Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Taking Care of Business: School Building & Maintenance Projects in Needham this Summer

This time of year it’s pretty quiet around town:  Needham’s families are away on summer vacation, kids are at camp, and you can actually find parking near the Town Common!

Around the schools, though, it’s a different story.  The Town’s maintenance crews, craftsmen, and contractors are busy getting the schools ready for the fall and the return of students and teachers.  Thanks to the generosity of Needham taxpayers and Town Meeting, over $3 million is being spent on school maintenance and capital improvement projects this summer alone.  Key projects in and around the schools include:

  School Maintenance  Repairs are proceeding in each school building, especially at Pollard, which is undergoing an asbestos abatement project, HVAC upgrades, duct cleaning, and locker replacement.  The installation of new freezers, lighting, and flooring, as needed, at other schools is also part of the work plan. 

  Playgrounds  Outdoor play areas at all of the schools receive ongoing attention with repairs to play equipment, fencing, resurfacing, and general upkeep.  As a result of the ongoing work, our play areas are safe, accessible, and fun!

Newman Fields Reconstruction
  Newman Fields and Eastman Conservation  A major reconstruction and refurbishing of fields and the conservation area on the Newman campus are underway and should mostly be ready when school starts in September.  New drainage, fields, walkway, landscaping, learning areas, and handicapped accessibility will all be addressed with this $2.3 million project.

  Needham High School  Given the growing enrollment at NHS, the Town is investing in the refurbishment of some interior spaces to provide additional classroom seats.  Designed for 1,450 students, Needham High will enroll about 1,680 students this fall, and the
High School Classroom Refurbishing
additional classroom seats will definitely be needed.  The Town has allocated about $600,000 for all school maintenance projects, including the interior classroom work at NHS this summer.  (Architects are also developing plans to expand the high school cafeteria next summer.)

  Hillside Feasibility  The feasibility study is underway, and the School Committee, Selectmen, and Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC) will review and vote on options for a possible school venue and construction project in the fall.

The Town is clearly committed to maintaining and improving the schools in order to provide an excellent learning environment for each child.  Thanks to Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and her incredible team of professionals:  Dave Davison, Chris Coleman, Chip Laffey, Rick Merson, Steve Popper, Hank Haff, Patty Carey, Ed Olsen, Bob Lewis, Ben Anderson, Tony Delgaizo, and many others, including tradesmen, custodians, and support staff.

These dedicated folks work collaboratively with the schools and staff to ensure the Needham community remains a great place in which to live, work, play and learn.

Happy summer!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Superb Ending to a Productive 2014-15 School Year!

The 2014-15 school year concluded successfully in the Needham Schools, and at its last meeting of the academic year the School Committee celebrated the many accomplishments of students, staff, and the community, including the:

•  Implementation of new elementary programming in Spanish, Wellness, Music, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics); new interdisciplinary courses at the high school, including the Greater Boston Project and robotics/arts programs
•  Integration into the schedule additional time for staff to collaborate, meet, and plan
•  Development of common assessments at every level in an effort to improve the instructional experience for all children and ensure each child has foundational experiences and skills in grades K-12
•  Level One Status achieved by four Needham Schools based on improving MCAS scores
•  Expansion of opportunities to ensure the development of culturally proficient practices and school cultures in each building; expansion of our exchange program with the Daxing School District (Beijing)
•  Opening of the Da Vinci Workshop at NHS in partnership with the NEF and PTC Corporation; incredible elementary family STEAM fair (over 800 attendees!)
•  Continued implementation and strengthening of the educator evaluation program
•  Review and recommended enhancements to school safety protocols; pilot of the A.L.I.C.E (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) protocol
•  Launching of the 1 to 1 Personalized Learning Initiative at High Rock and middle school
•  Development of a possible pathway to implementing Full Day Kindergarten
•  Feasibility study to replace Hillside and expand high school space; Start of construction of Newman Fields and Eastman Conservation areas
•  Assessment of the impact of service learning activities on student growth and achievement
• Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) Sportsmanship Award in Skiing and Boys’ Volleyball (The volleyball team also went undefeated and captured the state title!)

It has been a busy and productive year, and we look forward to the opportunity to recharge our batteries over the summer, even as we begin planning for the 2015-16 school year.  For additional information about the district goals and a presentation to the School Committee, check out our website:  2014-15 Goals Update

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Thank You, Town Meeting Members!

Needham’s 2015 Annual May Town Meeting concluded after three long nights, and there was plenty to be grateful for as Town Meeting Members consistently voted to support several school projects and initiatives, including the passage of a $61.5 million operating budget.

