Can Hollis Brookline High School avoid NEASC probation?

HOLLIS – Hollis Brookline High School has been under the threat of being placed on probation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) since 2011, and administrators are running out of excuses and extensions.

According to Interim Superintendent John Moody, if no solution is found quickly to address the problems cited, the school’s accreditation will be terminated by June 2015.

All New Hampshire high schools must meet minimum standards set by the state Department of Education. Participation in NEASC is voluntary but something to be desired, and it is the only agency that offers accreditation in the Northeast.

NEASC sets standards and conducts site visits to ensure that the schools meet performance expectations. The seven areas NEASC rates are: 1. Core Values, Beliefs and Learning Experiences 2. Curriculum 3. Instruction 4. Assessment of Student Learning 5. School Culture and Leadership 6. School Resources for Learning and 7. Community Resources for Learning.

Once a school is accredited, it is reviewed every 10 years for renewal. To prepare for renewal of accreditation, school staff must conduct a self-evaluation and present evidence that standards are being met.

Official warnings

For most of the past decade, NEASC has expressed concerns regarding overcrowding and inadequate facilities at HBHS, particularly regarding to overutilization of classrooms, teachers sharing classrooms, limited planning space, lack of a language lab, and overcrowding in the cafeteria.

In February 2011, the school was notified that following a visit and review of progress reports, NEASC was continuing the school’s accreditation but placing it on official warning for lack of adherence to standards. Due to changes in leadership and planned facilities studies, extensions have been granted, but time has run out.

The Journal went inside the school on Thursday, March 13, to see what a typical day looks like. Assistant Principal Tim Girzone gave a tour of the building and made sure we were in the right place at the right time to witness things like teachers on carts and lunch in the cafeteria and back lobby.

The crowded cafeteria and other dining options

Although it’s not even 11 a.m., the cafeteria is already filled with students eating lunch. With a capacity of 200 in the main cafeteria and 75 in the mini-cafeteria and an enrollment of 874, lunch is hectic. Roughly 280 students are scheduled for each lunch period, allowing for some who eat in classrooms or elsewhere, as well as absences.

“The first and third lunches are at capacity and the second is just below,” said Assistant Principal Robert Ouellette, who maintains a presence in the cafeteria throughout the lunch periods. “We try to schedule freshman classes during the same period to alleviate the anxiety of who to sit with. With juniors and seniors, it’s not as much of a big deal. We don’t really have problems, but with a third of the student body here at a time, it’s good to have a presence. I actually enjoy (lunch duty). It’s a good chance to see every kid every day, and most of the conversations I have with kids are spur of the moment.”

Sometimes lunch falls in the middle of a class, with 25 minutes instruction, lunch, then back to class.

“It’s hard to teach or give tests,” Ouellette said. “We try not to hit accelerated classes, but then there’s the philosophic discussion: Do you split AP classes, where kids stay on task, or do you interrupt fundamental classes where it’s hard to get those kids back on task?”

Despite the numbers, the line for food seems to move quickly. Although some tables have a dozen kids crowded around, there are others with seats available and a few that are completely empty.

“There are always empty tables,” said Loretta Blanche, a food service worker. “I don’t know if they are going to other areas, but they don’t fill up the tables and it’s worth looking into again.”

Students are not allowed to eat in the hallways or the library, but many do go upstairs to the back lobby near the gymnasium to eat their lunch. During nice weather, students are encouraged to go outdoors on the patio during lunch, but that is limited to a few weeks at the beginning and end of the school year.

A large group of girls is clustered around a table in the back lobby during first lunch period. One girl is sitting on a ledge because there aren’t enough chairs at the table for everyone in the group to sit together.

“Most of us eat lunch from home,” said Rachel Jiang, a sophomore. “I haven’t eaten school lunch since fifth grade. I have friends in third lunch who complain there is no food left or it’s cold.”

“It can get a little crowded, especially third lunch,” agreed Caroline Daigle. “We had to stand up.”

“I don’t like how loud and crazy it is in the lunch room, so I leave,” said Michaela Dowling.

During second lunch, only seniors seem to be in the upstairs lobby.

“The school is way too small,” said senior Evan Lavoie. “There are not enough places to eat so people resort to eating in the tech center or band room.”

“I think it is a cool perk that just seniors get to be up here,” said Jena Hyatt. Her friend, Jill Lewandoski, wishes there were a senior lounge so they wouldn’t just be stuck in a corner. And, like the earlier lunch period, there are still more students than chairs.

“I never have a chair and have to sit on the bench,” said Reagan Burns. “There should be another table here. They only put us here because there is no room in the cafeteria, but it’s also kind of nice.”

And what effect does this traveling lunch have on the cleanliness of the building?

“The kids are pretty good,” said John Gray, maintenance supervisor at HBHS, regarding spills and messes. “We’ve always allowed coffee, but now every trash bag has to be changed every night because there is food in it. Before we could just empty it into a bigger bag.”

Teachers on carts

One of the major issues with space constraints is the number of teachers who do not have their own classroom. There are 67 teachers on staff, 28 of whom teach in more than one classroom. While some share a room with another teacher, others are mobile. Teachers are limited by not being able to leave materials set up in the classroom, technology and room layout issues that vary from room to room, and being inaccessible to students before or after class because they have to move on to their next classroom. Having to wheel a cart through crowded hallways during passing and where to store the carts also pose a challenge.

