Staffing plan spotlighted

Published 10:37 pm Friday, May 9, 2014

The first round of hires under Superintendent Deran Whitney’s shakeup of instructional support roles fronted the School Board on Thursday to explain what they’ve been doing to improve academics.

Among 19 new positions that Whitney had hoped to fill over two years, the nine instructional supervisors and specialists started in their new roles last fall.

After Douglas Dohey, director of secondary leadership, and Pamela Connor, director of elementary leadership, presented on what the instructional specialists have been doing to help classroom teachers improve student performance, board members asked questions indicating they’re anxious to see results reflected in test scores.

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Chairman Michael Debranski said that his biggest concern is how much time the specialists are spending in classrooms “with teachers and students specifically in need.”

“Sixty percent of the time,” Conner estimated.

Catherine Walsh, supervisor of science instruction, added, “I was in a classroom the other day and the students said, ‘Hey Dr. Walsh,’” indicating they’re in classrooms enough that repeated introductions aren’t necessary.

Debranski also asked how much the specialists, who travel school-to-school though their jobs are head-office positions, communicate directly with principals.

“It’s constant,” Walsh said, citing phone calls, emails, face-to-face meetings and more.

Whitney explained that principals could call in a specialist to observe the classroom of a teacher they are concerned about. “They are assigned to a school, so they become part of that (school’s) leadership,” he said.

Board member Linda Bouchard asked whether the specialists are guiding teachers, or if it’s the other way around.

Teachers will state what they need and the specialists will go in and provide it, answered Kimberly McGrath, supervisor of English instruction. “It’s wherever their need is, so I guess it’s kind of both,” she said.

Next, Bouchard said she has heard complaints from teachers at one high school that “you are setting standards for one high school that (don’t) necessarily apply to another.”

She also wanted to know how much time the specialists spend preparing tests and collecting and evaluating data.

Answering the second question, McGrath said that it depends on the juncture and the “content level,” adding, “Every day it’s pulling some type of data … it is an ongoing process.”

“It’s fair to say that that is perhaps the biggest challenge — trying to balance that,” Whitney said.

Bouchard continued, “Maybe there’s a difference between what you think is support and what they think is support; they think it’s just another central-office big wheel telling them what to do. I think that’s what it really has come down to this year.”

Walsh said that what teachers are being asked to do this year by the specialists is “a huge thing.”

“It’s a brand new way of thinking about what they teach,” she said, adding that they are “very careful” to bring an “olive branch” when approaching teachers they think are going to be resistant.

“We are really here to help, and we are all classroom teachers.”

Enoch Copeland asked what the chances are, based on the available data, that reading and math results will be improved this year, adding, “That seems to be the major sticking point.”

Improvements are being made in English, McGrath said, and test results “also indicate math skills are growing.”

Ashley Heberling, supervisor of mathematics instruction, said for math, “I’m not saying it’s completely going to change overnight, but we are making gains.”

Lorraine Skeeter wanted to know what qualifies specialists for their roles. Her doctoral degree, Walsh answered. Dohey said, “They were selected based on their ability to lead others.”

The state is also compelling teachers to teach differently, Whitney said, adding, “We must say, ‘What can we do differently? What is the research suggesting? What is the state recommending?’”

Judith Brooks-Buck said she had worked in a similar job. “Sometimes, I believe, people look at these positions as glamorous positions,” she said. “However, I ate a lot of lunches in the car — when I got a chance to eat them.”

Decreeing the new staffing arrangement in the first half of 2013, Whitney said it would be cost-neutral; however, the Suffolk News-Herald determined that full implementation would likely cost more than the 13 positions eliminated to create the 19 new ones.

Six district schools missed full accreditation in 2013, based largely on poor results for reading and math after new assessments were introduced in recent years.

The district’s proposed 2014-2015 budget contains no allocation to implement the second phase of the superintendent’s bid to turn things around.