Report examines exodus of Amherst school leaders

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Superintendent Michael Morris GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/3/2022 8:23:20 PM
Modified: 2/3/2022 8:21:50 PM

AMHERST — With interim principals currently at two schools and extensive turnover in building leadership in recent years, a consultant is advising the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools to better support those who are hired, and to find ways to address a community culture that questions decision-making.

At a joint meeting of the Amherst, Pelham and Regional school committees this week, Rick Rogers, a longtime Massachusetts principal commissioned to examine the situation by Superintendent Michael Morris, presented a 10-page report titled “Supporting and Retaining School Leaders.”

Rogers said that his interviews with several leaders who have left the district are the basis for recommendations aimed at keeping principals in the fold, including strategies that include two-way entry planning for those hired, strengthening mentor supports and having a process of community conversation.

“I’m optimistic this is something that can be worked on,” Rogers said.

But the report notes that Amherst is a place where reputations can be made quickly and “the intense following of local politics by members of the community may be contributing to the challenge.”

“Many respondents commented on the need for outsiders to recognize and learn to maneuver within a culture where everything is up for debate and it can be difficult to make final decisions,” Rogers wrote. “A few quoted the phrase, ‘Amherst, where only the “h” is silent.’”

The district’s reputation for diversity and tolerance isn’t always maintained once a principal arrives, he said, with resistance to change often occurring. “Folks come in expecting it to be better,” Rogers said.

Rogers said there is a dichotomy between what the town values, including social justice, and the actual diversity of school leadership. Morris said he reached out to Rogers because having consistent leadership is critical for successful schools.

“It was a concern, and it remains a concern,” Morris said.

The report preserves anonymity and no comments are attributed to any specific people. The most recent departures included Michelle Hernandez, who was principal at Fort River from August through October 2021, and Leigh Whiting-Jones, who was at Pelham Elementary for one year before leaving last spring, Women have typically been more common departures, and the report notes that the longtime, stable leaders are all white men: Nick Yaffe at Wildwood, Derek Shea at Crocker Farm and David Slovin at Summit Academy.

“Some women leaders reported feeling that their gender contributed to a lack of respect and they were more likely to be the subject of comments about their age, appearance or eating habits,” the report states.

Rogers said his report tries to identify common stressors and barriers that are preventing people from staying, observing that historically marginalized groups will typically face greater harm from the turnover of principals.

“My job was to listen to the stories and identify the themes,” Rogers said.

Among reasons cited for leaving were culture shock, pressure and attacks, resistance to change and personal reasons.

Rogers said it is alarming that women made up many of those who had departed quickly. Some of these individuals told him they felt a lack of respect and faced a gender-based negative narrative. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, though, told him they had not faced these issues, while Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC individuals, faced other challenges, including the pressure of proving themselves and having their qualifications challenged.

The report finds that positives in the district include the diversity of staff and support for social justice, and the assistance received from the superintendent and central office. Challenges are the outspoken family and community members.

The contents of the report are “sobering,” said Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald. She said there needs to be a push back against the notion that school leaders should just be able to “take it.”

Committee members also want to address aspects related to community voices. “It’s just not acceptable to allow people to be abusive,” said Leverett representative Gene Stamell.

Pelham School Committee Chairwoman Sarah Hall said while she appreciates the report, it actually may be toned down from what leaders are actually experiencing.

Amherst representative Peter Demling said he is familiar with the attitudes throughout town, not just in the school setting.

“This behavior happens in public to any kind of decision-maker,” Demling said, noting that bullying seems common. “I feel this is the community’s problem that needs to be worked on.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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