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Monday, January 23, 2017

Supporting All Students: Placement Practices in the Needham Public Schools

Some parents recently questioned practices related to the assignment and placement of students in the Needham Public Schools.  School Committee Chair Sue Neckes and Superintendent Dan Gutekanst respond to the parent concerns:

The Needham Public Schools works to ensure all students are assigned to a high quality teacher at every grade level and in each school to optimize each child’s experience, growth, and potential. The student assignment and placement process, which is directed and managed by the building principal, involves a close look at each child’s individual needs and academic goals.  

The Needham Public Schools creates heterogeneous classes that maximize the educational possibilities for all children.  Our primary goal is to create balanced classes in terms of gender, academic strengths, social maturity, special needs, and supportive peer groups, which are likely to promote healthy and productive learning environments.  Additional factors in the placement of students include programming needs such as special education, English Language Learners, and METCO.  Ultimately, the academic and social & emotional needs of each child drive decision-making at all levels.

There has been a long-standing practice to examine class lists and cluster assignments to ensure students of color, particularly African-American, black, Latino, and Hispanic students, are not isolated as an individual student of color in a predominantly white class or cluster.

The race or ethnicity of a child has not been a primary consideration in placement—the student’s academic and social & emotional learning needs are the primary considerations—but developing what the District believed to be supportive peer groups and to avoid racial isolation has been one of many considerations.

Recently the parents of several middle school children met with the School Committee Chair, Superintendent, and Director of Student Support Services and pointed out that they were unaware of the consideration of race during the assignment of students into classes and clusters. The parents believe it is a discriminatory practice and asked that it be stopped.  At the parent meeting on December 8, 2016, the Superintendent assured parents that the practice will be discontinued immediately.  The Superintendent also acknowledged that the District has unintentionally not been as transparent and clear around this practice as we otherwise should have been.  

Since the initial concern was raised by families to the administration at the middle school level earlier in the fall, our practices have been reviewed, data collected and analyzed, and additional consultation with legal counsel and outside educators has taken place so that the District can move forward in the best interest of all students.  With the encouragement and support of the School Committee, the Superintendent has undertaken the following steps:

1.     Sent a follow up email to the parents thanking them for raising the issue and assuring them the practice, which the Superintendent acknowledged was well intentioned and in place to support students and their academic, social & emotional wellness, will be stopped. 

2.     Met with principals and several other District administrators to review placement practices and let them know that race can no longer be a factor in the assignment of students.

3.     Scheduled a March administrative meeting for all District administrators to continue the ongoing discussions around culturally proficient practices in our schools.

4.     Began to investigate the possibility of inviting into the District an outside consultant who can assist the District to review its policies, programs, and practices to ensure they are a) equitable and inclusive, b) based on promising practices and research, and c) reflect our District’s core values and goals.

The Superintendent will provide an update about this work and progress in the spring to the School Committee, parents, and the community.

Finally, the Needham Public Schools takes seriously its role in providing support for all students.  We are fortunate to have exceptional staff and many strong programs in the Needham Schools, and we believe our existing initiatives and planning have been thoughtful and focused on meeting students’ academic and social and emotional needs.  This district and all of its administrators and teachers can take great pride in the work they have achieved around prioritizing the needs of all learners and the ongoing training, professional learning, and robust conversations around race and culturally proficient practices.  We do not shy away from tackling these issues or having difficult conversations; instead we embrace the challenge and are very excited to increase our efforts to support, engage, and empower all students, including students of color.

We intend to seize this opportunity to learn, improve, and grow, and, of course, the Needham community, including students and parents, will continue to be our partners in this important work.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2017-18 School Year Budget Proposal

Earlier this month I submitted the FY18 (School Year 2017-18) budget proposal to the Needham School Committee for their consideration.  The budget presentation and documents may be found on the district's website: FY18 NPS Budget Proposal  The budget plan is based on the district's values and goals, maintains existing services, and proposes funding for a few key program improvements.

The budget plan outlines an additional 5.57% funding increase over the current fiscal year, although most of this increase is to provide for a similar level of service as we have in classrooms and schools this year.

