Response: Restoring Academics to SAU16 and Putting our Children First
This letter to the editor is in direct response to a column from Neil Bleicken, published February 11, that includes completely misinformed, inaccurate and therefore, unfair references to our group, ExeterPACT, who is being maligned for questioning the SAU16 administration over the rapidly declining academic performance witnessed in our schools. What’s more, Bleicken has never reached out to our organization to learn more or ask questions. Equally disturbing, is that our valid concerns and fair questions about our SAU schools are being characterized as some type of “political gain that is wrong and will do harm to our kids.” In fact, the reasons are quite contrary and are our obligation as parents and taxpayers. Therefore, we intend to set the record straight for Seacoast Online readers regarding why we care so much about restoring the academic focus and excellence at SAU16 for all students. We take great offense at the attempt to label or smear our efforts--especially by someone who doesn’t know us nor has taken the time to speak with us—as well as to a publication who refuses to publish our words but allows uninformed bias to circulate.
First, ExeterPACT is a nonpartisan organization started by two concerned mothers solely focused on putting education first through advocating for our children, parents and teachers above all else. We frankly do not care one iota about an individual’s political leanings, and in the upcoming school board elections on March 8 we are supporting candidates that are Democrats, Republicans and Independents across the district, but their political identity is the least interesting thing about them. We are supporting candidates who have a vision for our community, support accountability, academic excellence and will put our students, teachers and paraprofessionals first. The candidates we support understand their role as a voice of the community to oversee the administration—something the current board cannot or will not do. Further, we will not support candidates currently serving or who have had a career serving in the N.H. state legislature. The reason is simple: we do not want politics in our schools. How is that partisan politics, Mr. Bleicken? Given your stance, you should absolutely find it concerning that current Superintendent Ryan has directly and consistently injected politics into SAU16 during his tenure – distracting from academics and resulting in numerous highly publicized incidents that have reached a national audience. This reflects poorly on our community and divides our citizens. Rest assured, our sole focus is on identifying new school board members that have no desire to engage in petty political issues, but will serve objectively and passionately – serving as catalysts for positive change including improved accountability, representation for all community stakeholders, proper stewardship of taxpayer resources and ultimately returning the focus to academics and the wellbeing of our children. Period.
The groundswell of engagement ExeterPACT has received over the last year has been humbling, and it’s provided proof there is a grave concern about what is happening in our schools under Ryan and many members of the current school board. We receive daily calls from concerned parents on a wide range of topics they feel are not being addressed by Ryan and the school board--people who are frustrated their voices aren’t being heard. Unfortunately, they are correct. For example, Bleicken’s article rightly cited the many challenges experienced by SAU16 students since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We couldn’t agree more, and we regularly hear from parents with now disengaged children. Many of them are struggling socially, emotionally and academically, to a degree that didn’t exist prior to the pandemic. It has always been clear that in-person learning needed to be resumed as quickly as possible, as no child can reasonably be expected to learn from a screen for hours a day, detached from teachers and peers. This challenge was exacerbated as working parents struggled to balance these new demands with job requirements that didn’t go away. As reported by this Seacoast Online, Ryan and the school board resisted all demands to return our students back to in-person learning in a prompt manner – even when it became clear students and teachers could return safely. Ryan and the school board even went so far as seeking a waiver to curtail in-person learning after the N.H. Governor issued a mandate to begin full-time in-person learning on April 19, 2021. SAU16 was one of the last districts in the state of N.H. to resume educating its students in-person, locking its doors to our students for over a year. This hurt our students immensely and disproportionality affected those less privileged in our community. Ryan and the school board clearly didn’t put our students, families and teachers first. SAU16 acted in a manner inconsistent with the vast majority of school districts in N.H. and throughout the U.S., and unfortunately the damage inflicted from these decisions has had a real and lasting impact on our children. We are deeply saddened by the effects of their decisions. We highlight this outright resistance to return students to school as one example of the concerns we too frequently hear from parents, who are rightfully frustrated with the current direction of SAU16, the lack of accountability from the administration and disregard for the education and wellbeing of our students.
