METHUEN — State officials who visited the city earlier this year found that the Methuen School District is in need of some serious improvements, according to a recently released report.
High chronic absence and suspension rates among students, inconsistent academic rigor, a staff that is not diverse enough, and unclear budgeting practices are some of the issues detailed in an 85-page summary compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Methuen school officials were handed the document when it was published in October and given several weeks to review it before a public discussion Monday night.
The information was compiled during four days, from Jan. 22 to Jan. 25, when state officials interviewed stakeholders like staff, students, families and School Committee members. They spent more time looking at leadership and governance, curriculum and instruction, professional development and financial management.
Superintendent Brandi Kwong has since been promoted from an interim leadership role and has already earned praise for improvement efforts.
On Monday, she presented an outline of already completed changes and plans for continued momentum. It made early mention of open, regular communication between her office, the School Committee, the mayor and the chief administrative and financial officer, or CAFO.
She said a newly established policy will also help with communication by requiring the City Council and School Committee to host two joint public meetings per year.
The state said those measures are solid starts to many of Methuen’s school issues.
According to the report, the district and school improvement planning process is missing input from teachers, families and the community.
Additionally, the district's four pre-K to eight grammar schools are missing a leadership structure required to support teachers. That includes a missing set curriculum for students in grades kindergarten through 12.
“In observed classrooms, the quality of instruction was inconsistent,” the report reads. “Particularly in the areas of student engagement, academic rigor and inclusive practices.”
Students told state officials during interviews that they wanted to see more diversity in the curriculum. They found that Methuen pays little attention to cultural celebrations beyond school celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black History Month, a grade-level cultural food fair at one grammar school and a Quincenera at the high school.
On the same note, the state took issue with district and school improvement plans making no mention of building cultural competence or recruiting staff of color.
Kwong has already set a goal to increase the hiring of diverse staff by 10%. Her solution is twofold: making job listings more language inclusive and joining the Massachusetts Partnership for Diversity in Education.
She has directed Methuen school leadership to read a book — "Schooltalk" — focused on the ways language can perpetuate bias.
The district will also have to deal with concerns that parents raised to state officials.
In a focus group, parents said instruction is designed to help struggling students and that other students were not being challenged.
The review team witnessed several lessons where students who finished assignments in class early were not provided with more challenging or enrichment opportunities.
Kwong said many educational concerns can be addressed in the FY21 budget with funding for more teachers and more pre-K to eight administrators.
Though the state report does not mention class sizes, Kwong said giving more personalized attention to students will challenge them, expand professional development opportunities for teachers, and hopefully cut back on attendance issues and suspensions.
The report acknowledges that when the onsite visit happened, Methuen was still recovering from two major disruptions.
In the spring of 2018, a massive budget deficit led to 50 layoffs — many of which were eventually rescinded — and financial intervention from the state. By the time the next school year started, in August 2018, longtime Superintendent Judith Scannel resigned after it was reported that she did not have the appropriate licensing required of her job.
Kwong said she expects a multi-year strategic plan to be complete by June 2020.