By Kaitlin Servant and Sarah Champagne
SOUTHBRIDGE – Jeffrey Villar, receiver of Southbridge Schools, presented an update on the district at a joint meeting of the Southbridge Town Council and the School Committee Tuesday, Oct. 10. Elected town officials had arranged the meeting on the date of the planned monthly school committee meeting to create a forum to discuss the state of the district, the district turnaround and other aspects of the school system.
Villar began his presentation with data reflecting a brief overview of the district’s performance on the MCAS test in the 2017 – 2018 school year. That data showed that in both English language arts and in mathematics, the district was still considerably below average for towns in the state.
“These are sobering results. There is no way to sugarcoat it,” Villar said. “The bottom line is we are in the bottom 5% of schools across the state. A tremendous amount of work is required.”
After two slides summarizing the English and Math results, Villar provided a third slide that measured letter naming fluency by the widely used DIBELS scale. DIEBELS is an acronym for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. The test is used to assess future risk of falling behind in English and language arts and current progress of a student, or students, in language and literacy skills.
For Southbridge kindergarten students, only 11 out of 136 students were at a satisfactory grade level for this measure. 13 students were in a “strategic” category for improvement and 112 students were in a category requiring “intensive” support and intervention to bring literacy skills to a standard level. Villar said, “It tells us we have a great deal of work to do around language arts and closing gaps and helping students acquire the skills necessary to be good readers.” He went on to say, “It is critical that students come out of our early schools learning to read because at some point we will be transitioning them to Reading to Learn as they get older. So literacy is very important. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Villar explained that climate and culture, as well as language arts, need to be key areas of systemic focus.
“Improving these areas is essential if we are going to have the academic foundation necessary to show long term sustainable improvement in all content areas,” he said.
Talent retention was another theme throughout the presentation and the receiver stated it was one of the biggest challenges he faces, referencing the district’s high turnover in the last four years.
“We need to invest in our staff, retain staff and build their capacity if we are going to see the type of improvement that our children require and deserve,” Villar asserted.
The district has a 55% retention rate and the receiver acknowledged that replacing that many employees on an annual basis is a “recipe to not improve.” The district is in a race to hire talent against other competing districts who are also dealing with fewer applicants due to a current economy with full employment.
Villar reported that the district has implemented a career ladder structure to help incentivize and motivate teachers to stay in the district. Work is being done with the Teachers Association and school leadership “to find ways to make our current staff feel appreciated and supported.” Villar also stressed the importance of “state of the art training necessary to be good teachers in 2018.”
Other topics included key partnerships with outside organizations to assist in improving climate and culture and language arts.
DESE has supported the district with a connection to UCONN and EASTCONN to enhance the use of Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS), an educational behavioral model for school experience and learning success. The PBIS model seeks to improve behavior and learning an also addresses issues of climate and culture.
“This is a data driven well researched approach to improving school climate and culture and engaging students in learning,” Villar noted.
Villar urged interested parties on the committees and at home to visit the website (www.pbis.org) to find out more about it. He said that he has already witnessed some progress being made this year that he attributes to the initiative, but acknowledges there is still much work to be done in that area.
Villar reports that another partnership with Momenta, an organization with expertise in literacy instruction, has also provided fruitful results. Through part of a $100,000 grant from the state to implement a K-5 literacy program, the district worked with Momenta to perform a needs assessment of the district last spring. One of the goals was use previous investments in curriculum wisely where it made sense to.
“Often that seems to be the solution brought forth, that we need new stuff. New support materials.” As part of the assessment of materials purchased over the past four years, they found that the district already owned several unused or underutilized programs such as a highly rated National Geographic language arts program that is particularly effective for second language learners , as well as a previously purchased phonics program, a letter recognition program for early learner and a high quality structured writing program. Those resources have been pulled together to create a new instructional program, with a focus on balanced literacy. And it was done without having to invest in all new materials,” the receiver explained.
Villar also stressed that metrics are being used to measure progress and to make adjustments as needed. His team uses tools that are already available and free through Google’s g-suite to track observable data points of adult behavior in classrooms.
Villar reported to the town council and school committee members that the plans and structure that was optimistically put into place before the start of the school year is now being tested and any flaws or drawbacks are being corrected with experience.
“So often we set things once and somewhat mindlessly continue with the plan regardless of feedback on the ground. We are trying to create a plan that is responsive to feedback and relocate resources accordingly,” he explained.
In addition to talking about what was going on at the schools in classrooms, the school budget was also a major talking point.
Villar started the budget portion of his presentation by pointing out that the district has been successful in obtaining several grants. For example, in early September Southbridge was awarded a $350,000 21st Century grant to fund an after school program for upper elementary school students. That grant is likely to be renewed for three years. DESE has also provided direct monetary support to the district which has helped with various projects.
Another important financial point Villar highlighted, was the return on investment they are seeing with Southbridge Academy. Investments made to open the hybrid therapeutic day school last year have not only provided an alternative school option for students who need it, but it has allowed 11 students to return to the district that were previously taking advantage of school choice. That alone has saved the district $452,000.
Unemployment costs were a “sore subject” discussed by Villar and town officials. After laying off 36 employees last year, the district has been left with high unemployment costs.
Villar also reported that there will be some upcoming costs such as vehicles that need to be replaced, IT infrastructure that is beginning to be outdated after seven years, and possible costs for trash pick up depending on the outcome of the lawsuit between the town and Casella.
School Committee member Martena Shea requested more detailed budget information and transparency and recalled a year when the town council and school committee were caught off guard by a $3 million deficit when they were under the impression things were on track. “I would like a snapshot monthly or bi monthly as to where we are with expenditures.” Villar responded that he is looking to be transparent and takes the unique responsibility of a receiver over the budget very seriously.
Town Council Chairman Jovan asked the receiver what the feedback to his leadership and plan has been so far given the lack of consistency over the years. “Have you been able to gauge your staff’s buy in into what you are trying to put forward in the district?” Villar acknowledged a “raw nerve” where teachers and other staff are waiting for him to leave.
“I candidly believe it’s going to take a while until people believe that I’m a serious guy and I want to be here until it gets better.”
He noted that teachers want to be supported and the instability over the years has made an already difficult job even harder for them. “I think they are waiting to see and we need to stay the course.”
Villar mentioned that the principal sent a letter out to families inviting them to volunteer in the school.
“We would be happy to train folks to have them work in our schools and to help contribute in the cafeteria and provide some adult role models for kids in schools. Getting a climate that is conducive to teaching and learning is a community thing.”
Councilor Nash later pointed out that he was disappointed that “there isn’t one parent in this room” and he hoped that district parents would find time to watch the meeting at home because education is “critical to the future of our community” and everyone needs to do their part.
Councilor Auclair concluded her comments at the meeting by stressing how important it is for the receiver and the town’s leadership to work together.
“This community needs to be able to trust the receiver and we need to build that trust together. We are all on the same team and want to see the district flourish and working together is the best way to do that.”