| Sarah Heinonen
WILBRAHAM/HAMPDEN - The Hampden Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) conducted the second of two strategic plan open listening sessions on Nov. 8. The session at Minnechaug Regional High School (MRHS) in Wilbraham followed one hosted a week earlier at Thornton W. Burgess School (TWB) in Hampden.
The district has been working with the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS), on gathering the data for the strategic plan, a document that will lay out priorities for HWRSD over the next five years. It pinpoints a “direction for our district,” said Superintendent Albert Ganem. The district has not had an updated strategic plan since 2001.
The listening sessions were run by Mary Jo Nawrocki and Mary Broderick from MARS, and Ganem and Gina Kahn from the district. Gathering input from the communities, as explained by both the MARS representatives and Ganem, will help identify between four and six long-term goals for the district. Ganem said that benchmarks will be set to hold the district accountable and assure progress is being made.
After participants were asked to come up with strengths and challenges for the district, a few major themes emerged.
Trades and More
The issue people identified as most important for the district was developing opportunities for students to pursue trades and the arts, as well as learn foreign languages, life skills and personal finance.
“Not all students are going to go to college,” was a common refrain from several people at the listening session, most of whom were parents, though there were also educators and concerned citizens. A parent told a story of how her daughter, who had always wanted to be a cosmetologist, felt pressured during her senior year to attend college. After one semester, she left college and attended cosmetology school.
The lack of vocational curriculum and technical teachers was cited a barrier to students pursuing trades. It was also noted that there is a stigma for some students who are not college-bound, as are many of their peers. TWB was pointed to as a possible location for vocational lessons since many of the classrooms are not in use.
Interestingly, while adding trade classes scored high, so did a return to “core subjects.”
Just below trades and alternative classes in importance was a desire to remove politics from the classroom. People said teachers were using their classrooms as political platforms. Someone said there should be repercussions for discussing political issues in the classroom.
One parent criticized the summer reading list for including the novel “Twelve Years a Slave,” and stated that she had pulled her children from the district and is home-schooling them.
“Teaching the horrors of racism is making people see things they’ve never seen before,” said a mother. Another person agreed, saying “kids don’t see color.”
Further down on the list of priorities was a call to diversify staff and make teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators more representative of the communities they serve. People in the session spoke about “instilling values of diversity” and a need for students to have a “a deep, cultural knowledge and understanding.”
A desire for parents to have easy access to their children’s curriculum was high on the list of important issues for participants, many of whom applauded someone’s call for access to it from the website.
Many other items scored significantly lower on the list of priorities, but were still mentioned by several attendees, including safety in schools, comparable opportunities for students in Wilbraham and Hampden, revisiting the regional agreement that governs the district, varied approaches for the variety of ways students learn, a return to rigorous academic courses and listening to those in the classroom when it comes to the conditions and culture of schools.
Survey and Next Steps
The results of the session will be combined with previous community engagement sessions and a survey that is planned to be released to the entirety of both communities in late November.
“That’s the biggest piece,” said Ganem of the survey, which will be more comprehensive and allow people to fully express their thoughts, priorities and concerns.
Ganem explained that the next step will be for the Strategic Plan Working Group, which consists of parents, teachers, administrators, students and members of the public, to “synthesize” the data collected from the communities it into well-defined goals. Eventually, it will be presented to the School Committee for approval.
The Strategic Plan Working Group itself was the topic of some controversy at the listening session. Rita Vail, a Hampden resident and former School Committee member questioned why the meetings were not open to the public. Ganem told her that the district’s understanding is that it is not required and Nawrocki added that most districts do not have open meetings of the working group when they go through the strategic plan process. After pushback, Ganem said that he would check with the district’s lawyer on the rules. Nawrocki said that there was nothing nefarious going on behind closed doors, but another Hampden resident and member of the working group, Mary Ellen Glover, replied that that was the impression being given. Ganem emphasized that he wanted that process to be “as transparent as possible.”