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Audit of Monticello schools identifies challenge

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — October 26, 2010 — With new state standards looming, Monticello’s school board listened intently to a report delivered last week by Syracuse University researchers on the deep challenges the district faces.
Superintendent Pat Michel said the report – the two-year culmination of an audit conducted for free by the university – is the third and final part of an investigation into Monticello’s struggles.
The first report, compiled by the New York University (NYU) Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, focused on academic achievement and expectations along racial lines, identifying troubling differences.
The second report, created by the state-mandated Joint Intervention Team (JIT), identified areas where Monticello High School must improve as a requirement of being on the state’s in-need-of-restructuring list.
Both those reports were delivered to the board earlier this year.
At last week’s board meeting, Syracuse University Project Advance auditors Dr. Gerald Edmonds, Dr. Rob Pusch and doctoral student Kevin Forgard presented their findings and made recommendations to a board and audience eager to discuss and sometimes debate failures and solutions.
The researchers utilized a variety of surveys and visits with administrators, teachers and students to gauge Monticello’s educational effectiveness.
The entire report is too large to be detailed here, but it is available at the district’s website at
A summary of the findings and recommendations is as follows:
• The district takes a compartmentalized approach to education based on individual school buildings, rather than addressing education as one complete, interconnected passage. Student progress should be comprehensively monitored, rather than in piecemeal fashion.
• Rigorous coursework is available but inefficiently and confusingly publicized to parents and students. The district should adopt a uniform language and procedure for communicating pathways to advanced courses.
• Students who do not fully engage in such opportunities can get lost in the system. Uniform homework, academic integrity and intervention policies must be created and used.
• Teachers are underprepared and unable to deal with students at varied achievement levels, with professional support and development lacking. Programs and support should be clearly delineated, understood and enhanced.
• An adequate assessment and evaluation system is not present. The district needs to develop a data system that can identify and react to students who are at risk of dropping out or are unprepared for coursework.
• Celebrations of student academic success drop off noticeably as they transition from elementary to middle and high school, and a universal set of goals and objectives for those students is not demonstrated. The entire district should create a culture of learning where standards are understood and achievements are celebrated.
Some of the findings were positive, with board member Alyce Van Etten noting that the majority of students surveyed said their school experiences motivated them to go on to college.
But all agreed that change is needed.
“It’s clear: the status quo can’t continue,” concluded Edmonds.
That said, he added that if the administration, teachers, students, parents and school board aren’t all on the same page working toward the same goals, any changes will fail.
That’s why, said Michel, these three reports will be used to create a strategic plan to position the district to meet the new state and federal challenges.
That will start with a community forum – open to the entire public – on Tuesday, November 9 inside the RJK Middle School’s cafeteria at 7 p.m., where the issues will be discussed.
“You don’t create reports so they can sit on the shelf and collect dust,” Michel explained. “You want to really use them.”
Audience and board members were already running the report through their heads – realizing, as Edmonds said, that “many of the reforms we’re talking about are teacher-driven.”
“How do we get teachers to buy in?” wondered board member Jo-Ann Peabody.
“We treat them like professionals,” Edmonds replied, to nods of assent from the audience. “... The worst thing people can do is tell teachers how to teach. They know how to teach.”
He did add, however, that teachers must maintain control of their classrooms.
“You can’t let students dictate the culture of the school,” he remarked. Otherwise, “you’ve handed over control to them.”
Instead, students need to be taught how to learn, Edmonds explained, and then celebrated and supported for doing so.
The report also generated some criticism.
“The bottom line is, if you have all these deficiencies, the buck stops somewhere,” said Board Vice President Bob Kunis, arguing that the district should have picked up on these issues on its own. “... We can’t simply state that we’ll move forward and not blame.”
Smallwood parent Jonathan Hyman agreed that accountability is needed, especially regarding the district’s policy of opening up honors classes to every student, regardless of their academic standing.
“Most importantly, this board must face the fact that it has been told by multiple, credible outside professional sources that what it is looking at amounts to a systemic failure on a colossal scale,” Hyman said.
He urged the board to stay transparent as it responds to these reports.
“Your new plan must be accompanied by a programmatic structure that systematically defines and clearly articulates goals, performance standards, basic and detailed concepts of accountability,” he insisted, “and must be done in a manner that ensures that everyone who teaches and works here is trained to do their job.”
Warning that change is often disruptive and rarely easy, Edmonds concluded the three-hour discussion with one final question for those in attendance:
“What are you willing to do?” he asked.
“Whatever it takes,” replied an an audience member.

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