Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Advice to the Class of 2017 from the Class of 2023

Following are excerpts from my remarks to the Class of 2017 delivered at Graduation on June 5th.

Members of the School Committee, Mr. Sicotte, faculty, guests, parents, and members of the Class of 2017, good evening!

To prepare my remarks for graduation I found it necessary to consult with some of the greatest minds available.  Fortunately, Boston is home to renowned colleges and universities staffed with leading researchers and professors.  We live in a metropolitan area rich in corporate know-how and populated with talented and world class artists, musicians, and writers who work alongside prominent religious, civic, and social leaders.

I spoke with over 50 brilliant scholars, all of whom have important stories to tell, and each one eagerly proffered pointed, salient, and sincere advice for the Class of 2017.  Frankly, I was overwhelmed with ideas, suggestions, and insights—And I know I can’t do justice to the sages who took time out of their research, their studies… and their recess at High Rock School to sit with me and offer a perspective on life and learning that only a 6th grader can possess.

Yep, I leaned on the youthful insights of Needham’s 6th graders, all of whom are your neighbors and even a few are younger family members, sitting here this evening, applauding as you receive your diploma… and watching and listening to make sure I get it right.

Now, granted, the perspective and wisdom of a 6th grader may be limited by age, schooling, and height.  But I think the young people I spoke with have advice that should resonate with the Class of ’17 and, frankly, with us all.  The advice they shared for the graduates falls into three broad categories: The Practical, The Profound, and The Personal.
First the Practical. Sixth graders are remarkably sensible, and they want you to get right down to business after graduation. No wasted time or dithering with parties, beaches, or lounging around.  No wallowing in nostalgia, sipping Starbuck’s, or Snapchatting late into a summer’s afternoon.  Some of their more prudent suggestions include:

  Keep a curfew.
  Don’t worry about the party; worry about the homework.
  Don’t do bad things and do your class work on time.
  Eat vegetables.
  Don’t waste your parents’ money on unnecessary things. (Oh yeah, sure…)
  Try to network and make new friends who will help you out.
  Drive safely around little kids and never drink and drive. (I like that one a lot.)
  Don’t sass your teachers.
  Study hard so you don’t end up living in your parents’ basement after college.

6th graders can also be quite philosophical, and they offered some profound and erudite suggestions to the members of the Class of 2017.  For example:

  Stand up for your beliefs to make this world a better place.
  Keep trying:  You never fail; you only learn that some things don’t work.
  Think about the world around you; how can you make it greener and safer?
  In all of these years the teachers taught you tremendous things, and hopefully you remembered how important character is.  (This, from a 6th grader!)
  Don’t be afraid.  Take risks. Climb the mountain.
  Be proud of the community you come from but also be willing to grow and become part of a new community.
  Always remember that if you fall down, it’s OK as long as you get back up again.
  Be kind to people and don’t bully.
  You’re going to have a hard time if you don’t maintain a positive attitude.
  (And I like this one a lot: ) What you do shows who you are.

A few of the young scholars I spoke with are related to some grads, and they had lots of personal advice and some reminders. One eager student of a grad suggested: “You know, it’s a good time to think about moving out!”  Mostly, though, their advice was a little more personal and poignant.

  Keep in touch with the family.
  We may fight a lot but we are still sisters and we love eachother. 
  Don’t forget what mom and dad have taught you.
  I love you so much… and I hope it goes as planned… and I’m taking over the bathroom and your bedroom.
  Like mom always says:  “Say please and thank you and make sure you include others.”

Pretty impressive advice, huh?  Advice that comes from some of the youngest among us… the neighborhood kids and little brothers and sisters who idolize you as heroes, emulate you, and who watch everything you do and say. As one 6th grader put it to me:  “I look up to them to know what to do.”

Their advice is innocent, full of wonder, and reminds us to look after one another. Their advice suggests that the world you create is not for me, your parents, or our generation, it is for you and it is for them.  They want you to lead, create, and nurture a world that is both exciting and innovative… and caring and humane.

