An Update From the School Board
The second SAU-39 board meeting of the 2020-2021 school year was one of predictable nature; discussion, disagreement and resolve– a very democratic affair. I arrived in the Zoom waiting room at 5:56 pm on Thursday, October 29, not sure what to expect from my first encounter with the SAU-39 school board this year. All I knew was that superintendent Adam Steel and principal Mike Berry were sure to be there, and that, though the meeting was scheduled for two hours, it was certain to go on for much longer.
Entering the Zoom call, I saw a wide array of people, some who I knew and others I did not. A mixture of parents, principals, board members and community leaders all congregated together in the Zoom room, alone in their respective houses, all eager to discuss the night’s agenda. As the evening kicked off, the board chairman, Stephen O’Keefe, took routine attendance and passed the virtual microphone to superintendent Adam Steel to give his Superintendent’s Report. Steel began by acknowledging the switch from Empower to PowerSchool, and followed by guiding attendees through a rough sketch of the 2021-2022 school year. Steel regretfully added that next year’s holiday break would be one of the shortest in SAU-39 history– I myself was disappointed, and am sorry to say we will only be given six days off of school! It’s back to class on January 3.
Following this news, I was pleasantly surprised to hear what new plans were in debate, as I am sure most of the student body will be as well. Steel expressed how much he has learned in the few short months of the 2020-2021 school year, and how he is enthusiastic that SAU-39 will continue to learn a lot of important lessons from COVID-19 that will be implemented into the 2021-2022 school year. I was not so excited to hear that the board plans to begin next school year in early August rather than September, leading us to sit in hot and sticky classrooms for the month before New Hampshire begins to cool down. Steel also warned that this shift would likely necessitate school closure due to extreme heat– summer ‘snow-day’ anyone? What I was most excited to hear followed soon after, as Adam graciously reasoned that starting school in August would allow for more school breaks throughout the fall semester: a week in October, a week in November around Thanksgiving time, and a full two weeks during the winter holidays!
An important update for SAU-39 families: There have been questions about whether or not schools will go remote for winter segments five and six (from Thanksgiving break to after the start of semester two in January 2021). As of now, the odds of schools remaining open are better than initially expected thanks to a relieving lack of COVID-19 cases in Amherst and Mont Vernon, and encouraged by the results of community polls showing that most residents do not plan to travel during Thanksgiving or winter break. Although schools may not shut down completely, it is entirely possible that the SAU-39 district will shift to the ‘Orange’ and ‘Red’ phases established by the coronavirus response team over the summer. As of right now, the implementation of those phases are being discussed and finalized, so no need to set your quarantine desk back up quite yet!
Red: Campus Closed
Orange: Priority access for specialized sub-groups only 25%capacity
There was a brief conversation about school start times, which the board will need to confirm for implementation next year. The proposed times are 8:00 am for the elementary school and 8:45 am for the middle and high schools. The shifted start times would have no significant economic impact, and several enthusiastic members of the public chimed in to share their eagerness to see the school start times changed so their children, and students in general, can get enough sleep each night. Because the board approved the later start times last year, the odds of having later start times are favorable.
The bulk of the next half-hour was dedicated to the second part of Adam Steel’s Superintendent’s Report: the math system. The overall consensus is that, although SAU-39’s lowest-scoring Math NWEA results are still above state average, and that this year’s graduating class delivered the highest ever SAT math scores in SHS history (congrats seniors!), systemic change in the way math is taught in the SAU-39 district must be more seriously implemented, and soon. Although we as a district produce good results on standardized tests, we rank low in comparison to other top schools in New Hampshire. This led to a deeper discussion looking into the consistent growth in our math scores, as we already reflect in the reading department. The only way to produce steady progression is by solving the challenge at its core: changing our math curriculum. This shepherds a process of “research, implement, iterate”, which entails purchasing new text books and investing more funding into teacher development that may be proposed for the fiscal year 2023. As Steel phrased it, we want to ensure we don’t become a “test factory”, or test-obsessed, and that it’s better to implement these changes properly and effectively rather than quickly.
