Education News

Mary Hogan teachers appeal for assistance

MIDDLEBURY — Mary Hogan Elementary School teachers have asked the Addison Central School District board for more resources — and to preserve a key, student-discipline position that’s slated to be cut this summer — in response to a growing number of student behavior issues. They said the behavior problems have been shrinking all children’s learning opportunities as well as affecting working conditions for educators.

A group of seven Mary Hogan educators brought their concerns to the board on March 11, and their accounts of disruptive student behavior were affirmed by seven months of data that school directors digested at a gathering on Monday (see related story). 

Mary Hogan teachers Deb Levesque, Raven Payne, Adam Gould, Melissa Flint, Jenna Hogan, Frankie Wisnowski, Jessica McCauley and Megan Sears on March 11 provided a joint statement to the ACSD board that painted a disconcerting picture of a committed school administration and staff battling persistent disciplinary problems, some of which have temporarily halted classroom activities.

“We have seen desks tipped over, chairs thrown, materials and student work destroyed, bookcases cleared, as well as verbal threats to both students and adults,” reads a portion of the statement specifically attributed to Flint, Gould, Payne and Wisnowski, who are all first-grade teachers.

“Both adults and students have been kicked, punched, bit, and slapped by other students,” their statement continued. “There have also been a number of times when profanity has been projected through the classroom and halls for other students to hear.”

The educators acknowledged a broader contributor to the student unrest.

“The behaviors of some Mary Hogan students reflect the increasing volume and intensity of our broader community’s mental health challenges,” they said.

Challenges with no quick fix, especially given the dearth of mental health workers both locally and statewide. The counseling Service of Addison County — with whom ACSD partners — currently lists 27 vacancies, ranging from school-based clinicians to psychiatrists.

Meanwhile, current Mary Hogan staff must troubleshoot problems as best they can.

“Our principals are frequently called away from meetings or other aspects of their administrative roles to support student behavior,” reads the teachers’ statement. “Often, there are multiple classroom evacuations within the course of a week. These incidents not only deprive students of learning time, they also compromise our students’ sense of safety. With some frequency, hallways are blocked off.”

When forced to evacuate a classroom, teachers quickly leave (sometimes without teaching materials) in search of a safe place within the building to resume coursework with the rest of their class, the educators explained.

“This has happened many times, sometimes multiple times a day, with loss of learning time for our students,” the teachers’ statement reads. “In some incidents, we have been blocked from leaving the classroom due to dangerous actions. We have also been blocked from returning to our rooms, remaining outside the building for 45 minutes because our entire hallway was closed due to unsafe student behavior.”

The Independent reached out by email to five of the seven Mary Hogan educators who voiced concerns at the March 11 ACSD board meeting. Sears — who also serves as co-president of the Addison Central Educators Association — responded.

She referred to the teachers’ statement and added, “We believe the administration has heard us. We trust they are working on solving these problems as they think forward to next year. We look forward to hearing what solutions they put in place.”

Mary Hogan educators have made these specific requests:

• That the district invest more “budgetary and staff resources” to expand the Wellness & Learning Center (WLC) at Mary Hogan. The WLC was created last year to help elementary school students in need of “specialized social-emotional and behavioral supports” during the academic day. The program has been so successful that district officials are looking to set up a second WLC at either Mary Hogan or Ripton Elementary School.

• That four teachers be maintained at every grade level at Mary Hogan “for 2024-25 and beyond.”

“This would assist in reducing class size to restore our ability to educate Middlebury’s children in the safe, supportive manner they deserve,” the teachers said.

• That the board looks “intensively” at incident report data and social emotional student needs when making spending decisions at Mary Hogan for the rest of this academic year.

“We are not asking you to compromise resources in other schools, but rather to look at adding resources to successfully support the Mary Hogan community through the end of the year while the district continues to plan for next year,” they said.

• Last, but far from least, preservation of the Student Response Coordinator (SRC) position based at Mary Hogan School. The district created the SRC post — along with several others — with federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds that will sunset this year. Faced with an FY’25 budget crunch, the SRC was among a couple of ESSER-funded posts that school leaders chose not to ask taxpayers to absorb.

Last June Middlebury Union Middle School Co-Principal Michael Dudek stepped down from his position to become the ACSD’s first-ever SRC. The job made him the point person on investigations of hazing, harassing and bullying cases at district schools.

His duties have also included processing incident reports and ensuring follow-up with affected families, staff and students.

BAD BEHAVIOR SPIKES

Sadly, Dudek has been very busy. He’s headquartered at Mary Hogan, where he’s been most needed. Officials noted preK-12 student-behavior cases spiked to a high of 346 in January when Dudek was asked to temporarily fill a leadership role at Cornwall’s Bingham School.

There have been more than 200 behavior incidents reported in first grade alone at Mary Hogan since the district began collecting such data last October, the teachers noted.

“Without SRC’s presence, our counselors and administrators are stretched thin, responding to a higher volume of incidents, leading to disruptions in student services and administrative availability,” the teachers said.

At a March 25 ACSD board meeting, board member Ellen Whelan-Wuest acknowledged the importance of the SRC role. She also noted the fiscal irony of the district being unable to fill complementary, budgeted positions like speech-language therapists and special educators.

“Are we now going to make a bad situation worse — maybe much, much worse — by the elimination of that position in a building that desperately needs it?” she wondered on Monday.

Mary Hogan Principal Jen Kravitz is among fans of the SRC post, which she believes could be broadened if allowed to survive.

“If that position were funded and continued, I think we’d be able to use it even more effectively,” she said. “I’ve been reluctant to put too many responsibilities into that position, because I know it might go away at any time and we’d have to rejigger things. But having the ability to know there’s someone else who can help support students has been super helpful.”

But restoring the position in the fall will take more money — or a reshuffling of resources — in an FY-25 spending plan that voters OK’d back on March 5.

ACSD Superintendent Tim Williams said he and his staff are working behind the scenes to try to save the SRC.

“We are exploring options to shift funding for budgeted FY’25 expenses to fund the requested position,” he told the Independent. “Whether or not we are able to do so remains to be seen.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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