Is it a Great Day To Be a Dodger?

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Ellie Culin

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For the last few weeks, many discussions at Madison High School have revolved around recent changes made to the administrative model by the Madison Board of Education. It’s certainly made for lively and heated discussions, but what does all of this actually mean for students, faculty, and the Madison community?

 

The administrative changes resulted in the elimination of departmental supervisors and the implementation of three additional assistant principals. This prompted  a very vocal (and overwhelmingly negative) community response at the Madison BOE public hearing on April 25th, 2019. A Madison Eagle staffer captured critical commentary throughout the meeting on her Twitter page; the public continued to raise questions and concerns via the Madison Area Parents and Community Facebook page. At the hearing, opening remarks were followed by a very long and intense segment of community, student leaders, staff

outpouring, as                  teachers, and community members reacted to the proposed changes. Many addressed the perceived negative consequences of the administrative changes, especially the elimination of the supervisory roles. Community members expressed anxiety about how a more “top-heavy” administrative model would more effectively support teachers and students.

 

The May and April issues of Madison’s Dodger Digest, written by Madison Public Schools’ Superintendent Mr. Mark Schwarz, provides some clarity on the new model. Schwarz, in the April Dodger Digest, cites concern regarding Madison students’ wellness and mental health as motivation for these administrative changes. Burnout, boredom, and grade-driven anxiety, he writes, are issues that students are experiencing at “concerning rates” from third grade through twelfth grade (Schwarz). The April issue of Dodger Digest references reports and research conducted by Educational Theory experts Michael Fullan and the Wallace Foundation, which have found a positive correlation between academic achievement and student wellness to the influence of teachers and principals.

 

According to Schwarz, the new administrative model  “include(d) community, faculty, and student involvement in the decision making process.” The Digest directs readers to a diagram of this new management system, which specifies phases of the decision making process.

Phase 1: “Issue Identification,” includes students, staff, community members, and parents, as well as administrators and the Board of Education. Each group falls under the jurisdiction of a larger group: the school, board members, and stakeholders. For example, the administrators and staff are labeled as “school responsibilities.” However, this is where mention of the community, faculty, and students ends.

From there, each school is responsible for Phases II and III: “Research, Data Collection, and Analysis.” According to Phase III, the schools are to summarize their findings and present recommendations and options for a solution. However, Schwarz stated at the April 25th meeting  that the results of Madison High School’s Professional Learning Communities year-long, extensive research were “inconclusive.” Once assured of their protected anonymity, many teachers vehemently disagreed with his assessment. This begs the question: to what extent were community members, students, and staff truly asked and heard regarding their recommendations?

Phase IV:  “Board Vetting and Authorization,” makes no mention of community involvement in decision-making. Phase IV consists of a Committee Discussion, followed by a Board Discussion, concluding with Board Action. All of Phase IV falls under Board Member Responsibility. It is unclear how this administrative model is “principal and teacher-centered,” as Schwarz claims. Perhaps this system allows for more direct involvement from the community, faculty, and students than shown in the diagram; however, there is no further breakdown of the system in the Dodger Digest.

 

Schwarz continues to cite flaws with the previous administrative model, such as an unclear chain of command, “role confusion,” dual reporting structures, and reported lack of support for the principals and faculty. To solve this, Schwarz restructured positions in the Central Office, changes which include:

  • Creation of a new Human Resources Department
  • Movement of payroll from the Business Office to the HR Department
  • Elimination of the Assistant Business Administrator position  
  • Elevation of two director positions to Assistant Superintendent roles with new reporting structures  
  • Merging the Superintendent Secretary and the Receptionist positions

 

These changes are meant to clarify responsibilities, “[balance] direct reports,” and “place community and principal support at the core of the Central Office’s purpose.” Schwarz notes that these new changes have already improved the functioning of the Central Office and Board of Education; however, he mentions that aforementioned “role confusion” and an “unclear distribution of authority” still affects the Madison School System.

