The Wellesley Select Board on Monday, March 21 devoted most of its meeting to a presentation, discussion, and public comments on a Town Meeting citizen petition regarding academic excellence. You can catch the roughly hour-long segment via Wellesley Media’s recording, starting at about the 32-minute mark.
Select Board Chair Tom Ulfelder noted at the outset that the Board doesn’t take a position on citizen petitions. The Board is careful not to overstep into School Committee territory, though members could ask questions and make points about the topic during the meeting.
Resident Bruce Franco, who submitted the article for consideration at Town Meeting, delivered comments and a presentation (that began with a slide bearing the title “US News and World Report Sounds the Alarm”), then engaged in some discussion with Board members and School Committee Chair Catherine Mirick. Franco says he plans to amend the petition after the Advisory Board voted 11-3 for unfavorable action on Article 44. “It makes no sense to proceed with something that’s doomed to fail,” he said, noting that he was still figuring out how to approach the amendment.
Update (4/14/22): Here’s the updated Article 44 Motion 1.
(The School Committee addressed the article and subject at its Feb. 15 meeting at which the WPS administration presented an “Overview of Equity & Excellence.” See Wellesley Media recording, about 53 minutes in.)
Academic excellence has been a hot topic of discussion in town, including during the recent town election. Franco said he was inspired to submit his article—admittedly at the last minute—based on his family’s experience with the Wellesley Public Schools system. “The sole purpose of the language of the article itself was to grab people’s attention… My original intent was just to send the school system a strong message and let the parents’ concerns be heard,” he said.
Describing himself as a “diehard public education advocate,” Franco said his family moved to Wellesley for its public schools. But he became disenchanted with Hunnewell Elementary and the Middle School, and he and his wife put their kids into a private school in the fall of 2020 “where the difference in curriculum and dedication to academic rigor was startling,” Franco said. Unable to afford private high school, and bowing to their daughter’s desire to go to school with local friends, Franco reluctantly agreed to a Wellesley Public Schools return.
That’s when he started to dig into the school system’s dramatic fall from #4 to #26 in U.S. News and World Report rankings since 2014 (as well as a Babson College analysis in Boston Magazine) and pay more attention to discussion among WPS parents, Franco said he became more convinced of their legitimacy. He cited hundreds of students being pulled from the public school system as evidence that families are dissatisfied, though school officials point to higher numbers resulting from the pandemic, with public schools being required to follow different COVID protocols than private ones. WPS plans to survey parents of kids who have left the system, at least back to the start of the year, about why they’re leaving and where they’re headed.
Franco acknowledges WPS strengths, including good teachers, student performance in state standardized testing, and a very high graduation rate. Though he points to shortcomings on the number of AP courses offered (in particular, a lack of liberal arts ones) at the high school as a killer on rankings and harmful in the eyes of college admissions, and he shared concerns about math MCAS scores in middle school. Franco also encouraged the School Committee to challenge the administration more, in part based on its reaction following the administration’s Feb. 15 presentation on academic excellence.
While there’s been an argument from the school system that Wellesley’s honor courses, such as in English, may prepare students better for college than do AP courses, Franco questioned this. He says the community deserves a clear definition of the WPS mission.
Select Board Chair Ulfelder questioned whether too much can be made of rankings influenced so much by AP exam data.
“That’s a tricky situation because if the rankings are based on the number of students taking an AP test but we’re a community where the educational system provides an excellent education but doesn’t have the number of AP tests that others do, do we really want to measure our school system regardless of the ranking by the AP tests?” he said. “That’s kind of an artificial construct. It’s one that an outside individual might look at, but it’s not a true measure internally of our capacity to educate our children well.”
The School Committee’s Mirick said the school system’s guidance counselors are in close contact with admissions offices so that there is “communication and knowledge” about the WPS curriculum and approach. Mirick says she had plenty of conversations with people about AP courses, but none have argued in favor of these courses because they feel as though WPS is’t providing a good enough education. “It’s because they want more AP classes to have on high school transcripts, because they think that will help with college admissions, or secondarily, because if they have more AP classes in high school that will mean they don’t have to take as many courses in college.” The School Committee hasn’t received any emails over the past three months regarding AP courses or academic excellence, she added.
During the Select Board meeting’s citizen speak section following Franco’s presentation, several members of the public shared their views on the state of WPS. Shiela Olson, who described herself as a college advisor, former admissions professional at Harvard University, and former high school teacher, said she has three children who have gone through or are going through WPS, and knows from her experience that AP courses are valuable to students and admissions offices.
“As a parent I will say that we were much more satisfied with the overall educational experience of our first two children and we do perceive a real decline in the focus on academic excellence in the last 5 years or so,” Olson said. “I do feel like a lot of us out here listen to School Committee, we feel like the district is doing a wonderful job educating our special needs children and many of our learners, but not such a great job at the top and the middle…,” she added, noting that AP courses typically challenge students more than honors courses do. Olson said: “There is huge variability in standards across departments, courses, and levels at WHS, never more so than the very flawed rollout of standards-based grading where teachers couldn’t articulate what their standards were…”
WPS did address the school rankings and more during its Feb. 15 School Committee presentation. Supt. Dr. David Lussier acknowledged the significance of the U.S. News rankings while also noting it’s not the only such report. What’s more, he illustrated the “incremental differences” separating schools higher or lower on the list (his side-by-side example showed #26 Wellesley High vs. #5 Bromfield School in Harvard).
“Intuition would say my gosh, the difference between #5 and 26 must be extraordinarily large, and in fact if you go through all the schools in between there are these tiny, often decimal point differences between the schools…,” he said.
Among the other figures shared by Lussier were those for students taking AP exams and tests taken. Both sets of numbers have risen significantly since 2013 (the number of students taking exams rose from 299 to 407 over that span), with passing percentages consistent except for a dip in 2021. That decrease was consistent with what was seen across the state due to the pandemic, he added.
The presentation to School Committee ended with a series of next steps, including “Enhancing academic programming by strengthening core instruction, supplemental supports, intensive instruction and enrichment.”
Select Board member Beth Sullivan Woods said during the March 21 Select Board meeting that academic excellence is an important topic for community conversation. She cited a “philosophical tension” between what different members of the community want out of the schools, whether that’s focused on rankings or the way the school system has structured its focus and values.
Conversation will continue during Town Meeting, which starts on March 28, when Article 44’s turn is up.