Hopefully last week will be the valley for Barrington school leadership. Hopefully they can find a path to elevate from where they were the final week of March 2022. From our vantage, things were as …
Hopefully last week will be the valley for Barrington school leadership. Hopefully they can find a path to elevate from where they were the final week of March 2022. From our vantage, things were as low as they’ve even been in this district.
We should all remember the two nights in late March when Barrington schools took center stage. Literally, they were center stage on the Barrington High School auditorium. Practically, they were center stage for statewide media, with everyone asking, “what’s wrong with Barrington?”
For at least a couple of generations, no one would ever ask that question. Though subject to outside ridicule, often fueled by jealousy, Barrington existed in a beautiful equilibrium — like gears turning in a synchronous rhythm. Great geography led to great housing led to great neighborhoods led to great schools led to great housing led to great neighborhoods … And it all spun together perfectly.
Everyone living here enjoyed a high quality of life, with safe streets, high-performing schools and high-achieving children. Was it perfect? No. But it was as good as you would find anywhere in southeastern New England.
Now those gears are grinding on each other. From across the state, people are asking their Barrington friends, “what’s going on in Barrington?” Families are pulling their children from the district and sending them to private schools — some did abruptly in the middle of this school year; others are making plans for next fall.
Now lawyers run school committee meetings. Students demand resignations. Teachers heckle from the audience. Tempers boil at every public forum.
Last week’s public spectacles were embarrassing and frustrating. First, 50 separate speakers admonished, implored or advised the school district to recommit itself to a true Honors program at Barrington High School. It responded by weakly promising an Honors Distinction option that faculty have already rejected once.
Then came the most absurd school committee meeting ever, appropriately held atop a high school performance stage. The entire meeting looked, felt and behaved like a judicial courtroom, with lawyers cross-examining witnesses and outbursts from the audience. When the final verdict was rendered — a not surprising 4-1 vote to keep three teachers fired — everyone left feeling a little queasy by what they had just seen.
Hopefully school leadership felt the same last week and went home wondering, ‘how did we get here,’ and ‘how do we get out of here?’ Here’s a four-step plan:
1. Stop fixing things that aren’t broken.
For years now, school leaders have favored theory over reality. They see national studies, read impressive research, examine the plight of urban school systems, and force change here in Barrington. They did so with school start times — forcing new schedules onto families and educators who weren’t asking for them. They did it again with Universal Design for Learning — forcing a new educational structure on a district that was the highest-performing in the region.
Four years ago, the schools were great, the families were happy, the teachers felt empowered, and the performance metrics were off the charts — why did so much have to change?
2. Start listening to your constituents.
State Rep. Liana Cassar is an extremely valuable member of this community and a great representative for Barrington in the General Assembly. But we’re going to disagree with her on an unfortunate statement she made last Wednesday night. She was the sole speaker to support the school district in its dismantling of the Honors programs. In doing so, she referred to the objections from the crowd as “rhetoric.”
Therein lies the problem. We all know the speakers who shout rhetoric; we know what they’re going to say before they start speaking. Do not assign the same label to the next 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 people who speak.
Last Wednesday’s parade of public speakers were not minions in a large, mindless organization. They were emotional, engaged, often articulate members of this community who were compelled to speak out, many for the first time. Their voices must be heard, not dismissed callously as “rhetoric.”
3. Take control of your district.
More than any we have seen, this district is guided by attorneys. They “advise” on what to do, how to do it, and how to say it. They ghost-draft memos. They shape dense and rigid policies. They set the rules for public meetings. They shut out the public. They answer to no one who actually pays their bills. And they push cases to the point of absurdity (witness a middle school suspension case that lasted years and dragged through five layers of appeal).
Stop working for them; make them work for you.
4. Conduct a communication audit.
The district is planning to hire a new executive position and hoping that will solve its plague of bad communication. How about hiring a consultant first, who could conduct a top to bottom audit of district communications? They might find low-hanging fruit, like adopting a universal email signature for all personnel, or incorporating a communications plan into every major project, so you’re communicating while it’s happening, not afterward.
An auditor might suggest that a single employee will not solve problems that are cultural, from top to bottom, in a large, vast organization.
In the end, this all comes down to leadership. For the sake of these schools, this community, its neighborhoods and the local real estate market, we hope they figure it out quickly. The quality of Barrington’s schools — and the perception of those schools — is linked intrinsically to quality of life in this community, to the values in the housing stock, and to the personal finances of so many living here. The longer this goes on, the more these gears will grind on each other.