Administration reveals specifics in upper house configuration plan

School reveals changes to upper house structure

Parent opposition group schedules community forum

May 1, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Williston School District officials have revealed updated plans for reconfiguring the upper house structure at Williston Central School. Two houses will be dissolved and the reshuffling of teachers will create a new four-teacher team, according to District Principal Walter Nardelli.

Changes are set to take effect at the beginning of the next school year.

The plans come in the face of recent opposition from parents who have organized as the Williston Schools Re-Configuration Campaign for Change. The group is hosting a community forum at the Williston Federated Church on Monday, May 5 at 7 p.m.

Member Jeff Smith said it would be an opportunity for parents to work towards their goal of changing the configuration plan.

"I think we will change it," Smith said. "We have to."

Nardelli stressed he wants the best for the students and that pleasing everyone is impossible in the process.

"It doesn't matter which way you go, you're going to have unhappy people," he said.

In the new upper house configuration, every house but Meeting House will experience change. Phoenix and Verve Houses will dissolve, according to a letter sent to parents by the administration. A new team will be created with teachers Jessica Contois of Phoenix House, Debra McConnell of Verve House, and Dominique St. Arnaud and Deb Taylor of Voyager House.

Voyager House will add Amy Durant and Aron Merrill of Phoenix. Swift House will take on an extra group of fifth graders and add Susan Mahony of Phoenix. Full House will take on an extra group of eighth graders and add John Duncan of Verve, according to Nardelli.

Rick McGraw of Verve will become the interim math coordinator next year while current coordinator Cristin Milks is on maternity leave, Nardelli said.

Configuration history

Swift House teacher Al Myers wrote a letter to his house's parents, explaining the decisions made on configuration.

"Information is the most powerful thing to have as opposed to innuendo," he told the Observer. "A great majority of parents weren't informed enough."

Myers is co-chairman of the Program Council and was on the subcommittee that helped determine the final configuration proposals. He said three plans were put forth to faculty and administrators. The current configuration proposal came from the best parts of the two plans, he said.

Myers began teaching at Williston Central School in 1973. He said the current house structure of four-year houses with four-teacher teams began in 1991 when the school expanded due to increased class sizes.

Before 1991, Williston was set up with a kindergarten through third grade primary school, a fourth and fifth grade multi-age structure, and a sixth through eighth grade multi-age structure. The older configuration was proposed in the latest round of configuration talks, but would have required dismantling all the teams, Myers said.

Myers likes the new proposal, but admits it poses challenges.

"The challenge we face is that two teams will have more kids," he said. "Right now, we have an 'even-Steven' structure."

He also said the new team will have to learn how to work best together.

Community reaction

Smith, a guidance counselor at Essex Middle School who, along with his wife, Anne, has vocally opposed the latest proposal, said students are currently missing out on science and social studies instruction. He believes the structure hinders the potential of students, pointing to recent NECAP scores as evidence.

"These are some of the major issues of accountability with the school," he said.

Abby Klein, who has children in fifth and seventh grade and is a member of the Williston Schools Re-Configuration Campaign for Change, thinks nothing is being done in regards to parent concerns.

"The administration had a golden opportunity to do something and they totally squandered it," said Klein, who unsuccessfully ran for the School Board earlier this year. "It was shocking. It's just taking a bad system and making it worse."

Nardelli denies the administration is not listening to parents' concerns, stating he's read more than 300 pages of responses from the December 2007 configuration survey taken by Williston residents.

"I can say, for the most part, what we saw is what's being said," Nardelli said. "It's kind of the same points. They haven't really changed — the isolation of students and the transition to fifth grade."

School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth admitted to being surprised by much of the negative reaction.

"What surprised me most was the tone of the reactions," she said. "Some people are very angry and very rude in what they're saying."

Worth said she likes the house system and would like to see it continue, but also knows parents concerns must be listened to.

"I think what people are saying is that they haven't been listened to over the years and they've lost trust in the administration and the board," she said. "We need to work to earn back that trust."

Klein said she hopes the parents' reconfiguration organization can urge the board to investigate and question the configuration changes.

"They basically just listened to what the administration did and put a rubber stamp on it," Klein said.

But not all parents are unhappy with the changes. Melissa Akey said her fifth grade son had a "very positive" experience with the current house structure.

"The teachers have a created a strong sense of community and helped our son greatly," Akey told the Observer. "He's had a lot of support from eighth graders as mentors."

Overall, she likes the changes the administration has put forth. Her worries concern the overtaxing of teachers who will take on the extra fifth and eighth grade. Akey said she's not alone in supporting the new configuration.

"I know a lot of people are very happy," she said. "I don't know where they are. I'm trying to round them up, though."

At the upcoming parent meeting, Smith said all community, School Board and administration members are welcome. Worth said she would be unable to attend due to a previously scheduled vacation. Nardelli said he "wasn't sure" if he would attend.

"We're all on the same team and we have to reach a consensus," Smith said. "It's nothing personal against the administration, it's just an issue on the structure."