A Call for Better Teaching at Lebanon High School
Amy Tarallo, left, director of curriculum and instruction, watches a ninth-grade class taught by Luke Michener during an informal assessment at Lebanon High School. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
From left, Gina Moylan, assistant principal, Nan Parsons, principal, and Amy Tarallo, director of curriculum and instruction, discuss teacher assessment strategies at Lebanon High School. Friday was School Spirit Day at the high school, and many staff members wore school gear. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
“It’s about poor teaching at Lebanon High School last year and doing what’s best for students,’’ says Lou Maresca, middle, one of the organizers of a parents group that brought concerns to the administration and plans to push for improvements. Looking on are Anthony Arcone, left, and Iris Mok. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
It isn’t unusual for parents to express concerns about a teacher or a particular class at Lebanon High School, administrators there said.
But it is uncommon for a group of parents to press for improvements to teaching. Such a group has emerged, a small group of parents who are decrying what they see as substandard teaching at the high school and calling on more parents to ask for improvements.
“We have to have a little bit more of all parents staying on top of the nitty-gritty, what happens in the school,” said Lou Maresca, a parent whose son graduated from Lebanon High last spring.
The Lebanon Parents Association founders want it to become an ongoing organization, “not to complain, but to stop problems early,” Maresca said. While there’s a PTA that supports the elementary grades, for the high school “there’s no vehicle to voice any concerns,” Maresca said.
“We just care about good education,” he added. The parents association is interested in fairness, he explained. “It’s unfair,” Maresca said, “for kids’ educations to be harmed.”
Lebanon High School administrators said they have been addressing concerns — both their own and parents’ — about teaching practices for many years, and that the issues the nascent parents association has brought up are not new.
When she was hired to lead Lebanon High School seven years ago, Nan Parsons was given a directive by the city’s School Board: Evaluate every teacher. Annual evaluations hadn’t been the norm before Parsons was hired, but now every teacher is evaluated every year, she said.
In addition, the high school hired a full-time director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, a position Parsons pushed for to improve oversight of teaching and curriculum. Amy Tarallo is in her second year in the new job.
“It was critical because we hadn’t done a curriculum update in a long time here,” Parsons said.
On July 9, a group of parents met with school officials to voice their concerns. Parsons has been responsive, and at the meeting “they were all attentive and polite and listening,” Maresca said. And some of the issues parents have expressed concerns about in years past have been addressed, he added.
The problems with teaching at the school permeate the four primary academic areas of math, science, social studies and English, as well as music, Maresca said. By pointing to the extent of poor teaching at Lebanon High, the parents don’t intend to implicate all teachers.
“The clear majority of the teachers at Lebanon High School are good, very good or excellent,” Maresca said. But there are still some who are “horrid.” Anywhere from eight to 12 teachers fall on the low end of the scale, he said.
“It’s not two or three,” Maresca said. “It’s not a minuscule number.”
Maresca and other parents — Iris Mok and Anthony Arcone joined Maresca for an interview with a reporter — declined to name the teachers in question, saying they weren’t out to point fingers at particular teachers, only to improve teaching at the high school. “I don’t want anybody to get in trouble,” Maresca said.
School administrators said the number of teachers who struggle to improve is small, on the order of three to five.
“The majority of the teachers are extremely receptive,” said Gina Moylan, assistant principal and a 25-year veteran of Lebanon High. “Unfortunately, we do have a couple, and I’m talking about three or four or five, that are difficult to move forward.” They don’t see that they need to alter what they’ve been doing and sometimes, in the teacher’s view, “it’s the kid who needs to change to meet them,” Moylan said.
Administrators don’t give up on teachers easily, although sometimes issues have to be put in writing and the process does sometimes lead to termination. “Some of them you don’t get turned around,” Moylan said.
Among the teaching practices that parents brought up were the number of movies shown in classes, the length of time some teachers take to return coursework and classroom management issues that make it hard for students to learn. Some of the concerns expressed by parents related to specific students, and administrators declined to discuss those issues on privacy grounds.
“I think that one of the things that came out was the number of movies” shown in the classroom, said Arcone, a member of the parents association. According to a list drawn up by a student, one junior year English class was shown seven feature-length films. Maresca said his son spent five days in class watching All the President’s Men, the film based on the book about Watergate. “The fact that they would steal one week of my son’s education makes me angry,” Maresca said.
“I think the school district should be uncompromising on this issue,” he added.
This concern first came to Parsons’ attention when she was hired, and she said it troubled her as a Lebanon parent. “One of the first concerns I had expressed to me was movies” in the classroom, Parsons said.
Often the movies are topical, for example, a film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in a Shakespeare class. Tarallo said that often a teacher needs to show just a snippet of a film, and the curriculum is being examined and changed to reflect that.
Parsons, Moylan and Tarallo, who sat down for a joint interview on Friday, are each responsible for evaluating teachers.
Tarallo, however, is in the classroom for either formal or informal evaluation every day. She visits one or two classrooms a day and works with teachers to scrutinize test data and to tailor instruction to individual students. In a way, her role reflects how much teaching is changing. Delivering instruction to individual students, rather than lecturing to an entire class, is becoming the dominant method of teaching.
That reflects the need to keep students engaged in school until age 18, the state drop-out age. “We’re not letting you out of here at 14 or 16,” Parsons said.
Parents said that in a few cases it has taken up to eight weeks for students to get work back from teachers, a delay that they said shows disrespect to students and negates some of the value students get out of a teacher’s comments on their work.
The administrators responded by saying that they work individually with every teacher to update grades every two weeks. “We’re not 100 percent perfect,” Moylan said, but “the majority of our teachers are updating their grades.”
While talking to a reporter in the high school’s main office, Tarallo fielded a question from a student who said her grades hadn’t been updated. Tarallo pulled her aside and found that two of the student’s assignments weren’t complete, an example of another issue that can keep grades from being posted in a timely way.
All three of the high school administrators, Superintendent Gail Paludi and School Board members Jeff Peavey and Bob McCarthy met with the parents in July.
Last week, Peavey and McCarthy said that neither the board nor its education committee has discussed the issues the parents raised. Both said they were involved in the meeting at the request of the parents, to ensure they received a hearing and felt free to bring up their concerns, but that the issues raised are in the hands of the administration.
“To me, if we’re not doing things at the highest professional manner all the way down the line, I have a problem with that,” McCarthy said of the teaching issues.
The school’s three dozen teachers are represented by the Lebanon Education Association. The union has been a willing partner in improving teaching at the high school, Parsons said.
Since its initial meeting, which turned out 12 parents at West Lebanon’s Kilton Public Library, and the meeting with administrators, the momentum behind the parents association has slowed somewhat, Maresca said.
A math and science teacher with 33 years of experience in public and private schools (although not at Lebanon) and in private tutoring, Maresca said he is happy to advise the group, but doesn’t want to lead it, and he’d like the parents to continue what they started. Maresca still wants to push to improve teaching at the high school, even though his son graduated in the spring.
“I’m still involved in this because in no other career can you do a lazy job and still keep your job,” Maresca said.
Ultimately it will be up to parents. The high school administrators said they would welcome continued parental involvement. “If we’re not open to some constructive criticism, we’ll stagnate,” Tarallo said.
“There’s got to be a little more willingness by parents to ask those nitty-gritty questions,” Maresca said.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.