A months-long process to determine the guiding principles of Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools has produced some data for a consultant report to the school board, and some frustration for those involved, who grappled with their roles in the process.
The school visioning project came out of the merger of Montpelier and Roxbury schools, explained MRPS School Board Chair Jim Murphy. “One thing we don’t have as a new district is kind of a set of ends or a real defined vision,” Murphy said, and when it comes to decision-making, “I think there’s a lot of kind of common consensus about what some of the values and visions of the district are, but it’s not put down on paper anywhere.”
The question around long-term issues, Murphy said, was “what are the overarching visions and values that we want to measure our progress against and also that we want to aim our efforts towards?”
To answer this, MRPS hired Nathan Suter of BUILD Strategies Consulting. Suter proposed a “District-Wide Visioning Project” to see what community members want from their schools. Data-gathering included an online questionnaire, community meetings, informational tables at local events, and a committee composed of students, staff, community, and board members.
Meetings began last February and continued through early June — eight total. With over 20 members, plus Suter and superintendent Libby Bonesteel, the committee sought to learn what the community wanted from its schools.
Serving on the committee created opportunities to learn what neighbors were thinking, said board member Seiji Ohashi, who joined in April following his election. “It was good because it sort of jump started my interactions with the community,” he noted. The committee hoped to “get a finger on the pulse of the community” and make sure the district was moving in the best direction.
Among the committee’s strengths were its nine student participants, member Tina Muncy noted. “I think it was great to hear their point of view,” Muncy said. “They worked hard at it, at presenting their point of view.”
“I was so impressed with how thoughtful, engaged, and insightful they are,” Fellow committee member Mel Houser said. “I think we as a community can learn so much from the wisdom and experiences of our young people.” Houser also noted, “The most useful part of my experience was getting to work with the high school students on the committee,” calling the students “wise beyond their years.”
“We wanted a very inclusive membership that would get a variety of perspectives, including … community members, students, faculty, teachers, some administrators, some board members,” Murphy said, “and we also wanted to make sure that it was diverse and inclusive and represented the voices that we often hear from, but also some of the voices that sometimes we don’t hear from as much, and some of the underrepresented groups in our community.”
A Need for Diversity in Leadership
Suter, too, emphasized the importance of including a diversity of members “in the interest of making sure that we’ve got representation on the committee of groups that we want to hear from and where we aren’t unintentionally blind to perspectives that are important because they aren’t present in the group that’s leading the process.”
But Muncy felt there were challenges with this piece of the process. “I think when you go out into the community to find out whatever, it’s good to have a wide variety of people who can go out.” She added, “I think working mothers and young people and people of different economic backgrounds, it’s good to have all those kinds of people on a committee.” Muncy noted that she did not feel this broad representation was present on the committee — especially after some members left. Of five community representatives, two resigned before the meetings concluded.
Muncy herself grew frustrated as the process went on. “I think it was frustrating because it wasn’t clear to the committee what the committee could do to help this process.”
Eventually, Muncy said, “I had felt like the process was too unclear and slow. And I thought I had done all that I could do for the committee and said I would leave.” Muncy did end up attending through the June meeting.
Survey Says …
The online questionnaire, too, saw a mixed reaction from the community. The original form was quite extensive, and, said Ohashi, people “were being intimidated by a long questionnaire.” He noted that “the number of responses to the initial survey were pretty low.” Ohashi said additional iterations were introduced after the first received few responses.
Although Suter is still analyzing data, the survey is finished and he has found some trends. With a total of 328 responses, around a sixth of which came from Roxbury residents, 83% wanted the school’s graduates to be known for their “ability to think and reason well,” Suter said. Schools ought to prioritize a “physically and emotionally safe environment” according to 74% of respondents, and 57% felt “a sense of belonging” was also key. Among important values for the district to hold, overall, 54% of respondents selected transparency; 48% respect; and empathy and kindness, 46%. Roxbury residents placed a higher value on respect (69%), with transparency at 45%.
One challenge, said Suter, was that many respondents had college degrees, which was not necessarily representative of the full community. Suter sought to remedy this by examining subsets of the data for respondents who do not hold a college degree. Among these respondents, 70% held respect as the most important value for district, while transparency came in at 37%.
The series of community meetings were largely “poorly attended” Muncy said. (The reporter went to the final meeting in Montpelier, where only one person showed — a neighbor with no children in MRPS, but whose relative’s children might be moving to the area, and who hoped to garner insight into local schools.)
Murphy offered a potential explanation for the challenges with the visioning process: that things are already generally fine with the schools. “I think unfortunately, even in a really engaged and involved community like Montpelier, I think sometimes, when things are going well, people aren’t as inclined to step up and participate,” he said.
“For the most part, I think people are pretty happy with the direction of the district and with the education that their kids are getting,” Murphy said. “That’s not to say that all people are on all fronts … People are busy and they have complicated lives. If it looks like the schools are going well and they’ve got an hour to go spend on something they might be inclined to spend it on things other than going somewhere where they don’t think there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.”
Money for the project came from the COVID relief Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER II) Fund, Bonesteel said.
“MRPS’s budget for the project was $45,000,” Suter explained in an email. “BUILD (I) agreed to discount my consulting fees to meet this budget number if the project used all of the funds budgeted for direct costs ($10,335).” The breakdown of those costs was: a $36,240 consulting fee; $4,860 for committee stipends; $1,750 in gift cards for survey participants; $1,725 for childcare offered during committee meetings and public gatherings; and $2,000 for graphic design, posters, printing, and associated costs.
Suter plans to present his findings to the board next month.