WHITEHALL -- Banners hanging up outside and inside of Whitehall’s schools read “excellence is our standard, not our goal.”
School officials are working hard to put that into reality and move past the turmoil that has embroiled the district in the last two years.
Since Jim Watson retired as superintendent in late 2013, the district’s elementary and junior-senior principals, the business manager and his replacement as superintendent have all left. Elizabeth Legault departed after a stormy 16-month tenure for a superintendent’s position in Massachusetts.
The district also dealt with a brawl at a football game in October 2014 that resulted in the firing of then-coach Justin Culligan and a problem with the security of the Common Core exams that resulted in scores on the district’s seventh- and eighth-grade English language arts exam being invalidated by the state. Former Whitehall Junior-Senior High School Principal Kelly McHugh resigned because of the issue. The district recently settled with two teachers at the heat of the controversy, Suzanne Ringer and Paul Gould, allowing them to return to the district next fall after a year long unpaid suspension.
Whitehall Town Supervisor George Armstrong, who spent 11 years on the Board of Education, said he believes if Watson still were superintendent, this incident would not have happened.
“He was on top of it. He ran a very tight ship,” Armstrong said. “Unfortunately, in the chaos and lack of leadership, some people took it upon themselves to do some stuff they shouldn’t do.”
Town Historian James Aiken, a former Whitehall social studies teacher, agreed that Watson provided a “steady hand,” and said it is important to have strong administrators. “You need somebody that really cares,” he said.
Aiken also said it seemed like the faculty, even those who lived outside Whitehall and commuted, was more engaged with the students when he was on the staff.
“They were all directly involved in the community and with the kids during any off times — instead of more like a factory work, when you get through at a certain time and go home,” he said.
Future in Whitehall
School officials are trying to bring back strong leadership to the school.
Whitehall Board of Education President Jeremy Putorti said he believes the school district is getting back on track. The atmosphere in the school has changed dramatically.
“There’s calm. There’s a sense of pride,” he said.
He pointed to the success of the football team, which recently completed an undefeated regular season before losing in the Class D quarterfinals. They rose above the challenges from last year and were very professional.
Putorti said he understands the frustration people may have about why the district won’t reveal more details about the incident that led to the unpaid suspension of two teachers for one year. He said there is a lot of give and take when lawyers and union representatives are involved. He believes the teachers have learned their lesson and understand that this is a “last chance.”
“I think the board sent a strong message that we were not going to tolerate anybody going around the system. It is about the students — whether it’s sports or academics. There’s no gray area. Everybody will follow the proper procedure and the board will address it,” he said.
Putorti is not sure exactly where things got off course in the district.
“Somewhere along the way, we lost the goal in mind, which is our students. I truly think it got too political — not that sports isn’t a very important part of a child’s life, but academics has to take front and center,” Putorti said.
Putorti said the district wants to capitalize on students’ strengths — whether it be in sports, music, arts or something else.
“We’ve got to make sure we have different avenues to understand what their capabilities are, what they enjoy,” she said.
He believes there has been a great turnaround since William Scott was hired as interim superintendent, Richard Trowbridge as elementary school principal and Mark Doody as interim junior-senior high school principal. Putorti said the administrators are setting goals and working collaboratively with staff. Before, teacher input might not have been received.
Scott has an energetic personality, according to Putorti.
“It’s apparent that the faculty, administration, respect Mr. Scott and he listens,” he said.
On a recent tour of the elementary school, which has about 350 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, Trowbridge said he is impressed by his “top-notch” staff.
“They work hard. They’re very up to date on Common Core stuff,” he said.
“These teachers somehow have gotten a bad rap. They’re phenomenal. I’d take these guys anywhere,” he added.
This is Trowbridge’s first time as a principal. He worked at Hadley-Luzerne in a variety of capacities in the guidance department, as a teacher-leader and athletic director. Before getting into administration, Trowbridge taught second grade for three years and sixth grade for 12.
Trowbridge said the foundation is already in place, so he did not want to make drastic changes. He is trying to tweak a few things here and there to make things run more efficiently.
Trowbridge is trying to streamline the curriculum to eliminate any overlaps and create a smooth transition from grade to grade. The district is appointing coordinators for English language and math. These will be stipends given to teachers who will assume these responsibilities on top of their regular teaching duties.
Also, he said one teacher from grades three, four and five will be coming in an hour before school two days per week to work with students who need extra help.
Another change he has made is having teachers in the cafeteria during lunch time. Trowbridge believes it is important to have instructional staff present to interact with children.
Trowbridge is excited about how his school is using technology. There are “smart boards” in all the classrooms. Each student in grades second through 12 has a computer to use at school. There are carts of Chromebooks for the youngest grades.
The elementary students are using programs such as Reading A-Z and a math program called IXL to practice lessons, do educational games and provide feedback to teachers on their skills.
Over at the junior-senior high school, Doody said it is nice to return to his roots as a principal. He spent seven years as Hudson Falls High School principal before his 13-year tenure as superintendent, which ended in June.
“Being a superintendent, sometimes you get removed from dealing with student issues,” he said.
He came out of retirement after having some casual conversations with Scott and understanding the bind the district was in. Doody said it has been a positive experience so far. The students are very respectful.
“If you treat them with some dignity and respect, 99 percent of them will reciprocate,” he said.
Doody is not planning any major changes at the 385-student junior-senior high school but is providing a steady hand. The initial goal was to ensure a smooth opening of school, which Doody said was accomplished. School officials changed back the schedule with nine periods of 41 minutes each — eliminating the last vestiges of the experimental block schedule that Legault had put in place.
It is a veteran staff. Some teachers have 15 or more years of experience, according to Doody.
“They are very understanding of students with high needs,” he said.
Because of budget cuts, the district did not replace some retiring positions, according to Doody. The schedule had to be adjusted to staffing.
He also switched the location of the freshmen and senior classrooms. Doody said seniors previously had the privilege of having classes in the newer, air-conditioned wing of the school. The freshmen classes had been moved there last year.
Doody said it had become something of privilege that seniors looked forward to having classes in that space. Also, freshmen require more supervision, so it may sense to move them back to the front of the school.
Doody and Scott also cleaned up some policies that were outdated. The district had a strict no cell phones policy that was not being enforced, so it was scrapped and changed to a more reasonable policy.
Also new this year, Doody said the district is running a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) exploration class for sixth-graders in lieu of one of the study halls. Doody said a large special education classroom has the necessary infrastructure to support distance learning classes. School officials are going to explore the issue this year, with the goal of getting something launched during 2016-17.
Putorti said as grateful is the district is to have Scott, the Board of Education realizes it is only a short-term solution. The board will be meeting in a few weeks to start the process to find a permanent superintendent.
“I’d like to see a strong, experienced leader with all the proper qualifications coming on board, a proven track record, history of success,” he said.
A salary range has not been set for the position. They will also decide whether to require residency.
“We want to make sure we’re attracting the right fit,” he said.
A search for a junior-senior high school principal will also be conducted concurrently. Putorti said ideally, a superintendent would be hired and that person would help conduct the search for the principal.
“I don’t think we have the time or ability to do that,” he said.
The turnover can be a blessing in disguise, according to Putorti. He hopes that people will see Whitehall as an up-and-coming district.
“It’s an exciting time. We’re bringing in a brand new staff. We probably have one of the best opportunities in years to really start moving forward,” he said.