Jill Stahl-Tyler: Just another normal school board meeting

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The other night, I spent yet another evening at a school board meeting.

When I joined the board about six years ago, I expected I'd hear regularly about the happenings in our town's three elementary schools, the goings-on at our infant and preschool programs through Early Head Start, Head Start and our private partnerships with other preschools in the area.

Our meeting on November 16 was no exception. (If you would like to watch the meeting, all of our meetings are filmed by BCTV, and on demand at their website at http://www.brattleborotv.org/ ) We reviewed student numbers, children moving into or out of our area, attendance levels and tardies. We heard about what I call "the good stuff": spelling bee championships, special family gatherings and after school programs.

Then we go to the opposite part, the data that brings down the feeling in the room, every single meeting.

We track free & reduced lunch (even though we no longer charge any child for breakfast or lunch, this data is still required). At this particular meeting, we came in at 74 percent of our Academy students, 69 percent for Green Street, and 53 percent for Oak Grove.

We look at homeless student numbers. At Academy, we had 12 kids classified as "homeless" (that's 3 percent), at Oak Grove, there were two (almost 2 percent), and at Green Street, we had six (about 3 percent).

We turn our attention to foster care children. Because there is such dire need in our county in particular, several of our teachers have even become foster parents. This time around, Oak Grove had four (about 3 percent of the student population); Academy had six children in foster care (about 1.5 percent); Green Street had seven (about 3 percent).

Perhaps even a sadder number we check is the number of reports made by each school to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). By Vermont state law, school personnel must report any suspicion or evidence of neglect or abuse of a child. In the last month, Academy made three reports, Oak Grove zero, and Green Street 17. (Even before I started on school board, I was in the school frequently as a parent volunteer. I had no idea of this. I think it's a testament to the professionalism that these realities aren't widely known to those not directly affected.)

After we get done with these sobering statistics, as school board chair, I'm supposed to move the meeting along. So, of course, I do that.

But I'm mentally never ready. I am stuck on those negatives, questioning mentally what we can do, how we as a society face these situations, how we, as one school board working with 760 plus kids, can help change those numbers.

It seems so bleak.

But last night, our central office staff presented information on how we test our children, and what those tests show.

We heard about "exit tickets", benchmark testing, year-end testing. There is good news: we are making progress overall. We're closing gaps between children in different socio-economic groups, and all of our children are learning and gaining.

Then, the staff pulled out two specific reading proficiency case studies for us to review.

Both were children reading several grades below their peer group. All the warm, fuzzy feelings I had towards the overall data fell aside for me. Instead of an overall look at "all kids" -like we typically do -here were two, live examples.

And if our schools fail to reach them, we know their futures will be dramatically affected.

The administrators laid out their plan. They have set reasonable goals, which the families and the students know about. They have pulled together a team, and have specific hours per week for special intervention and assistance.

Then, they walked us through the results so far this fall. For one, the interventions that they have tried have not led to increased reading abilities. They are disappointed; the presenter himself was very sad when he showed us these results. But they are not giving up: the team has met again, and they are trying other options.

Happily, the other student has responded to the interventions -even better than they had hoped. He has surpassed their original goals, and the team is hopeful that he may catch up in one and a half years, instead of the two or more they original thought. The student is very pleased with himself, too, and his entire outlook on learning and school has changed.

My mood shifted yet again: we have made a difference. It's a large "we" too, when we consider the overall system we have in public schools. Taxpayers pay; town meeting representatives approve the budget; the administrators devise systems and hire personnel to carry it out; professionals work directly with the student; the student puts in the work. It's all interconnected, the proverbial "it take a village to raise a child" come-to-life.

When I was appointed to the board about six years ago, I never imagined the amount of time and energy I would spend thinking about education in our community.

But I also never imagined the optimism I'd see from those who see the best in all of our children, and strive every day to help each and every child learn.

Thank you, all, for all those efforts!

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools, at the high school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board. Contact her at jill@globalcow.com.


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