MCAS an Unwelcome Guest in ORR’s Curriculum

            As the November 19 joint meeting of the Old Rochester Regional School Committee and Massachusetts School Superintendency Union #55 proved, an agreement is hard to come by where it concerns the reopening of district schools, namely whether the students should be back on campuses on a full-time basis. But what administration and committee members seem to agree on is that this is not an appropriate year for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing.

            Superintendent Mike Nelson announced that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is planning for the continuation of the MCAS, resulting in ORR having begun preparation for exams later in the winter. His relay of the information was not met with enthusiasm.

            “Frankly, I would say I feel the test will be useless.  You won’t be able to compare it year over year … and that’s the main purpose of an MCAS,” said ORR School Committee member Heather Burke. “At the high school, it’s for a graduation requirement, but also it’s to compare how the school is doing versus previous years in meeting educational goals. But with all the special circumstances this year, it’s always going to have an asterisk. You’re not really going to be able to compare.”

            Together with Dr. Colin Everett, the Old Rochester Professional Educators Association president, and with the collaboration of Rochester School Committee member Tina Rood, Burke drafted a letter to send to state government representatives. Everett got approval from his union to co-sign with Burke and Rood on the letter, and Burke requested “that the committee also vote for us to send this letter.”

            ORR School Committee member Margaret McSweeny offered her full support in the pushback against MCAS testing.

            “I understand that, some of the students, it was MCAS that they were supposed to take last year, and that would be something that I’d be willing to discuss a bit more. But as far as gauging some of their abilities this year and the gaps that they’ve had, I agree that it’s just not going to be a decent way to gauge the learning,” she said, adding that she welcomes the viewpoint of the district’s principals.

            “In years outside of a pandemic, we love an MCAS. We get so excited to test our kids,” said ORR High School Principal Mike Devoll. “There are some positives for sure in a normal year, sure, but if we’re held to a graduation standard, we can’t leave anybody behind (including juniors and sophomores)…. We play by the rules. But I have read the letter … and I feel comfortable that it represents the high school’s stance.”

            ORR Junior High Principal Silas Coellner sees MCAS as taking too big a bite out of the curriculum designed to help students with limited interaction due to the hybrid learning model.

            “One of the things I keyed on, especially with the social-emotional piece both with staff and students and with the kids’ face-to-face time being so reduced, it’s just precious,” he said. “And MCAS is also a time-consuming endeavor. I definitely agree with the letter, and I think it captures the thoughts of my staff as well.”

            ORR School Committee Chairman Cary Humphrey said, “It’s important that we’re all on the same page with this.”

            Both the ORR and union sides were on the same page, voting in favor of sending the letter.

            Meanwhile, a lack of confidence in the administration’s transparency concerning a plan for reopening schools on a full-time basis manifested in the comments from the public and union-side Chairman Shannon Finning.

            Finning thanked the administration at the start of the meeting for its October 30 delivery of the addendum posting details on a potential plan for a full, in-person return to school. After, Finning stated for the record her intention to ask for immediate knowledge on “how students, families, and how other constituents will have the opportunity to provide feedback on the plan as promised on the first page of the document.”

            During the open comment segment of the meeting, Stephanie Clark would later say, “I’m troubled that we’re being stonewalled at every turn,” referencing “the lack of transparency and communication by the administration and in each town. We’re still not getting complete answers.”

            Clark asked why the respective school committees didn’t have the addendum before October 30. “Why does ORR not follow [DESE]?” Clark asserted that Plymouth and Bridgewater use 3 feet as a safe-distancing standard (as opposed to ORR’s 6-foot standard), suggesting that, based on ORR’s own feasibility study, 4½ feet would suffice.

            Finning asked if Nelson or committee members would like to respond to Clark. Nelson said that he delivered on the feasibility report what was requested and received “no feedback that I was out of compliance in any measure.

            “I did hear the feedback from school committee members and parents. The addendum included things we learned since the start of school,” Nelson continued, adding that ORR has taken the close-contact definition as it currently stands.

            Clark reiterated her concerns, saying that as the data has changed, it has not been possible to initiate meetings to discuss how the new information might affect how the schools should plan. While efforts by Nichole Daniel and Carly Lavin to engage Clark had limited success, Nelson said he was willing to attend any meeting to further communication.

            Led by Jim Muse, several committee members voiced their support for Nelson’s work on the reopening.

            Committee member Frances Kearns said, “We would be remiss if we don’t accept that COVID-19 affects communities of color at a greater rate,” adding that science takes time to understand such factors and that the Center for Disease Control has revised its guidance. Kearns said it’s important to keep an open mind and be aware of the data.

            Humphrey told the committee that he has a high school daughter he believes needs to be back in school full time, but he accepts that cannot be the case at this time. He discussed the concerns of Tri-Town parents who want their children back in school and teachers and staff who fear the conditions they work under right now, much less with students back full time.

            “As school-committee members, we’re caught directly in the middle. We’re not all going to agree. None of us signed up for a COVID school committee,” said Humphrey. “I don’t know if I speak for everybody, but I do believe Mike’s done a good job with this. My time on the Region School Committee, the times I’ve worked with Mr. Nelson since this started, I have to give him high grades, I really do. None of us want our kids to be out of school.”

            Nelson said he feels the same way about his children and that it remains the district’s desire to bring them back full time when it is considered safe to do so.

            “We all interpret information differently,” said committee member Joe Pires. “We were going to the full extent of what was allowed. At the end of the day, I believe we have to side with safety.”

            In his report, Nelson noted that, of the 21 positive cases of COVID-19 among students or staff this academic year, the cases have been isolated in nature with seven at Sippican Elementary School, three at Center School, none at Rochester Memorial, four at Old Hammondtown, two at ORR Junior High, and five at the high school.

            Among elementary school students in Mattapoisett, 408 are in the hybrid learning model, and 30 are fully remote. At Rochester, 420 are hybrid and 30 fully remote; in Marion, 331 are hybrid and 62 fully remote. At the junior high, 357 are hybrid and 57 fully remote; at the high school, 643 are hybrid and 74 fully remote.

            Nelson reported to the committee on his two-year goals that he considers flexible and fluid.

            Noting the new Central Office team, Nelson’s new role, and the coronavirus pandemic, Muse said he appreciated “all the hard work that’s gone on, especially the superintendent and everyone in his office.”

            Kearns thanked Nelson for his ongoing commitment to making ORR an anti-racist school.

            Asked about student-outcome benchmarks, Nelson said he has discussed the subject with his coach and Whitman-Hanson Superintendent Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner and envisions the inclusion of student benchmarks going forward. Committee member Sharon Hartley said student progress is in the goals. The region and union sides voted unanimously to approve Nelson’s goals as presented.

            A discussion about how the academic year will be affected by snow days led committee member Margaret McSweeny to suggest faculty input before making any decision. The committee did vote to authorize Nelson to designate snow days as hybrid ‘out’ days, so students do not lose ground due to weather.

            Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Howie Barber gave his report and discussed his meeting with Tri-Town officials hosted by the Marion Capital Improvement Planning Committee.

            Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Jannell Pearson-Campbell lost her father the week before the meeting and was not able to attend. Nelson expressed sympathy on behalf of the district, saying, “It was clear the day we met her in her interview how important her family is to her, and we’re here to support her,” he said.

            The next meeting of the Joint School Committee is scheduled for March 11.

Joint Meeting of the ORR School Committee andSuperintendency Union #55

By Mick Colageo

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