Marion Cross School sees significant teacher turnover 

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-09-2023 11:36 PM

Among teaching jobs in the Upper Valley, landing a post at Marion Cross School in Norwich has long been considered a plum.

One of the wealthiest towns in the state, and with a high level of education attributable in part to its proximity to Dartmouth College and its affiliated medical center, Norwich lavishes attention on its elementary school. Pay rates are higher than at most local schools, and teacher retention is generally strong.

Since the end of the 2019-2020 school year, however, around 30 educators have left Norwich’s K-6 school. While some have retired, many took teaching jobs elsewhere. Turnover in education has been higher since the coronavirus pandemic, but the departures from Marion Cross have alarmed a small group of parents who brought it to the attention of the Valley News while opting to remain anonymous.

School officials said that turnover has been higher across SAU 70, which oversees schools in Hanover and Norwich, and that turnover at Marion Cross was in line with other district schools.

“Turnover is a nationwide phenomenon. We’re not immune,” Jay Badams, superintendent of SAU 70, said in a phone interview.

The most pointed issue brought up by the group of parents and by some of the departing teachers was dissatisfaction with Shawn Gonyaw, Marion Cross’ principal since 2019. Some of the teachers asserted that Gonyaw oversaw a sea change in the school’s culture.

“The culture of the school has absolutely changed,” said Allison Litten, a former longtime Marion Cross teacher who created an expanded French language program at the school. She left Marion Cross at the end of the last school year and now teaches French at Hartford High School.

But Gonyaw, a 2017 state principal of the year, has the backing of the Norwich School Board, which renewed his contract this year, and of Badams, who said Gonyaw ably steered the school through changes in curriculum documentation and through the pandemic. Marion Cross has been able to fill its vacancies with excellent hires, school officials said.

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Gonyaw did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story. The parents and teachers dissatisfied with his leadership have brought their concerns to school officials, but by taking them public are putting the school at risk, officials said. The past few years have been hard enough, officials said, without a public battle over school leadership.

Academic freedom

The teachers who have left or retired said Marion Cross was a place that always put a premium on teachers’ initiative and creativity. An emailed statement from Jonathan Fenton, who taught there from 2004 to 2020 gives a sense of how some of the teachers felt when Gonyaw replaced Bill Hammond, who’d been principal for seven years.

“I left MCS because of an abrupt, dramatic change in administration. The culture at MCS had always been loving, collaborative, respectful, and professional. Policymaking was always thoughtful and democratic — never fad-driven. Teachers were trusted intellectuals, and we were supported. I loved the children, the parents, and the community. Academic challenge and community service were paramount. After 16 years of devoting myself heart and soul to this wonderful school, it quickly became unrecognizable. Not ready to retire, yet too saddened to stay, I reluctantly made the decision to leave and teach middle-school humanities elsewhere.”

Fenton and his wife, Corinne, who was a classroom assistant at Marion Cross, now live on Cape Cod.

About half of the staff who have left since 2020 are teachers, and those who spoke to the Valley News said something similar to Fenton’s statement: That teachers had been trusted to do their jobs and as a result had a high degree of autonomy. Marion Cross can be a demanding place to teach, partly because of the community’s high expectations for its school, several teachers said.

“I felt like I had changed professions,” Litten said of her start at Marion Cross in 2003, when she became the third teacher to lead the school’s French program, which began in 1960. She had been teaching in Mississippi.

At the time, the French program started in fourth grade, but the district’s long-range plan, enacted in 2012-13, called for expanding foreign language programs. Starting in 2015, Litten brought the program to every grade, starting with kindergarten.

“It was amazing,” Litten said. “I was a situation where I felt like I got a whole new job without having to go through the application process.” She was joined by another half-time teacher and between them classes got everywhere from 80 minutes a week of instruction (kindergarten) to 180 minutes a week (sixth grade).

The program ran that way until the pandemic, when it was curtailed, like schooling in general, by the lockdown. Even post lockdown, it was hard to hire new faculty to keep the program running as it had been, Litten said. When the school advertised for a new half-time teacher in 2021 and again in 2022, there were no applicants. Kindergarten instruction was cut down to two 15-minute sessions a week, Litten said. She felt the program had lost administrative support, she said.

Ginny Moore, who taught first, second and third grades at Marion Cross from 1997 to 2022, said she left because of her frustration with Gonyaw’s leadership style. He often spoke about teachers to other teachers, which was a departure from previous principals, Moore said, who opted to retire.

She also felt that he made decisions and expected teachers to follow them, without much give and take. “He just arrived at ideas about something and there’s no conversation,” she said.

Several teachers brought their concerns to Badams, Moore said. Among them was Marguerite Ames, who taught mostly sixth-grade social studies at Marion Cross for 26 years. She left in 2021. 

“My concerns were that the administration was trying to, really taking a school that was a successful school and a beloved school and really transforming it,” Ames said. A “vibrant” school that integrated arts and foreign language became more data driven, she said.

