Accrediting agency suggests a few ways to better HVRHS
FALLS VILLAGE â€” The long-awaited report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges is in and itâ€™s a mixed bag.
For months, officials at Housatonic Valley Regional High School have been waiting for the report from the regional accrediting association charged with evaluating New Englandâ€™s 1,900 public schools, independent schools, colleges and universities. Reaccreditation typically occurs every 10 years.
â€œI think the conclusions are best summarized at the end: â€˜Itâ€™s a place of caring,â€™â€ Principal Gretchen Foster said of the 61-page report, which arrived late last month. â€œIâ€™m pleased they noticed.â€
As required by NEASC, Fosterâ€™s office released the document last month to the news media and the public, within 60 days of its release by the association. The association will forward its findings to the New England Association of Schools and Collegesâ€™ Commission on Public Secondary Schools, which will make a decision on the reacreditation of Housatonic. Foster said itâ€™s not clear when that determination will be made. Experts say it is rare that established schools are denied reaccreditation.
The 15-member NEASC visiting committee was on campus for four days in March. The committee reviewed the detailed self-study that had already been put together by department heads over the last two years at Housatonic. Individual committee members spent 45 hours shadowing 15 students for half a day apiece. They observed classes for a total of 17 hours, toured the facility and made â€œnumerous informal observations in and around the school,â€ according to the report.
The committee had many positive points to make about the goings-on at Housatonic. Members were impressed at the resources available at the 550-student school, including the variety of student services, supportive technology, health-care access and the library-media center.
The student assistance team, which meets weekly, received praise for its attempts â€œto generate instructional strategies for students who are not successful in class.â€ In the area of assessment of student learning, the faculty was commended for its willingness to let students revise and resubmit work and for its â€œaccessibility to students and parents relative to student academic progress.â€
Need for written plans
But the committee also saw room for improvement in several areas. The findings lamented the â€œpaucityâ€ of written curriculums for most departments, making it â€œdifficult to determine if all students have sufficient opportunity to practice and achieve the schoolâ€™s academic expectations.â€ As a result, the committee concluded, the â€˜taughtâ€™ curriculum is based primarily on individual teacher determination.â€
Foster said the report verified what she observed when she first came to Housatonic in 2004: the need for all departments to have written curriculum guides. Currently, less than half of the courses have such guides. Addressing this shortcoming â€œwill be one of our first focuses,â€ Foster said.
The committee had significant praise for some Housatonic faculty members â€” particularly those teaching the honors and humanities level courses â€” for their passion and for using â€œinstructional techniques that are revelevant, motivating and engaging.â€ However, â€œstudent-centered learningâ€ did not appear to be the norm at Housatonic, the report said.
â€œFor many teachers, however, the dominant approach to instruction is teacher-centered and textbook-based,â€ the report concluded.
Foster is not convinced. She insisted that student-centered learning is far more prevalent at Housatonic than the committee observed.
â€œThey might have seen a snapshot,â€ she surmised.
Also cited: â€œthe failure of the high school to embrace the district initiative of Understanding by Design leaves [the school] without any direction in the development and implementation of a curriculumâ€ that includes â€œschool-wide expectations.â€
Need for greater â€˜ownershipâ€™
Understanding by Design is a widely recognized outcome-based framework for teaching and learning introduced several years ago at Housatonic. According to the NEASC committee, faculty members told them â€œthe assistant superintendent was the major force behind this initiative, that they were not included in its inception, and, therefore, that they have not taken ownership of its implementation.â€
The committee also said better teacher evaluation methods need to be employed. Foster said she would spend more time observing and evaluating teachers herself. Still, members of the faculty council must also observe teachers, as per the contract with the union representing the faculty.
The report found there was also room for improvement in the extent to which Housatonicâ€™s mission statement was reflected in â€œthe development of policies, procedures and decisions at [the school].â€ In addition, the committee also picked up on a frequent complaint of some students at Housatonic: the purported lack of school spirit there.
While noting that â€œstudent success is continually celebratedâ€ at Housatonic, the committee nonetheless observed that â€œstudents, parents and a number of faculty members report of lack of school spiritâ€ â€” possibly because of the scarcity of involvement of those groups â€œin the development of the mission and in school decision making.â€
Foster said she was surprised by that finding. When the NEASC committee visited the school from March 11 to 14 of this year, the school was between athletic seasons, so there were no games scheduled with noisy fans that would have caught the attention of committee members.
â€œSometimes our spirit is shown in laid-back ways,â€ Foster said. â€œItâ€™s not the type of school with cheerleaders in the hallways.â€
In addition, there were suggestions for improvement in the guidance office. Foster said as a result of the report she wants to examine how the guidance office might improve its college advising services. Such a move will likely have a budgetary impact, she said.
Unclear chain of command
Finally, the report suggested the lines of authority for decision-making at Housatonic are not clear and that the principal needs to have sufficient autonomy to lead the school. Foster said she and her administrative team are working on a flow chart clarifying how decisions are made at Housatonic.
Judge Manning, who chairs the Region One Board of Education, said he has read the report but had not yet had time to digest it. He declined to comment on the report.
Amanda Halle, the Salisbury representative to the Region One Board who also chairs the boardâ€™s Long Range Planning Feasibility Committee, said she, too would rather wait until Foster presents the report at the boardâ€™s Sept. 10 meeting before commenting extensively. Halle added that her committee would surely use some of the information in the NEASC report.
â€œItâ€™s a snapshot of whatâ€™s happening at the school,â€ she said.