Staff and students also express concern that the change in the schedule is being driven by the community and School Board, not by the deficiencies noted by the school itself."

Two areas of which the report was highly critical are presently being addressed by the school. First are the "obvious deficiencies" in technology, which were called "the most significant deficiency with respect to curriculum implementation." The report refers to "limited access to computers," "inadequate student computer functionality" in classrooms, and the "lack of wireless connections for students."

"The English department indicates that the lack of computer resources has led to a reduction in writing assignments and extended due dates," the report states, while, "The music department has difficulties obtaining music files to students and has met its storage limit on the server.

"Students cannot access school e-mail accounts due to poor server access, and some teachers have purchased external hard drives because some servers are full," it continues.

Since the NEASC team conducted its review, the school has adopted a multi-year technology plan that endeavors to overhaul the wireless infrastructure in the school and put a new device in each student's hands starting in the 2015-16 year. Similarly, School Board members stated that some of the report's concerns about building maintenance are already being addressed.

Report proves culture change is needed at Winnacunnet

An Editorial

Hampton Union, November 5, 2013

An evaluation committee's extensive report on Winnacunnet High School compiled in just a few days showed that many comments made about the school — good and bad — are even more obvious than we expected.

A handful of evaluators saw in just three days that Winnacunnet pride permeates through the halls. They saw that teachers are afforded ample opportunity to better themselves during the year in their professional development periods and after school at the Winnacunnet High School University. They saw they array of elective opportunities that have been adamantly defended.

There were, however, some troubling comments in the 65-page report prepared by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that don't bode well for the regional high school.

Chief among them were statements about the school's culture— students disrespecting one another, staff disrespecting students and an adversarial relationship between the School Board, superintendent and principal.

We urge all the stakeholders to review the recommendations made in the report — which is available on Winnacunnet's Web site — and determine a game plan on how to best address these major concerns.

It's disturbing that these items were picked up by the evaluators after only a three-day stay at the campus in March. You would expect when you know you're under a microscope — and the school's accreditation is on the line — that everyone would be on their best behavior.

It makes you wonder exactly what's going on when no one is watching.

Perhaps the single most troubling observation was the following: "There is evidence of an undercurrent of disrespect between staff and students. Some instances of staff verbalizing ideas counterproductive to unifying the students from various towns and socio-economic status were observed including classroom observations that revealed small pockets of diminished levels of respect between staff and students."

This is a red flag. The teachers are the ones who are supposed to be setting the example.

It's no wonder why the same report notes that a survey revealed that only 35 percent of students agree that students respect students and only 41 percent agree that students respect teachers.

While the school has done a lot in recent years to combat bullying and disrespect — installing a Freshman Seminar course with a unit around bullying and peer cruelty and instituting a school Unity project — it appears that it isn't enough.

The report noted that a student-prepared and school-produced WHTV news episode made light of what could be construed as a bullying scenario.

Then there is the relationship, or lack thereof, between the School Board, principal and superintendent.

A survey revealed that only 16 percent of the staff believes the School Board, superintendent and principal "collaborate effectively to ensure the learning expectations of the school are met."

The survey also reveals that only 10 percent of the staff agrees that the School Board and superintendent provide the principal with sufficient decision-making authority to lead the school effectively.

Teachers report this situation has resulted in turbulent and confusing working conditions which have negatively impacted staff morale.

Perhaps the negative morale is trickling down to the students.

The report offered several recommendations on what can be done about these culture issues and we urge all the parties involved to work to adopt them.

Winnacunnet officials said one of their goals is to be the best high school in New Hampshire. To make that a reality— staff and administration— needs to be on the same page.

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