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With new leader, HVRHS is ready to move forward

NEASC update Feb. 6

FALLS VILLAGE — Matt Harnett, principal of Housatonic Valley Regional High School (HVRHS), will be talking to the Region One Board of Education Feb. 6 about the high school’s five-year progress report, due March 1, for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

The high school’s administration and faculty have been in the process of making changes since a 2007 report from the Commission on Public Secondary Schools (part of NEASC) found HVRHS to be deficient in key areas, including a “school-wide rubric,” a tool to measure student progress “toward meeting the school’s academic standards.”

Harnett has only been at Housatonic since last September. His predecessor was Gretchen Foster, who had been head of the school since 2004.

NEASC is a private, nonprofit accreditation agency that operates independently of state education departments.

The 61-page report also found insufficient correlation between the school’s written curriculum and what was actually taught in classrooms. “The ‘taught’ curriculum is based primarily on individual teacher determination.”

The 2007 report was also critical of teaching styles, noting an instructional approach that was teacher-centered (i.e. the teacher does most of the talking) and textbook-based. “Students in many of these classes do not appear to be challenged or engaged in the lesson.”

The report also found that “the lines of communication and the process for decision-making at the high school need to be clearly delineated so that the principal has sufficient authority to lead the school.”

Harnett, in his first year at HVRHS, had to pick up the response to NEASC in progress. Foster was principal in 2007; Herb Tedford was interim principal in the 2010-11 school year.

In October 2009 the school submitted a two-year progress report to NEASC, identifying measures taken and in progress. The NEASC commission voted in February 2010 to accept the progress report and continued the school’s accreditation.

Harnett said in an interview this week with The Journal that NEASC Director June Allison understood that HVRHS had been in a transitional period and suggested an extension from the original due date for the five-year report, from December 2011 to March 2012.

The five-year report addresses the following topics:

• The current status of the advisory program for freshmen

• The current status of the revised schoolwide rubrics

• Confirmation of the implementation of the plan to align policy and curriculum with the school’s mission statement (with specific examples)

• The progress made in addressing compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act

• An update on the science and technology center

The “freshman seminar” program was implemented last year, the science and technology building is just about ready for use, and making physical changes to the building to comply with the handicapped access law is in progress.

Harnett took a moment to explain the “rubric” concept. He said the faculty develop standards that are universally applied, across disciplines. For example, the expectation is that a student will apply the same type of writing skills — thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, conclusion — to a social studies paper as to a biology experiment.

As to the connection between the school’s mission statement and the curriculum, Harnett said the report needs to demonstrate how specific classroom activities tie back to the mission statement.

To monitor this, small groups of three or four teachers visit other classrooms to collect data.

The observers watch the students as much as the teacher, Harnett said. “Who’s asking questions, who is answering, how is the classroom set up?”

The purpose is to collect a large amount of data — about 160 classroom visits — and look for overall trends.

“We have to ask, what does this data tell us about instruction, schoolwide? Is this what we want instruction to look like?

“This in turn leads to conversations and identifying things we want to change.”

NEASC will be back for a full visit in 2017, and it is up to the school to keep the ball rolling in the interim, Harnett said.

But there is no danger of losing accreditation. “We are far away from any question of accreditation, but we have to keep the self-reflective process going.”

If the NEASC observers find that reality doesn’t match the report in 2017, “then they’ll have an issue.”

“It’s not a bad thing,” Harnett said. “It involves the teachers and the community, and gets to what the school is all about.”

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