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State report blasts Waltham public schools' management

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  October 22, 2012 03:56 PM

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A scathing state review of Waltham public schools found that the district is poorly managed, with a high turnover rate in top school positions, relatively underfunded technology, and student drop-out and absentee rates climbing higher than the state’s average.

"Some of these are long-standing issues," said Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, who also serves as chairwoman of the city's School Committee. "With the resources here, we should be a better system, and that’s what our job is."

The report, based on a four-day site visit in February from Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials, comes after the district received a level three designation, placing them alongside the bottom 20 percent of schools statewide.

The district has seen high turnover rates in several offices: there have been four superintendents in five years, five special education directors in the past eight years, and eight of the nine school principals in the district are new as of 2009.

Such fluctuating of school leaders has led to "uncertainty about roles and responsibilities, insufficient communication, and unclear priorities, with each school operating independently rather than as part of a system," according to the report.

The report also criticizes student attendance and graduation rates. Nearly a quarter of Waltham High School students were deemed as chronically absent, and only about half of the school's English language learners graduate, the report states.

The district's overall graduation rate was 78.4 percent in 2011, 5 percent lower than the state average, according to the report.

However, McCarthy and other School Committee members said that most of the issues were not surprising, noting that first-year Waltham Superintendent Susan Nicholson's entry plan takes note of many of the same issues in the state report, which was still being written as Nicholson's plan came to fruition.

"All of the issues the superintendent has been talking to us about in her entry plan and her observations of the system - the report mirrors that," McCarthy said, adding that the state report was late due to cutbacks.

The report also criticized how the school allocated its money: although per-pupil expenditures in Waltham were $19,741 in 2011 - one-third higher than the state average - the school district "does not appear to provide the effective instruction and extra support for at-risk students which could be available in such an asset-rich district."

Waltham districts could allocate more money to its ELL subgroup, whose performances lag behind the state's average, and towards funding technology, the report said.

"Insufficient usable technology was mentioned repeatedly by interviewees," the report states, noting that most of the 2,700 computers were four to six years old, and could not support basic functions such as video streaming.

McCarthy said that although she appreciates the state's review, she hopes the report will not taint the city's reputation.

She said that many people rave about the district's special education program, and noted that Waltham schools are lauded for small classroom sizes due to a low teacher to student ratio.

She also said that although the district was in flux as school officials sought to find a compatible superintendent, officials are recognizing the city's problems and are working to fix them.

"We had management issues that needed to be addressed, and they were," McCarthy said. "We are a city, not a town - we’re not a bedroom community, and as such, we have greater needs. But I think overall we're moving in the right direction."

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