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Green Bay school board votes ‘no’ on second year with AIR

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – After nearly four hours of back-and-forth discussion, the school board voted not to contract with American Institute of Research (AIR) for a second year of turnaround services at Washington Middle School.

In a narrow, 4-3 vote at its special board meeting Monday, July 15, board members voted down a motion to spend an additional $216,000.

Last year, in an effort to tackle issues facing Washington, the school board voted to contract with AIR at a cost of $394,000.

As a part of that contract the board and AIR mutually agreed upon nine measures of success.

In a report shared with board members at Monday night’s meeting, district staff confirmed AIR met three of those nine goals – with math, attendance and behavior still a concern.

Trustee Rhonda Sitnikau said her vote was based on what she knows.

“I know three out of nine goals were met,” Sitnikau said. “That might be good enough for some people in this room, but I’m not interested in good enough. The results are not impressive, they fall flat.”

When adding more support staff didn’t produce the results the district hoped for, the decision was made to partner with AIR.

“We had tried many things that seemed like the logical argument,” said John Magas, associate superintendent of contiguous improvement for the district. “Washington has been on a decline, a pretty significant decline, for multiple years.”

District staff supported a second year with AIR, noting that while all goals were not met, progress has been made.

“Yes, it is a very expensive investment at Washington to have AIR come for a second year, I’m not dismissing that,” Magas said. “But I’m looking at the big picture – they have stopped the downward trajectory, leveled off the performance of Washington and shown some upturn in the performance at Washington.”

Trustee Eric Vanden Heuvel said he would credit the positive changes made at Washington this past school year more to staff than AIR.

“When I look at the success we’ve had at Washington, I can’t definitively say that is was because of AIR,” Vanden Heuvel said. “I can pretty definitively say it’s because of the talented and amazing people that we have in our district.”

Vanden Heuvel said he understands the strategies used previously weren’t successful, but said that was then and today things are different.

“John (Magas), I appreciate you saying that back to 2014 we did something similar (without an outside turnaround partner) and it wasn’t successful,” Vanden Heuvel said. “But where you are wrong is we never had you, never had Julie Wiegand (executive director of secondary education) and we never had Cindy Olsen (Washington principal). Things are different than they were in 2014.”

Those on board with a second year said they wanted to finish what was started at Washington.

“I think its been money well spent,” said board clerk Laura McCoy. “I can’t imagine throwing up our hands and saying we gave it a year and it isn’t good enough. I’m not going to take that support away now. I think (Washington) is a wonderful school that is trying very hard to get better.”

Board President Brenda Warren was behind giving the process another year.

“I’m not comfortable with pulling the rug out just yet,” Warren said. “I feel like we are letting the school down by pulling out last minute.”

Trustee Kristina Shelton said she spoke with dozens of people associated with Washington and none of them were supportive of a second year with AIR.

“I think Washington Middle School and their staff and their families should be absolutely applauded for their time and their deep intensive work, I know it’s been a stressful year,” Shelton said. “I don’t look at the three out of nine and think ‘Oh, it’s a failure on the teachers or a failure on leadership.’ For me it’s a step back to say how can we ensure what we are doing is worth the time and the money and the investment so we are going to get the greatest result. And from the data that I see from AIR, I don’t see that connection.”

While there has been some positive changes in academics, behavior and attendance at Washington are still a concern.

According to the School Perceptions Staff Satisfaction Survey shared with board members Monday, 92.4 percent of staff at Washington strongly disagree that student discipline was being handled in a consistent manner in the 2018-19 school year.

This was an increase from 84.6 percent in the 2017-18 school year.

There was no survey done with staff at Washington specifically addressing AIR and the services provided.

Sitnikau said that until the culture and climate is tended to in a much more significant way, things won’t get better.

“Until we get control of that and we take care of a lot of the challenges in that area, you can do all the professional development you want, but if that is not addressed like it needs to be, then we are wasting our money,” Sitnikau said.

For the first time in years, the same administration team will be back at Washington for a second year.

“Simply bringing a principal back for a second year is an improvement, that is something we haven’t been able to say,” Vanden Heuvel said. “I frankly think that that is how Washington got to where it was because we didn’t have that consistent leadership.”

Warren, McCoy and board member Katie Maloney voted to extend the contract, while Shelton, Sitnikau, Vanden Heuvel and board member Andrew Becker voted against the extension.

Though the school board voted against hiring AIR for a second year, that doesn’t mean work at Washington is complete.

District staff implemented and is continuing to implement many new initiatives to help Washington succeed.

“We want to make sure that those behavioral and cultural components that the board identified and the staff has commented on are clearly addressed,” Magas said.

These initiatives include a root cause analysis, implementing CHAMPS (a proactive and positive approach to behavior management) class-wide, creating and maintaining teaching and leadership teams, allocating a full-time behavior coach to Washington and Franklin Middle Schools and increasing district-level involvement.

Magas said Mike Friis, secondary executive director for teaching and learning, will be embedding himself in Washington and Franklin with a multi-faceted objective.

“Mr. Friis will be making sure we are supporting the leadership, while at the same time making sure the lessons learned at Washington are spread throughout the district,” Magas said.

It is unclear at this time what the $216,000 the district budgeted for the AIR services will be spent on.

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