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New SAU 16 Superintendent Esther Asbell on CMS leadership, test scores, and COVID-19

EXETER — The new superintendent of SAU 16, Esther Asbell, said her focus going into the school year is to “strive to really give our students what they need.”

Asbell is no stranger to the Exeter area district SAU 16. She served as the school district’s assistant superintendent, then associate superintendent for more than 12 years. The SAU 16 Joint Board voted last November to appoint her to the position to succeed David Ryan upon his departure at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

“It’s a great time to be leading SAU 16 because we’re in great shape,” Asbell said. “We have great administrators and educators and community members, and everyone wants the same thing.”
SAU 16 includes 11 schools from pre-kindergarten to adult education serving the towns of Exeter, Brentwood, Kensington, East Kingston, Newfields and Stratham. It is one of the largest school districts in New Hampshire and has more than 4,000 enrolled students.

Seacoastonline recently sat down with Asbell. Here are four takeaways from the interview:

Cooperative Middle School to join Wait Until 8th campaign

Asbell said research shows the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated anxiety, particularly among middle schoolers. That coupled with the social media usage at an early age, mental health has become a serious issue among pre- and young teens.

“(One of) the differences between the past and now is social media,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about social media 30 years ago with students and kids — that’s a huge impact.”
Asbell said the middle school recently started participating in “Wait Until 8th,” a national campaign aimed at empowering parents to rally together to delay giving children a smartphone until at least grade 8.
“The school sent some flyers home at the end of the (past) school year,” she said. “At the end of this year, we’re going to start that campaign even more for parents so they can be well informed.”

Asbell said she understands parents concerns for their children, especially during the transition to middle school. However, she noted that there are alternatives to having access to communication.

“There are options out there just to be able to get your child to have a phone and not have access to social media when they’re a sixth grader,” she said.

The benefits of waiting, is that neurologically, (eighth graders) handle and take in information and process that much differently than when you’re a sixth-grader.”

The one educational benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic

Though the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns had major negative effects on education, Asbell said, the pandemic also brought to light the importance of engaging and communicating with the community. It also showed the adaptability of the school's staff.

One of the examples of that is how quickly teachers had to adapt to using technologies, both old and new.

“Our educators had to embrace technology where maybe some didn’t before,” she said. “It really pushed us to be flexible and think outside of the box, which I think we needed to do as a system, not just SAU 16 but as public education.”

With the rise of AI tools like ChatGPT, Asbell said, it's a different and uncertain future. Educators are also trying to navigate through it.
Asbell said it has “forced educators to be creative.”

“Our kids are different,” she said. “They’re technologically savvy, colleges are expecting and looking for a lot of soft skills now — problem-solving, critical thinkers — we really need to adapt and be flexible to meet those needs so that our kids are prepared to be good citizens.”
New leadership team at CMS

CMS has recently seen a decrease in the number of students enrolled, with many parents opting to send their children to charter schools. While Asbell said she doesn’t know what caused the sudden rise of charter schools within the area, she did acknowledge the decreasing enrollment figures.

She attributed the current turbulence to the inconsistencies within the leadership team at CMS. However, the recent appointment of Drew Bairstow as the principal, she said, “brought some stability.”
“Members of your admin team set the tone for the building,” she said. “Big change doesn’t happen instantly, we know it takes three to five years. If leadership changes (often), it’s hard to continue that positiveness.”

One of the current CMS administrative team’s initiatives, she said, was a Community Parent Night, where parents were invited to discuss areas of improvement. While Asbell noted that positive changes did occur from past leaders, she is hopeful the new administrative team will lead CMS to reach its “bigger picture.”

“We are recognizing that this is an area that we really need to look at and see how we can improve and be a place where kids are excited to be in,” she said. “I think that changed immensely already this year so I’m very hopeful that the work is going to continue.”

Improving reading and math test scores

The National Center for Education Statistics shows that there has been a significant decline in test scores for reading and math, with scores almost parallel with results from the 1970s.

Asbell hopes to combat this nationwide issue with math and reading initiatives.

“Kids that need some support will get additional support outside of their regular math class or outside of their regular English class,” she said. “Our teachers are getting trained this summer (on this).”

Just two years ago, Exeter High School's rankings dropped from being in the top 10 within the state to 13th, while CMS wasn’t even within the top quartile at 38.

Asbell said many factors contributed towards those outcomes, including the difference in understanding in how school rankings are developed.
“It’s not as easy as looking at our rankings and saying we fell,” she said.
For example, Asbell said the rules for taking a state test differ from public to private schools, stating that public schools get penalized if 95% of students do not take the test. Additionally, some private schools do not accept students with learning difficulties whereas public schools accept all students.

“It’s not really a great comparison,” she said, referring to school rankings. “You have to be really clear about all these different groups of rankings ... they all have different criteria.”