Their advice to you, spoken so poorly through me, is a wish for their own future. 

They are depending on you, and if you have listened carefully, their voices offer messages of courage, hope, and love.   

Advice for us all, and a gift to the Class of 2017.


Monday, May 8, 2017

School Committee Considers Two Notable Needham Women for New School's Name!

The School Committee is considering two names for the new elementary school which will replace the Hillside School and is scheduled to be built on Central Avenue.

After receiving dozens and dozens of suggestions of names from community members, the School Committee's School Naming Subcommittee has proposed that two notable Needhamites, Leslie Cutler and Sunita Williams, should be considered for this honor.  The School Committee expects to discuss the two proposed names in May and then vote on the name for the new school at their first meeting in June.  Following are brief biographies of both women:

Leslie Cutler (1890-1971)

Born in Boston in 1890, Leslie Bradley Cutler attended both Radcliffe College and MIT, where she studied biology and public health.  She married Roger Cutler of Needham (later divorced) and was the mother of 5 children.

Cutler had an impressive career in politics and public service especially considering the historic context in which she lived.  Elected Needham’s first female selectman (and only the second in the Commonwealth) in 1924, with the help of newly registered women voters who secured the right to vote in 1920, Cutler went on 2 years later to be elected to Needham’s Board of Health, a position she retained and contributed to passionately for 41 years.  She ran for the MA House of Representatives in 1928, 1930 and 1932 before being elected in 1934 and became only the second woman in MA history to win election to the MA Senate in 1948, where she served for 20 years.

Some of her most notable accomplishments included:  passing a bill permitting women to serve on juries; chairing a special legislative committee on mental health, fighting for a bill establishing community mental health centers and advocating strongly for the funding to transform Logan International Airport into the major airport it is today.  Leslie Cutler expressed her personal sense of adventure in taking flying lessons in 1942.
As if her state and local political roles, in addition to being a mother, were not sufficient to keep her busy, Leslie Cutler was simultaneously very busy contributing to a number of service organizations within the Town of Needham.  She served as President of the Needham Community Council for 28 years; director of the Needham Red Cross; founder of the local chapter of the YMCA; and she helped start the Needham Council on Aging.

In recognition of grit and extensive contributions the Needham Historical Society named Leslie Cutler “Needham’s Outstanding Person of the 20th Century” in 2000.  She was a crusader for mental and public health, an activist in the womans suffrage movement, champion of welfare and penal reform, juvenile needs, education and aviation, a true public servant for 44 years.

 Sunita “Suni” Williams (1965- )

Although Suni Williams was born in 1965 in Euclid, Ohio, she “considers Needham, MA to be her hometown.”  Her background, as the daughter of an Indian American father and a Slovenian American mother, reflects racial, geographic and ethnic diversity.

Suni graduated from Needham High School in 1983 and went on to earn a BS from the US Naval Academy in 1987 and an MS in Engineering Management from Florida Institute of Technology in 1995.  She has enjoyed a long career in the Navy beginning with her commission as an Ensign in the Navy in 1987. In 1989 Williams became a Naval Aviator, and was trained in and assigned to Helicopter Combat support.  During her Navy career she was deployed overseas including the Persian Gulf and served as Officer-in-Charge aboard the USS Sylvania in Miami, FL to provide support for the Hurricane Andrew Relief Operations.  Williams career ultimately focused on flight.  She completed US Test Pilot School in 1993 and ultimately logged over 3000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft. 

In 1998, Suni was selected as an Astronaut for NASA, and, as part of her training, she worked in Moscow with the Russian Space Agency.  Having served on two missions to the International Space Station (ISS), first as a flight engineer and then as commander, Suni spent a total of 322 days in space.  During this time she completed 7 space walks totaling 50 hours and 40 minutes and held the record for a female astronaut walking in space until this past March 31st.  And, not the least of her accomplishments, Suni ran the first marathon in space when she completed the 2007 Boston Marathon in 4 hours and 24 minutes.  Additionally, Suni taught a lesson on space and physics to Newman students that was beamed from the ISS to classrooms in Needham. 