Town Meeting also voted to support the following School projects and capital needs:

  Articles 31 & 32:  Newman Athletic Fields and the Eastman Conservation Area received $2.3 million in funding to support the renovation of the fields and the rehabilitation of Eastman.  The Eastman Conservation Area is a popular student destination and will be upgraded and made handicapped accessible.

  Article 41: School Capital Budget includes $511,145 to purchase technology, furniture, and copiers.   These funds will be used to keep school technology and infrastructure current and replace older desktops, some over seven years old.  Copiers and furniture will be replaced only as needed and according to a sophisticated inventory program.

  Article 39:  $150,000 was appropriated to design a 2,500 square foot cafeteria expansion at Needham High School.  The school’s enrollment far exceeds its design capacity, and this café project is the first of two phases of expansion needed at the high school.  Next year, the School Committee will work with Town Boards and Town Meeting to secure additional funds for a classroom expansion project.

In addition to these important school appropriations, Town Meeting also provided funding to address school building upgrades, needs, and maintenance.  Additional funds were voted for other capital needs and contingencies, including for all athletic fields, which are heavily used by Needham’s students and young people.

The Needham community, as represented by its dedicated Town officials, Boards, and Town Meeting Members, has once again wisely prioritized school needs as a clear demonstration of its ongoing commitment to children.  Thanks, Town Meeting!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Space Needs at Needham High School

The School Committee and administration have been studying options for expanding cafeteria and classroom space at Needham High School.  Following are key questions about the identified needs at the school:

Q:  Given many School Committee and Town priorities and the limited resources available, why is the Needham School Committee looking to add space to Needham High School seven years after it opened?

A:  Needham High School lacks sufficient space to meet the current and projected needs of its students, staff, and families.  The community’s expectation for a high performing high school program cannot be met with the existing number of classrooms.

  The high school is—and will remain—over its capacity by 200 students, all of whom learn in classrooms designed below contemporary standards.  For example, Needham High School (NHS) was designed for 1,450 students and opened the doors in 2008 with enrollment of 1,404.  Current enrollment is 1614 and is projected to sustain an average of 1,652 students through the year 2028, the last year for which we have projections. 

  General classrooms at NHS include 760 square ft. of floor space designed to accommodate an average class size of 22 students.  (Current MSBA standards call for classrooms designed to accommodate 23 students at 850 square ft. per classroom.)  Over 125 classes, a quarter of all classes at NHS, hold 25 or more students; due to the lack of adequate space, the number of math, English, social studies, and foreign language classes with 25 or more students has doubled, going from 47 sections in 2007-08 to 95 sections in 2014-15.  The number of core academic classes with 28 or more students has quadrupled in the same time period, going from 5 sections in 2007-08 to 25 in the current year.  Large class sizes limit student-teacher interaction, instruction, and personalization.

  Over half the faculty is scheduled into two or more spaces, resulting in lost preparation time for travel and classroom setup, limited space for student/teacher conferencing, and the loss of an effective, consistent, and personalized instructional environment for students.  Students report that conversations with their teachers and requests for assistance are limited, abrupt, and impractical due to teachers moving back and forth between shared classrooms.

  Conference and collaboration spaces (e.g., METCO, Science, and English conference rooms) have been converted into much-needed classroom space, further limiting and restricting the teacher-student relationship.  This summer a science storage room and the language lab will be turned into permanent classrooms to help provide spaces for the additional 50 to 60 students attending NHS in the fall.

  Options for students will become increasingly limited due to the lack of appropriate space. For example, in the upcoming 2015-16 school year, the lack of an appropriate lab space will limit the numbers of students taking AP Biology.  It has become increasingly difficult to provide spaces for special education classrooms and other spaces to meet the needs of students who may have non-traditional learning needs.  The Greater Boston Project, a new and popular interdisciplinary course involving English, social studies, and math, has 30 students enrolled in the current year; next year’s enrollment tops 90.  However, given space constraints, the program will need to limit participation.  Without additional space, class sizes will continue to stay high; offices, storage areas, library spaces, auditorium, and other non-classroom spaces will be repurposed to meet program needs; and academic programs, including interdisciplinary learning, science instruction, and student support and special education programs will be dropped or curtailed in order to fit within the existing and undersized school building. 

  The cafeteria is undersized, and during most lunches the number of students assigned exceeds the cafeteria’s maximum occupancy of 488.  For example, the second lunch seating has an average of 620 students assigned.  As a result, students are forced to find alternative seating and/or juniors and seniors eat off campus.  The school can no longer simply add seats; additional space must be provided to meet building and safety codes.

