A Massachusetts principal addressed major budgetary concerns through self-evaluation

This is the story of one Massachusetts high school that piloted a homegrown, community-driven self-evaluation process, instead of undergoing the established regional accreditation. This article was not written to advocate for supplementing current accreditation systems, but simply to report what happened in one school district in New England and the role of the secondary school principal.

Seven years ago, Monument Mountain Regional High School (MMRHS) Principal Marianne Young saw a sad spectacle of furloughs and layoffs across her district in Berkshire County, MA. Because of state and town budget cuts, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District claimed a whopping $400,000 budget deficit.

In that same year, MMRHS found itself up for review by New England’s accreditation agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). The assessment would have cost up to $25,000, most of which would go toward transportation, food, and accommodation for visiting educators.

“I called NEASC and asked for a postponement,” Young says. “They said no, that they never postpone; they never reschedule the site evaluation. I talked with [my] faculty, and someone made an offhand comment that we should just do our own. I kept thinking about it and thought, ‘This may be what we have to do.’ It seemed to me that $25,000 in the face of budget cuts could have been better used to keep a teaching position,” she says.

After consulting with the faculty, school committee, and a number of top colleges and universities, Young and her staff made the move for MMRHS to back out of NEASC membership.

Rethinking Accreditation and Evaluation

Traditionally, membership with an organization such as NEASC was considered essential for college admissions. Like the other five main accreditation agencies across the United States, NEASC was created around the turn of 19th century to establish more distinct standards among secondary schools. The idea was to give colleges more defined measures to utilize in their admissions process.

“With the advent and implementation of No Child Left Behind and the internet, every piece of data about our school is available to every college and university all the time,” Young says. “Our curriculum, our program of studies, our demographics, our test scores. So, my recommendation was to save the money. Let us design a self-study, and in doing it, let’s change it a bit and bring in people who are not solely other high school educators. Let’s bring in people from our community. Let’s bring in business representation, people who work in the field, and let them tell us: Are we preparing students for what they need when they leave high school?”

Working from a fresh slate, Young and her staff created an evaluation centered around a single question: Are we who we say we are? “Who we say we are” stood simply for the mission statements of the school and its individual departments. Evaluators-dubbed “community partners” for the sake of this project-used this criteria as a springboard for their feedback. 

During a two-week period, the partners rotated into the school to conduct classroom observations and form discussion groups. They spoke to students in teacher-free meetings. They spoke to teachers in student-free meetings. And they met with full departments to talk about how they were matching up against their own mission statements.

Opening the Doors to Industry Specialists

Perhaps one of the more distinctive qualities about MMRHS’ self-study was its inclusion of industry professionals-noneducators who may not typically set foot in a high school. Thirty-​nine individuals of varied vocations contributed their time to the project, among them an arborist, a newspaper journalist, an economist, an electrical engineer, a microbiologist, a grocer, and a hospital executive.

Sue Fish, a parent, local therapist, and business owner, served as a community partner with the world language department. As a noneducator, Fish initially felt some reservation about her ability to help. “The other community members [in this evaluator group] were pretty much all educators except for me. At one point I felt a little bit intimidated,” she says. “However, after attending the classes, I found that I did have a fair amount to offer-just observing things like where kids were seated in the classroom.”

Spanish teacher Dan Bouvier notes his appreciation for Fish’s feedback: “The value that I saw for her was twofold. She saw the results of our program through her children. And, because of her counseling background, she was very tuned into who was engaged and who was not engaged in the classroom.”

Hans Erik Jensen, an electrical sales engineer, partnered with the science department. His feedback stemmed from two perspectives: that of his profession and that of his experience as a member of Monument’s class of 2003.

“I thought it was a great idea to have some alums,” Jensen says. In feedback sessions, Jensen was able to discuss his transition from MMRHS to Worcester Polytechnic Institute and then to the engineering field. “I talked about things I thought I was prepared for and wasn’t prepared for,” he says. Jensen offered ideas for expanding the school’s offerings toward careers in engineering.

In the art department, social media project manager Phoebe Ford drew from her field experiences to offer ideas for more collaboration among students in the studio. From the realm of higher education, professor Michael Krezmien of the University of Massachusetts Amherst helped the special education department envision a more modernized structure to assist students with different learning needs.

Too Close to Home? 

One concern that emerged early among teachers and participants centered around levels of objectivity. Several of Monument’s community partners are parents, alumni, and retired employees. Some simply live in proximity to the district. Accreditation agencies, by contrast, typically use evaluators with no connection to the district they are assessing.

Emily Olds, American history and psychology teacher at Monument, acknowledged this challenge: “Because our meetings with observers were face to face and very personal, it was difficult for real criticism to come through. Having strangers come in and then leave us with comments might have allowed us to get at more of that criticism.”

At the same time, several faculty also expressed gratitude for the ability to select their own assessors. Departments decided together, based on known competence and professional background, who would come to evaluate them. “It was good to get feedback from two educators whom I respect immensely,” Olds says.

Low-hanging Fruit and Long-term Plans 

In the wake of the observations, MMRHS’ administration and individual departments used the partners’ input to create short- and long-term objectives-for the following school year and for a more distant time frame.

“Low-hanging fruit” for the guidance department, for instance, might be adding mindfulness and meditation to the ninth-grade Ex Tech course. A long-term plan would involve developing a mentoring program for at-risk students and their families.

Community support, in fact, was one of the two biggest takeaways for Principal Young. From the beginning, she was blown away by an overwhelming willingness to help. “They [the partners] were thrilled. They were so glad to come, to be a part of this.” Many of the partners told her at the conclusion that they would have given even more time. “If more people from the community could go in and see what happens at the high school, I feel like a lot of people would be more supportive of the education system,” Jensen says.

The second resounding takeaway? It takes courage to chart a new path. Young explains, “It would have been so easy to just say we’re going to stick with the NEASC model. People didn’t do that. It takes courage to step out of the norm and follow your professional gut, if you will. To do good work for kids. We are who we say we are, but we have room for improvement.”

 Meghan St. John is a high school English and journalism teacher at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, MA.

Making It Work

How to Implement a Self-study Process

  • Give teachers a substantive role in the process—from evaluation criteria to selection of partners.
  • Recognize and support community partners who volunteer their time without pay by recording their feedback, so no written reports are required.
  • Rotatepartners into the school days, so there is little disruption to the school environment.
  • Involve community partners in the discussion groups with students.
  • Include educators—both high school and college—and noneducators in each evaluation group.