Sunday, May 15, 2016

Needham Students Learning and Making Friends in China

Over the April vacation, a group of Needham elementary students, parents, educators, and town officials traveled to Beijing, China to strengthen our growing relationship with the Daxing District, one of 16 districts in the city of Beijing. Accompanying the Needham contingent was a film crew from the Needham Channel, which is producing a documentary about the unique relationship between Needham and Daxing.

Needham and Daxing Students and Families
A highlight of the visit was for 23 Needham elementary and middle school students to stay with local families and attend classes for the week at our sister school in Daxing, the Feichenchung Elementary School.  Our Chinese hosts believe it was the first ever elementary and middle school student exchange between an American city and Beijing!

The partnership between Daxing and Needham goes back five years when Mitchell principal Dr. Mike Schwinden contacted a local group, Boston Ivy, to arrange visits of Chinese students, teachers, and school administrators between our communities.  This recent visit culminated in a new five-year agreement between the school districts, and Mayor Shao of Daxing signed an initial agreement for a new city to city relationship with Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and Selectmen Matt Borrelli and Moe Handel.  Now the Daxing/Needham schools and city/town governments have established additional opportunities to learn, develop, and promote educational, cultural and community exchanges and partnerships.

Daxing & Needham Student Learn Together
For me, the power of this exchange and the evolving relationships between American and Chinese children and adults is the ability to connect with and learn about another culture, traditions, and system of government.  It’s harder to mistrust or even dislike a person from another culture and country if you have the occasion to play a game, enjoy a meal, or visit an historic landmark together.  Despite the challenges of language and custom, friendships have been established and new opportunities to develop understanding and respect are growing.  Consistent with our district’s core values—Scholarship, Personal Growth, Community, and Citizenship—I am pleased Needham is breaking down barriers and encouraging tolerance, empathy, and respect among those with whom we have differences.

It’s one way to make this world a little smaller.  And a little better.

To view a slideshow of our visit to Beijing, click here: China Exchange 2016

Thanks to Artie Perez for the photos!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Pathway to Full Day Kindergarten in Needham: It's Time!

After over a year of review and consideration, the Needham School Committee has released its Report of the Full-Day Kindergarten Study and Planning Committee to the community.  The report is comprehensive and urges the School Committee to act as quickly as possible to ensure a publicly-funded, equitable, and innovative Full-Day Kindergarten program is available to meet the needs of all learners.  

The report is not a specific plan for the implementation of Full-Day Kindergarten (a specific plan will require additional funding and resources) nor does it answer all the questions about how best to proceed, but it does ask the School Committee to take action on the efficacy of a compulsory Kindergarten program for all of Needham's children.  If the School Committee accepts the recommendations in the report, there will need to be significant planning and a community commitment to implement a program.

I happen to believe it is time for Full-Day Kindergarten in Needham, and this report is the first of many critical steps that we must take to make it a reality.

To view the report, click here: Full-Day Kindergarten Report

Additional information and opportunities to provide ideas and feedback will be proposed in the weeks and months ahead.  Please send feedback and ideas to the School Committee:

Monday, February 29, 2016

Preparing Children for Their Future, Not Our Past

In their new book, Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our Kids for the Innovation Era, Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith (2015) take a hard look at key educational traditions and institutions, including standardized tests (SAT, PISA), Advanced Placement courses, and the typical American high school and college experience. 

