Mt. Abe gathers community input
BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Unified School District held its first community engagement forum last month, and the school board’s message was clear: They want to hear from the 5-Town community.
“One of our primary goals as a newly unified board is to establish a positive foundation for improved and ongoing engagement with our community,” said Liz Sayre, one of five members of the board’s Community Engagement Committee (CEC). “There are many different voices in our 5-Towns that we want to hear from and work with, as we consider the challenges and opportunities in our district.”
The CEC intends to carry on the outreach work of the six former boards that made up the Addison Northeast Supervisory District before they officially consolidated into the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD) last July. The district covers schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
CEC member Andrew Morton, summarizing feedback from a survey the board conducted a year ago, illustrated the occasional difficulty of collating community responses.
“You should engage with email. Don’t engage people with email,” Morton said, quoting some of the 207 respondents and eliciting appreciative chuckles from the audience. “Have meetings on weekends. Don’t have them on weekends. You should have food. Don’t have food.”
For the Oct. 22 event in Bristol’s Holley Hall, which drew nearly 50 attendees — a mix of educators, parents and school supporters — the CEC hired facilitator Sue McCormack to guide the discussion. By night’s end, after circulating among small groups at seven tables, McCormack noted of a couple of recurring themes:
“Who’s here and who’s missing,” she said. “That’s really important work that is never done, ongoing work, a real challenge in every community. There (also) seems to be some question about the most effective way to support teachers and instruction, and some questions around the value of coaching and relationships, so it seems that there were some conversations about, ‘How do we best support our teachers in the district, so they can do their best work with students?’”
Concerns discussed more broadly early in the forum, such as school safety, gender equality and the impacts of climate change and social media, evolved later on into more specific issues.
Former Bristol Elementary School teacher Peg Sutlive wanted to know how the district intended to monitor and evaluate the results of recent staffing reductions, and to use that information for future budgeting.
“Everybody knows that there have been some pretty major changes — reduced staffing, reduced support staff, an increase in coaching and larger class sizes. So we would hope that there are measures in place, as this school year progresses, to assess how this is going. What’s happening with our teachers? What’s happening with our students? Are kids getting the support they need? Are teachers benefitting from the coaching model? Is there a way to measure that?”
During a brief budget presentation by CEC member Jen Stanley, Lincoln Community School second-grade teacher Patty Schoenhuber questioned the lack of specificity regarding per-pupil spending allocation.
“I’m wondering what part of (the category “Instruction and Support,” which contributes to 72 percent of per-pupil education costs) are people working with kids,” Schoenhuber said. “I just wonder how misleading that is. If this were out in public, I’d say, ‘Wow, those kids are getting a lot of instruction and a lot of support from adults. I’m just curious: What percentage per equalized pupil is actually meeting with adults?”
Though Stanley didn’t have that information, she did confirm that teacher coaches and coaching coordinators were included in that budget category.
“So those people aren’t seeing children,” Schoenhuber replied. “I just think we need to make that really clear. They’re helping teachers at the cost of losing more people who are actually working with kids.”
Others were concerned about the scheduling of the forum, itself, which conflicted with the Mt. Abe Fall Music Concert.
“There are 500 adults at the high school, and I know a bunch of them would like to be here,” said one attendee. “But their kids are performing. I would really hope that the next time we think of this, that we look at the calendar and don’t butt up against a major event, and I think you’ll see much greater turnout.”
“Realizing not everyone can attend a forum, we’re looking at additional ways to engage various stakeholders that result in feedback for the board,” CEC chair Krista Siringo said after the forum.
To that end, the committee has created an online version of the forum survey (surveymonkey.com/PBVBLCG), a Facebook page (@mausdcommunityengagement) and a website (anesu.org/school-boards/community-engagement-committee).
Summarizing budget-related forum discussions, Siringo said the top priority was the need to invest in teachers so students have high-quality learning experiences.
“This could mean many things such as professional development, salaries and benefits, a positive working environment and climate,” she said.
But she stressed that this is only the beginning of what the CEC hopes will be an ongoing dialogue with the community about the vision and direction of MAUSD schools.
“We’re excited to continue this work and hope that many more people will become involved in these conversations moving forward.”
At its meeting next month, the committee will determine the date and topics of the next forum.
School district residents can take the online survey at surveymonkey.com/r/PBVBLCG.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].