Q: What is needed to address the identified space needs at Needham High School?

A: Needham High School requires a minimum of six new classrooms and an expanded cafeteria to sustain its current and projected enrollment and to meet the diverse needs of a high performing academic program.

  The addition of a minimum of six classrooms will a) provide appropriate learning spaces for high school academic programs, including math, English, social studies, science, and special education for the next generation of students; b) keep class sizes within acceptable ranges; and c) ensure students, teachers, staff, and families have adequate space to conference, collaborate, meet, and learn. 

  Certain spaces and rooms that have been repurposed to meet classroom needs will return to their original use and design.  For example, the English conference/curriculum room, currently scheduled with up to six classes, will be restored to its original purpose: a space for teachers, students, and families to study, meet, and conference.  The school will optimize its schedule and spaces to ensure students have options for academic and co-curricular programs.

  An expanded cafeteria with 2,500 additional square feet will alleviate overcrowding and ensure building and safety codes are addressed. 

  The FY16 Capital Plan details available funding for a project in the amount of $4.4 million.  Initial estimates, however, suggest a project with a café expansion and a minimum of six new classrooms may require funding in the amount of $6.7 million. 

The School Committee will pursue at least a cafeteria expansion project at the upcoming May Town Meeting and then work with Town boards and officials to continue to study affordable options for expanding much-needed classroom space. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Needham Education Foundation: 25 Years of Excellence in Education!

Congratulations and thank you to the Needham Education Foundation (NEF) as it celebrates 25 years of extraordinary leadership and commitment to the students and staff of the Needham Public Schools!

For 25 years the wise and tireless work of NEF board members and volunteers has enabled the Needham Public Schools to provide innovative and inspiring programming for children. In fact, in the last 25 years, the NEF has funded over 500 grants totaling $2.2 million! Over the years, tens of thousands of students have enjoyed and benefited from imaginative and dynamic learning experiences and programs that would not have been possible without the NEF’s exceptional support and encouragement.  Spurred on by generous donors, the NEF’s work goes way beyond funding.  The NEF, in a close collaboration with teachers, administrators, parents, and students has provided expertise, perspective, and deep experience to assist the schools to envision, shape, and develop educational programs.  The dollars certainly make things possible, but it is also the collective energy, wisdom, and inspiration of NEF members who support our thinking and encourage us to go further than we thought possible.

I learned a long time ago as a young teacher in South Central LA, in a neighborhood racked by poverty, violence, and despair, that a school can only thrive—children can only succeed—if the local community embraces its mission of educating all students and providing opportunities for them to grow into imaginative, responsible, and engaged citizens.  Needham is far removed from the streets of Watts, but the need for community and caring is as important here as it was there.  A school systems flourishes—children grow—when adults in the community figure out ways to connect and build relationships to nurture student achievement. Smart and caring communities, like Needham, collaborate to build a network and web of caring, learning, and support.

And that is what the NEF is all about:  Compassionate and talented people with good heads and eager hearts coming together to provide ideas, resources, and inspiration so that teachers can create the kind of experiences that will allow children to thrive.  In the end, the NEF is all about the promise of education and empowering young minds and bodies.  It is a vivid demonstration of the power and the value of community.  It is clearly a message and a mission of hope and love. 

I am humbled by the generosity of the NEF and all of those in this remarkable community who sustain its work.  It is an honor for me to work in the shadows of parents, civic officials and community leaders who so deeply believe in young people and are committed to their success.

Thank you, NEF.  And on your 25th, Happy Birthday!

For more information about the NEF or to donate:

Saturday, February 28, 2015

METCO Cuts Unreasonable!

We learned recently that due to the state’s budget shortfall, the METCO program will sustain additional funding cuts jeopardizing services for over 3,300 students in Massachusetts, including 140 in Needham.  Governor Deval Patrick, whose past budget recommendations for METCO reflected a lack of interest in the program, cut the grant program by 1% before he left office.  Governor Charlie Baker has followed up that original $300,000 cut with an additional so-called “9C” cut of over $900,000, bringing the total reduction to over $1.2 million, or about 6%.

There is no justification for this level of cut, especially when the Governor’s Budget Chief Kristen Lepore had stated that “the 9C cuts are being meted out roughly across the board in state government.”  Of course, that can’t be true if most cuts to departments were below the 6% level.  According to WBUR, Lepore also stated that the cuts are focused on programs not yet “off the ground,” and the reductions will have a “minimum impact on core state services.” 