Their conclusion?  American K-12 schools are increasingly becoming places where testing crowds out learning and higher education is more interested in magazine college rankings than producing intelligent, thoughtful, and creative young people.  They use data, anecdotes, and research to document a case for a re-imagined school experience, PreK-16.  They describe a dreary and desperate future for our children if we continue on our current path:

“Our country may continue to stumble from education reform to education reform like a drunken sailor… We’ll prioritize measuring irrelevant things and drill the innovation and creativity out of our youth… Our wealthiest parents will continue to get their kids into top colleges, arrange the ‘right’ internships, and—despite education’s failings—help their advantaged kids pull ahead.  The rest will plod through enervating school years, leave with abysmal career prospects, and have citizenship skills no better than mob psychology.  As the ranks of the chronically unemployed youth swell, the rift between the unrelenting rich and the disenfranchised rest will rip our society apart.  We will fail as a country, not because other nations defeated us, but because we defeated ourselves.” (p. 59)

I don’t think the future is as gloomy as Wagner and Dintersmith envision, and I am excited about the creative and exceptional learning opportunities available to Needham’s students; but I do believe educators, parents, and policy makers should consider how, exactly, we can best prepare our children for a world that requires innovative, nimble, curious, empathetic, and engaged young people—young people who will become adults in a dynamic, fast changing, and often unforgiving world.  As my mentor Dr. Tony Bent put it to me: We owe it to our students to think about how we are preparing them for their future and not for our past.

On Thursday, March 24th at 7:00 p.m. in the Newman Auditorium, the Needham Education Foundation and Needham’s PTCs will sponsor a viewing of the film, Most Likely to Succeed, which is based on Wagner and Dintersmith’s book and has been widely acclaimed.  A panel discussion follows and will provide an opportunity for Needham’s community members, students, faculty, and parents to discuss the film’s premise and the educational experience and expectations of Needham’s children.

I hope you can join us for this important conversation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

School Safety is Job #1

We have a fundamental responsibility to ensure our students and staff feel safe at school so they can focus on teaching and learning.  Everything else is secondary.

Sadly, the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and other recent mass shootings compel us to be proactive and to ensure we have current practices and procedures in place to respond in the event of violence or a crisis.

Fortunately, Needham’s administrators and teachers collaborate closely with the Town’s public safety officials to discuss, plan, and coordinate school security and safety protocols and drills.  To view a recent Needham Schools Spotlight cable program featuring a school safety discussion with Needham administrators and Police Chief Schlittler, click here:   Needham Schools Spotlight: ALICE

After much consideration and planning, the Needham Public Schools will adopt the ALICE protocol (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) to respond to a violent intruder. The ALICE approach provides tools and options for schools to respond more effectively and helps keep students and staff safe.  The current practice of having students hide quietly in a locked and darkened classroom under desks has not proven to be the safest reaction to an intruder bent on violence and mayhem.  For example, the “I” in ALICE, or Inform, means that school staff will receive quick information and kept up to date, in real time, about a school intrusion through the intercom system, classroom phone, or cell phones to ensure that students and staff are aware of the situation and can have a chance to react and respond appropriately and safely

In collaboration with the Needham Police, we have already trained several staff members and piloted the ALICE protocol at Mitchell, Hillside, and Needham High School.  Further training for all staff and developmentally appropriate student drills and training will take place in all of the schools over the next several months and into the 2016-17 school year. These scenarios and practices complement and support the other fire and bus safety drills students commonly experience throughout the year.  We expect to fully implement the ALICE protocol in the fall of 2016.

We still have more work ahead of us; school safety and security requires regular and ongoing discussion and planning.  I will never promise that we have it all figured out or guarantee that a tragedy will not strike our community or our schools.  Our efforts are robust but imperfect.  

But we will continue to think about the unthinkable and work with public safety officials, staff, students, and families to consider and implement plans and protocols that are appropriate and responsible.  The implementation of ALICE is one positive and necessary step in that direction.

To learn more about ALICE in the Needham Schools, click here:  ALICE Pesentation

Thanks to Superintendent Paul Stein of Wayland, Massachusetts for allowing me to share some of his perspective in my blog.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Confronting Fear in a Season of Hope

As Jewish families in our community mark the end of Hanukkah and Christians begin preparations for Christmas, I am reminded that this is a special and sacred time of year for so many of Needham’s children.

