Wake-Up Call for BHS

Belmont High has been on the receiving end of plenty of accolades in recent years. U.S. News and World Report ranked us #111 in the nation and fourth in the state based on math and reading scores. Boston Magazine, also, ranked us highly: #12 in its most recent ranking of the Best Schools in the state. Their ranking looked at things such as MCAS scores, percentage of graduates going to college and SAT scores.

NEASC Report on Belmont High

Those rankings are great – and worth being proud of. But they’re similar in one way: they both look at the performance of our students as the measure of the quality of our school system. That makes sense, but it can miss important considerations, such as how well our town supports the mission of the schools and its students. Those measures speak just as much to the overall health of the district as our MCAS scores. And the news there isn’t as rosy. A new report The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), based on a six month long assessment of Belmont High, raises a number of red flags about our community’s support of BHS and suggest that the school is having trouble living up to its stated educational mission.

This report will form the foundation of the decision by the Commission on Public Secondary Schools as to whether BHS will continue to be an accredited high school. I don’t think that there’s any danger of BHS not being accredited as a result of the NEASC report – we’re one of the top performing schools in the state. But, having read the report, I don’t think its a slam dunk that the school will be reaccredited, either, and it should be. That’s just a shocking and embarrassing reality for a town like ours that prides itself on offering a (way) above average school system. My guess is that we’ll get a very stiff slap on the wrist from the Commission – after a somewhat softer slap on the wrist ten years ago. And my guess is that the NEASC report moves Belmont High to the top of the Belmont’s already long list of capital projects – a list that already includes the Belmont Public Library, Belmont Police Department, the Underwood Pool and the DPW.

First the report: NEASC sent a team of 16 observers into BHS over a six month period, from September, 2010 to May, 2011. The team was charged with assessing both the learning environment and the physical plant of the school, including areas such as: teaching and learning standards, core values, beliefs, and learning expectations, curriculum, instruction, support of teaching, school culture and leadership, and school and community resources for learning. The Committee spent four days in Belmont and met with administrators, teachers, other school and system personnel as well as students and parents. During their visit they shadowed students, visited classes, and interviewed teachers to “determine the degree to which the school meets the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation.

No surprise: the Committee found that BHS is a place that values teaching and learning and that there’s a strong partnership between faculty, staff, students and parents, who remain “steadfast in their commitment to provide high quality programs and services.” Teachers at BHS are passionate about teaching and make exemplary efforts to individualize instruction and support students. The BHS administration supports the faculty, staff and students.

That’s the good news. The bad news: the report also finds that, in many ways, Belmont  (the town) is failing to support Belmont High and its staff. Among the areas where the report dings Belmont High:

  • Funding – Belmont is under funding its High School and leaning too heavily on private funding to make up for inadequate taxpayer support. From the report: “Despite a solid collaborative and supportive working relationship among the school board chair, town manager, superintendent and business manager, the community and district’s governing body does not provide dependable funding for professional and support staffing, programs and services, instructional materials, professional development and curriculum revision, technology support, or equipment. Multiple times the Foundation for Belmont Education (FBE) and the PTO have generously supplemented the inadequacies in the budget. While very well intentioned, the role of parent organizations must be limited to the enhancement of existing programs, materials and equipment; it is the responsibility of the Belmont community’s and district’s governing body to provide dependable community and district-based funding.”
  • Supporting Staff – The report found that a “strong partnership” existed between teachers, support staff, counselors and special education teachers, and that BHS delivered quality programs and services. But BHS did this “despite staff reductions, budget constraints, demanding responsibilities and the lack of effective use of space” at Belmont High. So – complimentary to our staff, but hardly a ringing endorsement of the school or district.
  • Physical Plan – Belmont High needs to be replaced – or substantially renovated. From the report: “The building and physical plant are at the point of crisis. They are in a state of general disrepair and much of the building infrastructure is outdated and does not support delivery of programs. Long-range plans must be developed, implemented and funded to address all building and physical plant needs. Immediate attention is needed to concerning the girls’ locker rooms, and to rectify many ADA noncompliance concerns.
  • Safety – the report notes that – although BHS’s core values and beliefs include the safety and well being of all students, “safety/security issues” are rife at BHS. They include the “absence of entry control devices,” unlocked doors that allow unfettered access to the building from a variety of locations and an outdated fire alarm system that can’t pinpoint the exact location of a fire within the school – potentially hampering response.

In short, this is a major wake up call for our town. Regardless of whether or not the state extends accreditation to Belmont High for another decade, everyone who cares about education in town should read this report.