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Sunday, October 31, 2021

Hey, Parents: Let's Get Involved!

Recently a parent asked me if the district had considered COVID surveillance testing as a way to monitor the health and wellbeing of students in our schools.  Well... yes. When I explained that surveillance testing, as well as any number of other COVID-related health and safety issues, had actually been a major part of ongoing conversations and the subject of several School Committee meetings over the last 18 months, the parent expressed surprise.  "Is there a way," the parent inquired, "to get more communication and to be involved?"

I often hear from parents who say they want to be more involved or are unsure how to be involved in their child's school or education.  Sometimes parents or community members say they wish there was "more transparency" about how the business of school is conducted.  So let me take this opportunity in the early part of the school year to share a few ways parents and families can stay connected and be involved in the life of the Needham Public Schools.

• Join the PTC (Parent Teacher Council) at your school and plan and participate in events, programs, and meetings focused on the needs of the students and staff there.  PTC meetings provide an opportunity for parents to connect with the principal and to meet other families. Each school's website has a link to that school's PTC, including officers and infomration.

• The Special Education Parent Advisory Council or SEPAC is another way to get involved and to learn more about special education services in the NPS and to meet and interact with other parents and staff who share ideas, programming, and advocate for the needs of students and families.

• The English Language Learner Parent Advisory Council or ELPAC provides a forum for families and parents of students whose first language is not English.  This school year, more than 28 languages are spoken by our English Language Learning students, and the ELPAC is a great way for families to stay informed.

• Our Boston resident families can participate in all of the aforementioned groups as well as the Needham METCO Parent Council. The meetings are typically held in Boston (and more recently via Zoom) and provide a great way for parents and families to learn about the Needham Public Schools and to share ideas and suggestions.

• Each school has a School Council composed of staff, parents, community members, and at Pollard and the high school, student reps.  The School Council advises the principal about the implementation of the School Improvement Plan and meets regularly to learn about the challenges and opportunities the school community is facing.  To learn more about Needham's School Councils, check out the recent training provided to all School Council members: 2021-22 School Council Training

• Booster organizations are another great way to stay connected and be involved in the life of your high school students.  The NHS Rocket Boosters provide fundraising and support athletics at Needham High and NHS Friends of Music advocates for and supports high school musical and theatrical productions and events.

• The Needham School Committee is the elected body that oversees the Needham Public Schools and establishes and reviews educational goals, programs, budget and policies for the district, consistent with the requirements of the law and standards established by the Massachusetts Board of Education.  The Committee generally meets twice per month and all meetings are open to the pubic and accessible on local cable television and online.  Your School Committee representatives want to hear from you, so reach out to the schoolcommittee@needham.k12.ma.us 

• I often send out emails and tweets to families, students, and the community about topics of interest, including weather-related information, school closures, and updates.  Please make sure to sign up to receive emails and log in to Twitter for updates!

Stay involved, stay connected, and let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns: my email address is dan_gutekanst@needham.k12.ma.us

Thursday, September 30, 2021

A New School Year... New Challenges!

Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared with teachers and staff upon our return to school in August:

We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, and I am excited to dig in. Let me outline some of our key school and district plans:

  • First, safety.  A healthy and safe school environment for all of our students and staff remains the priority.  Ensuring that we have the policies, programs, and protocols in place to provide for a healthy and safe learning experience is our shared responsibility and critical to keeping schools open for learning.  

  • Our 2021-22 School Opening Plan details how we will respond to the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of our students, particularly those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  So many of you have already invested significant time and energy developing lessons, resources, and plans to help accelerate our students’ learning, and the School Committee and community have stepped up to provide the resources we need to make it a reality.  Additional math and literacy support at the elementary and middle school levels will strengthen our efforts to assist students; additional staff within the high school’s transition program will assist vulnerable students.  Extra elementary teacher assistants will facilitate learning and help at lunch time.  A revised elementary schedule will require time and patience to work out all of the kinks; but it will be worth it for our younger students who will have more consistent and structured time with their classroom teachers.  

  • This is the third year of implementation of the district’s strategic plan, the Portrait of a Needham Graduate.  I have previously sent out to staff the action steps for this coming year, so I won’t review them now.  I guess the most important thing for each and every staff member to keep in mind is our shared responsibility to assist in the work necessary to make the action steps a reality and to assist each student develop the skills and competencies that are at the core of our plan.  Our collective action toward this plan is not optional; it is integral to our work as individuals, as professionals, and as a district.  

