New Hartford middle school dean of students seeks to repair relationships

Dean of Students Patrick Lincoln, standing, talks to Janet Potter, left, student assistance provider, as they meet with a small group of students, their parents and teachers gathered for an after-school discussion at Hartford Memorial Middle School in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Lincoln works with students to talk through interpersonal difficulties and engage in restorative conversations. “He’s doing a nice job creating that connection,” said choral teacher Kristen Chapman, seated at right. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dean of Students Patrick Lincoln, standing, talks to Janet Potter, left, student assistance provider, as they meet with a small group of students, their parents and teachers gathered for an after-school discussion at Hartford Memorial Middle School in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Lincoln works with students to talk through interpersonal difficulties and engage in restorative conversations. “He’s doing a nice job creating that connection,” said choral teacher Kristen Chapman, seated at right. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America – Alex Driehaus

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-11-2024 6:32 PM

Modified: 06-12-2024 12:27 PM


HARTFORD — As the school year comes to a close on Thursday, parents and students continue to express frustration with disruptions to learning at Hartford Memorial Middle School.

The behavioral challenges continue even though the district has made changes in leadership at the school, including hiring a new dean of students in January to address behavioral issues at the middle school earlier.

“The behaviors are still going on, from what I hear from my daughter,” Hartford resident and parent of a seventh grader Sarah Lamie said by telephone.

Disruptive behavior at the middle school has been the topic of public comment at numerous board meetings this year, and those complaints were heightened after the Dec. 1 departure of interim Principal Justin Bouvier. Parents expressed concerns that Bouvier’s departure would lead to a return to bullying and disengagement at the school, which serves approximately 300 students in grades 6-8.

In mid-December, a parent began a Change.org petition to have him reinstated, which garnered more than 200 signatures.

But Bouvier did not return, and Sarah Hisman, then an instructional coach and reading interventionist, stepped in to lead the middle school until Brian Boardman, a former elementary school teacher, assumed the role of interim principal in January. At the same time, Patrick Lincoln came on board as the middle school’s new dean.

“The dean position was conceived after Mr. Bouvier’s resignation,” Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said recently. “We had a desire to deal with student mental health and behavioral needs in a more therapeutic manner, rather than traditional discipline.”

Originally from Harrisonburg, Virginia, Lincoln, 46, is a mental health counselor with more than a decade of experience working with families and adolescents. He and his family moved to Sharon so he could work as a counselor for Dartmouth College. But balancing 24-hour shift rotations with parenting four young children was a challenge, so he was happy to move to the new position in Hartford.

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A dean’s task is typically to “help kids with low-level behavioral events,” and to “understand why the behavior occurred, make sure it doesn’t happen again, and give kids tools” to assist them, Executive Director of the Vermont Principal’s Association Jay Nichols said by telephone.

The Hartford School District does not have a school resource officer, which is typically a law enforcement officer with arrest powers who assists the administration with safety and security.

Lincoln describes his role as being less “discipline guy” and more “relationship guy,” and in his day-to-day work, he focuses on restorative conversations and interpersonal problem-solving. Lincoln, like most deans of students, does not hold an administrative license, and cannot administer detentions and suspensions.

An emphasis on restorative practices does not, however, mean that there are no consequences.

“We do have to set boundaries and limits around behavior,” Lincoln said. But he helps students reframe the discussion away from being “in trouble” and toward learning and growth.

“My biggest joy in this work thus far,” he said, “is just facilitating these restorative conversations with students.”

Ongoing disruptions

Lincoln’s efforts have not yet resulted in changes that are apparent to the students.

Last month a group of eighth graders staged an in-school protest against students being “extremely disruptive and disrespectful” in the hallways during class time, eighth grader Kaya Dauphin said by email. Kaya was a participant in the protest, which she called “our last cry for help.”

Middle school students regularly skip class and either sit on trash cans or hang out in bathrooms, social studies teacher Brycen Nardone said, and some of his students felt that the administration was not doing enough to address the behavior, “so they sat on the same trash cans in the hallway, refusing to go to class until change was made,” he said.

Eighth-grader Isaac Dustin-Eichler participated in the protest, and explained that he and some of his classmates were frustrated that “nothing in the school culture was getting better,” he said by email.

Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi and Hisman, now interim assistant principal at the middle school, met with the students who staged the hallway protest to discuss their concerns, DeBalsi said.

“I think they made excellent points and I was very proud of each and every one of them,” he added.

DeBalsi notes that there is often more to the disciplinary process than is visible to the community.

“Students and their parents often feel nothing happens when they report another student’s behavior. In general, this is because student information is confidential and can not be shared with another student or their parents,” he said.

Budget pressure

The challenges facing the middle school are not unique to Hartford.

As schools throughout the region returned to their normal routines the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that students were struggling with social and emotional needs that often manifested as disruptive behavior.

The landscape of mental health needs for students has “never been anywhere near as bad as it is right now,” Nichols, of the Vermont Principal’s Association, said.

For many schools, trying to meet those mental health needs has bumped hard against staffing shortages and budget constraints.

Facing pressure to reduce spending to mitigate tax increases, Hartford in March cut 22 teaching and staff positions, and eliminated four sports programs. The School Board and superintendent have clashed with the teacher’s union over the addition of the quasi-administrative dean’s position, with the union in favor of more directly student-facing positions.

“My belief is that cultural changes happen from a universal, whole-staff level as a result of strong, empowered leadership, rather than from a top-down approach,” Hartford Education Association President Nichole Villeaux said. “Adding more people into the front offices doesn’t sit well with me when the district has cut over 24 ‘boots-on-the-ground’ positions.”

Until mid-May, the district also had been planning to hire a dean of students for the high school, and that salary was included in the FY ‘25 budget.

When a job offer was rebuffed by the finalist for the position, it was “closed unfilled,” DeBalsi said. It has now been eliminated in favor of rehiring a math teacher and paraprofessional, who had both been laid off in the March budget cuts.

Lincoln’s salary is $85,975, and the funding for it was “redirected from other unfilled positions,” DeBalsi said.

It’s too early to measure the impact of the new middle school dean’s position, DeBalsi said, “but we are hopeful based on some early indications.”

Nardone, the middle school social studies teacher, is optimistic as well.

“The Dean of Students position has overall been a positive change for the school,” Nardone said. “Patrick is very knowledgeable and has great rapport with the students. I think the changes are likely to be more obvious in the long term.”

Meanwhile, more changes in leadership at the middle school are in the offing. On July 1, Cody TanCreti, the assistant principal at Woodstock Union Middle and High School, will become Hartford’s new middle school principal and Hisman, its new associate principal. The School Board approved their appointments in April.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.