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The Needham School Committee strategically and tirelessly advocated for the replacement of the outdated and overcrowded Hillside School.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!

Monday, September 30, 2019

What is Your Why?

Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared with 800 Needham faculty and staff at our annual back-to-school General Staff Meeting in August.

 This summer I’ve enjoyed many long beach runs on the Cape, coastal Maine, and even Ireland. Long solitary trail or beach runs force me to think about my life and my career; running helps we work out some of my issues. (I do a lot of running!) Actually, this past spring and summer I’ve spent a lot of personal reflection on meaning and purpose.  I don’t know, maybe once I turned 60 last fall I started to think more about my career and our work together in the schools.

Why do I do this work in schools?  What drives me? I’ve started wondering more and more about the purpose of schooling and the experiences we provide for children and their families.  It’s a question that has perplexed folks for as long as we can recall.  Eleanor Roosevelt once observed: “What is the purpose of education?  This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women.”

So what’s your purpose?  Why are you here today in this space at this particular time?  What is your why?

Probably most of you—all of you?—would say we are here to support children and their families and to provide them the best education possible. That’s true but it’s insufficient; I think there is more to it. I mean, why do we provide a good education and supportive environment? What’s the larger purpose?  Why, indeed, did you come back to school?

What is your why? 

I have to confess that while I contemplated my why, my purpose, during those long summer runs in the woods and on the beach, part of me felt anxious and uneasy.  You see, screaming headlines and sobering news crowded my thoughts. Contemporary society seems steeped in myriad and complex problems, tragedies, and crises; these can be daunting and overwhelming.  It almost feels hopeless and pessimistic.  Perhaps it is not.

I have arrived at a place in my head and in my heart that offers an imperfect, incomplete, and, well, a personal response.  In many ways, my “why” has been shaped by my experiences, and it has been informed by my family and my faith.  It has been molded by the very real needs I perceive to exist in the community and the world.  It reflects my interactions with you, and the impact I observe that your work makes on our students’ lives every day.

This is my “why,” and I’d like to share it:

I believe each student possesses unique and exceptional gifts which, properly nurtured, can bring wisdom, dignity, and joy to a weary world.  Thus, we have a responsibility to empower young people to understand and develop their gifts in a way that builds character, creates opportunity, and inspires respect for others.  I believe our work is an act of hope in the power, possibility, and promise of each child.

I see our work with children as the antidote for pessimism, chaos, and negativity. My “why” considers the promise and the youthful optimism and ingenuity of the students we are so fortunate and privileged to work with every day; my “why” can’t help but lean on the positive and creative power of the human spirit, despite all of our faults and failings as adults, to create value and beauty in our world.

I believe there is an urgency in our work with young people; a responsibility to help them assume their roles as citizens of this community and become caring stewards of this amazing planet Earth we call home.

I believe our work in the Needham Public Schools, at its core, is a deep expression of belief in and love for all human beings.

That’s my why.  What’s your why?

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Happy New (School) Year!

Welcome back to school!

 As School Committee Chair Michael Greis exclaimed to teachers and staff at their August meeting:  Happy New (School) Year! 

The Needham Public Schools is open for business bright and early on Tuesday, September 3rd, and we are excited to begin a new year and welcome over 5,700 students, including over 380 Full Day Kindergarteners, to the district’s eight schools and the Preschool.  In preparation for a new year of learning a variety of activities have taken place throughout the summer:

  Teachers and administrators have been involved in over 50 curriculum and instruction development projects over the summer months.  Teachers at the elementary and secondary levels planned new programs and helped to revise existing curricular areas.  At the high school, for example, dozens of science teachers, including teachers from the U.S. and other countries, participated in a two-week science modeling program to improve and strengthen chemistry, biology, and physics instruction.  Two NPS teachers, Middle school world language teacher Laura Corkery and high school science teacher Mike Hirsh traveled to our partner school in Beijing, the Daxing School District, to provide professional development for their Chinese colleagues.

  Over 20 Kindergarten teachers worked over the summer to plan for the implementation of our new Full Day Kindergarten program.  Additionally, 20 teacher assistants, who will be assigned to each Kindergarten classroom, participated in a full day program to prepare for their new role working with our young students.  Kindergarten classrooms have been set up, programming established, and teachers and assistants readied to welcome children to a student-centered Kindergarten program in each elementary school.  Over 20 new Boston resident Kindergarteners, all participating in the METCO Program, also joined us for the annual Jumpstart Program that prepares them for a new learning experience in the Needham Public Schools.

METCO students enjoying the Jumpstart Program with friends!

  School construction and renovation projects kept all of the schools busy throughout the summer months.  New flooring, carpeting, and paint at Broadmeadow, Eliot, and Pollard; new auditorium seats at NHS; a new gym floor at Newman; two new modular classrooms installed at Mitchell; and, of course, the completion of the new Sunita L. Williams Elementary School on Central Avenue are all ready to receive students on Tuesday.  We are grateful to the Town of Needham, our maintenance crews, the taxpayers, and especially the Needham School Committee—all of whom work tirelessly to advocate for capital and building improvements to meet student and staff needs.  (Stay tuned for an invitation to an Open House at the new Sunita L. Williams Elementary Schools scheduled for Saturday, October 19th!)
Sunita L. Williams Elementary School

New Mitchell modular classrooms for music and art

  In late August over 120 new teachers, administrators, and teacher assistants gathered for our annual Staff Orientation Program at the Eliot Elementary School to learn more about the district’s programming and expectations as the new school year begins.  We on-boarded folks with training and conversations about the goals, policies, and practices of the NPS.  The new staff also enjoyed lunches and fun activities designed to build relationships and develop understanding of our district’s values and norms.

New teacher and staff orientation at Eliot

We are ready for students and excited to begin a new school year.  Please remember to drive carefully during this first week of school as buses navigate new routes in town, students traverse sidewalks and crossings, and parents drop off and pick up their children.  Traffic on Central Avenue near the new Sunita L. Williams Elementary School, for example, will be slow going and busy as we learn how to safely move cars, buses, vans, and children into and out of the school venue.  Leave early and take your time!

Happy New Year, Needham students and families!