In July 2015 NASA announced that Sunita would become one of the first astronauts for US Commercial Spaceflights.  She is currently working with Boeing and SpaceX.

Among many honors and awards, she has won Navy Commendation and Humanitarian Service medals and medals/awards from the governments of Russia, India and Slovenia. In addition, Suni received the George Dennett Distinguished Career Award (for NHS alumni) in 2007.

Sunita Williams has been on the forefront of the space program over the last nearly 20 years.  She is an incredible role model for today’s students and exemplifies the potential of a career in the military, STEM and public service.

Thanks to the following subcommittee members who have been involved in this important process:  Sue Neckes (School Committee), Marianne Cooley (Selectmen), Heather Dummett (Teacher), Gloria Greis (Needham Historical Society), Joanna Herrera (Parent), Michael Kascak (Principal), Kim Marie Nicols (Community Member), Steve Theall (Community Member).

Thursday, March 30, 2017

High School Enrollment Increases Require Additional Space

For over four years the community and School Committee have discussed the need for additional space at Needham High School to accommodate increasing enrollment there. An earlier blog post provided context about space needs:  Needham High School Space Needs 2015

The school, which was designed to accommodate the 1,450 students anticipated at that time, opened in 2008-09 almost at capacity, and the enrollment has grown steadily since then. Currently there are 1,659 students at NHS, and we project an enrollment of over 1,800 in a few years—far exceeding the capacity of the school and stressing student program needs.  Based on a Comprehensive Demographic Study of state and local trends, we project enrollment to decline slightly after the 2025-26 school year and then to remain around 1,760 students in grades 9-12.

Community and Board members, Town Meeting, and the high school administration have been quite responsive to the space needs and challenges at Needham High:

  Creative scheduling options and the expansion of off campus lunch for older students have provided some relief.
  Interior spaces, including offices, storage areas and closets, have been repurposed and remodeled to accommodate the school’s students and programs.
  Increased use of one to one technology tools (e.g., laptops) and carving out small student study spaces and cubbies in the hallways has facilitated student learning needs.
  Last summer the cafeteria was expanded to meet lunch and school program needs.
  This year a comprehensive classroom space needs feasibility study has been undertaken, and the School Committee and Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC) recently endorsed a classroom expansion option that will meet the need for classroom space. 

The Town is also working with the architect to meet additional infrastructure needs at NHS, including electrical, flooring, and related needs in the gyms; replacing the chillers required for the proper operation of the HVAC system; and identifying concerns with the boilers and controls.  The goal of both the feasibility study and the review of infrastructure is to present to the May 2017 Town Meeting a request for design funds to address the classroom and infrastructure needs so that Needham High School will have appropriate and well maintained learning spaces for our students well into the future.

The option the School Committee and PPBC endorsed, Option F , proposes nine academic core classrooms, additional special education classrooms, and flexible collaboration/work space near the school’s Webster St. entrance.  The estimated cost of this option is $11.4 million. (Costs for work in the gym and HVAC system are not included in this total.) All of the options and additional information about the feasibility can be found here:  Needham High School Feasibility Presentation

It is important for parents and the community to learn more about this project and to weigh in on the scope and estimated costs so that Town boards can continue to collaborate to identify appropriate funding resources to support a possible design and construction. 

What is not clear at this point is how the proposed project would be funded.  What is absolutely clear, however, is that without additional classroom spaces at Needham High School, student programs, opportunities, and learning will be impacted for many years to come.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Needham's Students Achieve Success!

Needham High School Boys' Swim Team receives 2017 Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Sportsmanship Award on February 19th at Boston University.

Needham’s students should be rightly proud of the many academic, artistic, and athletic successes they have enjoyed over the last 12 months!