Four other former Marion Cross teachers who are now teaching elsewhere and who didn’t want their names used largely echoed these sentiments, saying the school became a less welcoming place for teachers and that Gonyaw’s leadership was divisive.

A welcome change

There’s no question that Gonyaw instituted changes at the school, but those were necessary, district officials said. 

For example, SAU 70 had little to no curriculum documentation when Badams arrived seven years ago. This sounds mundane and bureaucratic, but it’s a common feature in public school systems. A documented curriculum is consistent and repeatable. Marion Cross was known for having issues where two sections of the same class might have dramatically different experiences.

The Hanover and Norwich schools have “a long history of what people refer to as academic freedom,” Badams said. “There’s a good argument for that, but this is a public education system.” There shouldn’t be different experiences in different sections of the same class, he added.

At the same time Gonyaw started in Norwich, SAU 70 hired Robin Steiner as assistant superintendent to oversee a curriculum review. That work was slowed by the pandemic, though the supervisory union has rolled out a more standardized math curriculum.

“There has not been a curriculum across SAU 70,” Garrett Palm, chairman of the Norwich School Board, said in a phone interview. Because SAU 70 has the financial resources to hire excellent teachers, and is mostly populated with children from highly educated households, it was generally content to just let them teach. As much as teachers coordinate their efforts, without a system-wide curriculum it’s easier for students to fall through the cracks, officials said.

Part of Gonyaw’s mandate was to ensure that Marion Cross is serving all of its students well, not just high achievers. “Shawn has a real focus on helping the kids in the school who are most challenged,” Palm said. That means making sure that Individual Education Plans (IEPs) or 504 plans, separate forms of accommodations for students with specialized learning needs, are being implemented and followed.

Gonyaw also instituted a schedule change that standardized planning time between grades K-4, which had very little, and Grades 5-6, which had a lot. Several of the teachers who departed were from the fifth and sixth grade team. At the same time, Gonyaw has a more businesslike demeanor than the usual mold of a Marion Cross leader, which did not always endear him to faculty.

His work during the pandemic, which began about eight months into his tenure, was crucial to keeping the school running.

“If Shawn wasn’t here with us during COVID, I don’t know what would have happened,” Palm said. “He just managed the school through that.”

And he has brought in great teachers to replace those who have departed, School Board members said. “I think all of the hires that we’ve had since Shawn joined us have been phenomenal,” Neil Odell, a longtime member of the Norwich School Board, said in a phone interview.

Complex organizations

While it’s clear that a significant number of teachers left Marion Cross at least in part because of discontent with its leadership, it is by no means clear that all 30 or so staff who left did so for that reason.

Badams said he thinks the pandemic likely played a big role. Even after schools reopened, the policy that told students and staff to stay home if they felt sick meant that the school sometimes had the bare minimum of adults to keep open.

“You can’t ignore the impact of that on people’s morale and the stress they were feeling,” he said. Combine that with the already high pressure of teaching at Marion Cross and the change of leadership; it was a difficult time for all concerned.

Is there “a problem at Marion Cross relative to the other schools?” Badams said. “I would say ‘No.’” He noted that the school had “a very senior staff” when he arrived.

Speaking generally about schools, turnover and leadership, Page Tompkins, executive director of Upper Valley Education Institute, said teaching is just harder post-COVID. “The pandemic had significant social-emotional impact on students,” he said. That makes it harder to create healthy classroom environments, even as there’s pressure to accelerate learning to make up for lost time.

The market for educators can become a game of musical chairs in such an environment. As senior teachers retire and not enough new teachers come into the market, established teachers of any age become more apt to move, in search of better pay, an easier commute, better opportunities, more supportive leadership and more supportive school communities.

“It’s very difficult to comment on this in the abstract,” Tompkins said. “Schools are complex organizations.” Speaking generally, “when there’s high trust, problems are easier to solve, and maybe things that shouldn’t work, work,” he said.

Badams echoed that view. A parent or teacher experiences a school leader’s work only through their own perspective. “Everybody has a different angle and thinks they have the whole picture,” he said.

The parents who have expressed concerns held an online meeting between teachers who’ve left Marion Cross and school staff who objected to Gonyaw at his last post, at Barnet Elementary School, where he was principal from 2010 until he took the Marion Cross job. A similar dynamic played out there, where Gonyaw had the support of the school board, but was hounded by a vocal group of former faculty and staff, and faced discontent from parents over bad behavior and bullying among seventh and eighth grade students.

A public battle over Gonyaw’s leadership might not help Marion Cross in the short run. The school has been largely immune to the conflicts that have gripped Norwich’s town government over the past decade plus.

“If people are dissatisfied and go public, does that lead to improvement?” Tompkins said, again speaking generally about schools. “I would say probably not.”

But a productive conversation, he said, “could lead to a reset,” if one is needed, “which could lead to improvements.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.