Sadly, this season has been marred by violence in Paris and San Bernadino and this, in turn, has stoked expressions of fear and outrage against Muslims.  We know that the cowardly and cruel acts of a few should never define the faith and aspirations of the many.  Unfortunately, this weekend the FBI is investigating a firebombing at a California mosque, and here in Massachusetts I have learned that a neighbor and colleague at a private Muslim elementary school is quite anxious about the safety and security of her students and staff.  As an educator I worry that increasing rhetoric and misplaced fear will fuel even more misunderstanding, distrust, hatred, or violence against Muslims. 

Yet I remain hopeful because I believe education is the answer required to assist children to develop the skills, knowledge, mindset, imagination, and courage to tackle enormous dilemmas and problems, especially those related to prejudice, bigotry, and intolerance.

In the Needham Schools I am immensely proud we work hard to ensure that all students, families, and staff are respected and supported regardless of their race, socioeconomic background, nationality, or religious affiliation.  Indeed, we discover, learn about, and celebrate the diversity of our students’ ethnicities, languages, traditions, and cultures through the use of literature and art, classroom discussions, service learning, and community meetings.  We are unafraid to hold discussions, for example, around race or sexual orientation believing that a conversation can begin to build understanding, tolerance, and acceptance.  Of course, we do this work imperfectly and strive to remember and respect the alternative and contrary point of view. 

During the holidays—and every day—let’s remember to support those among us who look, speak, or pray differently than we do.  Let’s support our Muslim colleagues and families during a time of uncertainty and wariness.  Let’s use our classrooms, dining rooms, and houses of worship to assist young people to learn about others, especially as we prepare them for a world hungry for their energy, resilience, creativity, and leadership.

I hope you and your family enjoy a safe and joyful season of peace.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

FY17 Budget Proposal: The Cost of Maintaining an Excellent Education for All Students

The FY17 (School Year 2016-17) budget proposal I submitted to the Needham School Committee outlines the minimum resources the schools need to support the educational program for our students, one that is consistent with the District’s core values of Scholarship, Citizenship, Community, and Personal Growth.  You may view my presentation here:  FY17 Proposed Budget Presentation to the School Committee Essentially, this budget proposal is a “maintenance” plan that addresses core services without requesting any significant dollars for new programs. 

The proposed budget requests an additional 5.6% 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. In fact, about 99% of the total $3.4 million requested proposes level service for 2016-17.  Given that the Town will have limited new revenue and escalating costs (e.g., employee health insurance) I will recommend only a small increase, under $44,000, for program development even though school leaders sought over $700,000 in enhancements and improvements.  

Several key budget “drivers” are impacting the proposed FY17 budget plan.  Among them:

•  Contractual Salary Increases  Contractual obligations for all existing employees account for $1.4 million, or about 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 11.73 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. Hillside, for example, will require 1.5 FTE new classroom teachers just to keep up with growing enrollment there.  New high school teachers are proposed to make up for the loss of grant funding.  Additionally, nursing (high school) and guidance support (elementary) is proposed to increase to ensure an appropriate amount of service is maintained.

•  Increased Special Education Costs  Increases in the number of special education students being served, special education tuition, transportation for special education students, and other mandated costs total approximately $1.1 million of the new funds requested.

•  Other Level Services  Small increases in funding are proposed to ensure continued K-12 curriculum leadership and programs ($56,814), upgraded technology supplies and services ($72,550), and literacy, math, art, science materials and resources ($60,905) are provided.  If funded, these requests will maintain the same level of service next year to students and staff as the current school year.

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 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 19th at 7:00 p.m.  Please also refer to the District’s website for additional information about the budget proposal:  FY17 Budget Documents

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Proposed New School at Central Avenue!

I am very pleased that the Needham School Committee has voted unanimously to select a site on Central Avenue for a new Hillside Elementary School.  The site, currently the Owen’s Poultry Farm property and adjacent houses, is an excellent choice for a new school for several reasons:

The proposed school on the site.
Central Avenue is at bottom of drawing; click to enlarge image.

