Teachers, students separated by 20 miles face very different circumstances

  • Junior Autumn Colon-Pagan listens to a math presentation at Pittsfield Middle High School last month. “Almost all of the teachers that have been here for a long time--it’€™s like their passion. This school is their passion,” she said. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • ABOVE: Pittsfield English teacher Jenny Wellington engages her students in discussion last month. BELOW: Bow High School seniors Alison Lambert (center), Sonya DeLorie (left) and George Anderson work during an advanced engineering class last month. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • English teacher Jenny Wellington talks with student Sereniti Morgan in her class at Pittsfield Middle High School last month. Wellington was the only staff member who stayed in the English department from last year, two other teachers left the district and were replaced and a literacy interventionist position was eliminated.  GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Senior Alison Lambert (center) and her classmates work during an advanced engineering class at Bow High School in Bow on Feb. 21, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Seniors Alison Lambert (center), Sonya DeLorie (left) and George Anderson work during an advanced engineering class at Bow High School in Bow on Feb. 21, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Freshman Lily Benoit (center) and Jade Fauteux (left) talk during an art class at Bow High School in Bow on Feb. 21, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Dean Cascadden (right), Bow Superintendent of Schools, walks through the halls of Bow High School in Bow on Feb. 21, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Juniors Kendra Roux (left) and Emma Gagne do a timed trial with classmates during an anatomy class at Bow High School on Feb. 21. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Students attend classes at Bow High School in Bow on Feb. 21, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Dean Cascadden, Bow Superintendent of Schools, points to one of the many athletic fields on a map of Bow High School on Feb. 21, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/3/2018 9:03:46 PM

Teachers at Bow High School tend to stick around for a while. Take, for example, Heidi Pauer – she taught English at the school since it opened its doors 21 years ago and recently stepped into an administrative role as academic dean.

It’s the school’s philosophy, she said, that kept her from going anywhere.

“The idea of being interdisciplinary, the teaming, the collegiality, the arts integrations,” Pauer said. “Our model, from the beginning, is that nobody had their own classroom. So we weren’t islands.”

The schools in Bow – an affluent, suburban community bordering Concord – have always enjoyed a sterling reputation for academic success and good pay for educators, where teachers earn on average $63,169 a year.

Twenty miles away, the schools in Pittsfield – a geographically isolated, depressed former mill town – have faced test scores and graduation rates well below average. There, teachers are paid on average $22,000 a year less than Bow. While the district has a contingent of veteran staff, it faces high turnover – sometimes up to 20 percent a year – and a steady churn of young, untried teachers.

“We lost our whole English department last year. It was just me left. So you lost your 7-8 teacher, your 9-10 teacher. And our literacy interventionist – that position was cut,” said 11th and 12th-grade English teacher Jenny Wellington.

New Hampshire’s property-tax dependent way of funding its schools offers plenty of easy, eye-popping contrasts. Compare, for example, scenic Seacoast municipalities who spend thousands above the state average per-pupil, but do so for single-digit property tax rates – while poor, rural centers in Coos County face staggering tax rates while spending far less per student.

A close look at two Capital-area districts, Bow and Pittsfield, underlines the importance of property wealth. But it also emphasizes how other factors – community affluence, size, geography – can influence what resources students have and how well they do.

Thanks to millions in federal and private grants, Pittsfield has been going through a district-wide transformation over the past decade. Reforms have focused on creating individualized, student-led learning experiences, and put a premium on inter-disciplinary teaching collaborations.

For Pittsfield sophomore Rebecca Smith, it’s the emphasis her school places on getting kids involved in how material is taught, and even how the school is run, that is so valuable.

“I think education is what you make of it, and that Pittsfield enables you to have to make something of it,” she said.

But one thing the grants haven’t been able to do is boost teacher salaries. And that’s cost Pittsfield.

With wages substantially below the state average teacher pay of $57,522, the district is at a disadvantage when trying to attract the most qualified staff. Only 39 percent of Pittsfield’s teachers have a master’s degree, while 69 percent of Bow’s teachers do.

“Most people leave because of the pay. That is just the fact. When you don’t pay your teachers well, it becomes a training ground for new teachers. And they can get a year or two under their belt, and then they can go to another school,” Wellington said. More importantly, it’s also made a big difference in how long the districts can retain teachers.

For kids, a teacher’s experience is painfully obvious. Here’s Bow junior Jason Howe’s blunt take on it: “The ones that have been here forever are the best. The new ones aren’t as good.”

Colby Wolfe, a junior in Pittsfield, would tend to agree.

“The teachers that come here for a year are just here to get their feet wet and then they move on ’cause either the budget gets ’em or a better job comes up. Like, I don’t want to be mean about that, but it’s happened to a lot of teachers,” he said. (Conversely, those teachers who stuck around often received glowing reviews: “Almost all of the teachers that have been here for a long time – it’s like their passion. This school is their passion,” said Autumn Colon-Pagan, a fellow Pittsfield junior.)

The turnover is also a drag on the teachers that do stay behind – and who say it badly stymies forward progress.

“In your team, you lose somebody, or two people or even three or even four, you’re starting over from scratch trying to catch people up. That’s time, energy spent catching people up – instead of moving forward,” said Pittsfield physical education teacher Rick Anthony.

When Pittsfield’s teachers walk out the door, they don’t just take their newfound expertise. Deciding it would be the best way to create long-term changes with temporary dollars, the district sank the bulk of its grants in professional development.

(“And then we hire ’em,” said Dean Cascadden, Bow’s superintendent, almost guiltily.)

Both Bow and Pittsfield have similarly progressive teaching ideals about individualized learning. In Bow, students must complete a self-directed, 70-hour project in order to graduate. In Pittsfield, students are encouraged to find a project outside the classroom for academic credit, to lead classroom
discussions – even to
critique their teacher’s lesson plans.

But in large part because of scale – Pittsfield’s high school enrollment hovers around 150 – the two districts’ abilities to cater to student interests look far different.

While Bow has a bevy of in-house offerings, especially at the higher level – a slew of advanced placement classes, electives like engineering and metalsmithing, four foreign languages – Pittsfield relies almost entirely on online classes for AP and dual-enrollment courses.

“I’m an in-class student. Online is not my forte,” Colby said.

Both districts have roughly similar per-pupil costs. But their tax rates, while both over the state average, have stood wide apart, with Bow’s at $26.29 in 2016 and Pittsfield’s at $32.26. Bow, meanwhile, liened 48 properties in 2017. Pittsfield, a town nearly half Bow’s size, liened 99.

Frustrated by taxes, Pittsfield has, on several occasions, flirted with closing its high school. But each time the proposition has been considered, the conclusion has been the same: between tuition, special education and transportation, taxpayers wouldn’t save much, if at all.

The question was studied in 2016 by the school administration, which found sending students out could in some cases be marginally more expensive. In 2017,
the select board, skeptical the district had investigated the matter impartially, crunched the numbers themselves. They found potential savings – but only marginally – and didn’t recommend a change.

The last of Pittsfield’s grants will end this year.
The district has made some gains, according to administrators – but they’ve been
uneven. All of the district’s campuses are no longer on the state’s list of schools most in need of improvement. But gains in measures like drop-out rates and test scores have been small.

“We’ve found that we’ve had mixed success and at this point believe that we did not identify the most effective levers,” said Pittsfield superintendent John Freeman. “In terms of practices of continuous improvement, the funds allowed us to test potential solutions and learn from our experiences. We’ve also come to learn that complex problems may require complex (and sometimes expensive) solutions.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)

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