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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Resources our Schools Need in the 2015-16 School Year

The FY16 (School year 2015-16) budget proposal outlines the resources the schools need to support an excellent educational program for our students, one that is consistent with the District’s core values of Scholarship, Citizenship, Community, and Personal Growth.  The proposed budget requests an additional 5.4% funding increase, although most of this increase is to provide for a similar level of service. In fact, about 90% of the total request proposes the same level of service next school year as we have now.

District administrators developed the FY16 budget plan to meet contractual obligations, growing special education costs, and expanded student enrollment, particularly at the secondary level.  Increased funds for Prek-12 special education and high school staff are requested as part of this plan, as well as resources to support curriculum initiatives and technology implementation throughout the District.

  Contractual Salary Increases  Negotiated contracts for all employees account for $1.3 million, or less than half of the total requested increase.

  Increased Special Education Costs  Increases in the number of special education students moving into Needham, special education tuition and transportation, the addition of a new group home in the Town of Needham, and the expansion of the Preschool program account for another $1.3 million, or 43% of the $3 million new funds requested.

  High School Enrollment  The high school is projected to grow by 50 students in the FY16 school year.  A modest proposal to increase staffing by 2.4 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) teachers in foreign language, math, social studies, and the arts is included.

  Curriculum and Technology.  A modest increase in funding is requested for the continued development of middle school curriculum leadership, math programing, technology management, software and website upgrades and licenses, and the continued implementation of the middle school Personalized Learning Initiative are proposed and represent about $300,000, or 10%, of the total budget request.

The administration also reallocated existing funds as much as possible and practical to support this budget proposal.  Where possible, we have moved existing resources around to meet new challenges, and some administrative responsibilities will be increased to address a growing list of state and federal mandates.  Unfortunately, many important and worthwhile proposals suggested by principals and administrators—all designed to enhance and strengthen student learning—have been deferred to the future.
I believe the budget proposal is prudent and carefully considered, but it will be a challenge to secure all the resources required to move school programs forward, especially as the Schools and Town balance a variety of important needs.  You may view the plan and additional information about the budget on our website: FY16 Proposed Budget Plan

The School Committee is extremely interested to hear feedback about the budget plan, and they encourage you to attend the upcoming Budget Hearing scheduled at 7:00 p.m. for Tuesday, January 20th at Broadmeadow to learn more about the plan and voice your ideas, questions, concerns, and comments

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Newtown by Taking Action

In a few weeks we will pause and remember the innocent lives taken at Sandy Hook Elementary School during a violent and horrific rampage that shocked the country and prompted a national conversation—once again—about gun control, mental illness, and school safety.

After the senseless and cruel murders, the parents of the victims were left to wander the country pleading with lawmakers to update and change gun laws as one way to prevent a similar massacre in the future.  Unfortunately, powerful lobbyists and political gridlock obstructed common sense gun reform, and nothing really changed.  Although the families may feel they were not heard through the political process, they should take some small comfort knowing that parents, police, school leaders, and local policymakers here in Massachusetts have renewed efforts to ensure schools are safe and secure for all children and the teachers who care for them.

I often remind principals that school safety is Job One and everything else is secondary.  Fortunately, here in Needham our principals and teachers embrace that responsibility with resolve and purpose in an ongoing effort to review school safety protocols, procedures, and practices.  So far this year Town and School administrators have been involved in the following activities:

  Principals and administrators have reviewed and discussed the Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security.  The report, commissioned by the Governor last year, details recommendations and steps communities and schools should consider to enhance student safety and wellbeing.

  Principals, staff, and administrators have convened a School Safety Taskforce to review safety procedures, including emergency drills and lockdowns, to learn if a more robust and responsive emergency response protocol is appropriate for Needham schools.  As part of this effort, administrators and police officials have recently received training and information about the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) program to determine what makes sense to introduce in our schools for students and staff.

  The Town Manager, Kate Fitzpatrick, and I formed The Needham Schools Emergency Advisory Team (NSEAT) in the aftermath of Sandy Hook to meet semiannually with the Town’s public and private school leaders to discuss school safety, security, and health and share ideas and strategies.  Our recent fall meeting included public safety officials and school leaders from the Needham Public Schools, St. Sebastian’s, St. Joe’s Elementary School, Monsignor Haddad Middle School, Walker School, and Olin College.  A recent Needham Schools Spotlight cable show highlighted school security:  October 2014: Needham Schools Spotlight: School Security

  Health and Safety Committees, comprised of school staff and parents, meet at each school to discuss student health, safety, and wellbeing.  And the School Committee and administration have prioritized Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs throughout the school system, including providing SEL advocates at each school who assist the principal and staff with initiatives designed to help students develop resilience, tolerance, care, respect, and awareness about those around them.  Guidance counselors, nurses, coaches, administrators, and teachers provide the structure, support, and encouragement young people need to confront personal and emotional difficulties that may prevent them from participating fully in the life of the school.  Connecting young people to a caring adult is the most important safety and security feature a school system can invest in.

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 tragedy will not strike our community or 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.

And on December 14th we will remember, once again, why this work is so important.
In memory of Daniel G. Barden (2005-2012) and all of his classmates and teachers 
at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut

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.

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? 

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.

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.