Second, we were shocked that Bleicken column took issue with our concerns around the steep decline in academic performance that is occurring at all levels across SAU16. We find this troubling because educating students should be the number one priority of schools, especially if we want to provide a solid foundation for our children’s future learning and equip them with the skills to succeed in their life pursuits. While we agree standardized test scores aren’t always the best indicator of school quality, they are unquestionably the best objective, official, and widely accepted measure that exists in determining how well children are being educated for their age group and how each school’s performance, in the aggregate, compares to other school districts in NH. It’s a report card, if you will. It places results and data first, and on this account Ryan has been an abject failure across the board. For example, in only a two year period from 2019-2021 (with results measured before COVID), Cooperative Middle School has dropped to 38, and the elementary schools have declined as the following: East Kingston from 58 to 133, Kensington from 20 to 35, Stratham from 18 to 62, Exeter from 25 to 69, Newfields from 100 to 107 and Brentwood from 16 to 26. Ironically, for an administration who claims rankings do not matter, the logo for 100 US Best Schools awarded to EHS in 2018, prior to Ryan’s tenure was placed back on the EHS website in January 2022. This award has not been bestowed to EHS since 2018. According to recent data Fall 2021, across the board in SAU16 roughly 30% of students are proficient in reading and math. What’s more, to brush his poor performance under the carpet and takeaway our student’s pursuit of excellence, Ryan along with the school board curriculum subcommittee is seeking to alter traditional weighted grading for AP-level classes, move to a competency based grading system (who teachers in the elementary schools already being forced to use will tell you is flawed—for example, it allows for a student who may not be reading on grade level to show adequate performance) and other measures of HIS performance. These are objective facts and we question how any rational, vested community member or taxpayer would not be completely alarmed with this poor leadership and direction.
Parents are responding with their feet, pulling students out of SAU16 at a rapid rate by moving to better performing private schools, homeschools, charter schools and other districts. In the last year alone, over 400 students have left SAU16 or nearly 10% of the student body (including a 20% decline, over 200 students in enrollment at CMS). The expectation is this will only worsen given the deteriorating academic outcomes across SAU16 and frustration with Dr. Ryan and the current school board. This is in addition to the increased level of politicization of our schools and troubling incidents that are becoming impossible to overlook. Bleicken insists that “focusing on test scores during the pandemic…isn’t just wrong, it’s cruel” and we remain truly perplexed by that statement. Our school’s academic performance is declining rapidly--this is indisputable. Our children are suffering given the administration’s decisions, and we as parents aren’t supposed to be concerned, ask questions or even engage on the issues? We hold the Superintendent and his allies on the current school board accountable. We demand an explanation.
When we speak to parents and teachers in the district, they express all these concerns – and many others not addressed in this response. Families want accountability and a solid education for their children--it’s that simple and that’s all we care about. Teachers and paraprofessionals need to be better supported in their efforts to meet the challenges in today’s environment, not threatened with job cuts. We are astounded and grateful with the support ExeterPACT has received over the last year. Support for ExeterPACT is support for our children and teachers. We remain resolute in advocating for academic excellence for each and every child. Our message has resonated more broadly in the community than anyone imagined. Voting for new, fresh voices for our local school boards on March 8 will be critical in restoring the academic focus of schools in SAU16 and prioritizing our students, families and teachers once again. Vote for change!
Susan Shanelaris and Anne Sorber are the co-founders of ExeterPACT, a grassroots effort comprised of local parents, residents, teachers and students who seek to restore academic excellence in SAU16. ExeterPACT’s mission is to ensure every child has the access to an education commensurate with the generous resources made available by our taxpayers. We seek transparency and accountability from our administration and school boards, and expect that decisions are being made by partnership, not partisanship manner, where students and teachers come first. ExeterPACT (www.exeterpact.org) is a nonpartisan political action committee who supports local candidates for school board elections.