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NMHS School Climate

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Credit: New Milford Schools

Credit: New Milford Schools

Credit: New Milford Schools

Haley McAveney, Student Life Editor

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For the past few months, New Milford High School has been in dire need of a candid, personal conversation with administrators about something important: how our school makes us feel.

It is no secret that tensions are rising in the halls of NMHS. And if we don’t try to remedy the situation soon, the animosity will continue to make students feel as though they aren’t enjoying their high school experience. The less happy students are, the less likely they are to perform well.

So where do these feelings come from? We all know that our students are extremely influenced by their teachers. And unfortunately, it seems as though our school district has not been appreciating its teachers.

We compared New Milford District to Bergenfield District– a school that is considered our peer school based on the demographics, school size, and average monetary income in both districts.  After an analysis of both New Milford High School’s teacher contract and Bergenfield’s teacher contract, we found that, on average, Bergenfield teachers are paid more than New Milford’s.

A teacher with a bachelor’s degree in New Milford, after 10 years of experience, will make about $3,000 less than one in Bergenfield with the same experience and credentials. With a master’s degree, New Milford teachers make about $7,500 less, and with a doctorate degree, New Milford teachers make almost $11,000 less.

The disparity between the pay scale of teachers in New Milford and in Bergenfield would be expected if the two schools didn’t receive the same funding — but because they do, the only explanation is the difference in budgeting between schools. Which raises the question: why aren’t our teachers our priority?

The New Milford Board of Education President, Paige Ryan, explained the factors that are considered when determining district salaries. “The very first thing is how much you have. In the state of New Jersey there is a 2% cap on the increase in the tax levy. … That  2% has to go for everything in the district — for any increase in any programs that we’re offering, all of the courses, any of the extracurricular activities, and the repairs in the schools. … All of that has to come out of that 2% that we had, and then it covers increases for the teachers. So when we look at all of that, we have to figure out what the immediate needs of the district are, and based on what we have left, that’s what we use to determine how much we can do with the teachers.”

When asked whether or not the Board takes peer schools, like Bergenfield, into consideration, she responded, “Yes. With the steps it’s a little more difficult because there are a lot of factors that go into how steps are created, and most of the time what has happened in the past impacts what is going on now. There are times where there wasn’t a cap, so the increase might’ve been 4% for the teacher’s salaries for the year. But then Governor [Chris] Christie put in the cap, so what happens there now is a lot of those increases didn’t happen the same way, and maybe some teachers weren’t getting an increase, depending on where they were. Some of those guides were kind of moved around, so maybe teachers who have been here for 10, 11, and 12 years all make the same. So steps are really difficult, but the starting salary and average salary — salary for teachers who have been here twenty years or so — we can look at other districts for, and we do.” 

Joanna Westbrook, who has been teaching at New Milford High School for four years, feels as though “the teaching profession is under attack… a lot of people respect their individual teachers, and their personal teacher, and their child’s teacher, but, in terms of the profession, I can’t think of any other profession — besides maybe Wall Street — that’s as vilified. Teachers are seen in our society as not being able to make the same professional decisions as other professions — that have the same educational level, the same background, and the same expertise in their field — they’re given a lot more credit and leeway and respect than we are. We’re being legislated, too; everybody feels like they know what teaching is, they think they can do it. Our society does not recognize the complexity of teaching, it doesn’t recognize what the training for teachers should be. We end up feeling like we can’t control things, and as a result it’s a really hard time to be a teacher.”

Mrs. Westbrook asserts that the teaching profession is deserving of more credit than society gives — she says, “What could be more valuable than making your child open minded, informed, and a critical thinker in a democracy?”

Mrs. Westbrook isn’t the only one voicing her frustration. More personally, another New Milford High School teacher — who wishes to remain anonymous– spoke about the challenges they face working in the building. “I feel today there is more disciplinary action happening in the classrooms, because the student body has changed, as opposed to actual teaching… I’ve heard a few [colleagues] voice their opinions that they would do things differently to get the best out of their students.”

This “change” in our student body is based upon the societal view of teachers. How can a teacher gain their students’ respect in the classroom when teachers are feeling as though they “can’t control things”, as Mrs. Westbrook says? In my opinion, it is the responsibility of the administrators to create an environment where the teachers are in control of the students, not the other way around. At New Milford High School, this environment does not exist.

