Northampton High School math program investigation ongoing

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Published: 4/13/2022 5:56:45 PM

Modified: 4/13/2022 5:55:36 PM

NORTHAMPTON — An independent investigation to review public complaints about the embedded honors math program at Northampton High School is ongoing, according to Superintendent John Provost, and it’s not clear how long Nancy Athas will serve as acting principal.

The school district retained attorney Regina Ryan of Discrimination and Harassment Solutions LLC to investigate complaints received since March 12, the date the Gazette published a report detailing the controversy over the math program that some caregivers have argued robs high-achieving children of educational opportunities.

The story revealed that now-former School Committee member Susan Voss compiled public emails from 2020 and 2021 and wrote a seven-page report, completed last October, criticizing last year’s switch from standalone honors to embedded classes.

An embedded honors program puts honors and non-honors, or “college prep,” students in the same classrooms but with different performance expectations. Each student chooses either the honors or college prep track on their own.

Voss also revealed a chat message in which Principal Lori Vaillancourt referred to members of the Student Union who wanted to meet with teachers about the program as “asshats,” for which she has apologized.

On March 22, Provost said that Athas would take over Vaillancourt’s duties for three weeks. Athas retired in 2013 after serving as NHS principal for five years.

Vaillancourt has said Voss’ report does not include important context and some of the messages can be misunderstood. She also said the change to embedded honors, which had the backing of the math department, was under consideration since 2015, far earlier than the dates of the emails gathered by Voss, and that most discussions did not take place via publicly available written records.

Vaillancourt and other school officials argued that an embedded math program promotes student equity and allows college prep students to challenge themselves with tougher material, but critics of the program, including Voss, have said that the classes are not sufficient for students planning STEM careers and that the equity argument rings hollow.

In response to the story and allegations it reported of a flawed decision-making process, NHS students staged a walkout last month and called for Vaillancourt’s resignation, touching off a flood of public comments to the School Committee on both sides of the issue.

In an April 7 letter to the school community, Athas wrote that she is working in collaboration with the two associate principals as well as Karen Albano, director of curriculum and instruction for the district, and former JFK Middle School Principal Lesley Wilson “to support the NHS community until further notice.”

“We are looking forward to celebrating the spring season with all of you. We are preparing for senior activities including prom, senior recognition night, and graduation while working on scheduling and programming for the 2022-2023 school year,” Athas wrote. “We recognize that these are unusual and unpredictable times and we are thrilled to work with and for all of you to provide our students with a dynamic learning experience.”

On Tuesday, Provost said Athas will continue in her role through the investigation, which he expects “will be as efficient as possible.”

“At this point, she is reviewing documents and determining next steps,” Provost said of Ryan, who founded Discrimination and Harassment Solutions in 2014.

Ryan has conducted investigations of workplace complaints against a mayor of Gloucester, a Rockland town administrator and an Andover fire lieutenant who was accused of racial bias, among other incidents throughout Massachusetts.

The cost of Ryan’s investigation in Northampton “will depend upon the number of hours the investigator spends reviewing documents, interviewing witnesses, and writing the report,” Provost said.

Brian Steele can be reached at

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