NHS nixes AP chemistry after teacher departs

  • Northampton High School FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/19/2019 2:45:00 PM
Modified: 7/19/2019 2:44:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Advanced Placement chemistry will not be offered at Northampton High School in the fall.

In a July 11 letter sent to AP chemistry students and their parents and guardians, interim principal Lori Vaillancourt wrote, “We have a change in our science course offerings due to the resignation of our AP Chemistry teacher Ms. Susan Biggs.” 

“At this time, students should stop the assigned summer school homework,” the letter states, and informs students that they can sign up for other AP courses such as biology or take a class at a local college the school collaborates with, such as Smith College. 

The district hired a new science teacher, the letter states, who will go through College Board training in the coming school year to later teach the AP course, though Vaillancourt told the Gazette special certification is not required to teach advanced placement classes.

On Tuesday, Vaillancourt released a follow-up statement to address “some confusion,” over the initial announcement. 

“Some have expressed concern that the AP Chemistry program has disbanded or that we have not been able to hire qualified teachers. Neither of these is true,” she wrote.

In a Gazette interview, Vaillancourt and Superintendent John Provost explained that this summer, a science teacher requested a partial leave of absence for the coming school year, and the district has not been able to find a replacement. In order to keep enough standard level courses, the school decided to cut AP chemistry for the year, one reason being that the course was mostly tenth and eleventh graders who could take the course another year.

“It needs to be made clear this is not at all about Sue Biggs being blamed, or her leaving our building is not why the decision was made at all,” Vaillancourt told the Gazette. “It’s just that was a lot of the rhetoric on social media.”

Provost praised Biggs work. “She was a real treasure to the district,” Provost said. “She made incredible, strong connections with students.”

Parents, union react

“I was a little surprised to get the letter that they were canceling it entirely this year,” said Susannah Howe, the parent of a rising sophomore who was signed up for AP chemistry. “We are very sad as she was really excited.”

Howe said her daughter wants to pursue a science major in college, and that her son took the course a few years ago with Biggs, who she described as a “powerhouse teacher.”

“As a parent,” Howe said, “I feel it’s important that Northampton continue to offer these kinds of opportunities because it's important to give our students a really good education.” 

Northampton Association of School Employees — who reached an impasse bargaining for new contracts with the School Committee this spring, leading the groups to turn to a mediator — said the class cancellation could have been prevented. At public meetings over the last several months, members of the group have said without pay raises, teachers may leave.

Andrea Egitto, Unit A Chapter coordinator for NASE, sent the Gazette a statement on behalf of the union. “… we are so disappointed and heartbroken at the loss of so many teachers in our district because of the city’s unwillingness to prioritize our school employees and negotiate a fair contract after years and years of us waiting for the city to have the money to pay us fairly. This could have been prevented.” 

Attempts to reach Biggs for comment were unsuccessful, but at School Committee meetings this spring, she spoke during public comment periods urging the School Committee to give teachers a pay raise and even saying she had looked at another job after 20 years in the district.

In the coming years, the district expects to offer AP chemistry, according to school officials. 

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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