Former teacher disagrees with "The Bourne Extinction" editorial

"Fatalistic view" of editorial disappoints reader

By Angela Sweeten

I read your article "The Bourne Extinction" with great interest but disagreement. I am a resident of Bourne who is concerned about the future of our high school, not only as a parent with children in this district but also as an education advocate, tax payer, and former public school teacher.

How disappointing that you present such a fatalistic view on the future of Bourne High School.

Demographics is a factor, but certainly not the main issue. In fact, emphasizing it allows one the excuse to do nothing while our town school disintegrates. The BHS population is not shrinking due to less students on the Cape. When over half of a school's students choose other options, it should be a wake-up call. A quarter (48 students) of this incoming 9th grade class put their names in the lottery for Sturgis. Did any of those who did not get into Sturgis choose to go to UCT instead of BHS? If so, why? That answer would certainly provide some interesting perspectives since Sturgis and UCT are extremely different types of schools.

Will we resign ourselves to saying Bourne "did nothing wrong" or will we reject this excuse and find out what else we can do right? Why don't we start by asking every single parent and student who chose another option to give detailed feedback? And I don't mean a simple survey. If we want answers we can get answers. We just have to be willing to hear the truth.

I would bet a large number of those reasons aren't because of the economy. It is also offensive to assume low-income students will choose a technical school because they won’t go to college. Many students still attend college after graduating from UCT. Although getting a job immediately after graduation is important to some, this issue is much bigger and more complex than this one factor. Students want (and deserve) a challenging and rewarding high school experience regardless of what they choose to do after graduation. Personal, one-on-one interviews with the students who are currently leaving , those who have left Bourne within the last few years, and yes, even with those who are staying in the district, would go a long way toward the beginning of a solution.

Everyone in this community, including parents, but particularly those in charge of our schools - the administration, the teachers, and the school committee - have a responsibility to dig deeper for answers, and then work to make Bourne a place most students will choose. These are the people whom we elected and pay to tend our schools.
Some may say parents are to blame for the decreasing enrollment for allowing their children to attend outside schools. How do you fault someone who simply wants the best opportunities for their child? There are teachers and school committee members in Bourne whose children go to other high schools, and I support their right to choose this.

However, I’m sure they too, would like the confidence to keep their children in Bourne. Those who work in Bourne schools and yet choose a different district for their own children could also provide some real insight. We need to be willing to hear some difficult things and work together.

Our three children have spent a combined twelve years in the Bourne school system. Four years ago, our oldest daughter chose to attend Sturgis Public Charter School. We barely knew this school existed before she introduced us to it. Although I can say nothing first-hand about Bourne or any other high school, I have a lot to say about why we were happy with the choice our daughter made. The top two reasons in a nutshell: outstanding curriculum and positive climate. These are more than just buzzwords at Sturgis; they are palpable. Here are some specific examples:

  • Students feel like they matter. The administrators and teachers know students’ names. Teachers trust and respect students, and therefore students trust and respect their teachers.
  • Administrators, teachers, support staff, and a Board who mutually respects and supports each other.
  • A rigorous, global curriculum that is recognized worldwide - the International Baccalaureate – with constant support for students to meet high academic expectations.Highly qualified teachers who consistently go the extra mile to help their students succeed not only academically but in many other areas. Teachers are facilitators, not authoritarians. They encourage their students to question. They honor students’ ideas. They are experts in the subjects they teach and help their students master knowledge of the subject as well.
  • A wide variety of extracurricular activities, including many sports, and a requirement to do community service
  • No honor roll but instead ongoing recognition for successes both small and large, and a meaningful awards ceremony at the end of the year
  • A safe learning environment free from harassment or violence
  • Class sizes and school size that foster a collaborative environment
  • The ability of administration and the Board to move teachers to positions in which they are best suited and that maximize student learning. Staff is moved, hired, or fired based first on students’ needs.

I am not implying at all that BHS doesn't have any of these positive elements. Nor do I think that Sturgis is perfect. I don’t expect perfection or a replica of Sturgis, but I ask the community in Bourne: Is there anything we can take away from its model of success?

One common excuse is that private and charter schools don’t have to deal with a teacher’s union. I myself was a member of a teacher's union and I understand how they are often needed to protect teachers' rights. However, they sometimes hurt students, like in cases where a high school English teacher must be moved to teach middle school Social Studies in order to keep her job, even though a less “senior” candidate is more qualified to teach that particular grade and subject. At what point is the employment of an adult above the best interests of an entire group of students? Of course, there are examples of unions and administrators working collaboratively together to benefit students. Is that the case in Bourne?

Traditional public schools have the option of offering an International Baccalaureate program. Dozens of other public schools around the nation and some here in Massachusetts choose to do this, even in combination with AP programs. Should Bourne High offer a higher academic option?

Sturgis has also been criticized for not having the same percentage of special needs students that traditional public schools have. Personally, I find it impressive that they have the amount they do. Every single student enrolled at that school is required to complete the IB program. That would be similar to asking every student at a traditional public school to complete AP classes in every subject.

Of course, Bourne is not the only school on the Cape losing students, but it is the only one the residents of Bourne can do something about. And we must. Although radical changes are sometimes what is necessary, it is often the most fundamental things we do that make a difference. There are elements to a good school climate and culture which are universal no matter the curriculum or physical appearance of the building. My daughter’s initial interest was the IB program, but the feeling of mutual respect, trust, and promotion of her growth as an individual were also key to a very rewarding four years. It's what draws other students there, too.

What can each one of us do to make a difference? Let's put aside our own fears and politics to continue to do what works, and change what doesn't. We do have the power to change the course, even though it’s hard. I have hope that the administration, the fine teachers in Bourne, and the school committee will do just that.

Angela Sweeten
Pocasset, MA

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