By Erica A. Langston/Addison County Independent
BRANDON — This fall, Kristin Hubert, the new superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNESU), welcomed the school year with hope and pragmatism. Six months into her tenure, it’s these sentiments that continue to shape her vision and work in the district.
From school closures to a mass exodus of faculty and staff, to a cultural and political reckoning that has found its way into classrooms across the country, schools and the students in them have been through some of the most unstable and challenging times in recent memory. As Covid moved from a pandemic to an endemic, Hubert’s hope that school might return to normal after more than two years of upheaval was palpable, if measured. Roughly halfway through the academic year, challenges both old and new remain.
On a day-to-day basis, the struggles are acute.
“We are really still struggling with workforce shortages in a really impactful way,” Hubert said in a recent interview.
That’s true especially for support staff like teachers’ aides, custodians, substitutes and bus drivers. The boards of RNESU and Otter Valley Unified Union recently finalized a three-year contract with the educational support staff and bus drivers that secured a one-time wage increase of 8.20% and 4% annual increases going forward. Nevertheless, at the end of December there were still 28 openings for support staff positions in the district.
“We settled the new contract, and we’re hoping to find more [employees] as the contract takes hold,” Hubert said, but “you can’t create a bus driver out of thin air.” Even with the new contract, competition for support staff is fierce.
“Those professionals are people who can be grabbed by other industries. We’re not just competing with other schools, we’re competing with trucking companies, and Dunkin Donuts, and UPS. In a way, we were attributing [the shortage] to the pandemic, but now it’s just Vermont’s reality,” Hubert said.
To make matters worse, a perfect storm of Covid, RSV and the flu has exacerbated an already thin crew. At times, bus runs have to be combined because a driver is sick, which can significantly increase students’ commutes. Teachers have to give up planning blocks and lunch breaks to cover for other teachers. Occasionally, classes have to be merged.
“It’s not regular enough to find the need to respond in a different way, but it has been impactful. It makes it hard to do our daily jobs. We’ve been fortunate to be able to keep all schools open,” Hubert said.
Not every district has been so lucky.
Despite these shortages, Hubert — who replaced long-time Superintendent Jeanné Collins on July 1 and was the district’s director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for three years before that — is determined to help the district tackle disparities common throughout the student population. Unequal outcomes for students existed before the pandemic, but transience, isolation, unequal access to technology and wifi, and food insecurity were all exacerbated by Covid and school closures.“We know there are some places where students have unequal opportunities,” Hubert said. “Whether it’s because of the school they attend, or because a student or family lives below the poverty line, or because a student has a disability or learning impairment, we know that our outcomes are skewed.”
Both students and parents have voiced frustrations about their experiences in the school system. Hubert said she’s committed to not only creating space to let those voices be heard, but inviting them to be part of the solutions that shape the district.
“We recognize that there is an awful lot that we don’t know and we would be naive and arrogant to say we deeply understand the experience of being a student in our schools or a parent to a student in our schools. It is work we are digging into,” she said.
Several initiatives, including a new parent advisory council and a new student council, have been spearheaded this year to inform the conversation. Otter Creek Academy, which encompasses the former Leicester Central and Whiting elementary schools, has a new group called “Up for Learning,” which Hubert said encourages students to develop their own agency and voice while encouraging a deeper level of engagement within the school.
“It’s about trying to understand the student and parent experience and making sure our schools are reflective of their values and their wants,” Hubert said. “We want all of our students to have a common experience.”
Hubert recognizes the limitations of her inclusivity vision. While schools can play a crucial role in student success, many face societal disparities that teachers and staff have little control over.
“It’s hard because you have kids and parents who are demanding change and want to see change happen…but you can only do so much in a school,” Hubert said.
Part of the work Hubert hopes to oversee is preparing students for the obstacles and inequities they’ll face outside of the classroom. Helping them find their voice and agency while learning to advocate for themselves out in the real world will be a life skill they can carry with them wherever they go.
What makes the Rutland Northeast community well positioned to address the frustrations this school year brings is its dedication to both kids and each other, Hubert said. From teachers and staff stepping up to cover for one another to active student and parent engagement, it’s clear to Hubert that whatever differences the district faces at a local or national level, there is a unifying theme throughout RNESU.
“These towns rally around students,” she explained. “They show up to sporting events, to arts, to plays, to concerts, to parent nights. They really, really show up for kids. We’re a very passionate community. There isn’t always the same thinking or agreement, but I have not been a part of any meeting or conversation where people’s best intentions were not very clear, where people weren’t kid-first or kid-focused.”
It’s this sense of community that continues to give Hubert hope.
“We’re truly trying to help parents create kids who are the citizens of tomorrow, so we’re not as a society stuck in this cycle where we can’t talk to one another,” Hubert said. “We want and need our kids to do better than that. Teaching kids how to have civil discourse, how to have a conversation with others who don’t agree, how to recognize voices that are different from [theirs] and make space for those voices is far from easy or quick work, but that definitely is the work of this school year.”
It’s an ambitious goal that Hubert knows is only achievable with the community behind her. “Administration can’t do that in isolation. Teachers can’t do that in isolation,” Hubert said. “It takes everyone’s voice to do that.”