Several key budget “drivers” are impacting the proposed FY18 budget plan.  Among them:

•  Contractual Salary Increases  Contractual obligations for all existing employees account for $2.0 million, or less than half of the total requested increase.  In order to recruit, support, and retain a talented faculty and staff, we must provide reasonable yet competitive salaries for our staff, teachers, and school leaders.

•  Enrollment and Class Size  While overall enrollment is projected to increase only slightly next year, there remains a need to ensure class sizes stay within acceptable School Committee policy guidelines.  I will propose 10.12 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) classroom teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to keep class sizes steady and make up for the loss of grant funds. I also outlined the need for 13.87 new FTE for administrative and support staff, including several teacher assistants required to meet mandated student services.  

•  Increased Special Education Costs  Increases in the number and increasingly intensive needs of special education students being served, special education tuition, transportation for special education students, and other mandated costs total approximately $.81 million of the new funds requested.

  Targeted Program Improvements.  Unlike the FY17 budget plan in which we were unable to include any significant increases for program development, in FY18 I propose $517,914 in new funding for teaching, learning, and infrastructure improvements.  Some of these recommendations include:  A Pollard math intervention teacher ($60,820), increased interdisciplinary support ($19,043), elementary and high school instructional technology teachers ($90,001), Science Center staff ($21,751), administrative support at High Rock and in Human Resources ($105,897), and upgraded technology supplies, software, and services ($76,177).  Additionally, I propose an increase to purchase Chromebooks ($20,000) for the incoming 9th graders as the Personalized Learning Initiative moves into the high school.  The budget plan also includes a recommendation for increased funding for substitutes ($48,344) in order to fill significant vacancies that exist.

Where possible, we have reallocated existing resources to meet new challenges, including a growing list of state and federal mandates.  Unfortunately, many important and worthwhile proposals suggested by school leaders—all designed to enhance and strengthen student learning—have been deferred to the future.

While the budget proposal is sensible and carefully considered, it will be a challenge to secure all the resources required to maintain existing programs, especially as the Schools and Town evaluate a variety of important educational and municipal needs. 

I am mindful that the Town Manager, School Committee, Finance Committee, or Town Meeting may have different priorities, so this plan remains a work in progress throughout the winter and early spring.  In other words, based on available resources and in close collaboration with Town boards, various line items in the proposal may be changed, increased, or deferred for another time.

The School Committee welcomes input and suggestions about the budget plan and encourages parents and community members to email them with comments at schoolcommittee@needham.k12.ma.us and attend or tune in to upcoming meetings.  The School Committee will study and discuss the budget proposal throughout December and January, and they will hold a formal public hearing on the budget at Broadmeadow on Tuesday, January 17th at 7:00 p.m.  Please also refer to the District’s website for additional information about the budget proposal:  FY18 NPS Budget Proposal


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Schools are Counter-Cultural!

Years ago my mentor and former superintendent Dr. Anthony Bent remarked:  “Schools are counter-cultural.”  Today, as we prepare students to participate as active and engaged learners and citizens in a vibrant democracy, particularly in the wake of a noisy and acrimonious national election, his observation is especially meaningful.

Public schools are a microcosm of the larger community, representing the various socioeconomic, racial, political, ethnic, and religious differences that exist in our diverse and complex society.  Each day, children with wide-ranging abilities from a variety of family structures, backgrounds, faith communities, and neighborhoods stream into the public school to learn and grow together.  Public schools model, however imperfectly, the highest aspirations and ethos of a democratic society by promoting diverse viewpoints, valuing differences, and establishing collaborative and cooperative relationships among students.

For public educators it’s an incredible challenge—and an important responsibility—to respect both the local community's culture and to support a school culture that values the uniqueness of each child within a safe, tolerant, and courteous learning environment for all students where empathy, patience, and civility are encouraged. 

Unlike the broader community where rancorous debates, unseemly tweets, and boorish behavior are often tolerated, the schoolhouse must be a safe haven for considerate discourse, openness, fairness, and respect.  In the schoolhouse, diverse viewpoints should be encouraged and celebrated in developmentally appropriate ways, even if one's viewpoint makes another uncomfortable.  But it should always be a conversation and not a rant.  The children under our charge are expected to model the behavior some adults often eschew.

In that sense, then, schools are counter-cultural.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when I was the principal at Shrewsbury High School, a handful of Muslim students approached me and asked if they could start a Muslim Student Cultural Club.  Given the context and the timing of their request, I was at first surprised and hesitant but quickly got behind the idea and asked the students to find a faculty advisor.

