From time to time we hear about "the 800-pound gorilla in the room." The metaphor is used as an example of something that is obvious to most people, but they don't want to talk about it.
For a few years now that gorilla at Andover High School has been the block schedule. It has become so big that it has contributed to a work to rule for all the schools, the School Committee is now against the teaching labor force and the issue could result in a lower rating when the Accreditation Committee presents its final report. Our standing in the valley is not what it could and should be.
There are people in our town who say, "I wish I could sell my house and move out of town." There are others who say, "If I had the money I would send my children to private or parochial schools." This situation is most unfortunate. The present School Committee members have said they want Andover to become an innovative school system with national recognition. I believe what they say. However, it is how you propose to do something that makes all the difference in the world.
The teachers are in the midst of a serious internal political battle that has significant consequences. There are those who are adamant about the work-to-rule strategy. There are those who have mixed feelings. There is a third group that is utterly embarrassed that the group would withhold services to children because the contract is not signed.
The question that is most important is, what is the percentage of truly professional teachers who put their classrooms first and their wallets second. They are the most critical part in a good school system.
It is going to take some time to sort out who wants to do what, a strategic plan that makes sense, and both sides who work toward the same goal: the best education of our children within our ability to pay. In my opinion, it is very possible. I know the major players on both sides and have always believed reasonable people can come to reasonable solutions.
Back to King Kong in the high school. From the very beginning the block schedule, a good idea, was handled in a fashion that could not possibly succeed. To avoid such serious mistakes in the future, the Andover education team (School Committee, administrators and teachers) should work together when presenting major initiatives to the community. This is true of a strategic plan, annual initiatives, and innovations that have a major impact on our schoolchildren.
There are key questions that if answered thoroughly and implemented as planned, will produce very good results. They should be asked before the initiative is launched and approved. In the case of the block sSchedule here are a few:
If we implement the block schedule what educational results should we expect? (cost-benefit analysis)
What is it? How does it work? (plan)
What is wrong with the present method?
What kind of staff development is needed?
How will we measure whether it is effective or not?
How will we modify if it is not going according to the plan?
What data will we compile to see if it is working?
How much will it cost in time, people, equipment and money?
These questions can be applied to any major initiative. Such questions should be answered by the staff before it presents them to the School Committee. Once the School Committee has accepted or rejected the proposal, the Finance Committee, and those community members who have an interest in such information, will feel the school organization has done its job.
Over the last decade we have spent millions on technology. Apply the above questions and draw your own conclusions. How about the new initiatives?
One final thought on the Andover High block schedule, I would estimate the difference between the typical schedule and the Andover block schedule is $750,000 at the very minimum. Is it worth the difference? The Andover education team should provide some factual data. If not, time to go back to the drawing board.
This is not to say we should go back to what we received when we went to school. It may have worked then but it doesn't work today. A truly good school system can answer and presents such answers, before the critical questions are asked by the Finance Committee and the community.
Once again, I believe Andover can have the finest schools in the country. The potential is there. The basic issue is not money! It is time to be dissatisfied with typical thinking and implementation. Ask the right questions and you have a better chance of having the right kind of school system.
Ken Seifert is a 40-year resident of Andover and former superintendent of the Andover schools.