The shape of change

Through first year, reconfiguration remains complex issue

May 26, 2011

By Adam White
Observer staff

The reconfiguration of the Williston school system has proved, through its first year of implementation, to be:

Students work on a robotics project in a design and technology class at Williston Central School. The house structure at WCS and Allen Brook School changed this year as part of the school reconfiguration. (File photo)

A. Necessary

B. Challenging

C. Divisive

D. Successful

Based on responses from administrators, faculty and parents, the correct answer would have to be: E. All of the above.

While the reconfiguration has seemingly addressed concerns about equity and consistency that were first voiced by parents four years ago, it has also led to upheaval including the resignation of popular teachers and other issues at the Allen Brook and Williston Central schools.

“I’d say the overall feeling is that the reconfiguration was hard work that offered some benefits … but also came with some amount of loss,” said Rick McCraw, WCS’s teacher co-chair of the Program Council involved in the reconfigurations’ planning and implementation.

Roots of change

The reconfiguration’s roots can be traced back to an outcry from parents about equity within the multi-age setup of Williston’s house structure. Those parents unified and put pressure on the School Board to make a change.

“Parents were the impetus for reconfiguration,” said Jacqueline Parks, WCS principal. “For many years, the four-year age span teams (have) been debated within the parent community.”

The blueprint for the reconfiguration was designed with the input of several entities: each school’s Program Council, the school district’s administrative team and a special Conceptual Frameworks Committee set up specifically to explore re-shaping the system, both internally and with external input.

“Part of this process was rooted in a careful examination of the survey that went out to the community … prior to any discussion of reconfiguration,” said Margaret Munt, Allen Brook’s teacher co-chair of the Program Council.

Another goal of the reconfiguration was to address the issue of modular classrooms at ABS, which warranted immediate attention due to a 2009 ruling by the town’s Development Review Board requiring what Williston School Board Chair Holly Rouelle called “expensive modifications.”

“The current configuration allowed us to remove the mobile classrooms,” Rouelle said. “From a cost standpoint, the board chose to save the money needed to renovate the mobile classrooms to use for education purposes closer to teachers and students.”

Shock to the system

The reconfiguration involved far more than just a shuffling of the school system’s proverbial deck. The existing team structure facilitated bonds between faculty members that could not survive the changes.

“Reconfiguration meant the faculty had to split apart teams, many of whom had been working together for 15 years or more,” Munt said. “This was in many cases sad, painful, and a lot of extra work. The work aspect was both physical; having to split materials, take apart spaces, and make new classrooms (in most cases), and relational; to build new teaming structures and relationships with new people.”

McCraw said that steps were taken prior to the implementation in order to make the resulting transitions less jarring.

“Every single team from Grade 1 on experienced some degree of staffing change … but the administration worked hard to ameliorate that change,” McCraw said. “They provided extra summer planning time for teams that were new or faced major change, and that was helpful.”

Nonetheless, the reconfiguration produced some casualties among the faculty. Nick Brooks, an 11-year teaching veteran of WCS’s Voyager team who was slated to return to the school following a one-year leave of absence, instead resigned from his position last month. In a subsequent letter to parents, Brooks cited “differences with the current leadership and vision for the school” and later called the reconfiguration “a symptom of bigger problems” at WCS.

“If I had to summarize those problems, they come from an inconsistent sense of purpose within the administration and leadership,” Brooks said. “There is this shifting of pieces, instead of standing behind a consistent idea of what’s right for the kids and best for the school.

“The reconfiguration was not the final straw for me – but it was certainly a big part of it,” Brooks continued. “It is an indication of a bigger decision-making model that I just don’t agree with.”

Another teacher, Maria Daley, also resigned after 10 years at WCS. Pamela Cowan, a parent of one former and one current student within the Williston system, said that the loss of the two teachers left her “very concerned about the quality” of her younger daughter’s education, due to what she perceived as an “erosion” of fundamental communication.

“Because I doubt these two teachers would be willing to return, I want a full accounting of the situation because I don’t want all the good ones to disappear, leaving only those who go along with poorly constructed game plans,” Cowan said. “When two intelligent and reasonable people leave under controversy, you know that communication didn’t happen and that is never good for any organization and is the responsibility of its leadership, who should be held accountable.”

Parks said that while the resignations were not unexpected, communication was not to blame.

“The thought that some staff might choose to leave as a result of reconfiguration was recognized during the facilitated process as a possible outcome,” Parks said. “However, the School Board carefully chose a process that worked toward consensus, and valued input along the way. There were teacher representatives on the committee and opportunities for teachers to weigh in along the way.”

Also in his letter, Brooks challenged WCS’s “continuous improvement model for operation,” stating that it “does not place equal emphasis on all students and fails to recognize … some of the other important areas of student development.” This argument – mirrored in widespread opposition across the educational landscape to performance-based policies in the No Child Left Behind mold – is larger than just a reconfiguration issue, according to Parks.

“We have very diverse opinions in the community in all areas of education,” Parks said. “Finding common ground across and within the parent and teacher communities has been a challenge. However, everyone has had to give a little and move forward.”

Shapes of things to come

One of the single, most tangible benefits of the reconfiguration may share a direct link to the controversy of quantifying academic progress.

Parents raised an equally resonant voice when it came to Williston’s disappointing performance on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exams, particularly in areas like science. With those scores, students may have unknowingly ticketed their school’s setup for the wrecking ball anyway.

“A serendipitous, though unanticipated, advantage of reorganization is that (it) might have been required because of our performance on the NECAP standardized assessment,” McCraw said. “It is likely that this year’s reorganization would fill that requirement.”

Otherwise, it is difficult to assess the outright success of reconfiguration. McCraw admits that planners “did not set performance goals in connection to reconfiguration,” and that “other school initiatives, such as instructional improvements and more systematic support for struggling learners, would have much greater effects.”

Munt sees the answer as complex, much like the process itself and the issues that provoked it.

“Reconfiguration has been successful in terms of what it set out to do, but the price has been that many positive working relationships between professionals, para professionals, children and families were disrupted as a result,” Munt said. “There is no specific process to evaluate the reconfiguration per se, instead our energy and focus, as a school, is to evaluate our programs and continually refine them in the effort to improve the student’s learning.”