Educator team exploring redesign of high school program

Sept. 20, 2023 | Mike Lydick

AGAWAM — As discussions continue about the shape of a new or renovated high school, administrators and teachers are busy examining how they could create a new learning environment inside the building.

Agawam High School Principal Jim Blain told the School Committee at a recent meeting that a planning grant from the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization, could lead to a new educational plan for students. Blain said the grant is not to purchase any materials, but to reimagine the high school.

“This is not an implementation grant — we don’t buy any types of hard goods or services. This is a dreamers’ grant,” he said.

Ninety percent of the money goes to teachers and staff to explore ideas. Blain said the goal is to “just take a look at what’s out in the world beyond the high school’s four walls to see what might be out there that we can explore.”

The school was awarded $100,000 in June to be used during the 2023-24 school year. A catalyst team, which includes Blain, School Superintendent Sheila Hoffman, Tim Karetka, an assistant principal, Jen McDonald, a Spanish teacher, Ryan Dunphy, a business teacher, and Scott Cassidy, an English teacher, worked throughout the summer to begin meeting with consultants.

“It comes at a great time, as we’re visioning a new high school and looking at what can be outside of the traditional mechanisms,” Blain said at the Sept. 12 meeting. “As we’ve all seen, the potential for a new high school doesn’t look like your traditional school. This grant is sort of a great walkway in a parallel path to see what there could be in the next 30 to 40 years.”

He said the process will engage all stakeholders — administrators, parents, students, teachers and the community.

“It aligns with our philosophies and visions of a new Agawam High School. The concept, or overarching idea, of this grant is, if you were to start a high school from scratch — without constraints — what would it look like?”

Blain said AHS is part of a cohort of schools that includes other schools receiving the grant and schools around the country that have undertaken innovative and non-traditional ways of reinventing and reimagining their schools.

“Schools typically do a very good job of meeting the needs of our highest-level students, and sometimes our lowest-level students are given the support they need. But there’s a whole group in the middle that often get lost in the sauce a little bit,” he said.

Blain said the goal is to engage every student, not just levels or different types: “The question is, how can we engage students at the top, the struggling students and those who are in between?”

In his third year as principal, Blain said it will be a reflective process to assess where the school is and what ways it can improve. He said it’s been difficult for the catalyst team members to take themselves out of the binds that they typically work under, such as worrying about the teachers union, the bell schedule, the curriculum or graduation requirements.

“This is just really about examining our belief systems. It’s really empowering to think about what might be or what could be,” he said. “Everyone will be working toward a common understanding of what education could be like in Agawam.”

Working with the grant’s consultants, the catalyst team has been delving into school data and asking questions about failure rates, attendance rates, student performance on standardized tests, growth patterns, and how student subgroups are doing.

The team plans to visit other schools and have other schools visit Agawam. The purpose of site visits, which will be paid directly from a grant funding source, not from school funds, is to see best practices at other schools.

“I’m super-excited to send staff members who are sort of dreamers in their own right and want to envision what a school could be,” said Blain. “Let’s go see someone else who’s doing it differently. Maybe we’re doing it right. Maybe we could just take a little piece of what they’re doing. Or, maybe, we model ourselves after what someone’s doing successfully. It’s important for us to see other things.”

He said since the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a realization that it’s time to be engaging in some change.

“We should be examining our practices and asking ourselves the tough questions: Why do we do this? Is this working for our students? Questions that maybe we all don’t ask all the time.”

The grant will challenge the school to look at every piece of data to make informed decisions, said Blain.

“This is a specific grant to Agawam High School. It’s not canned and it’s not a universal fix. This is all about our demographics and examining what we want to do what, what we might want to do or whether we stay in status quo.”

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