Amy Rex took over the reins at Monument Mountain Regional High School this summer after long-time principal Marianne Young retired. In the interview below, she discusses her new role and the challenges facing public education:
Sheela Clary: You chose Western Massachusetts after a long time in Vermont. What appealed to you about south Berkshire County?
Amy Rex: I’m from Foxborough, Massachusetts, originally. I knew if I came back to Massachusetts from Vermont I wouldn’t go back to the Southeast because it’s so congested. I was looking to be closer to my family, and wanted to have quicker access to them.
I had an empty nest, I could do anything, and decided it was time for a change. Especially in education, it’s easy to get locked into the same school and routine. Innovation and growth come from getting outside the walls. I’d been an educator for 25 years in four different settings, which I thought was healthy.
SC: What were those four setttings?
AR: I taught for six years in a residential day treatment school for teen boys, and I was ten years in a public middle school. My first principal position was in a pre-k through grade 12 school, all in one building. There were about 25 students in the graduating class each year. That was in the Northeast Kingdom [of Vermont]. Then I went to Harwood, in Waterbury, Vermont.
SC: What have been your highlights at Monument so far?
AR: There’s a great sense of community, people are super friendly and welcoming. In terms of education, there are lots of opportunities for students to explore their interests and passions and to be supported in doing that. In visiting classrooms, I’ve been struck by how many students have opportunities to be teacher assistants. During my first week a teacher came and said, “I’ll be out for a period, but I have a student assistant.” I offered to be the adult substitute for the period, and was blown away by these two young ladies who ran the class like they were classroom teachers with the same skill and ability.
Learning is a social and collaborative process. It does not have to be the expert who’s leading the learning. There are also a couple of independent project groups, one for English and one for history. A teacher facilitates and students do their own projects. I’ve sat in on some of those, where the student has put together the curriculum.
SC: What do you see as the school’s challenges?
AR: They are similar to those in every public school now; people believe if they go through a course sequence they will graduate prepared. We need to ensure that all students graduate having demonstrated the necessary skills and knowledge.
It takes a lot of work, it takes thinking around how to utilize personnel to get you to that goal. If we have standards for graduation, there need to be different pathways to get there. Independent studies and internships are excellent avenues for students to access, but if we are just giving them credit for participation we don’t know if they have developed any knowledge or skills.
This all takes personnel, and that might mean redesigning positions. I think teacher positions, nationally, now need to be thought of as more flexible assignments, and that is going to be a real struggle. For the people with the purse strings, teachers need to have a certain number of assignments, with a certain number of students, and it is time to diversify what it means to be a teacher.
I think teachers are open to it, when they start to realize what the opportunities could be for them. Like any career, there is stagnation. I think the struggle will be more with the public mindset, as in, “This is what school looked like for me, and if it doesn’t look like that now, there is something wrong.”
When I ask people, “‘What do we want students to be able to do when they graduate?’ They will say, “Four years of English.” We need to shift that, to thinking in terms of skills. Vermont, when I left, had just shifted to proficiency-based graduation requirements, so all students had portfolios. If we are saying that passing the 10th grade MCAS tests is the graduation requirement, then why don’t we let them graduate in the 10th grade?
We need to ask, “What do we value?” For that, we need to work backwards, and there needs to be a system of academic interventions for students who are not on target. The experience does not need to look the same, but all students need to be meeting the same standards. We need to give teachers the space and time to do that.
SC: The class divide in south Berkshire County has sharply widened since I was a kid growing up here. It’s reflected in the school, I’ve seen, with wealthier kids from more educated backgrounds taking challenging, AP and Honors classes and many lower income kids just scraping by.
AR: Education should not be done to students, but with them. I have an eight student advisory group, with representatives from each grade, and we have started to frame who we are and what we want to be.
One of the topics they have brought forward is inclusivity. They recognize that the school is not unified. They still see things mostly in terms of cliques, but they also see there are opportunities that some students cannot take part in because they don’t have the transportation, or are being held after school. They see those things as iniquities and they want to address those.
SC: As the wife of a carpenter and mother of perhaps a budding carpenter, I’m interested in vocational education. What’s the current conversation on this subject?
AR: Every large nonprofit education think tank is thinking about career technical education, and talking about the promotion of internships and apprenticeships. There’s a lot of money from the state and national levels around developing career and technical education. That’s a new area for me, in terms of being affiliated with a school that has those technical programs integrated into the school, as opposed to being offered off-site. [MMRHS offers on-site career and technical education classes in automotive, early education, and horticulture.]
Our conversation here is threefold; how to make programs more vibrant and attractive to all students; there should be opportunities there even for students who want to go into engineering. They should find value in a selection of courses. Second, how do we begin to integrate some of the programs. If you are interested in carpentry, you also need an experience that provides you with foundational design, with business skills, and it all needs to connect in sensible ways, so they are not discrete programs.
Thirdly, there’s the internship component. Students need to not just go out and do the work, but should have the work aligned to standards and assessments, so you know you are walking out of here having demonstrated skills and knowledge. We need to develop processes around oversight and look at how they will be assessed. One step is how do we provide support for the business people who are going to be serving as internship locations. They need training. They need to provide a structure that is educational.
There’s a school in Rhode Island where, on their transcript, they have a work readiness piece that was created collaboratively with business folks in Cumberland. Students are assessed and get a score on their transcript for work readiness, and they can present that for a job right out of high school.
SC: Do you have any updates on the ongoing renovation project?
AR: There’s going to be a new committee put together next year that I will sit on. I haven’t paid much attention, since it’s my sense that they will tell me when I need to start paying attention. Right now I am more focused on what’s going on with my teachers and with learning.
It’s a tricky business, the building issue, but it’s an opportunity, ultimately, to create the space that would move programming forward. The structure of this building is a real barrier to innovation. There’s no diversity of space. Even in corporations now they design space so they have different interactions. We have such limitations around that here. If we want to do integrated, project-based learning, you can only fit 25-30 kids in a room, there isn’t one that fits 60.
SC: What do you see as bright points between the school and the community?
AR: Here the connections seem fabulous, in terms of health and wellness partnerships especially. I sit on two health-related boards, one county wide, and the other the South Berkshire Community Health Coalition. [The coalition’s mission is to, by reducing risk factors and enhancing protective factors, reduce the high rates of youth drug and alcohol use in South County.] It’s challenging and takes time to collaborate and put forth work but everyone at the table has a full-time job. We’re trying to get this other work forward. It’s just slow.
Now with pot legalization, and the rise of vaping, there’s all sort of other worries. Kids come to school with little “JUUL” vaporizers that look like USB flash drives. Kids will come to school with pot cookies. How do you know what they are?
Our students are concerned about all things related to health. I have had student groups come to me who want to do more here, who want to beef up health curriculum, and want more opportunities for students to explore health issues. They also recognize, even if they can’t articulate it, the impact of stress on students. Even though they didn’t know life before technology, they can recognize those distractions and the stress they create for students.
That’s one more layer, along with healthy relationships and drug and alcohol use, that is not just about the academic education.
School is just so much to do, but it is all so important.