Monument Mountain Regional High School interim Principal Kristi Farina. Photo: Paul Kakley

Interview with MMRHS Principal Kristi Farina: ‘If the question is equity, the answer is now.’

"To do this work well, we are going to have to engage with families." - Monument Mountain Regional High School interim Principal Kristi Farina

Great Barrington — On a late morning in early December, the foyer of Monument Mountain Regional High School was bustling with activity. A uniformed National Guard recruiter was chatting with woodworking teacher Mr. Hartcorn, ate lunch along with students lining the hallway. Nancy Roseman of the Chang-Chavkin Scholars Program was signing in for a meeting with her scholars. I had an interview scheduled with Principal Farina but a teacher was in her doorway who’d been trying to catch the same quarry since 10.

“Oh well,” she shrugged. “Guess I’ll try again later.”

One big focus for interim Principal Kristi Farina relates to ambitious new initiatives funded under several recently acquired public and private grants, the largest being $127,000 from Mass IDEAS, which is supporting a school redesign process. There’s so much going on — new CVTE classes, Pathways to the Trades, advisory classes, new instructional teams, and a Wellness initiative, among other things — that while a recent grant report was supposed to run only a few pages, Farina and her team had trouble keeping it to 14. Five staff were invited to study best practices in three San Diego high schools earlier this month through the Barr Foundation, which supports both Mass IDEAS and Next Generation Learning.

Ms. Farina is hardly “new” to the school. This is her 30th year at Monument, with 27 spent as a math teacher, and two as the district’s director of teaching and learning. (Only Scott Annand and Kathy Roy exceed her in longevity.) She grew up in Lee, and after earning her Bachelor of Arts from Gordon College and Master of Arts from Lesley University, has spent her career at Great Barrington’s high school. Both of her children, now young adults, attended the school, with very different experiences.

She announced in our interview that she’s putting her hat in the ring for the permanent principal job.

Kristi Farina: Monument is my second home. I’ve been with Monument longer than with my husband. My daughter is 27 and a first-grade teacher in Lanesborough. My son is 21 and trying to find his way in the world. He did not go to college. So I appreciate both sides of it. I have the child whose experience was great, knew what she wanted, went to college, got her degree, got a job. Then I have my son who couldn’t figure it out well in high school and had a challenging path.

Students like him, who struggle with the traditional model of education, motivate me. We say our model works for many, but I’m not even sure it’s working for them. They’re doing it, but I don’t know that it’s the best model in terms of getting them ready for the world.

We just did a learning excursion to San Diego with teachers Matt Wohl, Beth Cook, Jolyn Unruh and Krista Dalton. It was amazing to see education rethought. We visited High Tech High, Del Lago Academy and Mission Vista, which have very different models, but there are some similarities. Part of it was the culture around education. There was a clear process to engage everyone around “What are our values around school? What do we hope to give this next generation of students as part of their experience in school?” Then that vision drives all decisions. We have to get clear about our vision and our values. That’s not just the school’s work, that’s the larger community’s work.

Two other takeaways were around the importance of student well-being, and student engagement. We talk a lot about student engagement, but what does that look like? Having visited those schools, the best way to engage students is to have learning connect beyond the walls of the high school.

Sheela Clary: How has the Mass IDEAS planning grant implementation been going?
KF: For me, there are two problems we’re trying to solve. One is around students that are passive and disengaged. Some of them do a better job of going through the motions but are still passive about their education, and some are completely disengaged.

The other is around equity, and the fact that we still, after all these years with education reform, have sub-groups for whom we are not making a dent.

SC: You’re assessing that information through the state accountability data? [Only 48% of economically disadvantaged 10th graders met or exceeded expectations on the Next Generation 10th grade English MCAS test in 2019.]
KF: Yes, and also there are reports on post-secondary success, and if you look over the past 15 years, we’ve seen a decrease in students overall that are going on to college and getting a degree within six years — specifically, in our sub-groups of economically disadvantaged students.

SC: I wonder, too, if you think that people are underreported in that category. [The official percentage of economically disadvantaged students at Monument last year was 23%, while the elementary school’s was 35%.]
KF: Yes. Definitely. I’m not sure why. You now have families who automatically qualify and those who don’t; by the time they get to high school, they are less likely to fill out that paperwork and they’re not getting the services they’re qualified for.

SC: What I noticed as a teacher here [for the 2011-2012 school year] was the more privileged kids took honors classes and lower-income students did not. Is that tracking being addressed?
KF: I think it’s still a problem. We did eliminate all our standard [the most basic track] core classes in ninth and 10th grades. We still have college prep and honors. I fundamentally believe we need to move to heterogeneous grouping at least for ninth grade, possibly 10th. It will be a slow implementation.

Kids will track themselves naturally, but I’d like it to be based on interests rather than on ability or perceived ability. It is much more about behavior, socio-economic status and disability. Those are the three things driving it.

SC: What is the status of the MCAS tests this year? [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the standardized tests in English, Math and Science that are administered to 10th-graders.]
KF: This is the final year of moving toward the Next Generation MCAS [aligned to the Common Core standards.] The final test to make the shift is our science test. But if a student doesn’t pass the Next Gen test, they can take the “legacy” test, and graduate.

SC: Do the new tests feel more rigorous to you? [In Massachusetts, 91% of 10th-graders met or exceeded expectations on the legacy English test in 2018, but only 61% scored proficient or higher on the new test in 2019.]
KF: Maybe some. There’s certainly fewer students meeting or exceeding expectations. It’s hard to get a sense of whether that’s the state’s score conversion or student performance. I don’t know enough yet. Last year was the first year at the high school with the Next Gen tests.

