News Feature

Deer Isle
Web exclusive, May 20, 2011
CSD 13 School Board urged to improve low faculty morale at high school

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High school art teacher Katy Helman asked the school board to work more collaboratively with the faculty on Tuesday, May 3. The comment at the board’s most recent meeting came on the heels of a discussion about board goals, with members discussing which goals were most important. Board member Andrew Vaughn, looking at the proposed list of six goals, suggested paring the list down to two or three to focus on. He added that the sixth goal, improving communication and community engagement, would likely help with achieving other goals on the list, such as improving school climate, teacher quality and student results.

“Morale is the lowest I’ve seen since I started teaching here,” said Helman, in response to Vaughn. “The first thing I try to establish with students is to make them feel good about what they’re doing. If you want to see things move ahead faster, you need to make us [teachers] feel supported in what we’re doing.”

Asked about what the board could do to that end, Helman suggested board members visit more classrooms and talk with teachers. She noted that a few board members are already either in the schools as volunteers, or have teaching experience, but encouraged others to come and see what a public school classroom is like, adding that she sees her fellow staff members suffering low self-esteem because of the news last year that the school is under-performing.

“The only cheerleader we have these days is Todd, who comes into staff meetings and says ‘no, we’re doing okay,’” explained Helman. “It’s hard to say we have a great relationship with the board right now.”

Todd West, principal at the high school, noted that board member Linda Nelson presented goals generated after a school board orientation meeting earlier in the year. He explained that the school has a set of goals that are guiding the faculty and administration’s work this year. While they are very similar to the goals the board developed, he said both groups may benefit by common goals arrived at by consensus.

Helman agreed with West, and suggested that rather than try holding one big community meeting, the board could use a process already employed in the classroom, getting many smaller groups together and then reporting to a bigger group on what the small groups have come up with.

Assistant Principal Mike Wood said he agreed with Helman’s comments, and added that he would love to see board members in the classrooms and in the halls.

“I think it would be helpful if the board sat down with teachers where people could just be relaxed and talk about what we think. You can’t make progress when it’s ‘us versus them,’” said Wood. He encouraged small groups of board members or individuals to setup informal meetings with faculty members to talk about what is happening in the school.

Board member Skip Greenlaw apologized for the lack of trust. Sarah Wilson, student representative on the school board, said students do not feel the board makes decisions that are best for them.

“It would be nice to see you in the halls, talking to our teachers and to us and that you know what it’s like to be a student at DISHS. You can look at our test results, but what it’s really like in our classrooms is something that cannot be put in words,” said Wilson.

The board left the topic after many members agreed to make more of an effort to talk with faculty and students. Based on the suggestion of a parent, the board will also put out a survey to be drafted by Nelson and Virginia Olsen, asking parents, teachers, students and community members for five good things about the school and five things that could be improved. Greenlaw also proposed the creation of a committee with a limited number of constituents from all the interested groups to talk about how to improve the school climate.

In other business, the board received a report from elementary school principal Mike Benjamin on student reading progress between September of last year and April of the current year in grade 5-8. He noted that nearly all grade levels have been showing improvement.

After spending time discussing the results, Nelson thanked Benjamin for the report and noted that results that clearly show student progress, whether positive or negative, is a good thing. Greenlaw added that new members may not be familiar with what reading consultant Sharon Bray does in the school and asked for a report from her at the board’s June meeting.

Benjamin also added in his report that the Big Brother/Big Sister program at the elementary school could not secure funding for next year, and he is currently working with some faculty and members of the community to see if the program can continue under a different name and a different source of funds. He noted that the program began two years ago with two students and there are now eight pairs of brothers or sisters.

Finally, Wood presented the board with a draft adult education budget for the coming year. The one major change next year is that he proposes hiring an assistant adult ed director who could be trained on the job by Wood and slowly take over more and more responsibility through next year. As part of the suggestion, Wood would take a pay cut, with the hope that he would be doing none of the work near the end of next year.

The board will hold its next regular meeting on Tuesday, June 7, in the elementary school library.