Schwarz attributes these issues to the previously existing “dual control system,” in which school principals and supervisors overlapped responsibilities concerning staff, curriculum, and instruction. As a solution, Schwarz has proposed a new model and its  aspects of which are very controversial among the Madison community.

  • MHS will be led by the Principal and four Vice Principals. Each VP will have a set of responsibilities that includes chairing one or more high school departments, supporting a grade level of students, and leading specific aspects of MHS operations (including athletics, activities, facilities, safety and security, scheduling, guidance and college and career planning).  
  • MJS will retain its model of team teaching and will also receive a new clinical therapist and a new learning disabilities teacher consultant.
  • The elementary schools’ supports were enhanced this current school year by the creation of two instructional coaches and an additional guidance counselor position.  
  • All schools will be supported by the Central Office staff that will schedule and facilitate collaboration and articulation committees throughout the year.

 

During the April 25th open meeting, community members including students, faculty, and parents spoke in opposition of the administrative changes. One criticism voiced by many in the community concerned the scope of the changes. The new administrative model proposed by Schwarz sweeps across the Madison school system. It’s an incredibly drastic change that would be implemented in a very brief period of time without sufficient justification.

The new administrative model has been developed with the best of intentions: Schwarz himself stated that the root cause of all of these changes has been a drop in students’ mental health and wellness. Why do students feel increasingly pressured, stressed, and anxious? It’s an issue facing school systems across America, and it’s an issue that needs to be solved. However, staff, students, and community members are raising questions as to how this top-heavy model will support those concerns. Their questions have yet to be directly and sufficiently answered.

 

One concern posed by many students, overheard in classrooms and hallways, speaks to the integrity of Schwarz’s data. Schwarz, in his April Dodger Digest, cites student wellness figures, such as “74% of students report feeling burned out or overloaded by school work.” This data appears to be taken from an end-of-the-year survey given by the administration. Everything about this survey, on paper, appears sufficient; students are given a shortened period schedule in order to make time for this survey, which is proctored by classroom teachers. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that students are taking this survey seriously. In fact, it seems a safer bet that students aren’t taking this survey seriously.

The anonymous survey, administered at the end of students’ last block class, asked them to quantify their feelings of burnout, stress, and work capability. Providing a Madison High School student’s perspective, Mr. Schwarz and the Board of Education must consider the strong likelihood that many students exaggerated their stress in hope that teachers will be forced to assign less homework. It was not made clear to students what the results of the survey will be used for, only that they have “helped [the Board of Education] to make [their] school better,” included in an email sent to students by Schwarz. It is an incredibly vague description for a survey cited by Schwarz to justify such controversial administrative changes; changes that are causing a significant amount of confusion and anxiety for all members of the Madison community.

 

From a student’s point of view, it seems unclear exactly how these administrative changes will improve student wellness. On the surface, it seems counterintuitive to eliminate longstanding and beloved Madison supervisors in favor of new administrative positions. In terms of wellness and mental health, how will students feel more supported when faculty members like Dowling, Snyder, Bosworth, DeBiasse, and Levine – faces seen every day at MHS – are replaced by new vice principals and administrators? The supervisors at Madison have been very successful at Madison throughout the years and have cemented a positive reputation among students. Teachers and students feel supported by the supervisors, who have proven themselves to be dedicated to the wellness of the whole community. Just this March, Athletic Director Sean Dowling was honored as New Jersey’s athletic director of the year. Dowling has a multitude of responsibilities as Athletic Director, and his termination has been one of the largest sources of outrage among the student body. Dowling himself coined the very phrase uttered to MHS students at freshman orientation, in classrooms, and over the announcements by the administration: “It’s a Great Day To Be a Dodger.”

 

This development also brings up questions concerning faculty members under this new model. Student wellness is undoubtedly correlated to faculty wellness. If students sense that their teachers feel overwhelmed and anxious regarding a lack of more immediate, content-focused support, it is likely that their stress will transfer onto students.

