With Vineyard Heading Back to Class, Dozen Teachers Enter Their Last Year

By CHRIS BURRELL

For a dozen Vineyard public school teachers, the new academic year that opens this week is a huge benchmark for them and a big headache for administrators.

The reason? All 12 teachers will lay down their chalk at the year's end, their collective retirements forcing principals and the Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash to recruit replacement teachers at a rate nearly three times the level in a typical year.

"That rate is significant, and I'm very concerned about it," said Mr. Cash. "Next year, there will be another dozen or so leaving. That's where the crisis is in education."

Most years, no more than three or four teachers retire from the Island school system. Clearly, the biggest hurdle to filling the faculty rosters is the Island's prohibitive real estate prices. Applicant pools for new teacher positions have been dwindling for the last two years.

"There's a wonderful corps of young people who would love to work here but they're challenged by the cost of housing," said West Tisbury School principal Dr. Elaine Pace.

While school leaders will have to cast a net for new teachers, they are also looking at the other side of the equation - the numbers of Vineyard students. The census, not official until next month, shows flattening enrollment in all but one school, where student population has actually fallen sharply for the second year in a row.

Total enrollment at the West Tisbury School has dropped this year to 348 students, down from 374 last year and 392 the year before - an 11 per cent decline since 2001.

"West Tisbury surprised me ... dropping precipitously," said Mr. Cash.

Neither Mr. Cash nor Ms. Pace could offer solid reasons for the decline. The superintendent simply suspected the cause could be - again - the high cost of real estate and the departure of families who cannot afford to live on the Island, or up-Island in particular.

Incoming kindergarten classes at West Tisbury are very small. Each class will be under 16 students, said Ms. Pace.

Elsewhere on the Island, enrollment numbers are virtually the same as last year.

The regional high school will open the doors this week to 817 students. Enrollment at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School stands at 155, same as last year. Chilmark, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury Schools are all expecting little change in the number of students this year.

Edgartown will boast the largest number of students aside from the high school, starting with 456 kindergarten through eighth graders. They will also be christening a new school building Thursday with an early morning open house and barbecue luncheon scheduled for the first day.

"Everybody will go into the new school and into their classroom," said Edgartown School assistant principal Anne Fligor "The playground is going to be ready. It's just going to be wonderful."

Mixed in with all the excitement that comes with a new school year, some Island schools are under pressures to correct problems. At the regional high school, a scandal involving a culinary arts teacher stealing school-owned equipment and funds has forced school leaders to tighten up their financial oversight practices.

And a federal civil rights investigation of the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury Schools last spring has demanded changes and improvements to the English as Second Language (ESL) programs. Tisbury School, cited for lack of space devoted to ESL instruction, has cut into its playground to make room for a leased, portable building that will house ESL and other programs.

The good news this year for some students at the regional high school is that they may stand a good chance of traveling overseas, after almost two years of seeing the school committee ground foreign travel in the wake of the 9/11 terrorism and then the war in Iraq.

The regional high school committee last week decided to give a green light to foreign trips this year. Travel already planned includes trips to England, Germany and Ireland. Middle school students at the Charter School will be heading to Italy in the spring.

Another theme of the new school year calls on teachers to teach their colleagues. In Oak Bluffs, principal Laurence Binney said this is the second year of a mentorship program aimed at bolstering teaching skills.

Veteran teachers Barbara Jones and Maia Norris are trained mentors to eight other teachers in the school, spending as much as two hours a day in those classrooms to share their tips on better teaching.

Oak Bluffs, Chilmark and West Tisbury Schools all have teachers on their staffs who have become trainers in a social curriculum called the Responsive Classroom. Those teachers can now train other teachers in the program, which features morning meetings on a daily basis and fosters a disciplinary system of rules and related consequences.

While teachers are picking up new leadership roles in their schools, the students at the regional high school are also taking the lead on some issues. Duncan Pickard, a high school senior and the student representative to the school committee, told the Gazette yesterday that students will re-write the student council constitution this year.

Students are also lobbying for better food in the cafeteria.

Mr. Pickard has also called on high school principal Peg Regan to change the way the school assigns class rank. He wants them to consider more than just the grade point average, asking them to weigh a student's writing skills and extracurricular activities before bestowing the honor of valedictorian, for example.

Mr. Pickard is confident that the new student congress - made up of students elected from their homerooms - can make a difference in high school life.

"The administration is not clamping down on student expression," he said. "They've done a great job of welcoming student input."