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Friday, October 31, 2014

2014-15 School Committee Priorities and Goals


The Needham School Committee recently adopted the 2014-15 District Goals.  Administrators and staff will use the goals to guide our work in the coming year as we collaborate to improve learning.  It is an ambitious plan, and one we are proud to share with the community.  I encourage students, parents, and community members to become familiar with the plan and ask us about our work along the way.

The document does not describe all of our work nor does it detail each step we propose to take to address a variety of opportunities and challenges.  But we believe the goals provide the context, structure, and direction our schools need to move forward and strengthen teaching and learning for all children. Throughout the year the School Committee will receive updates about action steps related to the goals, and in June they will receive a full report about our progress to date. 

The School Committee is particularly committed to communicating four key initiatives embedded in the goals:

  Articulate building and renovation needs at Hillside in anticipation of a construction project that will require a debt exclusion and the community’s support.
  Articulate classroom and core space needs at Needham High School in anticipation of a Town Meeting request for both design and construction funds.
  Begin a community discussion and conversation around a pathway to implementation of full day Kindergarten in the Needham Public Schools. 
  Ensure the roll out and implementation of the iPad Personalized Learning Initiative at High Rock is successful and shared broadly in an effort to continue to build understanding and support at the middle school level.

You can expect to hear the School Committee discuss and emphasize these initiatives in the year ahead, especially as the community weighs various Town and School building projects as part of the anticipated Facilities Master Plan due out next spring.

The School Committee understands that the Needham community prioritizes education and expects results that demonstrate the commitment and investment parents, citizens, and taxpayers have made to the schools.  They also understand that the community must be engaged and participate in a conversation about the needs of the schools if Needham wishes to sustain an educational program that benefits all children and makes Needham an attractive and vibrant town.




Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Collaborate... Innovate... Inspire


Following are excerpts from my comments to the Needham Public Schools staff upon their return to school September 2, 2014.

This morning I wish to challenge each and every one of you with three expectations for the new school year:  Collaborate  Innovate  Inspire  It it is my expectation as your superintendent that you consider these simple yet challenging words and decide how you will act on them in your role in the Needham Schools.  Fortunately, in most ways this is an easy lift for Needham’s professionals who have already established a culture of collegiality, creativity, and excitement.

Collaborate
The community has generously provided us with additional time to work and plan together to improve student learning.  Let’s use this time to build relationships, converse with one another, problem-solve, review data, share information, learn from one another, and improve practice.  Examples of collaboration abound in this district:  Grade level and data teams… Critical Friends Group… Middle school clusters…Literacy Task Force…

This coming year, take this work to a new level; lean on each other and push one another to grow and learn.  Use the district goals, School Improvement Plans, and your students’ learning needs to establish team goals and guide your practice and planning with one another. By the way, if you are truly collaborating, you are taking risks and making mistakes and that’s OK.  Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmundson concluded that successful organizations allow professionals to work together in an atmosphere of open dialogue, trust, problem solving, disagreement, and failure.  Without a culture of sincere, honest, and deliberative conversation and collaboration, learning organizations cannot flourish.

Are you asking hard questions at faculty, grade level, or department meetings?  Are you willing to listen patiently to a new colleague, fresh out of grad school, who lacks experience but just might have an interesting solution to a school-wide problem?  How can we encourage independent and innovative thinking within our students if we don’t allow ourselves the chance to confront long held assumptions or past practices? 

Innovate
In collaboration with colleagues, consider new ways to address learning needs.  Ask your students to tackle authentic tasks and problems.  Tap into the use of technology to enhance and extend student learning and achievement. 

Innovative and imaginative teaching practices and programs are present in our classrooms.  Interdisciplinary learning, such as the high school’s Greater Boston Project, African-American studies, environmental science, and the middle school’s engineering course are examples of existing opportunities complemented by strong service learning and performing arts programs.

Da Vinci’s Workshop, a new lab at Needham High will allow students and staff an opportunity to “play” with technology, robotics, design, science, and the arts. 

Let’s continue to break down the artificial silos that separate academic disciplines and departments; let’s create even more experiences—like the new elementary STEAM program—to allow students to explore science, technology, and the arts. 

Perhaps the use of a technology tool, like a laptop or iPad, will allow a student to personalize a learning experience in a way that a classroom teacher can’t.  There is a tradeoff, by the way, when we integrate mobile technology tools into the classroom.  Teachers give up some of their authority and students gain more autonomy and responsibility.  That’s a little scary for the adults!  Students may do some things they should not do. But they also can become empowered to research, collaborate, create, and communicate in ways never before possible. 