Several weeks later some staff, students, and parents expressed concern about hearing students speaking Arabic to one another, carrying the Koran, and praying on mats after school.  Who are these kids and what are they up to?  Why are we allowing this behavior in school?  They should act like us.  (The “us”, by the way, included Christians, Jews, Hindus, and nonbelievers.) Some of the Muslim students were teased or bullied; one or two refused to come to school.  The national mood at the time was tense and charged; and public schools, being a reflection of society, often mirrored a similar climate of anxiety and fear. 

It took time, but through education, patient dialogue, and perspective-taking we worked through the concerns and mistrust of the many about the few.  The teacher advisor and students even pulled off a teach-in and celebration of Islam for the whole school to enjoy.  We eventually broadened efforts to acknowledge and understand a variety of other ethnicities, races, and backgrounds—much of it the direct result of a few brave Muslim students who, at a time of national fear and uncertainty, simply wanted to get together to form a school club to learn about and support one another. As a country we remained wary of the terrorist abroad; but as a school community we got to know on a human level the Muslim sophomore wearing a hijab, seated in biology class, and, much like her classmates, racing to complete a lab before the bell and a lunch period with friends.

Eventually the Muslim Student Cultural Club and other student-driven initiatives around race, religion, sexual orientation, and disability awareness became incorporated into the educational and social fabric of our large and comprehensive high school.  What appeared at first to be at odds with the prevailing mood and norms of the broader society became routine and part of the school’s community and culture.  We simply expected more of ourselves and our students within the schoolhouse; we aspired to be better and demonstrate more civility.  In this way we became counter-cultural and reflected back to the broader community how it just might be possible to learn from and respect one another if we take the time to ask questions, listen deeply, and acknowledge another’s personal story.

As we approach a winter season of hope and peace, I remain excited about the work we can do as educators and parents in the Needham community to assist young people on their journey of learning, growth, and self-discovery.   Let’s continue to provide a space for students to be curious, innovative, compassionate, and civil. Let’s accept they will make mistakes and take wrong turns.  

Let's also continue to model for them the qualities, behaviors, and traits we know our community values and that will promote their growth and development. Let's acknowledge we won't always get it right.  And that's OK.

For the sake of the community and our children, let’s celebrate the idea that our schools are counter-cultural.  And let's be darn proud of it.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

November 8th Election/Question 5: School Committee Urges Voters to Learn about the Proposed New Hillside School


 
Proposed new elementary school on Central Avenue to replace Hillside

The Needham School Committee encourages voters to learn about the proposed new elementary school on Central Avenue.  Chair Sue Neckes explains:

On November 8th, Needham voters will be asked whether or not to allow the Town to raise funds to construct a new Hillside School on Central Avenue.

The need to replace the existing Hillside Elementary School, built in 1959, has been well documented for years in the Town's Capital Improvement Plan and supported by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA):  Major building systems are beyond their useful life; the school is not up to modern code standards and is not handicapped accessible; it is undersized for the ongoing population and outdated for contemporary educational practices and programs; and, environmental issues at the current site, while well managed, have required diligent attention.

For several years, the Town, including the School Committee and the Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC) has worked with educational designers, architects and other experts to identify the best location for the school and to design it to meet the needs of the community and the children who will attend the school during the coming decades.  Town Meeting has approved funding for the new school at every step in the process.  The new school will provide the necessary and appropriate spaces for project-based learning; curriculum in art, music, Spanish, and technology; and special education.  Additionally, with space for full-day kindergarten, the School Committee and community will significantly reduce the barriers to accomplishing our goal of offering full-day kindergarten to all of our students. 

Based on MSBA requirements, the school is slated for an enrollment of 430, but through careful planning to ensure four sections per grade, the school will have capacity to accommodate up to 544 children.  Enrollment is expected to be 483 in 2020 when the school is scheduled to open.  The new school, planned to receive LEED Silver certification, will be highly energy efficient.  The properly sized classrooms with well-placed windows and purposeful natural lighting are designed specifically to provide the most conducive teaching and learning environment for current practices.

