June 17, 2008

Houses Divided Will Flourish, Say N. Middlesex School Officials

By Hiroko Sato, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.

Jun. 17--TOWNSEND -- Frederick Wheeler still remembers his daughter coming home after her first day in high school and saying, "There is no way I can find my way around the high school."

High school can be intimidating, said Deborah Brady, assistant superintendent of the North Middlesex Regional School District.

The district's high school, which serves students from Pepperell, Townsend and Ashby, houses 1,400 students. Guidance counselors may not be tuned in to a student's individual circumstances and needs while dividing attention among four grade levels, Brady said.

Superintendent of Schools Maureen Marshall wants to change that by breaking the school into smaller units. The regional School Committee approved her idea, said Wheeler, vice chairman of the committee.

The new model does require the hiring of an additional person, but the long-range benefits are more important, Wheeler said.

"The economy will forever go in a cycle," Wheeler said. "But the education of students can't follow the cycle."

Starting this fall, North Middlesex Regional High School will have two "houses," one for freshmen and sophomores, the other for juniors and seniors.

Directing the faculty and staff to adopt the change will be the newly appointed principal, Michael Flanagan, and new headmaster, Sarah Lewenczuk. Both had experience implementing the two-house system at Tyngsboro High School.

Current Principal Richard Manley will leave his position June 30 to

take over as principal of Windham (N.H.) High School.

Flanagan will have overall management of the high school and will also oversee the upper-class house. Lewenczuk will manage the lower-class house.

Flanagan, a 36-year-old Chelmsford native, currently works as assistant principal at Tyngsboro High.

Lewenczuk, 34, of Lunenburg, works as the academic dean at Tyngsboro High. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and master's in school guidance, both from Springfield College.

Flanagan's salary will be $112,500, and Lewenczuk's $90,000.

"No question ... recruiting and retaining high-quality and effective administrators is a challenge for all school districts," Marshall said in an e-mail to The Sun.

Each house will have an assistant principal, its own guidance counselors and a main office.

Research has shown the importance of providing a more "personalized experience of high school," especially at large schools, Brady said.

By bundling together two grades whose needs are similar, the school can offer courses catered to students' developmental stages. For example, the lower house will focus on the transition into high school while the upper house may introduce more college-bound courses and internship programs, Brady said.

Flanagan said the new system should also allow guidance counselors to stay in closer touch with each student and parents and help advance their learning experience.

"It's a team approach to working with the students," Flanagan says of the two-house model. "It's good to have a consistency in the message, goals and expectations" for the students, he said.

Wheeler said Marshall passionately advocated for the house system during the budget season, presenting research and student-performance data.

The fiscal 2009 budget is $41.9 million, up 3.9 percent from this year's budget. Marshall said establishing the dean position qualifies the district to apply for high-school restructuring grants available from private and public entities.

The new spending plan also calls for the elimination of a few teaching positions through attrition, Wheeler said.

The high-school population has slightly increased, Marshall said, although districtwide enrollment has steadily declined from 4,797 in 2001 to 4,362 in 2007.

"People don't want to see you implement a new program" in time of a budget crunch, Wheeler said, but "this is a situation where an addition of a new headmaster is going to make tremendous improvements."

"Educational research clearly supports the 'promise' of creating such smaller learning communities," Marshall wrote in her e-mail. "It's all about improving educational opportunities and student achievement."


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