School Committee Vice Chair says residents don’t feel heard in ARHS mascot selection process

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By Laura Hayes, Senior Community Reporter

A sign welcomes students, staff and visitors to Algonquin earlier this year, proclaiming the school as “Home of the Tomahawks.” (Photo by/Dakota Antelman)

NORTHBOROUGH/SOUTHBOROUGH – Northborough Southborough Regional School Committee Vice Chair Daniel Kolenda noted at a Sept. 14 meeting that some residents don’t feel heard in the process of choosing a new Algonquin Regional High School (ARHS) mascot. 

“There are folks that believe they weren’t heard before,” Kolenda said. “They had an opportunity to vote, and they believe they’re not being heard again.”

Residents are asking Kolenda what to do, he said. Do they start an online petition or collect signatures to bring the matter to Town Meeting?

“All I’m suggesting is, the more inclusive we are with people who wish to have their voices heard, the better off we’re going to be at the end,” Kolenda said.

Consultant offers recommendations following survey 

The Northborough Southborough Regional School Committee voted to retire Algonquin’s old Tomahawk mascot back in April amid an ongoing debate about the use of Native American symbols as school mascots.

Although Kolenda was not present for the actual vote, he had suggested that the committee table its vote for an additional 30 to 60 days to allow community members to provide input. 

The vote went forward, however, with all nine present members voting to retire the mascot.

The Mascot Renaming Study Group has met since that vote, recently hearing a breakdown of results from a survey sent out to the community in July. 

That survey, in part, asked what mascot should replace the Tomahawk. 

Meeting minutes indicate that 680 people responded. The data analysis then indicated that the top suggested option, with 99 votes, was to keep the Tomahawk. “Thunderhawk” came in second at 67 votes. 

Jake Messier of HEARD Strategy and Storytelling offered recommendations based on the data. A spreadsheet prepared by HEARD reflected those suggestions, specifically suggested against keeping the same mascot. It also listed those second and third most popular options –“Thunderhawks” and “Hawks” — as “out.”

Algonquin Principal Sean Bevan said that Messier’s recommendations “…are not binding, but are certainly helpful in letting us know what the data represents and how it matches to other communities.”

‘They might as well just put ‘none of the above’’

Kolenda said he’s heard from many residents since the mascot retirement vote earlier this year. 

He said some of the community members then saw HEARD’s spreadsheet and its suggestions. They wondered, if the community said one thing, who is HEARD to say no?

“Part of this is, people are upset that they didn’t believe they were heard in the first place,” Kolenda said. “Now, they see that they have an opportunity to be heard and they’re voting, and their vote doesn’t matter. They might as well just put ‘none of the above.’” 

Bevan said HEARD’s role was to provide the committee with guidance on the process. The recommendation was simply a recommendation, he said. 

“[Assistant Superintendent of Operations Keith Lavoie] had put that in his email out to the community,” Bevan said. “I don’t know how to respond if people didn’t participate in that and didn’t read that and only consumed what was only in a spreadsheet.”

“I don’t know how to respond except…that it takes being engaged and paying close attention, and we’re trying to be as transparent as possible,” he continued.

The survey was advertised throughout the community, Bevan said.

“If folks are indicating that they don’t feel heard, we’re trying our best to do that,” Bevan said.

Kolenda responded, again noting HEARD’s recommendations.

“Well, I think, Sean, they don’t feel heard when they’re asked to vote, and then a third-party vendor says your vote doesn’t count,” Kolenda said.

Committee discusses next steps

The mascot committee meets again Sept. 20. 

Lavoie said the committee initially didn’t have a lot of time to review the data and responses at its last meeting. 

“Since that time, many of the committee members have been able to dive into that,” Lavoie said. “So, we’re really looking forward to the Sept. 20 conversation.” 

Bevan said the committee would be reviewing Native American input on a Thunderhawk mascot.

Three-pronged approach in ARHS

Bevan said that Algonquin has a “deep commitment” to using education to enhance students’ understanding of both the school’s history and the contributions of Native Americans. 

“It’s not just about changing the mascot, it’s about educating our young people about our mascot and the contributions of Native Americans,” Bevan said. 

That education will be a three-pronged effort involving curriculum, the development of a display of ARHS’ history and programming during freshman orientation. 

Bevan said he would be asking the high school’s humanities teachers to examine the depth that the Native American experience is taught.

It’s already covered in U.S. History I and II, he said. 

“I will say, I don’t think we’ve done a huge amount in our schools, at least at the high school level,” Bevan said. “I think it might happen at the middle school level to examine the local tribal communities and their impact on New England.”

Sophomore American literature students read some Native American literature.

Additionally, he said the course, “Silenced Voices,” also does a deep dive into Native American literature. 

Silenced Voices is an elective, though.

Bevan said students who are already interested in the topic are typically the ones who enroll in that class. 

“So, it’s not enough to just rely on that class because it does not touch so many students as is necessary to make this change happen,” Bevan said.

He said staff was looking at ways to refine their approach to discussions of Native American communities in English and social studies classes.

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