 

Where exactly do faculty fit in with all of these changes? The supervisors, a direct line between faculty and the administration, are being eliminated. It’s unclear whether staff were thoroughly consulted about these changes, a dubiety which leaves students questioning the Board and Superintendent’s trust in Madison faculty. Taking into consideration the scope of these administrative changes, it seems unwise to make decisions without consulting Madison teachers and faculty, who have been and will continue to be heavily impacted by these changes. MDO reached out to several teachers to learn Madison teachers’ outlook on the administrative changes, and only one teacher provided quotes to MDO. The administrative changes clearly are an incredibly delicate subject for faculty to speak about; it’s concerning to students that Madison faculty, who are heavily impacted by these changes, do not feel comfortable voicing their opinions, even anonymously. MDO asked teachers to speak on how the changes will affect teachers and if there was a lack of communication between the administration and the faculty. “We have been told that we matter,” MDO’s source says, “but the actions speak louder than the words.” Teachers feel that this is one of a number of instances since this administration has been functioning in Madison where respect for teachers is absent.” Schwarz’s new administrative model is a source of stress for teachers, many of whom feel as if these sweeping changes are disproportionate to the problems presented by Schwarz. Students, particularly MHS students, are unlikely to respect a Board that does not demonstrate trust in the teachers with whom students spend their days.

 

This new model claims to be “principal and teacher centered,” but so far it mostly appears to be Principal-centered. The new vice principals will be assuming responsibilities of the terminated supervisors, supporting a grade level of students, and leading specific aspects of MHS operations, from Guidance to Athletics. These are daunting tasks to assign to four individuals. How exactly are these roles going to be split by the four vice principals, and how can all of the responsibilities possibly be covered by the new hires? The uncertainties caused by this shift is bound to create confusion among teachers; if there have been issues with role confusion in the old model, the new model could actually be worse. Schwarz has observed that the old model caused confusion because teachers did not know whether to report to supervisors or principals. However, if the responsibilities of the new vice principals haven’t been explicitly outlined to teachers, they are still not going to whom they should report. The “problem” will not be solved. There are bound to be bumps in the road no matter how good the new principals are- bumps that might have incredibly far-reaching consequences all throughout the Madison school district.

 

On April 25th, dozens of community members spoke out against the sweeping administrative changes. Students and parents alike raised legitimate questions about the efficacy of these changes; questions that have only increased in urgency as they go unanswered by the administration and Schwarz. At the closing of this meeting, Schwarz spoke briefly, wrapping up the heated community meeting by saying “with great change, there can never be total consensus.” While this is true, it seems that the Madison community has come close to a total consensus; it just so happens that this consensus falls against his on the other side. The overwhelmingly negative response to the administrative changes is bound to be stressful for Schwarz and the Board, but there has been little acknowledgment of how unpopular their decision is, and the changes are still moving forward to take place next year. This lack of acknowledgment only further increases public disapproval; when the Board continues to move these decisions forward despite the widespread criticism expressed by many members of the Madison community, it gives the impression that the community’s voices are not valued by the Board and Superintendent and raises the question of whose interests are being served.

 

While these changes have been made with good intentions, it remains unclear how these changes will improve student mental health. In the past few months, students have been outraged at the news that the positions of beloved community members such as Debiasse and Dowling will be terminated, disappointed by the apparent lack of communication between teachers, the Board, and the Superintendent, and apprehensive about the overall effect of the changes. The reasoning for this administrative change is focused on student wellness, but these sweeping changes seem disproportionate to the self-reported problem, and even appear counterintuitive considering the amounts of confusion and anxiety that will be felt by teachers and students alike as these changes are implemented. Student stress and burnout is not a problem unique to Madison; it is an issue affecting all of America, unlikely to be caused by a “dual control system” at Madison and thus unlikely to be solved by a new system.

 

Taking all of this into consideration, is it, in fact, a Great Day to be a Dodger? The answer coming from students, faculty, and the Madison community is a head-shaking, resounding “No.”

 

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