The specific wording of Ballot Question 5 is:

“Shall the Town of Needham be allowed to exempt from the provisions of Proposition Two-and one-half, so called, the amounts required to pay for the bond issued in order to provide architectural design, engineering, construction, site work and site acquisition for the Hillside School on Central Avenue?”

The total cost of the project is not to exceed $66 million, because that is the total amount Town Meeting has approved.  This amount includes the cost to design, engineer and construct the school, and will cover the town's cost of acquiring the Owen's Poultry Farm site and adjacent properties on Central Avenue.  The MSBA will contribute about 21% of the total project cost, approximately $13-14 million.  As both funder and watchdog, the MSBA has carefully reviewed and approved our plans and, not only offered its support, but its limited funds as well. The estimated impact on the annual tax bill for the average single family home to pay the annual debt service will vary over time, but will not exceed a maximum of $375 per year.  The School Committee, Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and Town Meeting all enthusiastically support this project and the financing plan.

The School Committee recognizes the tax burden placed on town residents in supporting this project.  We hope you will agree that providing a high quality education, an expectation of our Town and a reason so many of us choose to live here, requires buildings that support 21st century teaching and learning. 

For more information about the proposed new school:  New Hillside Elementary School

Monday, September 19, 2016

Welcome School Resource Officers!


Thanks to Needham’s Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and Police Chief John Schlittler who recently announced the assignment of an additional School Resource Officer (SRO) for Needham’s schools. Officer Ryan O’Leary, a Needham High School and recent Boston College graduate, joins police veteran Vin Springer who has served this community for over 30 years as a crisis negotiator, field training officer, and for the last 13 years as the school liaison. The presence of School Resource Officers on our school campuses complements the strong relationship that exists between Needham’s public safety and school officials, and we are excited to have both men on board.  

Ryan O'Leary (left) and Vin Springer (right)
 SROs Springer and O’Leary will work closely with the schools, staff, students, and families to assist us as we focus on student safety, security, and wellbeing.  For example, the SROs have been trained on ALICE, our new school safety protocol, and they will collaborate with principals around student truancy, bullying, or other matters that may require support and intervention beyond the purview of a building administrator. Already both officers have been in each of the schools and have been a positive presence at lunch time in our cafeterias where they have met and interacted with students.  Principals at the elementary and middle school level are introducing the officers to children so that they can build connections and relationships.

 Over the last year there has been a lot of conversation about the role of police officers in our communities and their level of commitment and understanding, especially in communities of color.  Needham may not have all the challenges of a Boston or Baltimore, but Needham does strive to be a welcoming, inclusive, respectful, and just community.  The willingness of Town Manager Fitzpatrick and Chief Schlittler to designate two exceptional men to the position of School Resource Officer when staffing is already tight, is a testament to this community’s belief in the fair, decent, and dignified treatment of all people, regardless of age, race, gender, or ethnicity. 

Officer Vinny Springer and Officer Ryan O’Leary, thank you for your partnership with the schools, commitment to young people, and your service to this community!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ready... Set...

Welcome back to school!  It’s been a busy summer of maintenance and renovation projects in the schools, professional development and training for the staff, and overall planning and preparation for a new school year and an anticipated 55 new students.  Here are some of the highlights:

 
•  School maintenance and building projects have been a priority for the Town.  The high school café has been expanded in the first phase of a project intended to provide additional space for the growing enrollment there.  The Pollard main office, some student bathrooms, and counseling offices have been renovated.  Many other maintenance and cleaning projects have been tackled in the schools by our incredible team of custodians, tradesman, and contractors who sweated it out all summer to buff floors, clean lockers, and wash windows.
 

In July the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) voted to support a new elementary school project to replace the existing Hillside School, and the community will vote on the project November 8th.  If the community vote is successful, construction of a new school could start next year!
 

Water bubblers at all the schools have been tested for actionable levels of lead (.15 ppb), and as of this writing only one bubbler at Hillside has subsequently been replaced with a portable water cooler out of an abundance of caution.   All other drinking fountains and bubblers at the seven other schools remain within acceptable water quality standards.  An additional set of testing conducted at Hillside on August 11th for a couple of bubblers that had earlier registered at slightly above .15 ppb indicate that no actionable level of lead was again detected.  For more information about the water testing and protocols:  Water Quality Testing
 

•  On August 17th, we held our annual staff orientation program for over 66 new staff, including teachers, support staff, and administrators.  Welcome aboard to new Needham High School Principal Aaron Sicotte and Mitchell School Principal Greg Bayse.
 