  • One of the other tasks we are busy with is figuring out a path forward to renovating and replacing Mitchell, Pollard, and the School Administration Building.  All three facilities require attention, but the costs, timing, and resources necessary to address these needs requires focused energy, planning, and, critically, community support.  Fortunately, we work in a town that values education and has clearly demonstrated financial support for its schools over time, and I suspect this will be the case with these three projects.  

  • Finally, underlying all of our work in the district is a belief in equity and inclusion for all students, their families, and staff. Whether you are gay, straight, or gender non-conforming; whether you are in special education or an English Language Learner; whether you are homeless or socio-economically disadvantaged - we will support and be a champion for you!

 

In particular, this district is committed to racial equity and we are committed to being actively anti-racist; we believe in the inherent value and dignity of every human being, and we are reviewing programs, polices, and practices that marginalize or diminish any person.  We are hard at work creating opportunities for all children, especially those students of color who have been disproportionately impacted by well-meaning but hurtful instructional practices and curriculum that does not always represent them. I am proud that we have implemented a racial literacy curriculum at the elementary level; that we have prioritized the recruitment and retention of a talented and diverse staff; that we are considering restorative practices that help tp manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and building relationships and community.

 

As you instruct and counsel your students throughout the year, work with colleagues, and collaborate with families and caregivers, consider how your efforts, action, conversations, and intentions can be based on a foundation of racial and social justice - a foundation of equity.  This work is fundamental to our mission as educators and human beings.

 

We will have to pace ourselves and take a deep breath and recognize that it will all be OK to be imprecise and imperfect - to give ourselves permission to do the best we can.  


I’m reminded of Olympic gymnast Suni Lee, who we all watched win the gold medal for the women’s gymnastics all-around competition in Tokyo.  After she won the medal, she was asked by a journalist why she was rubbing her stomach just before her gold medal winning performance.  She responded:  “I was just telling myself to do nothing more and nothing less, and just telling myself to breathe because in that moment I literally felt like I was going to puke, I was so nervous." She looked at the reporter and added: "My normal is good enough, so I don't do anything more or anything less, I just have to do what I normally do."

 

“I don’t need to do anything more or anything less.” This is the wisdom of an Olympian - she did not tell the reporter she was thinking about how she had to be perfect; she told the reporter that she knew herself, and she knew that she had practiced and prepared for this moment and now it was time to breathe, relax and enjoy. She was ready.  

 

I know all of you put pressure on yourselves to be the best teacher, ideal coach, rockstar administrator, exemplary secretary or selfless teacher assistant.  I know how hard you work to create the circumstances for our children to thrive - And it can be exhausting and depleting.  It can make you want to puke!

 

As we work together to help our students develop the competencies embedded in the Portrait or understand their role in an equitable and socially and racially just community, trust yourself, lean on each other, and keep moving forward even if your pace and efforts are uneven or imperfect.  The important thing is to know you have a responsibility to join in the work of your grade level, school and district.  The important thing is to understand that what you are already doing is meaningful and masterful - it is already golden.  Remember the words of Suni Lee:  “Nothing more. Nothing less.”  It is a mantra - a standard - for all of us to live, learn, and lead by.

 

There is no greater responsibility or greater joy than helping young people grow, learn, and achieve.  We have both an enormous burden and incredible opportunity to assist in the development and shaping of young minds, bodies, and hearts. Regardless of your role in the NPS, you can empower a young scholar with an encouraging comment; you can boost a child each day with optimism, a kind smile, a pat on the shoulder, or acknowledging a child’s identity.  Our service is a gift to the community and our future lives.  Our service to young people is powerful, uplifting, and joyful. It is a sign of hope and humanity and is necessary to create the conditions of innovation, justice, humility, and love in our world.


Colleagues, I wish you a wonderful new school year! Thank you for your joyful service to our students.






 







 


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

My Summer Project: Updating the Community about the Critical Need to Renovate the Emery Grover Building



The Emery Grover School Administration & Operations Building

Today I had to apologize (once again) to a new employee who had a meeting at the NPS Administration and Operations Building, also called the Emery Grover Building located at 1330 Highland Avenue.

I had to apologize because this new employee uses a wheelchair, and he could not access EG without assistance up and down the many stairs leading to the entrances to the building.  He was extremely gracious given the indignity of the experience, and I did my best to explain the lack of accessibility.

But I am tired, frustrated, and embarrassed that I must continue to apologize to students, families, and staff about the lack of accessibility and the inadequate and sometimes unhealthy work and meeting conditions in our 123 year old building.  

