MMS responds to high turnover

Former Milton Middle School social studies teacher Jana Fabri Sbardellati reads a letter detailing her reasons for leaving the district. The letter also represented previous educators Joshua Roof, Nathan Caswell and Greer Krembs. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

High turnover and a new structure swept through Milton Middle School this summer. For the 2017-18 school year, a quarter of faculty is new hires.

Eight faculty members, some longtime teachers in the district, resigned at the end of last school year.

“Some people left because they were unhappy with changes,” superintendent Ann Bradshaw said. “But you know, change is good. And I think if anyone is unhappy in their job, they probably should think about moving to a place where they would be happier.”

Bradshaw also said some faculty left because they found jobs closer to home.

But teachers say they left because the middle school’s “vibrant, collaborative, empowering, student-centered culture” has lapsed in the past two years. This is according to a letter read aloud by former teacher Jana Fabri Sbardellati at the Aug. 14 school board meeting.

The letter, also representing Nathan Caswell, Joshua Roof and Greer Krembs, said Bradshaw has “shattered morale” among faculty and has ignored research on best practices for middle-schoolers.

“We have experienced an undoing of trust relationships between the faculty and the administration, and the dismantling of a long-cultivated distributive leadership model that had previously capitalized on and nurtured teacher expertise and student voice,” the letter says.

To this, Bradshaw explained her management style.

“In leadership, there’s a concept of tight and loose,” she said. “There’s some things you have to be tight on and other things you can be loose on. And I think that in the middle school, there was a need for tightness.”

Bradshaw said low achievement data demonstrated a need to tighten curriculum for consistency. She gave field trips and teacher conferences as examples: To be approved, the trips must directly affect student learning.

Bradshaw also created a new middle school structure, putting sixth grade in its own team and a shared model for seventh and eighth grades. The switch helps align student development, achievement and behavior, Bradshaw said.

In forming this, Bradshaw said she organized a number of focus groups and sent a survey to parents, which she said came back “overwhelmingly positive.”

Taking faculty input along the way, Bradshaw said teachers had multiple opportunities to share their thoughts, but in the end, she said the decision had to be made. 

Though Bradshaw said she has an open-door policy and has heard many concerns, the four former teachers wrote that district employees “do not feel safe speaking openly about their concerns.”

They said many teachers, staff, administrators and parents also feel “disenfranchised, frustrated, shut out.” Multiple parents have expressed the same to the Independent in recent months, particularly alleging a mistreatment of students on individualized education programs and minorities.

A week into the school year, co-assistant principals Megan Smith and Brandy Brown said they’re eliminating teachers’ fear of airing concerns.

Both Brown and Smith stepped into their new roles amidst the stir of controversy, including an incident last June when a black middle-schooler reported being called the “N-word” and was then wrongfully suspended.

Smith said current faculty recognizes the past but is moving forward.

“We’re a middle school that is a lot of new staff,” she said. “We’re not living in the past. We’re moving forward. We own where we’ve been.”

Smith said the veteran teachers are already mentoring the newcomers, who are a mix of brand new and experienced teachers.

In social studies, Milton High School alumna Nicole Menard replaces Sbardellati, and Tammy Dowling took over for Roof. Science teacher Duncan Wardwell replaced Caswell, Rachel Cornwell replaced Cory Payson in physical education, Leah Genzlinger and Marisa Vanacore took over Lauren Talbot and Lynne Kozloski’s positions as special educators and Julia Shade fills Cara Lovell’s spot as speech language pathologist.

Former health teacher Meaghan Beley-Finnemore switched her discipline to science, filling Krembs’ role. The district is still searching for a middle school special educator.

Brown and Smith said they and the teachers are being transparent with parents and students about their decisions. A former MMS educator for eight years, Smith said she’s familiar with the school’s struggles, noting teacher Ellen Taggart’s call for empathy in her letter read at the Aug. 14 meeting.

“I’ve lived it with the teachers,” Smith said. “I’ve been there.”

Taggart moved from the middle school to the MHS English department this year to fill a vacancy left by Sarah Bryan. She said the middle school has lacked effective decision-making and she is “extremely concerned about the impact the principal revolving door is having on the middle school.”

MMS has seen three different principal teams in as many years, which Bradshaw said contributes to low morale. Brown and Smith, though, say they’re here to stay.

Both are acting under provisional principal licenses as they finish leadership courses at nearby St. Michael’s College. Connie Metz, a former MMS interim principal, is acting as the duo’s mentor under Vt. Agency of Education statute.

Before Bradshaw began as superintendent, Taggart said decisions were made collaboratively between middle school teachers and administration. This isn’t the case anymore, she said.

“Many excellent teachers left the Milton district this year after decades of collective service because of this change in the leadership model,” Taggart said.

Milton parents, as well as Black Lives Matter Vermont, have called for Bradshaw’s resignation in recent months. Sbardellati, Caswell, Roof and Krembs alone had 35 years of collective service in Milton.

Smith and Brown said they’re focused on setting a positive tone this year. Faculty is working hard at improving curriculum, thinking proactively and aligning behavior expectations and rigor with the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports model.

“We’re all in this together,” Smith said. “We’re gonna support [teachers] through this process. And ultimately, we all have the same goal. We want students to thrive.”

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