In 2013 the district began a lengthy and comprehensive review of all aspects of the district’s organization and structure. That review included support from external professional organizations such as the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials (MASBO), the Massachusetts Association for Pupil Transportation, and the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS).
As I have been stating since the inception of the reorganization work, all of our efforts have been focused on strengthening the academic program while maximizing the efficiency of our operations. For our district this construct is imperative.
Part of the district’s reorganization involves changes to our transportation system. As many of you know our previous configuration included a three tiered bus system (three different start/end times). This system had been identified for a number of years as being inefficient as many of the routes had low ridership (as few as 12-15 students on a bus at one time). These observations included those of external organizations. Ultimately, based on our assessment and those of external organizations, the district decided to tackle the tiered transportation system.
The immediate programmatic advantage of a two tiered system was our desire to take advantage of common bell times for the four elementary schools. The shift allows for elementary teachers to collaborate across not just grades, but across schools. Being able to align the elementary schools will create a middle school population that has learned similar things in a similar manner, with similar expectations. This allows the middle school to begin its work with our students with a student body better prepared to grow more effectively in advance of high school.
The common bell time created by shifting to a two tiered bell schedule also allows the administration and faculty to work collaboratively with the educator evaluation system. A major component of this system is the development of common assessments in all grades and in all subjects. Without the ability for teachers at all four schools to work together, the development of common assessments is virtually impossible.
The heart of the district is the instructional core: students, teachers, and the instruction provide d through a robust curriculum. As you know our Curriculum Department consists of one person, David Hill, the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. He is charged with managing the instructional program of the district.
That instructional program is many faceted, encompassing the requirement to develop, align, and revise our curriculum for every grade, subject, and class in the district with the Common Core standards. The Curriculum Department is also responsible for supporting the principals in systematizing and improving the instructional program. Additionally, the academic program includes the creation, implementation, and review of the assessments developed internally as well as the management of external testing (MCAS). Without mechanisms to create, implement, and assess all of that work, the instructional program does not improve. It does not grow. It does not adapt to the changing nature of our society.
The reorganization of the district (from K-4 elementary schools, a 5-6 intermediate school, a 7-8 junior high, and a 9-12 high school) to a district with fewer transitions for students (K-5, 6-8, 9-12) was an enormous undertaking. The redistricting of students, the renovations of the physical plant, the shifting of many teachers, the adoption of a middle school philosophy, and the alterations to the existing curriculum have been completed. The remaining hurdle is the shift in our transportation model.
We have been working closely with our longtime transportation provider North Reading Transportation to minimize the disruptions such a shift creates. There are many moving parts: transfer of internal data for route population and validation, submission of transportation requests from parents, and the creation of routes. To date there have been weaknesses in all aspects of the transition. We have been in constant contact with NRT throughout the process and will continue to do so.
Challenges and stressors to the complex logistical system that is transportation in a district of almost 4,000 students will occur for a couple of weeks. Drivers for NRT, many longtime residents of Dracut, have been conducting “dry runs” of their routes and are working with their dispatcher to alter inefficient routes as they are observed. NRT and our Business Office are responding to phone calls from families and will continue to do so as quickly as possible. The priority for NRT and the district is the assessment of health and safety concerns.
Individual requests from parents for alterations for convenience will be processed once NRT and the district are comfortable with the overall structure of the routes. Ultimately the effective and efficient operation of the routes will take priority. Effective and efficient routing is a balance between ridership volume and time. Every effort will be made to ensure this balance is retained.
There is an expectation that some routes may change to one degree or another over the first couple of weeks of school as ridership settles and as the pace of the routes settle. Of particular attention is the length of the posted routes. The framework of the routing process includes the use of software specifically designed for the transportation industry. The algorithms used in these programs builds in measures of time that each stop theoretically takes, and calculates specific time for each student to board or exit a bus. NRT has told us that they do not expect route times to be as lengthy as the ones posted, once the routes and ridership settles.
I have also been in contact with the Dracut Police Department regarding transportation. They are working with us to minimize disruptions and address the safety of our students. This includes support at each school site over the first few days of school.
I thank everyone in advance for their patience as we tackle the last hurdle of the reorganization of the Dracut Public Schools.