It's time that something be done to address the very real needs of the NPS school administration and operations building, also simply referred to as "EG."  The time for more studies or exploring alternatives has run out.  It's time to have a discussion about the need to find appropriate space for providing services to students, families, staff, and the community.

Important facts about EG:

• The building's second floor was condemned by the Town in 1935 and remains closed.  That was during FDR's first term in office.

• In 1947 a report commissioned by the Town noted: "The shell of the building is probably good or better than that of any public building in Needham, but the interior is serving quite inadequately... the building will probably be condemned within a few years." That was 74 years ago.

• The Town has reinforced the structure over time, kept up several maintenance projects, and continues to keep it as clean as possible.  Most systems, including plumbing (no handicapped accessibility, of course), electrical, heating, and mechanical are beyond just limited and temporary repair.

• The building is conveniently located for families and staff and provides space for the district's school operations and administration, including transportation, nutrition services, curriculum and special education, human resources, community education, and the superintendent's office.

• The EG welcomes new families and students to the district by registering them at the building and connecting them with the vital services (e.g., transportation) they need for school. We typically register about 8 to sixteen families per week, especially from April through October.

• The EG hosts small training and on boarding sessions for new staff, and we offer space for testing and consultation.  Our curriculum office facilitates the development, organization, distribution and storage of textbooks, learning materials, and instructional resources for students and staff.

• The production center facilitates mail and package delivery and distribution for the entire district; In the 2020-21 school year the production center staff produced 4.1 million copies for students, staff, and schools. Due to the pandemic and remote instruction, that was much less than the year before.

• There are 42 staff members working at the EG. Bookkeepers, clerical staff, van drivers, IT staff, and administrators provide in person services and resources to staff, families, and the community.  Additionally, over 20 cafeteria managers and bus/van drivers come into the EG each school day to pick up keys, deposit checks and cash (last year $20,000 up to $80,000 per day in cash and checks from cafeterias, fundraisers, and remittances), receive training, routing instructions, and attend meetings. These folks can't work from their dining room table or remotely - they provide essential and in person services, transactions, and work each day for the Needham Public Schools community.

Fortunately, the Town of Needham conducted a feasibility study last year about how to renovate this structure (the lack of space in school buildings and open space in Town preclude other options), and you can read the final report here: EG Feasibility Study.  Since the report came out, School and Town staff have been working with the designer to scale back the proposed renovation and keep the project affordable.  I expect to share updated information on costs later this fall in anticipation of a Special Town Meeting where the School Committee may request funds for a design.  The School Committee, Finance Committee, Select Board, and other Town boards have all been involved in discussions about an EG renovation, and they are trying to understand how to best move forward given financial considerations and the reality that Mitchell and Pollard are also in need of renovation and/or reconstruction.  There is, indeed, plenty to discuss and plan for.

The Emery Grover Building has anchored the north end of the town center for over 120 years, first as the town’s new high school and eventually becoming school administration - providing vital and in person services to families and staff. However, without a plan to renovate the building, we must vacate the structure due to the continued lack of accessibility and for reasons of health and safety. It would then be demolished, resulting in a gaping hole in the neighborhood and a loss to the entire community. 

It’s past time to make a decision about Emery Grover and school operations. There is a clear need for space that is efficient, safe, and sound.

Everyone should feel welcome coming into the EG, including those who use wheelchairs.

For more information, please see the Frequently Asked Questions about EG.



Tuesday, June 29, 2021

It's Summer! Time to Get Ready for School!

Even as this (most unusual) school year comes to a close, we are working hard to plan for a successful, healthy, and full school opening in September.

The schools may have closed and students are heading off to camp and vacation, but administrators, teachers, and staff are already prepping for a new year of learning for all students, Preschool through grade 12.  We are basing our plans and efforts on the district's strategic plan, the Portrait of a Needham Graduate, and on our collective experiences teaching, learning, and leading during the pandemic over the last 15 months. 

The District's Plan for the 2021-22 School Year outlines how we will provide a variety of summer learning opportunities for all students as well as implement interventions and programming to meet student needs in the fall.  Some of these efforts will include:

•  Deploying additional math intervention specialists at the elementary level to assist students and propel their learning.

•  Providing additional math and literacy support at the middle schools to assist students and their growth.

•  Reducing class size in targeted elementary classrooms to ensure good class sizes to support all students.