First, the site meets each of the priorities (italicized below) the School Committee identified for a new elementary school in 2012:

  Elementary schools need sufficient space for an educational program consisting of 24 classrooms, K-5 or four sections per grade, and Full Day Kindergarten.  As planned, the school’s design capacity is for 430 students but can easily accommodate 544 students.  Full Day Kindergarten is planned for the school.

  Elementary schools should be neighborhood-based.   An analysis shows that a similar number of students will walk to a new school on Central Avenue as they currently do to Hillside; the fewest number of students would be able to walk to DeFazio.

  Reduce transportation costs when possible.  The same number of buses will be needed for a Central Avenue school; DeFazio or other sites outside the current district would require at least two new buses and additional and ongoing operating expenses.  Five buses—the same number as today—will travel to and from the school on Central Avenue.

  Minimize redistricting when possible.  No major redistricting will be necessary, although some minor redistricting could occur to help balance classes in Town.

  Minimize costs that will not be reimbursed or are considered temporary (i.e., modular classrooms).  No temporary classrooms will need to be constructed; students will remain at Hillside until the project is complete.

Students will enjoy this view to the west.

Second, the site provides ample, sufficient, and appropriate space for all of the educational and programmatic needs identified by the School Committee, school staff, and the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). 

  The 24 classrooms are complemented with additional classrooms for Spanish, technology, the arts, performing arts, music, physical education, and special education.  The site provides enough space to ensure that flexible academic and learning space for each grade level is also included in the design.

  Offices, meeting rooms, storage, and conference areas are planned as well.  A 6,000 square foot gym, cafeteria with additional areas for quiet eating zones, and separate performance stage are all part of the design.  Additionally, outdoor play areas, including an art area, playground, hardscape basketball and foursquare areas as well as field space are all components of the plan.  A walking trail to the hill is also a design possibility and will extend the available learning and play space for children.

  Parking, including separate parent and bus access points are included as well as an additional emergency access drive for public safety.  Parking for over 100 cars (twice as many as currently exist at Hillside today) is planned.  In addition, parent and staff access, including student drop off/pick up, will be designed to minimize traffic queuing on Central Avenue and ensure student and neighborhood safety.

  The school’s planned entrance is sufficiently set back from the road approximately 185 feet.  The Broadmeadow entrance is located about 200 feet from the road, and Mitchell is situated 160 feet from Brookline Avenue.

Third, the Central Avenue site will allow the Town to preserve two potential future sites for School or Town use:  The existing Hillside campus and DeFazio. 

It is important to the School Committee that sufficient land be available for a future school should the community require one due to enrollment needs, program expansion, or educational requirements.

Finally, the Central Avenue site is beautiful and safe and will be a wonderful venue for children to grow, learn, play, and achieve.

Properly designed, the Central Avenue site provides for student, staff, and family comfort, safety and security; enjoyable play areas, including green and hardscape spaces; walking, gathering, and outdoor learning areas; and an appropriately sized school that allows for enrollment growth. 

Student safety and security will be critical components of the school’s design, including student drop off/pick up areas.  Existing crossing guards will be redeployed to the school and adjacent streets as determined by public safety officials.  In addition, the Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC) will invite neighbors to comment on and become involved in the school site design to ensure the disruption to the community will be minimized and traffic concerns can be managed and mitigated through thoughtful consultation, planning, and design.

The expansive conservation area to the west toward Wellesley, the woods on the north side of the property, and the long forgotten trail to the hill offer a scenic, picturesque, and attractive school setting—one that will allow students and staff to take advantage of the venue unhindered from the demands of a busy athletic/DPW site and in a way that complements, supports, and enriches the educational program.

This is the north view of the proposed Central Avenue site.

 The Central Avenue site will offer the Town an extraordinary venue to build an exceptional elementary school for the Hillside community, a school that will serve the needs of Needham’s children for several generations to come.

For more information about the Hillside planning process, check out the District’s website:  Hillside Planning