[For the state] It’s about growth. If you have a year where you’ve performed very well, it’s likely the next year your accountability score is going to be low, because it’s hard to keep up growth. For most schools, you’ll see an up-and-down pattern for that reason.

I am still holding out hope, after all these years of education reform and standardized testing, that Massachusetts is going to realize what many of our neighboring states have, which is that standardized tests are not the end all, be all, and we should give local school districts the option to develop better local assessments connected to proficiencies and project-based assessments, which research is demonstrating are much more successful in preparing students for what they need. That’s what all these grants are aligned to. [Neighbors Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island have moved toward this model.]

SC: You’re moving a big boat.
KF: It’s very exciting, but overwhelming. All of this started with Amy Rex joined us [in 2017]. Having come from Vermont and experienced the shift to proficiencies, the resources she brought opened our eyes to how we could shift our work. I think the values around education in Berkshire Hills are much more aligned to that type of work than they ever were to the school reform model that Massachusetts started with MCAS in the 1990s.

I remember the first year MCAS was given. It’s wasn’t high stakes. It wasn’t a graduation requirement. We were the only school in Berkshire County, one of only a handful in the state, that protested. Our students were in the gym instead of doing the MCAS, doing portfolios.

SC: For people who aren’t familiar with portfolios and proficiency-based models, what would that look like instead of traditional grades?
KF: Let’s say we decide there should be six or seven characteristics of students who graduate from Monument — perhaps problem-solving, or clear communication skills. Then, within content areas, we identify the standards that will best serve students’ meeting those six or seven goals. Once you get into the work, which takes years, you move away from grading based on points and seat time, and it’s about assessing a student’s knowledge.

For instance, at Del Lago [in San Diego] they have six to 10 proficiencies defined for a course, and that’s measured through summative assessments, either a piece of work or a presentation that demonstrates that they’ve mastered the content. That’s not to say students will never take tests, but only for feedback on what they’re learning. The scores don’t get reported. On the proficiencies, students either earn and A, B, C or Not Yet.

SC: Did the students you observed seem engaged?
KF: Oh yeah, it was fascinating. First of all, all students there take calculus their senior year. We saw a class of 42 students taking calculus. They were around big, long tables, working together. If my teachers had classes of 42 students, they might have a heart attack! But that goes to the culture. The students were self-motivated, they knew what the expectations were, and you could tell it was just how they do business.

In California they talked about how education has three important components, and all three have to work together. You have the culture, which is your vision and values, then the structures that align to that. There are lots of things at Monument we try to pull off, but our schedule doesn’t support it. Then instruction, just one piece of the puzzle, but where we often put all our focus, and not on the other two things, so we never get where we want to go.

If you can get culture, structures and instruction all humming together, then the experience of the students is going to be where you want it.

Another big thing we’re doing is Wellness, which is so critical. I think the wellness team that Sara [student Sara Rawson] is leading is doing remarkable work.

We know that we are not engaged in best practice around this work, and we should be. This year we implemented advisory [small groups of students who meet informal once a week with an advisor]. We’re only doing it 30 minutes a week, we know we need to do more, but that goes back to the structure problem. It’s a delicate scheduling dance we have to do.

We also have teams of teachers meeting once a week in “instructional learning groups.” We have five instructional leads and they decided the focus should be social-emotional learning. It can’t be that we’re doing it in health class, but the rest of the building doesn’t focus on it. Wellness goes beyond a single classroom.

This has to be a constant action-inquiry cycle, where we think about where we want to get, we make a change, then we reflect, ask ourselves if it accomplished what we wanted. If it didn’t, then we have to go back and make changes. And change is so hard for people.

But I think the energy in the building this year is good. People are seeing some of the positives from the shifts we made, and we have a few more shifts planned for next year, including the way we deliver our PE [physical education]. We want to separate out the ninth from 10th grade and include more health and wellness. Now we have “PE 9/10,” a mixture of ninth- and 10th-graders, so it’s difficult to have a progression in curriculum.

To do this work well, we are going to have to engage with families. Now, when we do try, it’s a very small percentage we have participating, and we need to hear the voices of the most marginalized. Until then, we’re not going to make headway. When we do outreach, we need to hold meetings not just here at the school, but at Berkshire South, at Volunteers in Medicine, at different times of day. We need to be out in the community, so it’s clear when we say we want to hear from them that we mean it. All that takes time, and we need to build trust. There’s no easy answer, but we have to keep trying.

I’m excited about it, but it’s hard work.

Twelfth-grade rates of drug and alcohol use in students of South Berkshire high schools. Image courtesy Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

SC: I know this year’s “Juuling” numbers were high on health surveys. [This year, nearly 50% of 12th-graders reported using e-cigarettes.] Do you know if the statewide vaping ban led to a decrease in vaping here in the high school?
KF: I would say yes, but I don’t have any hard evidence. Teachers haven’t been reporting to us problems in the bathrooms as much; that’s why I lean toward yes.

SC: Punitively, I know you’ve made some shifts in your approach.
KF: Yes. Peter [Falkowski, the assistant principal] is a firm believer in restorative circles and restorative justice. We had 32 students trained through Railroad Street Youth Project as student ambassadors.

I think it’s going well. We always have work to do. Teachers can understand better how their work in the classroom impacts referrals. Are there supports we skip because teachers automatically refer to Peter instead of reaching out to families themselves, reaching out to guidance counselors or the school adjustment counselor?

SC: What is your biggest challenge?
KF: One is the timeline connected to the way schools work. If we want to make a change for next September, we have to propose the change by December. If you want to do it well, though, and include many voices, there’s so little time. It feels like you’re always chasing your tail.

But we are so fortunate in so many ways. We have very high-quality teaching staff, amazing community partners, and we have more resources than many communities do.