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Same Old, Same Old

Housatonic Principal Matt Harnett

Principal Matt Harnett, of Housatonic Valley Regional High School (HVRHS), gave a somber report on the state of education at the high school during the regular meeting of the Region 1 Board of Education. About one third of the students at the high school had at least one failing grade during the first marking period, as had been the case in previous years. He listed interventions that the school was undertaking to improve the situation. He also suggested changes in scheduling to improve teacher-student contact. Almost as an aside, he asked the Board of Education for policy permission to use breathalyzer tests during school functions. And, oh yes, the students aren’t buying enough healthy lunches.

Of the 424 students currently enrolled at HVRHS, 136 had at least one failing grade in the first marking period and 17 more students had incompletes. Harnett said that this problem is endemic across all grades and has been going on for years. It is not new this year; it is not senioritis. A sure indicator, the drop-out rate, has not changed.

Specifically, failing grades went to 37 seniors, or 39% of the class, 38 juniors, or 31% of the class, 41 sophomores, or 41% of the class, and 20 freshmen, or 19% of the class. One wonders how and why such confidential information is now available.

Gail Toensing, a Board Member, asked the oft repeated refrain, “Why are our students not achieving at a higher level?” Harnett responded, “I think we need to raise the expectations of them and ourselves.” He went on to describe the educational triangle: student, parents, and teacher. He indicated that the triangle has been inverted, with more responsibility being assigned to the teacher than usual. The parents and students need to be more involved in the educational process. Harnett said, “It takes a village.”

Harnett went on to list several interventions being done to assist students who have received poor grades:

· new smaller study hall groups with teachers providing specific direction and supervision to students regarding grades, completion of assignments, and subject help.

· targeted meetings between an Early Intervention Planning Team and senior students to develop a plan to address reasons for low achievement and steps to be taken to help improve academic performance.

· a new mandated policy that teachers must contact parents directly starting at the end of the second week on a new marking period if student achievement is below a C-.

· use of the PowerSchool portal for parents, open December 5th, to provide increased opportunities for parents to directly monitor student progress and communicate with teachers.

Harnett also indicated that the school is studying changes to the school schedule to increase student-teacher contact, total instructional hours, as well as individual class period instructional time. Some simple changes that will also occur for next year include a decrease in lunch waves from three to two, a decrease in the amount of passing time from five minutes between classes to at most four (possibly three), and changes in the activity periods.

About scheduling, Harnett said, “We are looking at a lot of different things. There is no way I cannot look at departments across the board.” They are also studying ways to increase teacher to teacher and teacher to administration collaboration time, which could include possible changes to school calendar and structure of the school year.

After speaking with several students, the academic issues appear to be directly linked to educational apathy. Activity periods and extracurricular activities are sometimes more valued than class. And, as usual, some students game play the system to just get by. Even several teachers indicated that those students repeatability fail to do homework, because the school has historically failed to enforce standards. Harnett seems dedicated to changing that environment.

Almost as an afterthought, Harnett asked the Board for a policy that would allow for breathalyzer tests at school sponsored activities to deter students from engaging in risky and potentially life threatening behavior. When pressed, he indicated that four incidences of drugs or alcohol had occurred during his tenure. He said, “We cannot wait until something happens.” Currently, several other local schools use breathalyzers: Region 7, Litchfield, Gilbert, Region 10, and Region 14 (Nonnewaug). He has already made contact with professional help, and needs Board approval to get started.

In other high school business, Business Manager Sam Herrick reported that the cafeteria is losing money, about $2,000 per month. It seems that the school implemented state and federally mandated healthy lunches (more vegetables?) and the students have stopped buying lunches as frequently. Revenue is down, and costs are up. Healthy lunches are more expensive. The Board will be asked to spend more money on the cafeteria, even after raising the lunch price to $3.00. Given that more students must be bringing bagged lunches, is the food police far behind?

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