NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 22, 2013

Thumbs down for Triton merger

Panel unanimously opposes combined high, middle school

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall
Correspondent

---- — BYFIELD – After more than a year of study, a proposed merger of the Triton Regional High and Middle schools has received a resounding no from the 16-member Secondary Merger Review Committee

The cross-sectional group comprised of Triton parents, school staff, student representatives and town officials voted unanimously against moving forward with a merger.

Details of the merger review committee’s research and reasons for its decision were presented to the Triton Regional School Committee last week. The public is invited to comment on the committee’s findings and recommendation during the school board’s April 3 meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the Triton High library.

The merger review committee was charged in January 2012 with reviewing a proposal by Superintendent Christopher Farmer to merge the middle and high schools, which now share one campus in Byfield, into a single, coherent unit. The committee was to assess whether such a merger would improve the continuity of the curriculum, teaching and learning, and student support across grades 7 through 12, thus improving overall student learning and development.

Additionally, the committee was to raise key issues that would need to be addressed and report on any significant cost implications that would result in a merger.

The committee’s final report, available online at www.trsd.net, illustrates a unanimous lack of support for the merger based in part on student achievement data and dropout rates reviewed by the group. The statistics showed current student achievement scores at Triton to be good and dropout rates to be low compared to similar districts in Massachusetts.

The report reads, “If there was not an alarming academic problem, there was no need to move to a change considered extensive and potentially disruptive.” The group agreed that while many issues raised by the superintendent were worthy of further review in a more sustained and systemic manner over time, those matters could be successfully addressed, pending funding, without a merger of the two schools.

“The research and data presented did not seal the deal on this merger,” parent Heidi Riccio said. “It would create more angst than progress.”

Farmer, who has been a staunch supporter of the merger, even while facing some strong opposition throughout the research process, said he was holding his comments on the results of the merger committee until after the April 3 public hearing.

Several recommendations outside of a potential merger are outlined in the review committee’s report that would improve student support, orientation, and learning and development, particularly in the transition years — sixth grade to seventh and eighth grade to ninth. Options include changes to allow or enhance the personalization of students’ education, such as further development of the advisory program and development of a freshman team/academy.

Committee members Johnson Nguyen, a faculty member at the high school, said these changes would create more positive results than merging the schools.

Les Murray, a principal himself for more than 21 years, raised concerns over having one principal for grades 7 through 12 and said he was “vehemently opposed” to a merger.

“I remain unconvinced that one principal is better than two,” Murray said, suggesting that a complete merger would be too drastic a step and smaller changes would be more advantageous.

And committee member Timothy Connell said he believes the middle school has succeeded in creating an environment that provides all students the opportunity to be successful.

“If these two school communities and their leadership work together, we can make the changes needed to provide for all of our students without drastic change,” Connell said.

The merger review committee recommended that the next step would be to further examine its findings with the goal of creating a comprehensive strategic planning process involving all three communities that would address areas of concerns over the next five years.

Officials are urging parents and the public to read the report, watch a taping of the March 13 meeting and express their opinions at the April 3 public hearing.

School Committee Chairwoman Dina Sullivan said her board is grateful for the work of the merger committee and would be voting on the proposal after hearing comments from the public and superintendent.