Enrollment is up at Vashon Island School District (VISD), board members learned at a school board meeting held in-person on Sept 9, at Chautauqua Elementary School. Other topics on the agenda included updates about COVID, the district’s process for creating a new strategic plan, and racial equity measures.
The meeting was also broadcast live on YouTube and can still be seen at tinyurl.com/m9e7tf8x, though the sound quality of the recording is poor — a re-occurring problem at recent board meetings that McSheehy told The Beachcomber would be fixed in future broadcasts.
The district had projected a total of 1,415 students for the 2021-2022 school year, which turned out to be an undercount.
The official enrollment number for this school year is 1,425 students. Overall, enrollment is up at both McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School. But the number of students has dropped at Chautauqua Elementary, which McSheehy cited as a trend across the region, as COVID-19 vaccines are not yet available to elementary-age children.
McSheehy said that additional follow-up had taken place following an incident of possible COVID-19 exposure at McMurray Middle School earlier this month following a confirmed infection in a student.
Over Labor Day weekend, 19 people, including students and school staff, were tested at the school in a drive-through event coordinated by the MRC and School Nurse Pam Kirkpatrick. All tested negative and were able to immediately return to work or the classroom.
McSheehy thanked Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), School Nurse Pam Kirkpatrick and McMurray principal Greg Allison for their work in the testing operation, and said that “after-action reviews” by everyone involved were taking place and would include suggestions for improvements in the future.
During the incident, staff had learned the importance of requiring seating charts for students, he said, and VISD will now implement that practice district-wide, he said.
“Small things like that will greatly improve how we’re able to do contact tracing,” he said.
McSheehy also reported that VISD is getting closer to implementing a testing protocol for students designed to keep students and staff in school. Rapid antigen tests are likely to be used in this new system, he said.
Curriculum Night at the school, he said, had been canceled due to the pandemic.
He also detailed some of the latest guidance from Public Health – Seattle King County (PHSKC) and its role in helping to contact trace cases of COVID in schools. Currently, PHSKC intervenes and gives guidance to districts only in cases where two or more students in one classroom are infected, he said.
To help with the effort to contact trace Vashon students, the district will hire an additional part-time LPN nurse for the district, as well as hire another person to fill a role as “COVID safety and coordinating contact.” Both new hires will assist School Nurse Kirkpatrick in her work. Pandemic relief funds received from the federal government will fund these positions, he said.
In other news pertaining to COVID, McSheehy said that Vashon High School is now offering two lunch periods, instead of one. Long lines during the single lunch period had prompted the decision, he said.
McSheehy concluded his COVID update with the news that, out of approximately 300 school staff members and school contractors affected by Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination for K-12 school staff, only five individuals affiliated with the district have asked for a medical or religious exemption from getting the vaccine. If those exemptions are accepted, he said, a process of determining accommodations for the employment of those individuals would follow.
In an email after the meeting, McSheehy also said that VISD would now send a special notification to parents of students if their child’s classroom experienced a positive case of COVID-19. That practice had not been in place, but was requested by district parents, he said.
Student Board Representatives
The school board introduced this year’s student board representatives, Vashon High School junior Ava Stevenson and senior Gwen Burwell.
Stevenson and Burwell spoke about their reflections on coming back to school, and their thoughts about upcoming homecoming celebrations. Both said that students were eager to have a dance this year, but expressed concerns about safety, given social distancing requirements.
VISD has contracted the Oakland, California-based company Performance Fact, Inc. to assist in the creation of the new strategic plan, at a cost of between $75,000 and $85,000 to the district.
Mutiu Fagbayi, who is the president and CEO of the company, and has worked with Washington school districts in the past, will be the lead facilitator for the strategic plan.
It’s been eight years since VISD created its last strategic plan in 2013. According to McSheehy, strategic plans generally have a shelf life “between five to seven years.”
“It’s really time to revisit this idea of a shared purpose in the district, and to kind of reground ourselves in the community’s values and beliefs,” said McSheehy, in an interview about the plan. “What kind of skills and future do we see for our graduates walking across that stage?”
The strategic plan will involve input from several different teams.
In emails to community members, McSheehy invited the participation of islanders and described the work of each team.
A core planning team, numbering between 70 to 80 people, will be made up of students, teachers, parents, community members, and district staff. The team will take the lead in setting the direction for the strategic plan while simultaneously incorporating the feedback of other teams involved along the way, said McSheehy.
Fifty percent of the group’s membership will be made up of parents and students. The group will meet five times between October and December.
An instructional focus team will examine professional practices and educational strategies within the district, and be comprised of VISD teachers, principals and other administrators.
An alignment team — focusing on how the plan aligns with the greater goals of the community — will be made up of island stakeholders who may or may not have children within the district.
As part of the creation of the strategic plan, the district will also present a community forum and conduct surveys of island families and community members.
The entire strategic planning process will take place over the course of five months, from September to January. It will begin with data collection and conclude with final board approval at the second school board meeting in January 2022.
Curriculum and racial equity
Board member Bob Hennessey presented a motion to the board regarding VISD’s curriculum.
Hennessey’s motion directed the board to have McSheehy invite Dr. Stephanie Spencer, VISD Director of Teaching and Learning, to come to a board meeting within the next six weeks and give a briefing focused on ways the high school curriculum addresses the effects of racism in American history.
The motion led to a long discussion among the board members.
Board chair Zabette Macomber and member Spring Hecht both expressed their interest in having a robust conversation about broad racial equity work being done in the district and discussed different ways the board could focus on the issue. These ideas including hearing from Spencer as well as recently-hired racial equity consultants hired by VISD.
The discussion became heated at times, as Hennessey reminded the board that he had asked to know more about the history curriculum at the previous board meeting and whether it included lessons about the Tulsa Race Massacre. At that meeting, he was directed to meet with Spencer privately — something he said would only inform him and not the greater public. At the meeting, he said he thought his narrow request to learn more about the curriculum in a regular board meeting was appropriate, as the school board was charged with approving VISD’s curriculum.
Hennessey’s motion failed, with a vote of 2-2, with Macomber and Hennessy as the yes votes, and Toby Holmes and Spring Hecht voting no.
In an email to The Beachcomber after the meeting, Hennessey said, “I believe the board, as a board — and the community — needs to understand this stuff and ask questions if we’re going to be a better anti-racist organization. The district may have a perfect curriculum; we may find glaring weaknesses.”
— Reporter Elizabeth Shepherd contributed to the reporting of this story.