Written by Susanna Serrano and Joe Morrell. Featured artwork by Charlotte Hambucken, Originally for “Growing Pains,” by Jordan Zercher in Issue 1, 2018.
The 2010s saw Oyster River High School evolve in many ways. They saw the schedule change (twice), the highs and lows of school dances, an increase of more than 200 students, and a series of bomb threats in the 2016-17 school year. As we looked back over the last 10 years, we chose to highlight some of the most impactful events and changes at the school for this article. This is by no means the be-all-end-all list of important happenings – it’s simply the list that we came up with after talking to several faculty members who’ve been here over the past decade.
At the end of the 2010-11 school year, Principal Laura Rodgers left the district and it came time to choose a new principal for ORHS. According to an anonymous teacher who was there at the time of the walkout, a committee of students, parents, teachers, and two school board members interviewed candidates for the position and recommended Justin Campbell and Robert Thompson to Superintendent Howard Colter, who agreed with their decision. Colter recommended Campbell to the school board, who, according to the teacher, voted against the candidate due to personal prejudice against Colter. The school board voted against the candidate in a four to three decision, leaving ORHS without a permanent principal, according to “Failure to select Oyster River principal draws public fury,” an article which appeared in Foster’s Daily Democrat in June of 2011. The teacher said, “what they did not realize either is that by voting no on this guy, that puts a black stain on this guy’s record, for no reason. Google his name and it’s Foster’s Daily Democrat saying the school board voted against him.”
An MOR article published in June of 2011, “Oh Where, Oh Where Can Our Principal Be?” outlined the events from the time Rodgers announced her resignation in February, through May, when they began the search for a temporary principal. According to the article, students, parents, and teachers were frustrated by the school board’s decision to reject the nomination for a permanent principal and their lack of explanation as to why. The Friday after the school board announced the rejection, more than 500 ORHS students walked out of C period and stood in front of the SAU building to protest the decision and advocate for a revote. There were mixed reactions to the student walkout among community members. Some members were proud that students had chosen to speak up, others were horrified they had flouted school policy.
In lieu of a permanent principal, Todd Allen briefly served as the interim high school principal in 2011, before officially becoming the long term principal. In 2016 Todd Allen became the assistant superintendent and Principal Suzanne Filippone took over, according to “A New Principal is Chosen” by Owen Kurtiak.
“Face to Face with Space” (2013)
In 2013 the “Face to Face with Space” policy was put into place at ORHS in response to the large amounts of grinding that was being done at dances. “It was necessary to put something in place that would help give some clear guidelines for what is acceptable at a school dance,” said Mike McCann, Dean of Students at ORHS who worked on the policy. McCann described the dances as becoming out of hand with the amount of grinding that was occurring, saying that, “there were concerns about the level of physical contact and it was very hard for chaperones to manage.”
At this time, however, dances were one of the most common school events for all students in the school as well as one of the largest fundraisers for classes. Each class would have an opportunity to organize and plan dances that they would ultimately use as a fundraiser for their class. Upwards of 150 to 200 students could be found on a Friday night packed into the high school, all dancing together – giving classes the opportunity to make substantial quantities of money in one night.
When this policy went into effect however, there was an extreme decline in the number of students at dances. The participation at dances declined so much that classes made the decision to no longer organize dances at the high school. “The classes basically said ‘if kids aren’t going to come then we aren’t gonna have them.’ and that was a student choice not an administrative decision,” said McCann. In a couple years span, dances went from one of the most popular events at the high school to a nonexistent entity. In the last few years dances have begun a resurgence at the school, slowly gaining traction as more of a social event for students.
Bathroom Policy (2015)
In September of 2015, the Oyster River School District became a leader in both the state and the nation when they adopted a policy that addressed the needs and rights of transgender students in the district. The policy quickly became front-page news as it was the first of its kind in the state, and among the first cluster of like policies in the country. Jason Baker, ORHS school counselor, spearheaded the effort to establish the policy for the district. Baker noted that, at the time, there was no federal or state anti-discriminatory law advising [schools] to be inclusive. In the school setting, the next step is school policy. If a school board passes a policy, then the school has to follow it; so, Baker worked with district administrators to do just that, pass a policy.