Respectfully, Ms. Lepore, I disagree.

Here in Needham the total cuts from Governors Patrick and Baker total $56,742.  We use those funds to transport and tutor real kids who are attending school now.  We use those funds to train and support staff and provide services to assist families and students now.  Without those funds, services are in jeopardy today with little lead-time to adjust and prepare. 

I understand that the state’s budget plan changed, and the Governor needs to make hard choices to balance it by June 30th.  All state programs should be scrutinized and considered as part of a broad solution.  I get it.  But the METCO cut is an unfair hit at this time of the year, especially when other reductions were at a lower level.

We are looking carefully at our budget and other resources to see if we can scramble to come up with a plan that least impacts students.  The Needham community is caring and resourceful, so I expect we can minimize the impact of these cuts.  But for next year, I urge the Governor and the Legislature to make a commitment to fund METCO at a sustainable and fair level, one that will provide a reasonable level of services for one of the state’s best education programs. 

Governor Baker:  Congratulations on your new role as Governor of this great state.  We are excited a native son is in the corner office on Beacon Hill!  Please consider this an official invitation to welcome you back home to Needham to see first-hand the power and promise of the METCO program in our schools.

To watch a recent WGBH Greater Boston program featuring Needham High METCO students, click on the link: METCO Program: WGBH

To read a 2011 report, commissioned by Harvard and the Pioneer Institute, about the promise of the METCO program and the perils of its consistent underfunding, click this link:  METCO Merits More Report (Harvard and Pioneer Institute)

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Keeping it Simple

My wife and I visited a local indoor winter Farmer’s Market today and among all of the fresh baked goods, crafts, honey and maple syrup offerings, winter vegetables, and hand-made woolen socks and sweaters, we spied a small, painted wooden sign that says:  “Live Simply.”  So instead of being tempted by the warm cinnamon and chocolate chip bread loafs and a very comfortable looking but expensive scarf, we quickly decided to buy the sign, and once we were home placed it prominently in the kitchen where we will see it first thing each morning.

I know I need a constant reminder to slow down, take it all in, relax, be patient, and try not to have it all or act like I can do it all (Spoiler alert:  I can’t.).  Live Simply is an important reminder for me as I go about an often harried and frenetic schedule trying to fit it all in or pursue things that, at the end of the day, really are not that important.

I think I need another sign in my office that says Learn Simply.  Unfortunately, many school administrators and policy makers have made things way too complicated for teachers and students.  We have promoted convoluted mandates, reforms, and testing that often interfere with the teacher-student relationship and have stymied and stunted learning, creativity, and joy in the classroom.  We are making students, teachers, and parents hyperventilate about cyber-bullying, college acceptances, and math leveling (Mom and Dad, spoiler alert:  It will be OK!).  Sometimes I think we just need to step back and take a deep breath before we continue on the dogged and never-ending Race to the Top. 

I am anxious about making sure our students leave high school with 21st Century skills, a solid Common Core, and acceptance to the very best university. Like every dutiful school superintendent, I scour the Globe rankings to see where we landed with PSAT, ACT, SAT, AP, MCAS, and soon PARCC assessments.  I worry about how it will be perceived by the Department of Education or Boston Magazine if too many of our teachers are rated Proficient—or worse, Exemplary! Have we invested in the right technology tools,  curriculum maps, and professional development?  Have we left anyone behind?

I need to relax.

I need to remember we have great students, superb teachers, and supportive parents who have high expectations for each other and for me, but they also want and expect an educational experience that will result in well-rounded and well-grounded young people—an education that emphasizes the critical and personal connection between teacher and learner.  One that allows a teacher to nurture students and not just analyze test data.  Oh, I know it is not that simple; there has to be a balance between the two, and I understand and respect that.  But with excessive educational mandates, layers of curriculum reforms, and year-round testing requirements, I need to remember to help our educators keep these tasks in perspective and strive to provide clarity and focus for the Needham Public Schools.  Our core values should always be our touchstone.

My job requires me to assist our principals and teachers to sift through the bureaucratic and legislative reform cacophony to ensure we are focused on what is truly important and what parents ultimately want their child to become: A good and decent person who has acquired basic foundational knowledge and skills, a curious mind, tolerant perspective, and a strong work ethic; someone who will contribute as a caring human being and engaged citizen in a world that craves those qualities. 

At the end of the day, it’s really not that complicated:  Live Simply.  Learn Simply.  In a tumultuous world and for our children’s sake, let’s commit ourselves to both.