Committee grapples with staffing issues -- old and new

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'It’s hard to get substitute coverage.'

-- Rob Spiegel

UPDATED Dec. 6: Filling long-vacant positions this school year and funding new ones next year were main topics for the School Committee on Thursday, Dec. 2. Discussion of staffing took place at several junctures during the 90-minute meeting, but no consensus was reached, nor were any decisions made.

Teachers, counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals are needed, say teachers’ advocates, committee members and Arlington Public Schools administrators.

“Quite a few” vacancies still exist almost three months into the instructional year, according to Human Resources Director Robert Spiegel. These include a Spanish teacher, a reading teacher and numerous teaching assistants and substitute teachers. “It’s hard to get substitute coverage,” Spiegel said.

Committee member Len Kardon suggested signing bonuses or other financial incentives be considered.

The equivalent of at least four new full-time employees will be needed at Arlington High School because of an anticipated 50 more students next fall, Principal Matthew Janger said. Enrollment has been up over the past four years, from 1,325 in 2018 to 1,380 in 2019 to 1,411 in 2020 to 1,487 currently.

Enrollment forecast questioned

He said counselors and social workers are the priority; counselors are already at their maximum caseload and support referrals are up 90 percent. Kardon questioned Janger’s enrollment projection, saying other sources suggest the AHS student population might go up by only 10 or so.

A teachers’ union spokeswoman agreed with creating slots for more counselors and social workers to cope with added demand for assistance with college applications and with mental health needs. She also suggested adding a team chair at Menotomy Preschool.

But the top priority is that “We have many open positions right now,” said Jenna Fernandes, the second vice president of the Arlington Education Association. 

Moreover, “Salary increases should be a key budget priority,” she said, stating that pay for some paraprofessionals is on the order of $17 per hour – no better than what fast-food workers earn.

“We are seeing some of the same needs that you are,” said Superintendent Elizabeth Homan, seeming to address Fernandes.

In response to a YourArlington query, union President Julianna Keyes wrote that the position is fully new. "Team chair is a Unit A position for a licensed special educator.  The role is essentially a IEP case manager for the school- they run IEP meetings, and they handle a lot of the assessment and communicate with families of special education or potential special education students.

"Right now, the director of the preschool is the team chair, coordinator and essentially principal for the school.  These are three jobs in other buildings.  And she is phenomenal at it.  But the preschool staff requested that the team chair duties be spun off into a separate job so that the director could be more available during the day, not constantly tied up in meetings."  

Major moves on tap at AHS

A community forum is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15, to discuss the upcoming movement of major components of the high school – the first of many necessitated by the ongoing rebuilding of the campus – including the media center and the cafeteria. As well, teachers may be shifting classrooms during the break from classes in February. Details can be found at this website: www.AHSbuilding.org

Committee member Jane Morgan questioned the schedule as presented for what she termed one of the largest construction projects in the town’s history. “It’s a lot to get done in a really short amount of time,” she said. Committee member Paul Schlichtman concurred, calling it “very, very challenging.”

In his school-improvement report, Janger noted accomplishments by his staff in “navigating the pandemic” and creating and maintaining a safe, supportive environment and effectively targeting student needs. He said attendance has improved, from 93.2 percent in 2018 to 94.3 percent in 2019 to 94.7 percent in 2020.

Challenges exist at the school as well, he reported, including increased social-emotional distress, the disproportionality of outcomes for traditionally underserved demographic subgroups and the need for higher levels of student learning and engagement.

A “Heterogenous Grouping Initiative Study Group” of representative community members is now being convened to review, research and consider evidence and feedback on the concept of possibly eliminating many honors classes as such at AHS. These volunteers are to make recommendations to the committee as to “whether and how to pilot heterogeneous embedded honors options in selected classes,” Janger said. Eight 90-minute meetings of the group are planned between now and March.

Other school-improvement plans call for continuing the curriculum equity review to increase diversity of perspectives; taking a collaborative problem-solving approach to build skills and relationships and thus reduce punitive discipline for behavior problems; and promoting student affinity and anti-bias group leadership to enhance school climate and culture. 

See the documents under this agenda item >> 

In other business:
  • Positive Covid-19 results in the schools are up, as is the average daily case rate in the town as a whole, but there are no apparent “clusters or incidences of in-school transmission,” Homan said. Infections districtwide were 2 on Nov. 5, 7 on Nov. 12, 13 on Nov. 19, 13 on Nov. 26 and 16 as of today, according to a slide she presented. “We would like to see these numbers trend in the opposite direction,” she said.
  • The school system recently received $326,579 for electric school buses, Homan said. This amount will be used to replace two older, diesel buses in the fleet and will also provide for electric charging stations.
  • Committee member Jeff Thielman mentioned having discussed in subcommittee some steps that might address the rising enrollment and attendant space issues at the Stratton School campus. Morgan mentioned the need to upgrade the playground there and at the Peirce and Bishop campuses. Chief Financial Officer Michael Mason Jr. said that requests for proposals for playground redesign have gone out and that bids are due this coming Monday, Dec. 6. See enrollment data here >> 
  • Land acknowledgment statements, to “celebrate and recognize” the fact that indigenous people were the original inhabitants of Arlington, will in the future be read at graduation and at many other official occasions in the town, Schlichtman said.
  • Educational travel to other countries for small groups of high schoolers began in 2016, but due to the ongoing pandemic, such trips were canceled in the recent past, committee members were told. A recent informational meeting held via Zoom resulted in 100 students applying to compete for 30 slots on a possible future trip, Homan said. The committee voted, 6-1, to approve travel to begin again in April 2023. Morgan voted in opposition. See the agenda document about a school trip >>  Asked about her dissent, Moragn wrote: "I have consistently voted against these trips that are exceptionally expensive and are accessible to only the most affluent students. I believe that international travel is one of many foundations for cultural competency but think that the district should work to offer trips that are options for more students." 
Watch the Dec. 2 meeting broadcast by ACMi:


Nov. 29, 2021: Hardy, Dallin improvement plans draw support, as space concerns weighed for Stratton
 

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, and updated Dec. 5, to add quotes from Keyes and Morgan as well as Dec. 6, to add ACMi8 window.

 
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