Jan Staub, chair of the history department, is one of the teachers who does not have her own classroom. She teaches three sections of AP U.S. History and one class of AP Psychology.

“My day is spent in a state of triage,” she said. “Crisis mode, trying to control the bleeding. I have to keep track of everything while moving around and managing a classroom full of students. My computer went down and I had to get an IT person just to access my lesson plans. It’s really hard to meet after class with a student if I need to get to the next class.”

As department chair, she has an office, which she shares with the chair of the English department. That at least gives her a place to store her cart and materials, and her own desk.

“If I didn’t have this, I don’t know that I could do what I do,” she said. “There are lots of teachers who share a classroom. Even if you have a free period, there is probably a class going on in the room and you can’t just leave your stuff there.”

When the bell rings between second and third lunch, a teacher attempting to navigate the bustling hallways with her cart. Heidi Foster has been on staff for 10 years, first as a special education teacher, and has taught English for the past eight years and has never had her own classroom.

“It is frantic and hectic,” she said. “The hallways are crowded. I am on one floor, but I have colleagues who have to take the elevator. There is no time to talk to kids before or after class. You have to make sure you have all your materials, and it’s tough when you don’t have the same technology in every room. I teach in two rooms, but if one has a Smart-board and the other doesn’t, I can’t use it. You don’t get to know the classroom, and it changes from year to year.

“The problem with being so overcrowded has been an issue for so long that we have lost a lot of really good teachers who have gone to districts nearby where they have their own classroom. We have had this need for very long.”

Other issues

Other concerns raised by NEASC include using the mini-cafeteria as a classroom, lack of storage space, lack of noninstructional space for teachers for planning and meetings, using sections of the library for classes, and the lack of space for a language lab to fully support the world language curriculum.

Facilities report

The SAU ordered a study on the capacity of the middle and high schools, conducted by Dr. Mark V. Joyce and Dr. Richard W. Ayers, of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. Results, which have been referred to as The Joyce Report, were presented at the January co-op board meeting.

The NHSAA conducted tours and had staff complete surveys to determine what they saw were strengths and weaknesses. Based on feedback from 74 HBHS teachers, the biggest complaint (31) is that there is not enough space for teachers to have their own rooms. Other top issues were that it’s hard to find quiet/planning space if your classroom is being used (11), usage of carts (eight), space is limited (six) and the cafeteria is too small (20).

Regarding limitations specific to their programs, 19 teachers complained of not having their own classroom, while others expressed concerns about lack of storage space, lack of office space, inconvenient room layouts and outdated equipment.

Recommendations

The Joyce report presented several options for increasing cafeteria space and reclaiming classrooms. A 1,000-square-foot addition could be built by enclosing an area on the southerly side of the cafeteria, which would allow for more serving arrangements such as a sandwich or salad bar, and would be readily available for use by clubs after school. Or, alternatively, the school could make minor renovations and use part of the mini-gym as a cafeteria during peak lunch hours. The third option presented involves expanding the cafeteria along with construction of new classrooms.

One option to recapture classroom space is to return the mini-cafeteria to classroom space, convert the classroom adjacent to the library into a technology center, and move the robotics program to the middle school so that room can be used as a science lab again. Another option would see the addition of three classrooms, including a science lab.

Suggestions to obtain more space in core areas include modifying the library, transferring less frequently used materials to storage, and creating a professional development center for faculty and space for small groups in the areas that would be freed up with the removal of two stacks.

The study also took traffic and parking into account, and said adding a second roadway should be considered along with more parking.

The bond proposal

In February, the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School Board held a public hearing on a $5.5 million bond that was to be placed on the warrant. Of that, $2.5 million was for the construction of a synthetic turf athletic field, and $3 million for new construction/improvements at the high school.

Construction of a three-story addition to the school accounts for $2.2 million of the $3 million. Costs to convert the library classroom into a learning technology center, removing stacks to create flexible student-use space and converting a robotics area into a science classroom were estimated at $178,000. Technology upgrades account for $390,000 of the bond proposal, with the final $20,000 earmarked for a traffic study.

The bond proposal drew much heated discussion at the HBCSB annual meeting, which began on March 3. It required a two-thirds supermajority to pass, but the measure failed by that same supermajority of the 1,088 votes cast, with 361 in favor and 727 against.

During the continuation of the meeting on March 6, lengthy discussion occurred regarding whether to reconsider the bond. The motion to reconsider eventually won majority support and the topic can be discussed at the next meeting, which has been scheduled for March 26.

What’s next?

The wording of a bond cannot legally be changed. That is, voters cannot remove wording like “athletic field” or “classroom renovations.” However, each component has a value assigned to it, and those values can be adjusted or zeroed out. The total amount of the bond cannot increase over the original proposal.

With the threat of NEASC probation or loss of accreditation looming, residents must decide what, if any, portions of the bond they are willing to support.

“There is no sense of certainty that we will end up with a bond or some sort of financial commitment that will resolve these issues,” Moody said. “If we end up with none, and can’t find a way, a year from June, we will have our accreditation terminated.”

Relevant links

www.neasc.org/

www.sau41.org/announcements/350-neasc

sau41.org/COOP/reports/2014/2014-01-15-HBCSB-Facilities-Study.pdf

www.sau41.org/COOP/reports/2014/2014-01-23-Facility-Options-for-Cooperative-District-Facilities.pdf

www.sau41.org/COOP/reports/2014/2014-01-15-Athletic-Fields-Study-Presentation.pd