Northampton schools chief to launch outside probe amid math program controversy

  • Northampton High School GAZETTE FILE/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northampton Public Schools Superintendent John Provost STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/22/2022 8:07:18 PM
Modified: 3/22/2022 8:06:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Northampton Public Schools Superintendent John Provost plans to hire an independent investigator to review complaints surrounding the high school’s honors math program, which has come under scrutiny from many students and parents in recent weeks.

In a message to the school community, Provost wrote that former NHS principal Nancy Athas has agreed to return to the position in an acting capacity for the next three weeks. Athas retired in 2013 after serving as principal for five years. Asked about Principal Lori Vaillancourt’s employment status, Provost declined to elaborate.

The developments were spurred by complaints to district leaders following a March 12 Gazette article that detailed an ongoing dispute about honors math classes in ninth and 10th grades. Former School Committee member Susan Voss compiled public emails from 2020 and 2021 and wrote a seven-page report, completed in October, that criticizes last year’s switch from standalone honors to embedded classes.

An embedded honors program puts honors and non-honors, or “college prep,” students in the same classrooms but with different performance expectations. Each student chooses either the honors or college prep track on their own.

Voss also revealed a March 2021 chat message in which Vaillancourt referred to members of the Student Union who wanted to meet with teachers about the issue as “asshats,” for which she has since apologized.

In response to the report and its allegations of a flawed decision-making process, students staged a walkout last Wednesday and called for Vaillancourt’s resignation.

“Complaints that include personnel matters will be fully and fairly investigated,” Provost wrote. “I am in the process of hiring an independent investigator to gather information related to the situation. … The plan to investigate complaints that have been raised is evolving. I will keep the community updated as the situation continues to unfold.”

He asked anyone with questions to contact his office and said privacy will be respected throughout the process.

School Committee vice chair Gwen Agna said Tuesday that Athas “is a tried and true, very wonderful administrator who I was a colleague of from my time at Jackson Street. I can’t imagine a better choice that Dr. Provost could have made to keep the ship going,” during the investigation.

Vaillancourt, who took over as principal in 2019, has said that Voss’ report does not provide a full understanding of the change to embedded honors, which was under consideration since 2015, and that most internal discussions did not take place via publicly available written messages.

Voss told a Gazette reporter she received about 1,000 pages of material in response to a public records request and released 260 pages to the public. She said she removed only duplicate messages such as those in long email threads, advertisements and one email that was about a different school and contained someone’s personal information.

Vaillancourt has argued that the math department supports the program because it promotes student equity and encourages minority students to take high-level math classes, while critics have alleged that the program damages student equity by making classes less challenging for honors students and others who need specific math skills for their planned careers.

“The dialogue that is happening around whether the embedded honors program is the best way to meet the needs of our learners and promote equity in the school curriculum is an important one,” Provost wrote. “The School Committee has taken steps to move this dialogue forward” and will consult with the math faculty about the matter “in a timely manner.”

The embedded honors program was included in the NHS Program of Studies, a curriculum plan approved every year by the School Committee, in 2021 and 2022. Agna, the committee vice chair, said the discussion will help members prepare for next year’s Program of Studies vote.

“My intention will be to establish a collegial relationship with the math teachers, who are the professionals,” Agna said, “and really understand their thinking about moving to embedded honors math and also to help the community understand the philosophy behind it,” along with answering some of the community’s questions and finding ways to “support our teachers.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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