“Administrators can’t read minds, they can only know what they personally observe or are being told,” Michael Polizzi, the district superintendent, says. When Superintendent Polizzi and Assistant Superintendent Danielle Shanley were asked whether or not they felt as though the climate of New Milford High School was changing for the worse, they answered, “No.”

Assistant Superintendent Shanley and Superintendent Polizzi may not have seen the differences, but they also hold positions that don’t require much time spent in the building. It is very rare to see either of them walking the halls and speaking with students on a day-to-day basis, so it’s difficult for them to grasp the atmosphere during school.

When asked whether Board of Education members are involved in the student body, Mrs. Ryan explains that, “Every Board member, that’s on the Board right now, have had children in the district. In the past, sometimes we’ve had retired teachers. So, as far as involvement in the programs, we all always go to our children’s events, but we’re also invited to many other programs, and we will do our best to go… we try to get involved in those ways, just because it’s good to see everything that’s going on.”

Of course, being involved in their own children’s lives isn’t exactly being involved in the student body. We asked how often Board members visit classrooms, and Mrs. Ryan responded, “As a Board Member, our role really is in creating policy, in order for the administration to run the school… As a Board, we say ‘Listen, this is how we want it to be’ … we create the policies, but it’s up to the administration and the teachers to run the schools. We are allowed to come if we ask, but it is not appropriate for a Board member to just show up and say ‘Hey I want to go to a class’. However, we could always ask ‘could we see that program?’… and they’ll set up a time and I’ll go and I’ll see it. But, as a Board, we need to not get into the day-to-day operation of the schools.”

New Milford’s principal, Louis Manupelli, stresses that, “Before I make any decision that affects the school, or my teachers, or my students, me and my Vice Principal, my Guidance Director, my Athletic Director, and our Supervisors meet every Tuesday and start planning and make decisions that we feel as though are going to positively impact student academics. At the end of the day, the main goal is that all of my students graduate high school and have the skills required to get you into the universities you want to attend. I feel as though my teachers support the decisions we make as an administration, but I feel as though we can do a better job of planning and communicating.”

Cristina Puri, a guidance counselor at Lincoln Park Middle School, agreed to speak with us about school climate in New Jersey. Puri was mentioned in an article in NJEA Magazine titled, “Student Success Built on a Positive School Climate”. In the article, she said, “When you improve the school climate, students are happier, they feel a part of something bigger than themselves and it makes this a place they want to be during the 35 hours a week they spend here. That’s the basis for a good school and a good society.”

When speaking to us about how Lincoln Park was able to reverse the negative school climate, Puri admits that it all stems from the school’s desire to change. The staff recognized the need for change and took action with administrative approval. Puri said that Lincoln Park’s principal, Michael Meyer, is “very approachable. He wants what’s best for the kids and staff.”

Before they made any decisions, Lincoln Park district reached out to United Way, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve communities. Dr. Maurice Elias — Director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab and Academic Director of The Collaborative, Rutgers’ Center for Community-Based Research and Service — was given a grant to work on culture and climate in 250 New Jersey schools from 2005-2008. Since then, the work he began has continued with 40 schools in Northern New Jersey through the School Culture and Climate Initiative, a partnership of the CSE Center and the Youth Empowerment Alliance of the United Way of Northern New Jersey. Lincoln Park Middle was one of these schools.

Lincoln Park students, staff, administrators, and parents were given surveys concerning the school. They were asked questions about how they feel about being in the school district. United Way analyzed the responses, and gave Lincoln Park a detailed explanation of their “successes” and “opportunities” — what the school was doing right, and what they could work on to improve the lives of their students and faculty. The best part? The survey results were completely anonymous.

New Milford has started taking these steps in the right direction. Mr. Manupelli, Mrs. Jessica Groff, and Mrs. Wendy Mackey “attended a Professional Development Seminar offered by the United Way, as an attempt to gather information in order to improve our school climate and culture.”

New Milford High School wants its students to be community oriented and school spirited, but until the gap of communication between our administration, teachers, and students is fixed, we won’t be able to grow closer as a school. Unity is important – but unification is impossible if we continue to ignore the fact that our students and staff are feeling underappreciated.

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The student news site of New Milford High School, New Milford, New Jersey
NMHS School Climate