Following the Superintendent’s report came the Principals’ reports. Anna Perrill of Clark-Wilkins informed the board that although the Clark-Wilkins facilities still have adequate space to follow COVID-19 guidelines, some grades were close to capacity, but that she was impressed with her students’ willingness to adapt to the new circumstances.
Dr. Bethany Bernasconi of Amherst Middle School reported that the reopening process at the middle school was going well and that families struggling to adapt to dual-modality learning were being supported as best and fully as possible. Furthermore, unlike Souhegan and Clark-Wilkins, AMS has implemented the use of six outdoor classrooms: open-air tents set up outside, all of which will be running until the Friday before Thanksgiving break. Dr. Bernasconi reassured the board that, although it is certainly getting cold fast, students are dressing appropriately and are enjoying more time outside and away from their computer screens. Lastly, Dr. Bernasconi relayed the importance of E.A.G.L.E. Block, morning meetings and Launch Pad, saying these periods were being utilized for connection between online students and their in-person classmates and teachers.
Souhegan’s Mike Berry admitted that it’s been difficult for both teachers and students to adapt to dual-modality teaching, but that he was consistently impressed by both parties’ ability to be flexible in the face of ever-changing circumstances. He also elaborated that achieving a harmonious balance between finding readily implementable solutions for teachers while maintaining rigorous academics for students was challenging, as Souhegan maintains high standards on both fronts. When probed about how teachers were coping with what is certain to be the hardest and most testing of times in their careers, Berry said that teachers were responding well, but stated that everyone is in a slightly different position. He added that through this adversity, he is “grateful for it” and that teachers are doing as well as they possibly can. Berry honestly exclaimed that the SHS community was “blessed” to have the financial flexibility to make necessary changes, as Souhegan has been able to purchase new technology in order to help teachers bridge the modality gap between in-school and remote students. Mike Berry also alluded to the evaluation of the Social Studies curriculum at Souhegan in response to the county’s reckoning with race relations. Berry finished his report by expressing his enthusiasm with being the newest principal at Souhegan, saying that “it’s a great place to be” and that “kids are tremendously polite”.
Next, the board heard from the Joint Facilities Advisory Committee (JFAC), made up of 15 members representing 5 stakeholder groups, including the administration, school board, town government, community members, and Souhegan’s own Shannon Hargreaves. This committee has been deliberating since at least November 2018 and have presented budgetary figures for each school.
The Clark-Wilkins numbers include $23,200,000 to “kick the can”, $64,500,000 to renovate and $66,038,000 to rebuild the school. The committee recommended rebuilding the elementary school.
The AMS budget includes $30,600,000 to “kick the can”, $31,680,000 to renovate and $59,000,000 to rebuild the middle school. The committee recommended renovating and refurbishing the school as the best option.
At Souhegan, there is no option to “kick the can” nor to rebuild the school, so moderate changes are recommended to be made. A complete renovation of SHS would cost $35,000,000, while a partial renovation would cost a projected $2,500,000. The JFAC recommended the latter, which would include refurbishing the HVAC system, the annex science labs and the locker rooms, while also better securing Souhegan’s front entrance.
The SAU-39 board meeting concluded with board members splitting off into breakout rooms in small groups of four or five, with the objective of brainstorming some new goals for the SAU-39 board to adopt and work with. Some of these goals included bettering communication (specifically with the public), finding better ways to measure student growth (especially during the coronavirus pandemic), increasing the schools’ summer budgets, working with the administration to better each school facility, and to continue climbing into the ranks of the top school districts in New Hampshire.
The next SAU-39 board meeting is scheduled for November 19. This meeting will be open to the public, so be sure to head to https://www.sau39.org/page/2 to find the district calendar and Zoom links if you are interested in attending a meeting yourself! There is always time for questions and comments from the public, so if you have any concerns or want your opinion to be heard first-hand, the best way to do so is logging on at 6:00 pm!