•  Ensuring high school teachers use the initial weeks of school in the fall to assess and address areas of student need.  In addition, there will be an expansion of the Personal Learning Center designed to support student learning with emphasis on executive function, coping, and study skills. The presentation shared with the School Committee about the plan to open schools can be found here: Presentation to the Needham School Committee about School Opening 2021

Supporting all students is a core belief and practice embedded in the district's equity and inclusion efforts and programming as identified in the Strategic Priorities for 2021-22.  Some of our key action steps for the new school year include:

• Supporting personalized learning through technology access, project based learning, and empowering student voice.

• Expand use of an instructional framework that is data-driven and equity focused to match academic, social & emotional, and behavioral needs of students

• Aligning the social studies curriculum with the racial literacy curriculum.

• Expand interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

• Widen our mental health safety net for all students, especially as the pandemic ends and students return to school full time.

• Implement a restructured elementary schedule that will provide more consistent time with the classroom teacher.


• Focus on specific plans for school building renovations/construction for Pollard and the Mitchell Elementary School.


• Strengthen and diversify our educator workforce.

Even as we all make time for a much-needed summer break from COVID and the enormous pressures of the last year, rest assured that the School Committee, administrators, and staff are thinking about and gearing up for our students in the fall!


Monday, May 31, 2021

Religious Holidays, Traditions, and Cultural Celebrations

The Needham School Committee voted recently to include in the 2021-22 Student Handbooks a calendar of major legal, cultural, and religious holidays observed and celebrated by the Needham community.  This calendar does not replace the regular 2021-22 school calendar; rather, the intent is to acknowledge that our school community is increasingly diverse and students, their families and the staff observe many traditions and holidays representing different faith and cultural communities. 

The calendar, depicted below, will be placed in each student handbook and provide students and staff with a reference for the various observances and holidays.  We expect the calendar will be used by teachers, for example, to assist them in planning lessons and understanding that some of their students may be observing a particular holiday.  Not all holidays require a student to be absent from classes, but in some cases students may ask for additional time to complete an assignment due to family and religious commitments a holiday may require. 

We look forward to adding other holidays and traditions in the years to come, and embedding interactive links to each date so that viewers can learn more about the various observances and traditions.



Friday, April 30, 2021

Let's get REAL!

The district's REAL Coalition (Race, Equity, Access, Leadership) is committed to making progress on a coordinated and thoughtful plan to address racial equity and equity for all in the Needham Public Schools. This work is aligned with the Portrait of a Needham Graduate, the district's five-year strategic plan. Although the work is never easy, the district will keep going forward with a sense of urgency.

On behalf of the REAL Coalition Steering Committee, I have the privilege of launching Let's get REAL! a communication dedicated to keeping you apprised of our work with the School Committee, staff, parents, community members, and especially students, to build on our assets and tackle the challenges of ensuring racial equity and equity for all. Please check out this first issue and reach out to any of our 18 REAL Coalition Steering Committee members listed in the newsletter if you have questions or a request for more information and support. 

Many thanks to our staff, students, families, and the community for supporting this important work!

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Reopening Schools to Full Time Instruction: Part 2

On March 8th we successfully brought back our Kindergartener, First, and Second grade students to full time instruction, and we now look forward to bringing back all of our remaining students beginning with the Third grade on April 5th!

Our reopening plan, approved by the School Committee on March 16th lays out the steps and details necessary to bring back students according to the following schedule:

• April 5th: Grades, 3, 4, and 5 return, full time, to school

• April 15th: Grades 6, 7, and 8 return, full time, to school

• May 3rd: 9th and 12th graders return full time (10th and 11th graders remote week of May 3rd)

• May 10th: 10th and 11th graders return full time (9th and 12th graders remote week of May 10)

• May 17th: All 9, 10, 11, and 12 students return together 

Preschoolers will also return to in person instruction on Wednesdays, although the final details around transportation are being worked out.  K-12 students will be in school five days per week, but each Wednesday will be an early release schedule. Students enrolled in the Remote Learning Academy will continue to receive instruction remotely for the remainder of the school year.

Principals, teachers, and staff are preparing classrooms, lunchrooms, and schools for the arrival of all students, and we are excited to have students be together - in some cases it will be the first time students have met each other and been together as a class!  We know the transition may initially be a challenge for some students, and we stand ready to support them during the last couple of months of the school year.

To see a presentation of our plans and learn more about the health and safety measures we will continue to have in place, please check out the Reopening Our Schools presentation.

With deep respect for the work of a talented and resilient staff; appreciation to

our families for their ongoing support and assistance; and gratitude for serving

the exceptional young people of this community, we are proud to finish up the

school year strong and set up our students for success as we look ahead to the fall.


Stay healthy!