Roughly a year before the policy was laid out, a transgender student at ORHS was undergoing his transition to begin identifying as male. Baker was his counselor at the time and worked with him throughout the process, saying, “he led the charge and I told him ‘whatever you need from us you tell us’ and it all went relatively smoothly.” Baker added that, “ it reinforced that this community is a supportive one.” At this point, it was December of 2014 and Baker began to realize that the district must work to create a policy that ensures the rights of this student and all future trans students in the district.“Dr. Morse and Mr. Allen were in the cafeteria and I said, ‘hey while I have you here, we really need to talk about creating a policy because this is coming and we need a policy that is legally binding,’ and Dr. Morse immediately said ‘absolutely.’
By September, the district had a comprehensive multi-page policy outlining the rights surrounding transgender students in the district. Other schools and organizations began to take notice. Based off of the Foster’s article, “OR schools’ transgender policy could become model,” that was written, the New Hampshire chapter of Freedom of All Americans, then the national chapter, picked up the story and publicized the school’s efforts. Other schools from across the country began contacting the school to work their policies off of the existing ORCSD policy. The ORCSD policy was even cited in the US Supreme Court Case of Gavin Grimm when the policy was included in the presented documents in the case. This policy created positive change in the district and as Baker said, “put our little Oyster River on the map.”
Our Turf (2016)
ORHS’s new turf track and field opened for business in October of 2016. The project also included baseball and softball fields at ORHS and lights for the turf. According to Andy Lathrop, the current athletic director who started in 2017, the project was headed by the then-athletic director, Corey Parker and ORHS principal, now assistant superintendent, Todd Allen. Lathrop explained that the field was a necessity and the turf was the best option. “The current grass field that they had was in pretty rough shape and having a turf field and track like this is something that can be used by the entire community,” Lathrop said.
The bond was initially put to vote in Durham, Lee, and Madbury in 2015, but received a fifty-six percent approval rate, just four percent short of passing, according to Neville Caulfield’s article, “Vote ‘Yes’ on March 8th.” When it went back up in March of 2016 it passed.
Since the fields were built, they’ve been well utilized. Lathrop said of the turf, “you can play games when other [schools] can’t and you don’t have problems with standing water and things like that.” You can find more about how the fields have been utilized in Spencer Clark’s 2017 article: “First Year of New ORHS Facilities in the Books, Many More to Come”
Bomb Threats (2017)
“Teachers, please check your emails.” If you were a student at ORHS during the 2016-17 school year, you became used to hearing this sentence over the loudspeakers. At the beginning of the second semester, there were three separate bomb threats, which were the first incidents of their kind at ORHS in over a decade. Coincidently, the 2016-17 school year was also the first year Suzanne Filippone was principal. Each threat was unique and responded to in a different manner. The first threat was written in a bathroom stall; Filippone said of the response, “the determination was made in talking to the SAU, in talking to Dr. Morse and Mr. Allan that we would send kids home because we weren’t really sure.” Filippone said of the following threats, “after that happened it’s common, unfortunately, to see it repeat itself, and so it repeated itself.” After the second threat, students were evacuated to the middle school while the NH state bomb dogs swept the building. For the third threat, students and faculty were on a hard lockdown to keep them out of the way of the dogs.
While the bomb threats didn’t have a measurable effect on the school, Filippone said, “if people are remembering it as they go through their high school career then it has had an effect on them.” She also said that it had an effect on the way that faculty thought about things, “they were a little more vigilant about things.”
Anna Kate Munsey and Thomas Cote originally wrote an article about the bomb threats for MOR Issue 3 in 2017 but were censored by ORHS administration and the school resource officer. Administration feared that the article would remind students of the incident and incite another threat, while the police department feared it would interfere with their ongoing investigation. Days after the release of Issue 3 (without the article) the third bomb threat occurred. In the interest of keeping the OR community informed and filling its role as the voice of the students, MOR published the article in Issue 4.
Start Time Change (2017-18)
For the 2017-18 school year, the ORCSD changed the middle and high school start times from 7:35 to 8:15 and the elementary school start time to 8:55. Mark Milliken, the Dean of Faculty at ORHS, explained that parents brought research forward to the school board about teenagers’ sleep habits and the increased stress it caused. The school board made the decision to start school later in the interest of allowing more time to sleep in the mornings, which is typically more natural for teenagers. While many were happy with the change, Milliken said that there was concern about student-athletes who would have to leave school early for competition, and an article by Zach Leichtman in 2017, “Survey shows ORHS students have mixed feelings on new start times,” showed that many students were concerned about staying up later at night.
