Sunday, February 2, 2020

No, I am not color blind.

I met recently with a parent who expressed concern about a program offered at one of our schools which involved children reading and learning about skin color.

The purpose of the program was to explore and address questions children often have about the differences, including skin color, they observe in others. Consistent with the district’s strategic priorities and goals to promote equity, understanding, and an anti-racist culture, the Needham Public Schools encourages and supports developmentally appropriate educational opportunities for students and staff to discuss and learn about issues of race, culture, and bias. We believe these lessons are integral to our work with children, and we also understand these conversations can be uncomfortable—probably more so for the adults than the children who are instinctively curious about the people around them!

The concerned parent, who is white, told me that he was upset with the school talking about skin color and race. He told me he was “color blind” to the differences in people and treats all people the same, which I am sure is true for him. He worried that talking about skin color or race could exacerbate racial tensions and divisions.  He wants his children to be color blind as well. I explained that not addressing questions of race leaves children feeling confused and as if they have said or done something wrong; they learn quickly that there is something taboo or bad about skin color when a caring adult shuts them down without explanation or conversation.  

The parent asked me directly: “Aren’t you color blind?”  After a pause, I answered, “No.” I shared with him that I was not color blind and that, in fact, I do see the differences in people, including their skin color and their race. I explained to him that for me to act as if our students of color all have the same experiences, opportunities, and privileges that I have as a white man would be disingenuous and dismiss the realities of their lives. I explained that I want and expect all children under our care in the schools, not some but all children, to be treated fairly, respectfully, and equitably. I also accept that if we ignore their unique gifts, including their cultural heritage or race, we lose a chance to learn, to build understanding and create meaning between and among different people.

Being color blind disregards the circumstances of that person and prevents one from being inquisitive about another’s life, culture, and story.  In short, color blindness whitewashes the world in an attempt to comfort ourselves and make believe that black and brown people, for example, all have the same experiences and opportunities in a predominantly white school and community when, deep down inside, we know that is not their reality. The equity audit we conducted in the Needham Public Schools confirms that many students and families feel invisible or marginalized in our classrooms and community. The Needham Public Schools strive to be inclusive, accessible and free of discrimination and bias, but we are a reflection of a broader society and culture in which inequality, unfairness, and bias exist, and this is particularly true for students of color.

In a 2016 article from the American Psychological Association entitled, The Myth of Racial Color Blindness, the authors write: “By noticing race and naming racism, one calls into question racial privilege and unequal treatment of people of color. For some, this causes anxiety and discomfort. On a larger scale, claims that discussions about race and racism cause racial problems provide people and institutions with a convenient rationale not to explore policies and practices that create inequalities, either intentionally or unintentionally.”[1]  In the Needham Public Schools our intent is not to inflame racial tensions but to acknowledge and respect the human differences that exist among us and accept that our students and staff of color often experience the world in a way unlike their white peers.  Our intent is to embrace rather than dodge the awkward and difficult discussion about race in an effort to break down barriers, celebrate diversity, strengthen relationships, and share unique perspectives.

For adults—for me! —conversations about race can be uncomfortable and unnerving. But for children, conversations about skin color and race are natural and propelled by their curiosity, innocence, and developmental level.  We should not stifle or hush these genuine questions, we should accept them as learning opportunities.  Harvard behavioral psychologist Michael Norton observes that: “It’s so appealing on the surface to think that the best way to approach race is to pretend that it doesn’t exist, but research shows that it simply doesn’t work. We do notice race, and there’s no way of getting around this fact.”[2]

No, I am not color blind, and I’d like to think that I am on a journey in my understanding of other folks, including those who look, speak, pray, and love differently than I do. I still have a long way to go on my personal journey and understanding of others. I appreciate the father for seeking me out and for his willingness to dialogue about what we are trying to do in the NPS.  Our efforts in the schools are imperfect but our intent is clear:  We want our young people to become socially and culturally responsive contributors to a world that hungers for understanding, respect, and equity—a world that is prosperous, peaceful, joyful, and, yes, colorful.

(To learn more about our efforts in the Needham Public Schools to promote equity and inclusion, check out our website: )

[1] Neville, H., Gallardo, M., Wing Sue, D. 2016 Has the United States Really Moved Beyond Race?
[2] Nobel, C. 2012 The Case Against Racial Colorblindness. Harvard Business School

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The 2020-21 Needham Public Schools Budget Proposal: The resources required to ensure equity, build capacity for student learning, and address the strategic plan

This month I shared the 2020-21 school year (FY21) budget with the Needham School Committee.  The proposed plan totals $80,943,823 and represents a $4.9 million, or 6.5% spending increase over the current budget year. I believe this request has been thoughtfully considered and provides the resources required to address existing staff contractual obligations, enrollment growth, special education needs, and the District’s Portrait of a Needham Graduate Five-Year Strategic Plan.

The two key components of the budget plan include Level Service Requests and Program Improvement Requests:

  Level Service Requests
Level service requests represent the resources required to bring existing and necessary programs, contracts, and staffing levels into the new fiscal year. In order to maintain class sizes at acceptable levels, additional classroom, administrative, and special education resources are required and included as part of level service.

-  Contractual Salary Increases.  Negotiated contracts for all existing employees account for $2.9 million, about 60% 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, Class Size, Program support.  Overall enrollment is projected to increase by 64 pupils in FY21, with 75% of this increase occurring at the elementary level and 25% occurring at the secondary school level.  A total of 2.4 classroom Full-Time Equivalents (FTE) are proposed for Pollard, and 1.5 classroom FTE are proposed for the high school.  A total of .77 FTE for elementary classroom teaching and math intervention support also is included. Assistant principal positions at High Rock, Mitchell, Sunita L. Williams, and Eliot are proposed to increase by a total of .8 FTE.

