“Most of the principals who have left the district have been women” (Amherst and Regional School Committee meeting: 2/1/22)

This meeting started out as a joint meeting of the Amherst School Committee, Amherst Regional School Committee, and Pelham School Committee. (For a refresher on the difference between the Amherst School Committee and the Amherst Regional School Committee, see my Amherst has two school committees? post.)

These three school districts share a superintendent (currently Mike Morris) and the first item on the agenda was to review the process for evaluating the performance of the superintendent, which is done annually. 

The next item on the agenda was a presentation from consultant Rick Rogers on a qualitative study he conducted on why our district has had high principal turnover in some schools. The report that Rick produced is straightforward and easy to read, and contains some really meaningful and important points. (I recommend anyone interested in supporting Amherst schools read the report: Supporting and Retaining School Leaders.) Here are some of the nuggets I took away from his presentation and report:

  • It’s not easy to be a school principal in Amherst, “where only the H is silent.” In a community that prides itself on being highly educated, people often question the decisions of those in positions of power. In my opinion, this is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But when the feedback and questioning turns personal, that is where the problems lie. Respondents in Rick’s study (current and past principals, and district administrators) reported experiencing personal attacks and name-calling.
  • A direct quote from the report: “It is worth noting that the longest serving administrators (Superintendent and three principals) are all white men. It is also noteworthy that most of the principals who have left the district have been women.” In my opinion, this is one of the most important findings to come out of this study. Although this is just one snapshot in time, and the “sample size” is small, it seems that Amherst has a much harder time holding onto women as principals than men. Another direct quote, which I found very distressing: “Some women leaders reported feeling that their gender contributed to a lack of respect and they were more likely to be the subject of comments about their age, appearance or eating habits.” Eating habits! Women principals reported that people feel the need to comment on their eating habits! To me, this is a sign that even Amherst is not immune from patriarchal attitudes towards women.
  • Another interesting nugget is this: “… veteran principals cited “coming up through the ranks” as contributing to their longevity.” If Amherst is a tough town to be a principal in, perhaps educators who have been in the district for a number of years would have more “staying power” than someone from the outside. When I asked Rick about this, he responded that he was aware the district has some initiatives to support educators in working towards principal licensure, but that this is not a comprehensive solution, since a district will always need principals from outside the district, and that in fact it is good to have some leaders who come from outside the district. I can see his point, but I maintain that supporting current Amherst educators to work towards a principal position should be one prong of the district’s approach to supporting successful principals.
  • I asked Rick why his recommendations did not include something specific to supporting women principals. The recommendations he gave seem excellent, and seem that they would support people of all genders, but since we know that women principals are more likely to leave, I felt that we needed some action items to support women in leadership positions. He acknowledged that he wished he had included something on this topic.

After this discussion was completed, the Pelham School Committee and the Amherst School Committee were adjourned. But of course, two of the Pelham members and all five of the Amherst members are also members of the Regional School Committee, so we stayed in the meeting. Some highlights from the rest of the meeting:

  • In Mike’s Superintendent’s Update he shared that he has received some communications from families asking whether and when the district will lift or ease the masking mandate. He said that at this time the Town of Amherst’s indoor mask mandate is still in place, and as long as that is the case, the school district can’t lift our mask mandate (“it’s a moot point for schools right now”). In addition, he spoke with the town’s health director who said “not yet”; it’s not time to lift the mask mandate yet. Also, the CDC still says that universal masking in schools is the best protection.
  • We had a presentation from Doreen Reid, ARMS assistant principal, and Sarah Fefer, UMass professor of school psychology, on the Happiness Project. This initiative is taking place in ARMS, where students were screened on overall well-being, and those whose screening indicated “room for growth in happiness” were eligible to participate. Around 20 students participated in small group sessions with a trained facilitator once a week for 10 weeks, with the goal of increased life satisfaction, strengthening relationships, and promoting gratitude and positive feelings. The program will be repeated next year with a different cohort of students. 
  • A “School Choice Hearing” was next on the agenda, which was intended to be a public hearing (an opportunity for the public to weigh in) on school choice (allowing students who reside outside of Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, or Shutesbury to attend ARMS or ARHS). No members of the public made comments. The committee had some discussion about the logistics of school choice, a little bit about the pros and cons, and our past history as a school choice district (or not). Students who “choiced in” at any of the four towns’ elementary schools prior to the 2019-20 academic year will be able to stay in the district and attend ARMS and ARHS. However, a new state regulation means that students who choice in for elementary school in the 2019-20 school year or later will not automatically be enrolled in middle and high school in that district. At a future meeting, the Regional SC will vote on whether to allow new students to choice in to ARMS and ARHS. (Note: a previous version of this blog post mis-stated that all current K-6 school choice students would be able to stay in the district for middle and high school.)
  • We discussed a potential new policy to require students in extracurricular activities or sports to participate in pooled testing. Pooled testing (the process of testing a group of students as a “pool,” then following up with individual tests if the pool is positive, is more efficient than individual testing) is optional for students and vaccinated staff. The question was, should we require students to participate in pooled testing, as a prerequisite for extracurricular activities or sports. I asked what the goal of this policy would be? Presumably, the goal is to minimize the spread of COVID in schools, but is COVID more likely to spread in extracurricular activities or sports? Are those settings more risky than, say, eating lunch unmasked? Would this policy actually help mitigate the spread of COVID? We heard from the superintendent that this prospective policy isn’t a priority right now. Ultimately, after some discussion, the committee decided not to pursue it at this time.
  • We reviewed a prospective new policy that would require the district to “​​provide a written translation of vital documents (as defined in District guidelines) for each language that constitutes at least 5% of the District’s total multilingual student population.” We were told that, at this time, the two languages that constitute at least 5% are Spanish and Portuguese. I think this is a great idea! And/but I would like to see this investigated further. I was surprised that Chinese was not on the “5% or greater” list. I also believe that if we are going to institute a policy to help multilingual families, we should talk to multilingual families about what their translation and interpretation needs are. “Nothing about us without us,” to borrow a phrase from disability activists.
  • School Committee member Irv Rhodes appeared to have some connectivity issues. He joined by phone for the earlier part of the meeting, but he dropped and re-joined several times. 

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