Let’s engage our students with new approaches and fresh thinking. Do students have choice in your classroom?  Do they have a voice in their learning?  Can they show what they know in the form of a paper or a project?  Will you encourage them to demonstrate understanding in a way that matches their learning style? 

Lets embed into our practice, let’s make routine, the use of innovative planning and thinking inside and outside the classroom.

Inspire
This is the most difficult thing I can expect of you.  Collaboration and innovation set us on a path leading to engaged and inspired young people. Without inspired and motivated students, their chances for achievement, growth, and a purposeful and meaningful life are diminished. 

The tone you bring, the relationships you establish, the connections you make, and the enthusiasm you activate will make all the difference in your students’ lives and the lives of those around them.

Think carefully about how you will inspire, engage, and excite learning.  Consider how you can bring imaginative instruction and un-common assessments into your classroom and school.  Think about how you will connect and develop a rapport with the shy, reluctant, and bored student.  Will you change up your lesson plan?  Tell a personal story to develop interest?

There can be no missed opportunities to comfort an anxious child or involve a recalcitrant student in a lively classroom debate. Make sure you establish a classroom and school environment that has high expectations and allows students to take chances and build friendships. Your actions should promote character and tolerance; curiosity and inquiry; humor and humility. Your students will remember you for it, and they will become stronger, resilient, and inspired.

And this last point brings me to my friend, James Hugh Powers. I invited Mr. Powers here because I want you to know that he is one of the people who inspires me in my work, and I am honored to know him.  I wanted you to meet him as well. 

Mr. Powers is 91 years old and a longtime Needham resident who grew up with two brothers, John and Pete.  He is a veteran of WWII and was a dedicated public servant, working for the Massachusetts Legislature during a long career. He served as a Town Meeting member for 60 years, and a few years ago Powers Hall was dedicated in his honor at the Needham Town Hall. 

Over the last nine years I have been superintendent, Mr. Powers has sent me dozens and dozens of letters, notes, and articles about education and teaching and learning.  His letters are beautifully written, eloquent, and poignant.  His command of education, history, politics, literature, and the economy is extraordinary.  He is absolutely devoted to education and the teaching profession.  He believes the work we do is critical to the success of a vibrant democracy and a fulfilled life. 

I have come to look forward to the notes he sends or the occasional times we spend together.  He always admonishes me to make sure I am supporting the most important ingredient in the school—the classroom teacher!  I leave my conversations with him refreshed, enthused, knowing that he represents the best of Needham and all of those who support our work with young people. 

This past May, Mr. Powers attended the unveiling of a new memorial in the high school lobby dedicated to Needham residents who sacrificed their lives in war.  As a Marine Corps vet who fought on Okinawa and witnessed untold atrocities, Mr. Powers joined other Needham veterans for the unveiling.  And he also attended to honor his older brother, Pete. 

You see 70 years ago this December, Mr. Powers’s little brother, John, then a Needham High senior, came home from school and found his mother unconscious on the floor with a War Department telegram laying beside her.  It turns out that Pete had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and a proud family of three handsome boys lost the eldest son.  Mr. Powers, stationed in the Pacific at the time, only learned of his brother’s heroism and death much later in a painful letter from his father.

So this past May Mr. Powers stood at attention at the new memorial to recall those who died bravely for our freedom.  And he also touched Pete’s engraved name and remembered his older brother.  I’ll never forget the dignity, sacrifice, and love of that moment.

In a recent letter, Mr. Powers encouraged me to remember the essential nature of our work.  He wrote:

“You have a wonderful, promising, if mischievous and at times vexing, body of students (in the schools) each one of whom is a bundle of possibilities.  Motivate each one of them to his or her best effort, to settle only for his or her best effort.  And do not give up on a single one of them beset by troubles.  For the world out there in which they will be plunging after graduation remains a highly competitive, very challenging (and often) dangerous place, unsympathetic to sounders of uncertain trumpets.”

Mr. Powers, Jim, thank you for those salient words.  Thank you for leading a life of dedicated and inspired service to our nation and this community.  Thank you for your steadfast support of our teachers and schools.  And thank you for your loyalty and friendship.

Folks, you are the ones who must guide our young people in their quest for self-discovery, growth, and meaning. Education is the answer needed to assist children to develop the skills, mindset, imagination, and courage to tackle the most stubborn and intractable dilemmas of today’s world.  The problems all around us require sophisticated responses, intelligent discourse, and creative problem solvers who will collaborate and innovate to improve lives and brighten the world.

As you leave here today remember that we do this work with the strong support and commitment of those around us so that, together, we can Collaborate, Innovate, and Inspire.

Thank you for all you do and for letting me serve as your superintendent; it is a singular honor.  I hope you have a superb year.




