By Madelynn Coldiron
Like the bride and groom at a shotgun wedding, Wayne County and the former Monticello Independent school districts are trying to make the best of their union.
“We’re starting the school year with a district that’s never existed,” Wayne County Schools Superintendent John Dalton said.
In the days leading up to and since the districts’ forced merger July 1, Wayne County Schools leaders devised both formal and informal ways to blend staff, students and facilities of the two districts. The county system absorbed the single-school Monticello district at the behest of the state Board of Education after the small independent’s insolvency came to light last December.
PHOTO: Wayne County gets creative in a hurry in the ‘adoption’ of Monticello Independent
Teachers from Wayne County Schools and the former Monticello Independent Schools gather for a training on literacy across the curriculum, taught by Crystal Cox of the Southeast Southcentral Education Cooperative. The session was part of a three-day Professional Learning Symposium July 22-24 at Wayne County High School. More than 200 teachers and principals attended the event, which featured open sessions for all teachers, along with more specialized trainings.
“We’re aware of how other mergers have taken place, but we really have custom-designed ours,” said Linda Jones, the district’s public information officer.
Dalton said individual tasks involved with the merger were impossible to prioritize, explaining, “We had to parallel process it.” The main threads were figuring out a grade center plan, placing staff and physically moving.
“We were planning and doing almost simultaneously,” he said. Some of the groundwork was being laid quietly behind the scenes beginning last December, when Dalton was contacted by the Monticello superintendent.
While these major tasks were underway, the district also planned welcoming and familiarization-type activities at all grade centers for staff, students and parents, both before the 2012-13 school year ended and just prior to the start of the new school year. Orientation night for Bell Elementary, for example, concluded with a mass dinner at a local restaurant, while the middle school held a potluck picnic at a local recreation area.
Educators on both sides agreed the transition will be more difficult for high schoolers than for younger students.
“I think it will be difficult for some. I think for the majority of them, they all know each other very well – they’re together in a lot of other out-of-school places and activities,” former Monticello and now Wayne County High School language arts teacher Paul Stringer said.
Teresa Rankin, a former Monticello teacher now at Wayne County Middle School, said some students were excited about the greater variety of course offerings, especially at the high school.
Rankin said one of the most helpful moves for students was the visit by Wayne County principals before the end of the school year.
“It was important to me to let the Monticello staff and students become familiar with us,” Dalton explained. “I wanted to become familiar with them.”
Wayne County students also made videos that were posted on the district’s website to welcome their incoming Monticello classmates.
School activity fairs were held in May with booths set up for extracurricular clubs and sports. Monticello students also were able to tour the buildings during that time. At the high school, course registration – normally held during the school day – took place in the evening for all students to give staff extra time for individual counseling sessions. Those sessions were especially important because the two systems had different graduation requirements.
“What we were really striving to do was put all students on a level playing field,” Wayne County High School Principal Brian Dishman said.
In addition, each school in the merged district will have a guidance counselor from each system. “We don’t want any child to have a barrier of not having a familiar face,” said Dalton.
The Wayne County boys basketball team held an open gym at Monticello to encourage Monticello student participation. Wayne County High also is offering boys soccer this year for the first time, in a nod to Monticello, which had a team.
“What we tried to stress is there’s a place for everybody and to plug them in,” Dishman said.
“The Wayne County staff has made it as smooth as it can be,” with teachers offering to help their new colleagues, Rankin said.
Late in the school year, both Monticello and Wayne County staff gathered at each school for a meeting. “That was very effective,” Stringer said. “It was an early opportunity to break the ice and get everybody together.”
The district also held new employee orientation meetings at each school this summer and an employee benefits fair for staff of both districts.
The Monticello teachers had to adjust to different academic tools Wayne County uses. Bell Elementary held optional trainings for all teachers this summer, and Bell Elementary first-grade teacher Jessica Phillips said she was pleasantly surprised when training in reading assessment drew 25-30 teachers from both districts.
Some of these differences were addressed in a three-day professional development symposium July 22-24 for all teachers. It was heavy on technology training, since Wayne County schools have a greater focus on technology than the Monticello district had.
“It feels like everybody is on the same team,” Wayne County second-grade teacher Angie Phillips observed during a break in the symposium.
Not all Monticello staff were retained, but all tenured certified personnel were rehired, and several nontenured as well. Among classified employees, everyone with four or more years of experience was hired, plus a few others. Some Monticello central office staff retired and a couple of administrators were rehired. Two principals who did not have administrative tenure were placed back in the classroom.
One of the biggest changes academically for the merged system will be the influx of English language learners. Wayne County had just a handful of these students, but Monticello’s ELL population was more than 100.
The district had additional translators on hand for orientation and opening days and increased their presence in the schools, produced bilingual printed material and website options and generally “really increased our ESL (English as a second language) efforts,” Dalton said.
Monticello ELL instructors worked with Bell Elementary staff before school began to give the Wayne County teachers ideas on working with these students, first-grade teacher Jessica Phillips said.
Monticello High School was a persistently low-performing (now called priority) school. Dalton said the district focuses on Response to Intervention to help struggling students and expects to continue using that method with any new students who need assistance.
Stringer, the high school teacher, said he will continue to use differentiated teaching strategies. “In just about every classroom in Monticello I would have a big gap; differentiation was the key to that, then,” he said.
“We always focus on meeting every student’s needs anyway,” said Phillips, the second-grade teacher.