By Seth Henry
Last spring John Kerrigan wrote a My View, “Harwood, we have a problem.” According to an increasing trove of data and public testimony, we do. Even more troubling is that our school leadership does not seem willing to acknowledge Harwood’s problems, effectively guaranteeing that we will not develop a plan for meaningful change. It is my opinion that members of the community must continue to step up and lean in if we want the outlook for students, families and taxpayers to change for the better.
One of the clearest signals is the recent release of the SBAC test scores. While the test scores in our primary schools compare favorably with state averages and peer schools, Harwood’s scores do not and are downright alarming. 24.78 percent of Harwood 11th-graders tested proficient in math in 2017, and 54.7 percent tested proficient in language arts (LA). State averages are 37 percent for math and 59 percent in LA meaning we underperformed in both categories. Compare this to our neighbors in Montpelier with 48 percent in math and 68 percent in LA, or Stowe at 70 percent in math and 90 percent in LA, and it becomes even clearer that we are underperforming. However, as of now, there has been no meaningful discussion about our declining scores, the cause or the solution. This should be cause for concern as one of our superintendent’s main contributions has been the elimination of math tracking, despite community opposition, which is now being extended to other honors programs at Harwood. We deserve to understand if these questionable changes to curriculum are the cause of declining performance.
Another disturbing trend is the attrition rate at Harwood. Two HUUSD Board members were bold enough to directly question the superintendent’s claims on the nature and cause of declining enrollment in our district last spring and presented data that showed that the cause of declining enrollment seems to be students opting out of Harwood, with a net loss of over 100 students in the past few years. Discussion of this data was prevented by the superintendent and board chair, requests for exit interviews of departing families were denied, and the superintendent chose to attack the messengers rather than engage on the problem which is reflected in board controversy that is ongoing today. While the administration has not yet released 2017-2018 enrollment to the public or board, it appears anecdotally that Harwood withdrawals increased this year.
Another performance failure at Harwood is the administration’s ongoing experiment around implementing a new grading system to comply with state guidelines on Proficiency-Based Learning. As a group of concerned citizens’ involvement has shown, the administration adopted unproven and risky systems and for the last two years the middle school students have been paying the price with unreadable and incomprehensible report cards. As that cohort moves into ninth grade this year, these unreadable report cards are now unreadable transcripts putting students’ college admissions at risk. Parent, student and teacher feedback on this grading-system experiment is overwhelmingly negative, yet the superintendent and board have taken no corrective action other than subjecting concerned citizens to repeated lectures and attacks.
There are many more factual reasons to be concerned including declining graduation rates, the lack of a waiting list to get into Harwood and several recent policy decisions restricting community engagement. What is so troubling is that in lieu of focusing on Harwood’s very real performance problems, the narrative of Superintendent Nease clearly indicates that she blames Harwood’s problems on our district primary schools, and under Act 46 consolidation she intends to standardize, consolidate and otherwise experiment with our high-performing elementary schools. Aside from the common sense, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’’ problem with Nease’s logic, based on her results at Harwood we should have an absolute moratorium on any further changes by this administration until we see a better plan for Harwood.
The most important and obvious impact is on our community’s students who are not getting the best educational opportunity available, but we must also consider the impacts of rising tax rates and the desirability of our community as a place to call home. My personal opinion, which I know is shared by others, is that our problems are serious but solvable. Harwood has strong faculty and staff members, an amazing community of families that value education and a diverse and creative cohort of students. This should be a recipe for high performance across our district, as shown by our high-performing primary schools and historical high performance at Harwood. Based on many conversations with friends and neighbors, I believe there is ample collective concern and energy. My question is, what will it take to turn conversations into meaningful actions?
Seth Henry lives in Fayston.