Wednesday, July 30, 2014

METCO Program Review


Needham recently completed a METCO program review to learn more about the opportunities and challenges facing our school community as we strive to meet the needs of all students, including our 155 Boston resident students who participate in METCO.

The review highlighted the many strengths of our METCO program, including the success of our METCO students, parent satisfaction, and staff involvement in student growth and achievement.

The program review also provided recommendations for improvement, including strengthening student support services for Boston students; increasing cultural proficiency and sensitivity within the district; and ensuring all students perform at high levels, especially at the secondary level.

Please check out the entire report on our website.  Click on this link 2013-14 Reports  and select 2014 METCO Program Review Report.

Additionally, please take a few minutes to watch the video of a recent Needham Schools Spotlight and hear the voices of several Needham High School students talking about their experiences with race and culture in the Needham Schools:   Student Voices:  Race and Empowerment in the Needham Schools

Friday, May 23, 2014

Memorial Day 2014: Needham's Fallen Brave



This morning, on the eve of Memorial Day, a beautiful new bronze plaque honoring Needham’s young men who died in service to our great country was dedicated in the high school’s foyer.  Dr. Jonathan Pizzi, Needham High School principal, shared the following remarks at the solemn ceremony:
WWII Vets unveil new memorial
Students read off names of the 97 Fallen Brave

Ladies and Gentlemen, Honored Guests, Town Officials, Colleagues, students, and most importantly, Veterans of Our Armed Forces:

It is with great pride and honor, as well as with a deep sense of sorrow, gratitude, and respect that Needham High School is able to provide once again a rightful and conspicuous place with which to honor our community’s Fallen Brave.  These individuals answered a call and lived and died knowing that they were fighting for a set of ideals and a cause that transcended their own individual interests.  They knew that the creation and then the very existence of this great nation depended upon their acting against human nature and advancing toward situations from which others fled in terror.

In many ways today’s enemies of freedom are not as readily identifiable as a Confederate Raider or a Panzer tank.  Of course the omnipresent threats of war and terrorism force us to live in a state of constant vigilance and anxiety regarding our personal safety.  To my students especially, however, I offer this: pervasive individualism, moral relativism, indeed the intrusive practices of our own government agencies, threaten the very freedoms for which the 97 individuals named here fought and gave their lives.  The ideals of our Founding Fathers as spelled out in our Constitution are ours to study, to practice, and above all, to protect.   Consequently, and more so than the acquisition of any amount of material wealth, the education you receive here bestows upon each of you the responsibility to grow your intelligence, your critical thinking, and your participation in our democracy so that the new enemies of our way of life – and there are many - can be defeated at every turn.

In his memoirs, Winston Churchill penned the following words to describe the deluge of emotion that swept over him after learning of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941: “Saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful, for I knew I was now on the winning side.”

Long after this dedication ceremony has concluded and as we gaze and reflect upon this memorial to the 97 Fallen Brave, let us remember our quintessential responsibility to protect our basic American ideals and rights and allow ourselves to be swept up in the same emotions of sadness, relief, and gratitude as Britain’s then Prime Minister, and never, ever take for granted that whether at Bunker Hill, Antietam, Meuse-Argonne, the Ardennes Forest, the Pussan Perimeter, or Khe San, these soldiers and sailors made the ultimate sacrifice that we may ever sleep the sleep of the saved and thankful.   Thank you.


James H. Powers, USMC and WWII Veteran, honors his brother Pete who died in the Battle of the Bulge

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thank You, Needham! Next Steps!


On April 8th, Needham voters, once again, stepped up to support the community’s students and schools by passing an override to extend the school day and provide new and innovative programming for elementary students. 

I want to commend and thank parents and the community for their incredible and ongoing support of the Needham Public Schools!  I am honored to work in a community where citizens, including neighbors, parents, staff, and Town Boards—especially the School Committee, Finance Committee, and Selectmen—work so hard to understand the issues and collaborate closely to identify creative solutions, especially when it comes to addressing the needs and aspirations of our young people.  Thank you for providing the resources we will need to extend the school day at the elementary and middle school levels and offer additional elementary programs, including the arts, technology, and Spanish. 

Now the hard work begins if we are to be prepared for the opening of a new school year in September! 

In the weeks and months ahead I will share with parents, students, and staff the details around programs and schedules as they become available.  Currently administrators and teachers are working to plan new programs, hire the teachers required at the elementary level, and plan for the teacher and staff training needed to implement the extended day program in a meaningful and successful way.  We are excited to tackle this work, knowing that we have a unique opportunity to infuse innovation and new levels of collaboration into our school day for all students and staff.

