HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – Hampden Wilbraham Regional School Committee Chair Patrick Kiernan began the April 26 meeting by stating that he was “bothered” by the committee’s last meeting, during which there had been accusations that the committee dropped the ball, resulting in a budget that cut jobs. He said the district will have to change the way things are done. He mentioned Hampden’s lawsuit against the district and the “open discord” among factions within the community.

“Let’s not rehash how we got here, pointing to missteps along the way, but instead focus on how we go from here, with the unified focus on improving our academic achievement levels,” Kiernan said.
The committee then voted to approve the proposed 2020-2021 Program of Studies offered at Minnechaug Regional High School that had been recommended by Principal Stephen Hale. The comprehensive list of classes had been presented to the school committee beforehand for review.

Hale highlighted a few course changes of which he was proud. In Computer Sciences, the school is adding a web design class and an “Intro to Java” class, which will help students learn a widely used coding language.

The school will also be changing their AP Physics offerings to allow more students to take part.

Last, Hale noted that a military history course would be available. It was been designed by a teacher with a military background who taught the class at a previous high school.

School committee member Sherrill Caruana praised the variety of classes available to students, while fellow committee member Maura Ryan expressed concern that the Child Growth and Development I & II courses had been dropped. She said colleges look for courses like that when considering applicants who wish to become teachers.

Hale told her the class had been dropped the previous year, but the school has “pathways to assist those students,” including an early childhood education program at the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative’s CTAC program and internships for seniors, who have the option to work in the district’s schools.

Hale took the time to share some good news with the committee. Minnechaug was awarded the Gold Council of Excellence award for its student council. Hale noted it is the ninth year the student council had been recognized at the national level.

Director of Curriculum John Derosia updated the committee on the Program of Studies being developed at the district’s two middle schools. Derosia explained that it was built with input from every level from the teachers up.

“This document is one that reflects what is currently happening in our middle schools now,” Derosia said, adding that document should be revised each school year.

After taking questions from school committee members, Derosia explained that a shortage of foreign language and stem classes were due to staffing issues. He also admitted that students spend more time throughout the week in “related arts” courses, such as chorus and band, than in core academic classes.

 “The schedule needs to change and reflect a little bit more of an emphasis on academics while still maintaining the need for kids to have experienced other than very strict academic coursework. There’s got to be a balance,” Derosia said.

Speaking about the transition to distance learning, Derosia shared that 208 devices have been lent to students throughout the district to allow for access to distance learning, while staff has received between 20 and 25 devices to help facilitate teaching.

Derosia said the middle schools are trying to “elevate and include as many kids as they can.” He said they are developing tools to help “alleviate some of the anxiety and stress” for families.

For the high school students, Derosia said they have been moving forward with new learning and are using a form of grading to encourage participation from students. At the same time, students have the ability to repeatedly turn in assignments for feedback without penalty to their grades.

Julie Keith, director of curriculum for the elementary level, spoke about the feedback district has been receiving on the weekly templates being put out to families structure for distance learning.

“We’re trying to make sure that what we put in place is right for students and supporting needs for all of these students,” Keefe said. She said the district is beginning to venture into new content rather than only reinforcing material learned before distance learning was put in place.

Superintendent Albert Ganem said a family survey would be sent out to get feedback on what’s working and what’s not working and emphasize that the district is feeling distance learning out as they go.

Speaking of the time lost during the closure, committee member Bill Bontempi said, “these kids are going to be four months behind. How are we going to make up that time?”

Ganem admitted, “As great as the work we are doing is,” distance learning isn’t comparable to being in the classroom. “Let’s be honest. We’re going to feel the effects of this for a while.”

Ganem said superintendents had been speaking with Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley about options, such as hosting school during the summer months. The district is also working closely with the teachers union, the Hampden Wilbraham Education Association, Ganem said.

Ganem also shared that the Rotary Club of Wilbraham-Hampden donated $400 to the district, which will be used to buy toiletries for families in need. The Wilbraham Hampden Academic Trust (W.H.A.T.) donated $500, which will be used to purchase supplies for students to engage in art projects while at home.

Committee member Sean Kennedy shared with the committee that he was in quarantine after contracting COVID-19.