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State ed. chief not ready to lift G-M’s Level 4 status

Chester visits district, listens to local educators’ feedback

Recorder/Paul Franz
Mitchell D. Chester, left, The Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts, talks to educators and legislators at the Gill Montague administration’s offices in Turners Falls.

Recorder/Paul Franz Mitchell D. Chester, left, The Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts, talks to educators and legislators at the Gill Montague administration’s offices in Turners Falls.

TURNERS FALLS — The state’s top education official said he had a lot to think about following meetings with district administrators, officials and staff regarding Gill-Montague’s continued “Level 4” status.

Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester visited the district Wednesday at the invitation of teachers, administrators and School Committee members, through local political representatives.

“I’ve got a lot to think about, you’ve told me a lot about what’s right and what’s counter-productive,” Chester said, after listening to statements from teachers and staff.

Chester’s predecessor classified Gill-Montague as “underperforming” in 2007, a label which has since evolved into Level 4 on a five-stage performance and accountability scale.

Several teachers testified that their positions have become overtaxed by the Level 4 status and the pace of the accompanying turnaround plan, speeding turnover and taking up classroom time with educator training and student assessments.

Gill Elementary teacher Betsy Burnham said she feels the district has accomplished a lot driven by the Level 4 designation, but asked Chester to lift the designation, saying the accelerated pace of the turnaround plan is detracting from education.

“You have accomplished a lot,” Chester said in his closing remarks. “My goal is to make sure all the investment you have made, and leadership have made, doesn’t go down the drain.”

Before moving on to the high school for the forum with teachers and staff, Chester discussed the district’s Level 4 status with local administrators, School Committee members and legislators in the district offices.

Rep. Stephen Kulik said he, Rep. Denise Andrews and state Sen. Stan Rosenberg had pushed for the meeting as a result of concerns and questions as to where the district stood in the process, brought to their attention primarily by faculty.

Present at the initial meeting were Kulik, Rosenberg, Andrews, Interim Superintendent Mark Prince, middle and high school assistant principal Kimberly Hearn, state-assigned district monitor Joan Connolly, retired district administrator and current consultant Nancy Daniel Green, district School Committee Chairwoman Joyce Phillips, Vice Chair Jane Oakes, member Sandra Brown and members of Kulik’s and Chester’s staffs.

Connolly said a lot of progress has been made and the technical systems are in place and the district now has the work of ensuring the plan is followed through.

Prince said the district has taken the directive seriously and gained ground despite a high rate of turnover Chester worried might lead to a backslide; almost 60 new staff out of 125 according to a figure that came up during the meeting. Some of that turnover was driven by a wave of recent retirments.

“I’ve always approached this meeting as a chance for us to show off, so to speak,” Prince said, citing the newly aligned curriculum, student assessments and other changes.

“A lot of what I’m hearing is that you’ve made your progress but the guarantee that it will continue on a level trajectory is fragile,” Chester said.

Chester said the district should not be blind to the fact that removal from Level 4 will mean an end to elevated professional development, technical assistance and funding channelled to districts considered at risk.

“I want you to be very aware that’s part of our decision-making, in addition to very specific markers, is in the big picture if we pull that Level 4 designation away now in recognition of the things that are happening now, are we jeopardizing the future of this district going forward?”

Asked at the end of the visit if lifting the district out of Level 4 at this juncture were an option on the table, Chester said it was but that he is not in a rush to make the decision, which would require a vote on his recommendation by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“It’s definitely an option,” he said. “I need to think about that before making a decision like that — again my main consideration is the district’s made some really good progress under the Level 4 status. Is it sufficient, is it ingrained enough, is it instantiated to the point where without the state oversight good things will continue to happen? That’s the decision point that I have to cross.”

Chester said he is not in a rush to make that decision and it will not come in a matter of weeks or months.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

The purpose of the Commissioner's visit was to hear what leadership and teachers had to say about the Accelerated Improvement Plan that the district has been operating under since last year, not to determine the future of our level-4 status. In addition, the public should be reminded that we are a level-4 district with NO level-4 schools. As a teacher in the district, who knows how great our schools are, it is difficult seeing the negative press that surrounds our district especially when, there is such a dedicated staff working so hard to do great things with awesome students.

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