RINDGE — When it comes to how the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District can improve, there’s one area that parents, administrators and students all seem to agree on: communication.
That was one of the central themes of the district’s “state of the district” meeting Thursday, which drew at least 30 people to Rindge Memorial School. According to Superintendent Reuben D. Duncan, the meeting was called as part of an effort to provide more frequent updates to district residents.
This is the first time Jaffrey-Rindge has held such a meeting, and it comes at a time when the district has been under increased scrutiny from parents and other community members.
The district saw a tumultuous start to the school year after one of the middle and high schools’ two assistant principals, Richard Simoneau, resigned two days before the start of classes. Simoneau was the fourth district administrator to resign over the span of about four months, leaving the middle and high schools with an entirely new administrative staff this year.
Another significant change was to the structure of that staff, which shifted from two separate staffs — one principal and one assistant principal for each school — to one principal and two assistant principals serving both the middle and high schools.
Jaffrey-Rindge has also seen recent controversy over new grading policies rolled out in the fall, which separate academic grades from work habits such as effort and preparedness.
Some parents have criticized the new system — which is being implemented as the district moves from a traditional to a proficiency-based education model — because they say it will result in less accountability for their children. Others have praised the school district for moving toward what they described as a more tailored approach.
Tensions about the changes flared at a series of informational meetings in September, which were scheduled after parents reached out to administrators with their concerns.
Duncan’s presentation Thursday centered on some of the changes and improvements the district has made since he was brought on as superintendent in 2015.
He laid out responses to a community survey conducted shortly after his hiring, which identified stronger communication as one of the district’s most important focuses. He also highlighted Jaffrey-Rindge’s strategic planning process and current efforts to create a cohesive K-12 curriculum, as well as upgrades to district facilities and the administration’s success in keeping the budget down.
He also acknowledged the recent tensions in the district.
“Our middle-high school administration did a commendable job discussing these transitions with the community. Early on in this year, they continued to work with the staff to learn, to refine and improve the educational practices of the school,” he said. “Grading is one of those practices, and assessment of learning is closely tied to that.”
However, one of residents’ key complaints during September’s meetings was that the transition was not properly communicated to parents before the start of the school year, and that the district seemed generally unprepared to implement the changes.
After speaking for roughly a half hour Thursday, Duncan invited attendees to ask questions of the district administrators who were present, who included the leaders of the district’s four schools along with business staff, student services staff and others.
Much of the discussion focused on the shift to bring the middle and high schools under one administrative staff, essentially merging the two schools, which are adjacent to one another in Jaffrey.
A few attendees asked about the level of interaction between the middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. Erin Chamberlain, who lives in Jaffrey, said her daughter, a senior at Conant, has had trouble concentrating on schoolwork when studying in the library because she has been distracted by groups of middle-schoolers congregating there.
But a few other parents noted they’ve been pleased that under the new structure, it’s easier for middle school students to take more challenging classes — including math and foreign language courses — at the high school. This was possible before the shift but not as common because the two schools previously operated on very different schedules, administrators explained.
Rindge resident Marcia Breckenridge questioned the district’s reasoning for merging the middle and high schools under one administrative staff, pointing to the different stages of development the students are in. Breckenridge noted that she has a long history in education as a teacher in Milford and now as an adjunct at Keene State College.
“I’ve seen both (middle and high schools), and they are very different. I want to know what your philosophical reason was, I want to know if it was budgetary, and I want to know how much interaction between the two is occurring,” Breckenridge said.
Administrators pointed to scheduling and curriculum development as two of the major factors influencing the decision. David Dustin, assistant principal of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said opportunities for teachers to collaborate between the middle and high schools were “extremely limited” before merging the administrations.
Now, it’s much easier for 8th- and 9th-grade teachers to discuss learning outcomes and ensure that curriculum is consistent across the transition from middle to high school, he said.
“I’m not saying I couldn’t (do that before) — I’m saying it would have been extremely difficult, and it did not happen in a meaningful way in the time I was a teacher,” Dustin said.
Until taking on the role of assistant principal this year, Dustin was a social studies teacher at Conant High School.
Rindge resident Lynn Wozniak brought up her son’s transition from elementary school to middle school, noting that as a parent, she didn’t feel welcomed into Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School the way she had at Rindge Memorial School.
She suggested that the district could do a better job of providing opportunities for parents to meet teachers and get to know the school, and pointed again to the need for improved communication from district leaders.
“Even with this whole transition, the reason why there’s such a negative feeling among the community is because I don’t think a lot of people felt like they were part of the changes. So, going forward, I think that’s something that should be really thought about, moving forward,” Wozniak said. “We’re not just including the students, but we’re also including the parents as part of the process.”
The remainder of the conversation, which lasted roughly an hour, covered a wide range of topics, from the availability of college credits through the state’s Running Start program to the district’s emphasis on vocational training.
After the meeting, Duncan noted that the district plans to continue holding “state of the district” meetings on a biannual basis — one to be held mid-year and one to be held at the end of the year. He emphasized the value of the feedback offered by those who attended.
“We gained some very good insight here today. There are people here who have loved what we’ve been doing all along, and other people who have been skeptical about some of the work that we’ve done,” he said. “And so regardless, we all are here for the betterment of our students and our children in this community.
“And so, working together is how we’re going to be able to do that.”