Keene Board of Education meeting

Bill Gillard, a Keene High math teacher and president of the Keene Education Association, speaks as part of a focus group before the Keene Board of Education, during a special meeting on Tuesday night, about new initiatives to improve safety and school culture.

At a Keene Board of Education special meeting Tuesday night, a group of Keene High educators shared their efforts to improve the school climate for the rest of the academic year and beyond.

For much of this year, Keene High has been navigating behavioral challenges, including vandalism, fighting and truancy. On Monday night, more than 300 people tuned in or attended a community forum where people talked about their concerns and ideas for addressing them. A second forum is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Keene High cafeteria, and people can RSVP at SAU29.org.

Last Wednesday, School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay and Bill Gillard, a Keene High math teacher and president of the Keene Education Association, began organizing a focus group of teachers to discuss potential solutions, Gillard told The Sentinel.

On Thursday and Friday, that group of about 17 educators gathered for several hours to discuss those ideas, including initiatives that can be implemented in the last 10 weeks of the school year. They then shared those ideas with their colleagues on Friday.

“Thursday was the first time in two years that I felt like my knowledge and years of experience actually came into play,” said John Luopa, a marketing teacher for the Cheshire Career Center, adding that during those years he felt he only had a small voice.

The group made a video introducing their campaign, called Keene High School Together, and its initial actions. The video was shown to all students on Monday and to attendees of Monday’s community forum, and described measures that went into effect that day.

At Tuesday’s Keene Board of Education special meeting, several members of that focus group spoke with the board about what they had accomplished so far and their hopes moving forward.

One of the group’s first initiatives is to make sure students are where they are supposed to be throughout the day, Gillard said. That means having more adults in hallways to check in with students and ask for hall passes, and it allows opportunities to build relationships with students.

The group asked teachers to volunteer their preparation periods to monitor the halls. The school has had hall-monitor vacancies, and currently has only three hired monitors, according to Gillard. But since the idea was proposed, 60 educators have stepped up to increase their presence, according to Jennifer Antosiewicz, a career-in-education teacher with the career center who has overseen the new hall-monitor initiative. Educators can sign up each week for hall-monitoring periods and typically work in pairs, Antosiewicz said. She said the initiative has gone well so far, and it’s been nice meeting other students than just those in her classes.

Under their KEA contract, teachers are compensated for working through their prep periods, Gillard said.

But it’s not a long-term solution, he said, and it’s important to be cognizant of burnout as teachers have already carried exceptionally heavy burdens throughout the pandemic.

Assistant Superintendent Brian Campbell said the administration has been talking with security firms to fill the hall-monitor vacancies. One local firm seeks out former educators and social workers for the roles, and the high school would have a say in which monitors would be hired, Campbell said.

The focus group and board of education also discussed improving communication between staff, the school board and students.

Madeline Waters, a Keene High junior and the student council representative on the board, said the council wants to hear from students. She later added that there needs to be a better avenue for students to report incidents, especially for those students who don’t have close relationships with faculty and staff. Reporting incidents of racism or homophobia can be particularly difficult if a student doesn’t have a good relationship with an adult in the school, she said.

The focus group will meet with Malay on Thursday to continue discussing paths forward.

Last Tuesday, the board had a special meeting that had previously been scheduled to elect officers. But members spent a significant amount of time discussing issues at the high school and directed the administration to use all tools available to address those concerns. They scheduled the second special meeting a week later to begin developing tactics for measuring success in improving the school climate. When the focus group of educators formed, they were added to the special meeting’s agenda, board Chairman George Downing told The Sentinel Wednesday.

At this week's meeting, Malay presented data that included tallies for the number of times different incidents occurred throughout the year. It prompted a discussion about how the school can measure the success of new initiatives.

Mayor George Hansel attended the meeting, and during the public comment session said he has heard from parents and would like to help in any way that he can. Improving the school is in the best interest of the greater community, he said, as people who are considering moving to Keene often have three things in mind: They’re looking for good jobs, good housing and good schools.

It was a sentiment echoed by Casey Schmidl-Gagne, a Keene High alum and fourth-year Keene State student, who attended the meeting along with his legislative-process class.

“I know that myself and a lot of other Keene High students went on to go to Keene State College, partially because we love this community that we grew up, were raised in — it’s important to us,” he said. “And seeing it fractured like this we think, what does that mean for the health of all of us? Our community?”

This article has been changed to add context about why the Keene Board of Education held a special meeting.

Molly Bolan can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436 or mbolan@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @BolanMolly.