January 6, 2020 by Priya Howell
Recently, a survey circulated by a group of parents asking families to share their experience and perceptions of Hingham Public Schools, garnered a lot of attention. Within hours of it being posted, it had been taken by over 600 people. We are now up to 800 parents, representing about 1,400 students in the district. We will be closing the survey tomorrow night, so if you haven't taken it yet, there is still time!
The survey also prompted many questions about our group. Who are we and what do we want? I wanted to take this opportunity to answer some of the questions we have been getting.
Who are you?
We are a group of parents that live in Hingham with children of all different ages ranging from elementary school to high school. We came together when Alexis Macelhiney started reaching out to parents who had caught her eye because they were vocal on issues impacting the school system in various Facebook groups.
The organizers also include Suzanne Garland, Heather Henderson, Alexis Macelhiney, Susie O'Horo, Courtney Orwig, Josh Ross, but many other parents join meetings on a more ad hoc basis, and our members include the nearly 1,000 people who signed our petition and have joined our e-mail list.
Didn't your group start out as Hingham Parents for Full-Time School?
Yes and no. As a group of people, no. Most of us had never met and didn't know each other until late October. Five of us were not involved in the push for reopening schools on a full-time basis this summer. However, the Facebook group we now use did start as Hingham Parents for Full-Time School. Sue Garland was one of the original co-founders of that Facebook group and, although it soon became clear that HPS would not be able to start the year full-time, the group remained open as a sounding board for nearly 1,000 parents.
So why not start a new group?
With so many Hingham Facebook groups already in existence, we felt starting another one was going to be confusing and inefficient. Rather than spend our time trying to build a new Facebook group back up to 1,000 members, we asked Sue if we could use the group she already had and rebrand it. There are only so many parents in Hingham, so it really didn't make sense to us to start a new group, when we would just be adding the same people to it.
What would you say to parents who didn't like the previous group?
We are members of the same community so I would hope people would find a way to focus on what we have in common. We understand that in August and September things got hot and to some that group was considered contentious, but it is also understandable that parents and caregivers were anxious and acting out of concern for their children's well-being.
I, for one, was one of the very nervous parents who opted to keep my kids completely remote when school started, and two of my four kids are still remote for health reasons. While I didn't support full-time schools, it was easy for me to set that aside to work with this group once I saw that we share a lot of the same goals. I appreciate anyone who is willing to pour time into advocating for better schools.
Our hope is that wherever people were in the beginning of this school year, we can come together to work on the things that we agree on for the good of our schools and our town.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
First and foremost, we think the schools need additional funds to hire critical staff. We have a revenue problem in Hingham, and it goes beyond the schools. This was true even before the pandemic. My husband, Peter Howell, wrote a great editorial in the beginning of 2020 when the town was determining the budget. None of the needs that Dr. Austin identified last year were funded, so all of those needs are still out there.
To make it worse, we now have the unique challenge that since March, we have been improvising our children's education as we go. We know kids are going to need a lot of help to recover from this, and the less we do now, the harder it is going to be to get them back on track. That's why we also want to advocate for safe ways to get more out of this year.
What does it mean to get more out of this year? Do you think we should be back in school full-time?
We are not pushing for full-time school, which I think people equate to jamming all the kids into overcrowded classrooms with no safety precautions. We believe that CDC and DESE guidelines should be followed.
As the school year has progressed, we have learned more about how school can be held safely in-person. The CDC and DESE guidelines have evolved to emphasize the importance of more in-person learning, but the district has been limited in its ability to follow the science, as they say, by our aging infrastructure, large class sizes, and union negotiations.
This is not a binary choice between what we have now and full-time. Our kids are getting between 7-8 hours of in-person time per week. Full-time is about 30 hours per week. There is a lot of space between those two options. We now have data that shows that our in-person hours are in the bottom 25% (sometimes the very bottom) of all the towns in the state. That means over 75% of towns have figured out how to get kids into school for more hours per week than we have.
As I mentioned, I was one of the parents that initially opted to be completely remote, but being overly conservative is not free from real and sometimes irreversible ramifications. Lost wages, women forced out of the workforce, students with special needs not receiving adequate services, delays in identifying students who need additional services, and lost time to build yourself up for college applications, are just a few of the consequences that we can't just undo in the fall. Not to mention (and I hate to set off alarm bells), we are already hearing the message that fall 2021 may look like fall 2020, despite the availability of the vaccine, and I don't think many people want to see that.
In short, we would like the schools to increase the amount of in-person learning available, while keeping the fully remote option available for those who want it. And until we can get more in-person time, we would like to see the schools explore out-of-the-box ways of improving the educational experience. We hope the survey will help collect information on how other parents feel and maybe turn up some ideas that the school administration can act on.
What has the group done so far?
The group started meeting in the weeks that led up to the November Special Town Meeting. We spent a lot of time discussing how the acquisition of land, and the eventual project, could impact town budgets and in turn, the schools. Ultimately, as individuals we have different perspectives, but as a group we decided to support the purchase of the land.
That led to us creating an open letter to the town to express our view that the schools are being underfunded and our kids are being shortchanged in their education. It clearly resonated with parents because it was circulated everywhere and over 900 people signed it. We encouraged people to come to the Special Town Meeting and speak up about the need for more school funding, which I think worked because there were so many more people there than usual.
At the meeting, Sue read the petition, and I read another statement. We both supported the acquisition of land, which passed by a very narrow margin. I am glad that the acquisition passed and I know our statements helped to convince other parents to vote for it. Now that we have approved purchasing the land, however, we feel strongly that we need to come up with a budget that funds the town's most urgent needs first, including the schools.
Since the meeting we have had the opportunity to express our concerns to members of the School Committee, Board of Selectmen and even some of the Advisory Committee members.
This month, we are planning to meet with Dr. Austin to get more information on next year's school budget, and what needs his team has identified. This is a key step to determining if the town can fund the schools without an override.
In the future, we plan to host candidate forums for the upcoming town elections. And, of course, we are getting lawn signs to put around town!
What can parents do to help?
As a group, the most important thing we can do is show up to as many board and committee meetings as we can because, as busy parents, our voices and concerns are underrepresented in these forums. I think it is safe to say that someone from the group has been at every School Committee, Board of Selectmen, and Advisory Committee meeting since late October. We post when these meetings are going to occur and encourage everyone to join them. If you do join, we would love to see you add Supporters of HPS to your name on Zoom so it is clear to the town officials why you are there.
We also want to hear from as many parents as possible on our survey, so that our data is representative. If you haven't done so already, please take our survey!
Finally, as we get closer to town meeting, we will likely have more ways for people to get involved, so please do join the Facebook group so we can keep you in the loop with our efforts.