During June, July, and August teacher professional development, curriculum planning, and technology training engaged many teachers and administrators.  At all levels, more than sixty teachers spent time increasing their knowledge and comfort with technology to enhance teaching in the digital classroom.  Staff training around Cultural Proficiency, Responsive Classroom, and new online courses designed to assist teachers to modify and adapt practice for ELL and special education students were also well attended.  Dozens of staff members representing all the schools also participated in safety training using the new ALICE protocol.
 

Elementary STEAM teachers worked with staff at the Museum of Science to further enhance their understanding of how to integrate the various areas of STEAM into a meaningful learning experience for their students.  Pre-school teachers now have a well articulated, developmentally appropriate curriculum for their students that is aligned to the new standards for Social-Emotional Development and Approaches to Play and Learning.
 

This past week teacher representatives, School Committee members, and principals and administrators met at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Dorchester to discuss ideas about empowering educators' voices in the development of a shared vision for learning in our schools.  The conversation will be the first of several this school year designed to strengthen relationships and set priorities for leading and learning.

•  We are gearing up for a successful school opening on Wednesday, August 31st.  Bus routes have been planned, classroom supplies unpacked, and teachers are quite busy setting up classrooms in order to welcome over 5,600 students to Needham's classrooms.  Our enrollment continues to grow slightly, this year by an anticipated 25 new students.  In fact, in the last ten years, Needham's enrollment has increased by more than 585 students placing Needham within the top ten percent of all school districts by number of students enrolled.  Thanks to the community for its continued support of additional teachers and staff to keep pace with additional students and their growing learning needs.
 

Buildings cleaned, staff trained, and classrooms prepped!  In the spirit of the Rio Olympic swim and track officials:  Ready...  Set...
 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

2016 Survey Results: We Hear You!


 We are committed to gathering the perspectives of parents, staff, and students to better understand our strengths and challenges as a district.

2,351 parents of students in grades 3-12 recently completed the District Survey—an impressive 55.4% response rate compared with 52% when the survey was last administered in 2013. We combined the results of the Parent Survey with responses from 3,974 Students and 637 Staff (a response rate exceeding 90% in both cases!) to measure progress towards the District goals.

As promised, we are sharing the results of the survey with Needham Public Schools’ parents, students and staff. Here are highlights of key findings for the district:

Evidence of Progress Toward the District Goals (average “agree/strongly agree” of Parents, Students, Staff responses)

Goal 1 - Advance Learning for All Students:
School sets high academic standards/Teachers want me to do well in school: 95%
Staff/School Administrators are responsive to input from parents: 93% (item not in Student survey)
Students understand how to use online tools responsibly / digital citizenship: 92%
Staff care about how much students learn/Teachers care about how much I learn: 92%

Goal 2 - Develop Social, Emotional Wellness and Citizenship Skills:
·I feel welcome at my (child’s) school/My school is a good place to work and learn: 94%
·My child is (students are) not fearful of being hurt by other students: 93%
·School staff (adults in my school) seem to work well with one another: 93%

Goal 3 - Ensure Infrastructure Supports District Values and Learning Goals:
·I am satisfied with the district administration services: 93% (item not in Student survey)
·The school library/media center is meeting my child’s (students’) needs / Media Center has the books and materials I need for school: 93%
·The district website provides me with useful information: 92% (item not in Student survey)
·I am satisfied with the administration at my (my child’s) school: 91% (item not in Student survey)

Areas Needing Attention (average “agree/strongly agree” of Parents, Students, Staff responses)

·Homework furthers learning: 74%
·Info on student progress: 73%
·Adequate space to meet instructional needs: 66%
·Not feeling stressed or overwhelmed by school: 51%

The voices of our parents, students and staff have been heard! The district survey allows our school district to celebrate strengths and respond to goal areas needing attention. Over the next several months we will engage the School Committee, parents, staff, students, and our School Councils in analyzing the survey findings in depth and incorporate the data, and appropriate action steps, into our school improvement plans.

To view a presentation of the survey results, check out the District’s website: 2016 Needham Public Schools Survey Results Presentation