One significant change that parents and students must prepare for at all levels is a change in the daily schedule, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels.  Please refer to the new time schedule below:

Needham Public Schools 2014-2015 School Start & End Times

SCHOOL
STUDENT DAY
Preschool
8:45 - 3:10
Broadmeadow
8:20 - 2:45
Eliot
8:20 - 2:45
Hillside
8:20 - 2:45
Mitchell
8:20 - 2:45
Newman
8:45 - 3:10
Broadmeadow, Eliot, Hillside, Mitchell Kindergarten a.m./ p.m.
8:20 - 11:03/12:02 -2:45
Newman Kindergarten a.m./ p.m.
8:45 - 11:28/12:27 - 3:10
High Rock
7:40 - 2:10
Pollard
7:50 - 2:20
Needham High School
Monday-Thursday

8:00 - 2:35
Needham High School
Friday

 8:35 - 2:35

Beginning in September 2014 the elementary school day will be 25 minutes longer, and the middle school day will end ten minutes later.  In addition, each Friday morning at Needham High School, classes will begin at 8:35 a.m. to give teachers and staff time to meet and plan together.  And while NHS will only participate in a few early release professional development days, the elementary and middle schools will continue to have scheduled early release and delayed opening professional development.  This means that while elementary and middle school students will be dismissed early on some days, high school students will remain in classes until the conclusion of the school day, 2:35 p.m.

Over the summer principals will send out additional information about schedules and meetings.  If you have specific questions, please contact your child’s school directly for more information. Thanks again to a generous and involved community that invests wisely in our most precious resource:  Needham’s young people!



Monday, March 31, 2014

Owning Your Peace/Piece at Needham High School



Recently, several Needham High School students shared their personal stories as part of the high school’s Own Your Peace/Own Your Piece assembly. The assembly is part of a student initiative focused on building student activism, voice, resiliency, and a broad sense of community and respect.

Courageous students stood in front of hundreds and hundreds of their peers to share their personal stories and challenges. Their poignant anecdotes about their struggles with emotional and mental health issues, sexual orientation, racism, or learning issues were thoughtful, articulate, and inspiring. I came away captivated by their mature words and their powerful perspectives that demonstrated a willingness to stand up, take a risk, and  model what we value and how we want students to act.

Of course, it is no accident that the Own Your Peace/Own Your Piece assembly can thrive in a caring community like Needham High. The school's staff, parents, and students value and appreciate one another, and this speak out was yet another example of how the school strives to empower young people and their learning.

Thanks to the brave young men and women at Needham High School who encouraged each one of us to Own Your Peace/Own Your Piece!

Check out the student video that kicked off the week’s activities:  Youtube: NHS Own Your Peace/Own Your Piece



Friday, February 28, 2014

School Committee Endorses Override to Provide More Innovation and Time on Learning

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At the request of the School Committee, the Needham Selectmen have voted unanimously to place the following override question on the April 8, 2014 ballot:

Shall the Town of Needham be allowed to assess an additional $1,548,410 in real estate and personal property taxes for the purposes of funding operating expenses for the Public Schools for the fiscal year beginning July first two thousand fourteen?

The School Committee is requesting the additional funding to provide for innovative and extended learning in the Needham Schools.  The additional funds, if approved by the voters in April, will:

a)    Restore previously cut school programs like elementary Spanish, music and PE;
b)    Provide for innovative learning opportunities for our elementary students, including technology and increased arts;
c)     Extend the school day to optimize learning for all K-8 students and;
d)    Ensure the K-12 professional staff has sufficient time to meet during and after the school day to improve and strengthen instruction.

This request is the result of numerous, ongoing, and public discussions over the last several years about the need to improve programs and provide sufficient time for our students.  Over the last ten years the District’s curriculum review process has detailed the need for additional time to address instructional concerns and develop programs that will enhance and empower student learning.  Additionally, data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is compelling and shows that Needham has more students per teacher than all but one of our 20 comparable communities, and our students have less time on learning in the classroom in grades K-8 than many of those same towns.  Finally, Needham’s teachers require additional time before, during, and after school hours to address state mandates and meet, collaborate, and plan to tackle the many and diverse learning needs of all our students.

Over the last several months the School Committee worked collaboratively with School and Town officials, especially the Finance Committee, to develop a request that is reasonable and minimizes the impact on taxpayers.  My original proposal to the School Committee was for a $2.1 million supplemental plan; however, focused and detailed discussion with the Finance Committee resulted in the request being lowered to $1.5 million.  The resulting School Committee plan is comprehensive, innovative, and will allow Needham’s elementary and middle school students more time to learn and grow—up to 75 hours of additional elementary instruction is part of the School Committee’s plan!

To learn more about the plan and to share your ideas with the School Committee, please visit the district’s website: Innovation and Extended Learning in the Needham Schools