Schedule Change (2017-18)
When the start time changed, the school needed a schedule that worked within the hours students were at school. This necessity brought the opportunity to reevaluate the existing schedule. The first schedule change was necessary to adapt to the new start time, which Milliken, chairperson of the scheduling committee, described as an interim schedule because it was only used for the 2017-18 school year. The interim schedule, like the schedule before it, had seven periods each day with block days every other Thursday and Friday. The interim schedule was widely regarded as confusing. For more about that schedule, Nicholas Dundorf covered the change in 2018, “Scheduling Committee Seeks to Replace This Year’s Controversial Schedule.”
The second schedule change brought the current, three day, rotating block schedule we use now. The new schedule has Bobcat, Blue, and White days, and rotates between the three schedules. On Bobcat days students have every class except E period, for 50 minutes. Blue and White days are “block days” so students have half their classes, but each class is 90 minutes, except E period which is both days and 70 minutes. Milliken said that while you couldn’t please everybody, the new schedule had more of a balance. He said, “some subjects like shorter periods, seeing kids every day, and some subjects like longer periods and don’t mind not seeing kids every day.” Milliken said that now, based on the feedback he’s gotten, it seems like, “people’d like to get rid of Bobcat days now, and the other schedule was way more like Bobcat days. It seems like [the schedule’s] been a positive change.”
Although advisory is now an indisputable staple in the ORHS school day, it hasn’t always been around. McCann explained that it began when the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) said that ORHS needed to incorporate a time for students to connect with faculty other than their counselors and regular teachers as a part of the accreditation process. The program was originally called Focus and, according to McCann, began for the 2009-10 school year and only met on block days, which were every other Thursday and Friday. McCann said, “over time we added in more time to advisory with a focus on building small communities in the school.” McCann explained that they took a year off from advisory around the time they were considering the new schedule to do research and look at the other high schools’ programs.
Eventually, they landed on the current flex and advisory arrangement, which was rolled out with the new schedule in 2018-19. The schedule includes advisory three days per week and flex four days per week. The advisory program gives advisors a number of topics to discuss with students. These topics range from mental health to goal setting. You can read more about the changes to advisory in George Philbrick’s 2017 article, “Advisory.”
Flex was created in 2018 in the place of Office Hours to give students structured time to connect with teachers about classes they need help in. Milliken said of the implementation of flex that, “the goal we wanted was to connect with teachers during the day. That is a goal I feel that current flex has provided and succeeded at.” For more information about flex, you can check out Abby Schmitt’s 2019 Flex Follow Up.
Milliken said the flex program is an ongoing process. “What we try to do when we implement something is not just set it and forget it; we’re always reflecting on it.” He mentioned a current issue under consideration, “right now we have some teachers overloaded with kids seeking help and some teachers under. We’re trying to balance that out.”
Increasing School Size
Over the past decade, ORHS has continually grown. This is largely due to the addition of Barrington students, who were first welcomed to the district in the Fall of 2010. 31 students from Barrington entered the high school as the first class of ORHS students from outside of Durham, Lee, or Madbury. Over the past 10 years, ORHS has taken an increasing number of Barrington students each year until it reached 50 per class in the Fall of 2017 when Oyster River became a school of record for the town of Barrington.
The addition of Barrington students was in response to the district’s concerns over a declining student population and a means for maintaining programs and faculty. Mike McCann, ORHS Dean of Faculty, spoke on the decision. “It was put into place to keep our numbers in a good place because we were actually going down and people were concerned we were going to need to reduce our staff so we looked at other ways to maintain and keep programming,” he said.
With close to 200 students from Barrington now attending the high school, it has had a great impact on the school. “There are challenges but there is also a lot of excitement when the population is what it is right now,” said Suzanne Filippone, ORHS Principal. She noted that it has had an immense impact on both athletics and music, having more interest by kids and increasing the number of teams and opportunities across all extracurriculars. The school has also been able to increase academic offerings for students, increasing the number of courses offered and faculty in the building. “If we haven’t had the population that we have we wouldn’t have had some of those [opportunities],” concluded Filippone. You can read more about the population growth at ORHS in Jordan Zercher’s article, “Growing Pains.”