-  Special Education and Student Support Service Costs.  Increases in the number of special education students being served, special education tuition, and other mandated service costs amount to $1.3 million of the new funds requested, and include 8.1 FTE new special education, counseling, and English Language Learner (ELL) teachers and 2.09 FTE teacher assistants and administrative support.  The need to provide additional resources for professional services, which includes consultation, testing, counseling, and home services, is significantly increased and rising tuition costs for students requiring services outside of the district are also reflected in this budget plan. The most significant component of the plan, however, is to address inequities in the number of students served within our schools and adjust and balance the caseloads of special educators to ensure they are able to meet student needs and build program capacity within each school.

  Program Improvement
Program Improvement requests are meant to create, enhance, improve, or expand programs to serve student and school needs.  Due to the necessity of funding Level Service needs, it was not feasible to include much of the over $790,000 in program improvement initiatives sought by principals and program leaders.  However, funds totaling $100,633 for key teacher leader stipends, high school textbooks, and technology infrastructure are proposed as part of this budget plan.

I recognize that we have developed a plan that seeks more funding than the Town’s projections for revenue initially support. At this early date, we also are uncertain what possible adjustments to state funding may mean to the Town and School budgets. But we also are obligated to share with the School Committee and the community what resources are minimally required to meet student needs and address our strategic priorities. Additional details about the budget plan may be found here:  NPS FY21 Budget Proposal

The Needham School Committee encourages community members to attend the FY21 School Budget Public Hearing scheduled for Tuesday, January 21, 2020 at the Broadmeadow School at 7:00 p.m.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Dedication of the Sunita L. Williams Elementary School

Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared at the dedication of the new Sunita L. Williams Elementary School on October 11, 2019. Check out other photos at the end of this post!

Captain "Suni" Williams talking to students the night before dedication about space travel.
First, I’d like to acknowledge the incredible leadership of the Needham School Committee.  This community is fortunate to have a School Committee that is deeply committed to Needham’s children and their families.  They work hard together, they have high expectations for themselves and for school staff, and they are diligent advocates for the needs of all students.  They insist on an innovative and equitable learning experience and environment for all students.  This very commitment to children has resulted in the creation of this beautiful school.

The Needham School Committee strategically and tirelessly advocated for the replacement of the outdated and overcrowded Hillside School.  They pressed the community, Town Meeting, Town boards, and our amazing partners at the MSBA for funding to build an incredible facility that was student-centered, creatively designed, energy efficient, provided room for growth, and allowed the School Committee to implement its longstanding goal to open publicly funded Full Day Kindergarten throughout the District for all children.

Finally, the Needham School Committee seized the opportunity to name this new school once it was clear we would not be building on the Hillside campus.  It couldn’t really keep its former and much beloved name, Hillside, because, well, the school is not located on a hillside!  Nonetheless, some requested the name remain the same and some proposed naming the school after the wonderful and generous Owens family who sold the land to make room for the school. Others suggested an historical figure from Needham’s Colonial past.

But the Needham School Committee had another idea.  They wanted to name this school in a way that acknowledges the tremendous spirit and achievement of the community yet breaks from the norm of how and for whom schools and public buildings are typically and traditionally identified. The School Committee insisted that the school be named in honor of someone who has had strong roots in the community and has lived a life of character, integrity, adventure, and service.  They wanted to ensure that current and future students would have a role model, someone with whom they can identify, and even aspire to become.  They wanted a hometown hero whose life and story reflects the hopes and dreams of all children from all backgrounds, ethnicities, languages, and cultures. 

And so, on June 6, 2017 after a year’s research and deliberation, the Needham School Committee voted unanimously to name this new school the Sunita L. Williams Elementary School.  Thank you, Suni, for accepting my phone call back in May 2017 when I first asked you if this would be OK with you!  After a long pause, then some nervous laughter and saying "You’ve got to be kidding… !!" you humbly and graciously accepted.  Thank you, Suni, for lending your name so that these children can be inspired for generations to come by a life well lived.  And thanks to the Needham School Committee for making this project a reality and having the wisdom and courage to name the school in recognition of a favorite and cherished daughter of the Needham community.

Lastly, allow me to conclude our program by reminding you with a story why we are here. And, spoiler alert—it’s not really about Suni, whom, of course, we all adore!

All of us here today have different connections to this community, this school, its students, and, of course, to Suni.  We have varied roles as educators, contractors, architects, state, local, and public officials, proud parents, neighbors, active and retired military… Yet all of us in our many and diverse roles are here for a singular purpose.

You see, there’s a story about President Kennedy who, the story goes, was visiting NASA in 1962.  And as he toured the facility, he and his entourage came upon a custodian holding a mop.  JFK stopped to meet the man and gregariously asked: “Now what is it you do here?”  The custodian quickly replied, “Mr. President, I’m helping to send a man to the moon!”

In the same way we are all here today because of something bigger than ourselves and larger than our individual lives or responsibilities. All of us in our own way are contributing to the education of these amazing children. 

Today, this diverse gathering of caring adults, who are deeply invested in this community and our future as a vibrant democracy and nation, comes together to support the students of the Sunita L. Williams Elementary School. 

And our purpose?  Our mission?  Well, we are all here to help them reach for the stars.

Members of the Needham VFW presenting the Colors at the dedication

Students singing the National Anthem

The "Tapples" who are former Hillside and current Sunita L. Williams students performing at the dedication

Capatin Suni Williams addressing the audience with Principal Kascak and student on stage

Needham School Committee and Suni

Members of the USS Constitution were honored to be present for the dedication

Members of the Naval Academy Class of '87, Suni's class, were present to celebrate and honor her

Principal Kascak and Suni unveil the dedication plaque in the school's lobby

Suni is an amazing role model for children!