Drawing a crowd

Meg McIntyre / Sentinel Staff

Brett Blanchard, left, principal of Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School, addresses a large crowd of parents, students and teachers during an informational session about a new grading system Monday night.

JAFFREY — It was standing-room only in the music room of Conant High School Monday night as parents, students and teachers gathered to voice their concerns about new grading protocols put into place this school year.

Under the new system, academic grades measuring course knowledge and skills will be reported separately from “work habits,” which will gauge students’ timeliness, effort and preparedness on a scale of 1-4. The change is being implemented as part of a shift to a competency-based education model as laid out in the district’s strategic design, which the school board adopted in December 2017.

Brett Blanchard and David Dustin, principal and assistant principal, respectively, of both Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School, explained the new system at Monday’s informational meeting, which was scheduled after a number of parents recently reached out to administrators and school board members about the change.

A second meeting for anyone who could not attend Monday’s is set for Thursday at 7 p.m.

Blanchard and Dustin said teachers, students and parents will benefit from the new system because it will make it easier to identify specific areas where students may be struggling and how to address them.

“So the goal is to separate out how we report things to make it easier for both the parents and the students to see where they’re doing well and where they’re struggling, and for us as teachers to target some of our instruction to them,” Dustin said.

Though students will be assigned homework under this system, this and other “practice work,” such as in-class assignments, will not be scored as part of the academic grade, according to the presentation.

Not completing work, however, will result in an “incomplete,” at which point the student will be expected to come in after school or during flextime — a designated time for students to meet with teachers or participate in enrichment activities — to finish the assignment. They will also have the opportunity to re-take or re-do assessments such as tests, essays and projects, which contribute to the academic grade, at the teacher’s discretion.

But some parents, such as Tammy Cummings, who lives in Jaffrey, worry the system could lead to a lack of accountability for students.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, there’s a ton of us in here that all we see is that you’ve lowered the academic and the motivational expectations for our kids,” Cummings said. “ ... And some of us don’t want our kids to be able to think they get x-number of chances to be successful — not because we’re mean, but because life doesn’t always give you x-number of chances to be successful.”

Cummings has one child in elementary school in the district and a high-school aged child who transferred out of the district in March because of recent administrative changes, she said.

That month, district voters approved an operating budget that eliminated a principal between Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and the adjacent Conant High School, bringing the combined administrative staff of the two schools in Jaffrey down to one principal and two assistant principals.

On the subject of accountability, Dustin responded that he has had success motivating students in his classroom by requiring them to come in during their personal time to finish homework or in-class work that hasn’t been completed.

“That’s what we want kids to see is that there’s other motivators for doing your work in a timely manner to the best of your ability than just a grade,” he said. “The grade’s important for us to be able to measure and reward their academic progress, but there’s other ways to hold kids accountable to their work.”

Another common frustration voiced Monday was a lack of communication from the district about the grading changes. Several attendees said that parents and students were not notified of the new system before the first day of school, and that the schools seem generally unprepared to implement it.

Mariah Chamberlain, a senior at Conant High, said she was excited at first for her final year, but that walking in on the first day felt like an about-face due to the grading changes. She noted that it seems to have caused confusion among some of the teachers, as well.

“I don’t think I understand, still, what I’m being assessed on. I have four classes with teachers here, all of them have explained (it) completely differently, and they all still don’t seem to understand even what they’re going to be putting in the grade book for me,” she said. “Because I’ve done work that has a grade that’s still not going in the grade book, because they don’t know what’s going in the grade book. And so it’s a complete mess.”

Though most attendees Monday expressed strong opposition to the new policies, a few people showed cautious optimism about the plan.

“I like it. I’m sorry, guys — it seems like it’s going to be a good thing from my perspective on what I’ve read,” said Karen Arsenault, who lives in Rindge. “Doesn’t mean I don’t have questions, doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns. That’s why I’m here.”

At times the frustration in the room was palpable, with attendees talking among themselves or interjecting over each other and administrators. When the meeting was cut off after an hour and a half, tensions spilled over into the regularly scheduled school board meeting, which convened immediately following the information session.

Board Chairwoman Laurel McKenzie of Jaffrey began the meeting by reading a statement addressing some of the concerns that have been brought forward about the new grading practices and recent staff departures in the district.

During the past six months, all four administrators who led the middle and high schools last academic year have handed in their resignations, with the most recent departure of Assistant Principal Richard Simoneau falling on the day before the new school year began.

Some parents have also called the number of recent teacher resignations a “red flag,” but McKenzie noted that an average of 15 professional staff members — which include teachers — retire or resign each year.

“We can’t know for certain the reasons that teachers and other professional staff did not return this school year, but it does not represent an increase over previous years,” she said.

Jaffrey resident Erin Chamberlain, Mariah Chamberlain’s mother, pushed back on the idea that recent staff departures aren’t related to structural and philosophical changes in the district.

“I just can’t believe that it’s all because they have a family reason or something has just come up. It’s because of what’s going on. I mean, you’ve got to have some sort of gut feeling that this is what’s causing some of that. I mean, how can you not?” she said. “... We’re losing great people because we’re forcing this plan on them without preparing them, without them understanding.”

During about an hour of public comment, attendees reiterated their concerns about the new grading system, the lack of communication about the changes and a general sense of dysfunction in the district. Cummings, among others, questioned if and when the board will act on the feedback it’s received.

“I guess I asked my question because I hear a lot of talking; I don’t see a lot of action. I advocated ‘til the cows came home — I spoke to anybody who would listen to me, and no changes were made. So my son left his friends and went elsewhere,” she said. “And that’s not acceptable.”

A second information session about the new grading policies is scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Conant High School music room. Those who plan to attend are encouraged to submit questions in advance via a survey available on the district’s website at www.sau47.org.

Meg McIntyre can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or mmcintyre@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MMcIntyreKS.