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Accountability needed in Williston schools

Oct. 7, 2010

By a group of concerned Williston parents

Recently, in response to Vermont’s poor performance on the science portion of the New England Common Assessment Program tests, Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca said, “We obviously have a long way to go regarding how well our students acquire science skills and knowledge.”

Sadly, most former Williston eighth graders have more than twice as far to go as several of our neighboring schools. Williston’s eighth grade performance on the science NECAP exams declined a total of 20 percent (from 46 percent to 26 percent proficient) over the past two years while other schools have demonstrated modest gains year to year.

Several of us are emotionally mourning the permanent academic gap our Champlain Valley Union High School freshmen and sophomores incurred at Williston Central School. According to the National Science Teacher Association middle school position statement, “Research has shown that if educators don’t capture students’ interest and enthusiasm in science by grade 7, students may never find their way back to science.” Furthermore, “Science concepts must be presented in an age-appropriate, engaging way so that students can build on their prior knowledge and attain the necessary background to participate successfully and responsibly in our highly scientific and technological society.” We question whether Williston can continue to afford practicing multi-age science instruction with non-specialist teachers when it’s not professionally accountable.

Many residents of our wealthy and professionally educated town are outraged with Williston’s results. Even President Obama contends, “At this defining moment in our history, preparing our children to compete in the global economy is one of the most urgent challenges we face. We need to stop paying lip service to public education, and start holding communities, administrators, teachers, parents and students accountable.”

We contend it’s time for our community to hold our school administration accountable for this science crisis. In spring 2008, our administration was totally unaware if our middle school students were receiving the state minimum 120 hours of science instruction per year when questioned by parents who recognized an absence of science instruction in Williston. All other local schools stated instantly, on the phone, that they exceeded the 120-hour minimum, with upwards of 180 hours of instruction.

In contrast, our administration had to perform a two-month-long audit, searching academic house by academic house for hours of instruction, to account for the minimum. At that time, most houses had an equivalent of a half-year of science and this was never questioned. Through the 2010 budget process it was revealed that our administration allowed the middle school science department to go 10 years without replenishing, updating and expanding science equipment. In response, just $10,000 was budgeted to get classrooms up to snuff while test scores spiraled downhill.

In neighboring middle schools, students have been engaged in daily, hands-on and lab-based science instruction for years. Most Williston classrooms are now just beginning some lab-based instruction. State Director of Educational Assessment Michael Hock remarked, “Students continue to show the greatest difficulty with the inquiry portion of the (NECAP) test, which requires them to analyze, draw conclusions and make predictions from data they collect during a hands-on investigation that is part of the assessment.” Williston’s immediate goals need to model the National Science Teacher Association position statement to “Engage students in laboratory investigations a minimum of 80 percent of the science instruction time.” You simply can’t “learn inquiry” unless you practice it.

Demographically, South Burlington, Essex and Essex Junction are the schools we need to compare ourselves with and strive to excel above. Our kids deserve to perform equally as well in all academic areas. It’s time the administration and School Board address WHY we have failed to meet state Adequate Yearly Progress in math and reading for low socio-economic and special needs students five years running and WHY we are underachieving and now dramatically declining in science. With five-plus years of accountability data from “No Child Left Behind,” our problems are loud, clear and indefensible.

As a start, our administration and School Board need to implement immediate changes including mandatory daily single-grade, lab-based science taught only by certified science teachers and supplying classrooms with all the materials they need.

This will be a truly difficult budget year, particularly with so many scars on our school’s performance. We strongly contend, however, that our repeated failures are NOT a budgetary issue; they are an ADMINISTRATIVE ACCOUNTABILITY issue that begins at Williston Central School and ends at the superintendent’s office. The elephant has been in the room for well over five years now (most accurately 15 years now) and it’s not going away unless it’s forced to. As the administration’s “boss” or the party to whom they must answer, this issue is the Williston School Board’s charge.

We urge anyone who has concerns about our science program or other programs and/or potential solutions to please write our School Board at WSDschoolboard@cssu.org and attend the November board meeting, where a NECAP Science presentation is scheduled. All meetings are open to every community member. We don’t want more families to have to mourn a huge gap in their child’s education in the years to come.

Gretchen and William Decker, Abby and Joel Klein, Jake and Meghan Mathon, Jane Petrillo, Paul and Joanne Reiss, David Rose and Cynthia Gurdak Rose, Ann and Jeff Smith and Dorothea Wilkinson are Williston residents who have or have had children at Williston Central School.