School Board Chair Jim Murphy Discusses Education and Schooling in Montpelier

Compiled by Nat Frothingham

What follows here is a question-and-answer interview on school issues with Jim Murphy who was elected last fall as school board chair when the new Montpelier-Roxbury School District was officially formed. Murphy, who is 47 years old, holds a BA degree in English from the University of Vermont, a law degree from Boston College, and an LL.M degree in environmental law from Vermont Law School. Murphy has been a Montpelier resident since 2006 and is an attorney and conservation advocate with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

In a recent question-and-answer interview with The Bridge, Murphy discussed a range of local educational issues and his ongoing efforts to improve the school system.

The Bridge:  How did it happen that you became chair of the Montpelier-Roxbury School District?

Jim Murphy: I was asked and I said, “Yes.” But I did come close to saying, “No.” I gave it a lot of thought. It’s a major responsibility and commitment. It wasn’t anything I was necessarily planning on doing, but I’m excited about the opportunity.

What’s been your involvement in local schools?

Murphy: I have one kid at Union, a second-grader. I have another kid at Main Street Middle School, a fifth grader. I got involved as a parent in a variety of issues.

There was an issue over class size. There was going to be one fewer grade school teacher than there had been. That was going to have some impact on class size. Several parents, including me, had concerns and questions. That got me involved. I think we have an excellent school district, but there’s room for improvement.

What makes it excellent?

Murphy: I don’t want to be trite, but it’s the people. We have dedicated people working in our school district. And we have a community that supports great schools. As a result we have a lot of kids who are doing fantastic things.

Parents and community members are a great part of it, including many community members who may not have kids or kids that have grown up.  We have teachers and school leaders who are fantastic, who are pushing the edges on learning, who are interested in issues that matter.

The Black Lives Matter flag was a great example of incredible students showing incredible leadership. And school leaders like Mike McRaith, who recognized student leadership on an issue when many leaders in school districts were unwilling to address it  head on. I don’t think a lot of school districts are having conversations on tough issues like that, that are affecting people’s lives.

Is there room for improvement?

Murphy:  We have an achievement gap. Most of the kids are doing well or doing better than well. But we also have a small group of kids who are falling behind and closing that gap is difficult.

Montpelier is full of a lot of very bright people. Why can’t we get them more involved in our schools?

Murphy: I think there’s an interest in expanding on that opportunity. The talk since I’ve been on the board is on expanding that–on giving the kids the opportunity to learn outside the classroom. It’s a work in progress.

Why can’t we do more with second-language instruction? We’re so close to French-speaking Quebec.

Murphy: I’ve been on the school board for two years, and I’ve never had a satisfactory answer as to why we can’t put a plan in place to put a foreign language in our elementary school.  We have a great language program in the higher grades, but the elementary school level is when you can teach a foreign language in fun and really effective ways.

There are money and scheduling constraints. But given the importance of being fluent in more than one language, we should be able to put a plan in place for the elementary level.

Sometimes when I visit schools in Montpelier it all looks and feels the way it was when I was in school myself – the periods, the individual classrooms, the teacher at the head of the class, the class periods and the bells.

Murphy: I think it’s substantially different. There are still a lot of the familiar elements. But I think there are a lot more opportunities for personalization–for students to be part of creating their own learning plans, to get credit for educational experiences and pursuing interests you wouldn’t have gotten credit for 30 years ago.

In Montpelier, the schools are moving away from grades to measuring proficiency. Schools are asking, “Have you developed the needed skills?” When you are in a science class, writing is a skill that matters. In previous years there was a lot more compartmentalization. In chemistry, you just studied the table of elements without seeing it as an opportunity to use broader communication skills. It think that’s all for the better.

There’s more testing today than in the past. I think there’s more testing than there needs to be. But I do think our district has put testing in perspective.

Did you vote for the Montpelier and Roxbury merger?

Murphy: I did vote for that. I felt there was a real opportunity to merge two communities that have a lot of overlapping values. And some different values as well that will add to the diversity of our schools.

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