Whether it be MCAS, SAT, or Advanced Placement (AP) exam scores or Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards—22 Silver and Gold Key Winners in 2016-17—our students demonstrate in multiple ways how they live out our core values of Scholarship and Personal Growth.

Supported by talented teachers and coaches, supportive parents, and a caring community that values educational growth and achievement, our high school students exhibit extraordinary wisdom, creativity, and sportsmanship on the stage, in their classrooms, and on the field.  We are proud of their accomplishments and were pleased to share their successes at a recent School Committee meeting.  If you wish to read Needham High School Principal Aaron Sicotte’s full report on student achievement, please click on the link:  Needham High School 2016-17 Achievement Report

Monday, January 23, 2017

Supporting All Students: Placement Practices in the Needham Public Schools

Some parents recently questioned practices related to the assignment and placement of students in the Needham Public Schools.  School Committee Chair Sue Neckes and Superintendent Dan Gutekanst respond to the parent concerns:

The Needham Public Schools works to ensure all students are assigned to a high quality teacher at every grade level and in each school to optimize each child’s experience, growth, and potential. The student assignment and placement process, which is directed and managed by the building principal, involves a close look at each child’s individual needs and academic goals.  

The Needham Public Schools creates heterogeneous classes that maximize the educational possibilities for all children.  Our primary goal is to create balanced classes in terms of gender, academic strengths, social maturity, special needs, and supportive peer groups, which are likely to promote healthy and productive learning environments.  Additional factors in the placement of students include programming needs such as special education, English Language Learners, and METCO.  Ultimately, the academic and social & emotional needs of each child drive decision-making at all levels.

There has been a long-standing practice to examine class lists and cluster assignments to ensure students of color, particularly African-American, black, Latino, and Hispanic students, are not isolated as an individual student of color in a predominantly white class or cluster.

The race or ethnicity of a child has not been a primary consideration in placement—the student’s academic and social & emotional learning needs are the primary considerations—but developing what the District believed to be supportive peer groups and to avoid racial isolation has been one of many considerations.

Recently the parents of several middle school children met with the School Committee Chair, Superintendent, and Director of Student Support Services and pointed out that they were unaware of the consideration of race during the assignment of students into classes and clusters. The parents believe it is a discriminatory practice and asked that it be stopped.  At the parent meeting on December 8, 2016, the Superintendent assured parents that the practice will be discontinued immediately.  The Superintendent also acknowledged that the District has unintentionally not been as transparent and clear around this practice as we otherwise should have been.  

Since the initial concern was raised by families to the administration at the middle school level earlier in the fall, our practices have been reviewed, data collected and analyzed, and additional consultation with legal counsel and outside educators has taken place so that the District can move forward in the best interest of all students.  With the encouragement and support of the School Committee, the Superintendent has undertaken the following steps:

1.     Sent a follow up email to the parents thanking them for raising the issue and assuring them the practice, which the Superintendent acknowledged was well intentioned and in place to support students and their academic, social & emotional wellness, will be stopped. 

2.     Met with principals and several other District administrators to review placement practices and let them know that race can no longer be a factor in the assignment of students.

3.     Scheduled a March administrative meeting for all District administrators to continue the ongoing discussions around culturally proficient practices in our schools.

4.     Began to investigate the possibility of inviting into the District an outside consultant who can assist the District to review its policies, programs, and practices to ensure they are a) equitable and inclusive, b) based on promising practices and research, and c) reflect our District’s core values and goals.

The Superintendent will provide an update about this work and progress in the spring to the School Committee, parents, and the community.

Finally, the Needham Public Schools takes seriously its role in providing support for all students.  We are fortunate to have exceptional staff and many strong programs in the Needham Schools, and we believe our existing initiatives and planning have been thoughtful and focused on meeting students’ academic and social and emotional needs.  This district and all of its administrators and teachers can take great pride in the work they have achieved around prioritizing the needs of all learners and the ongoing training, professional learning, and robust conversations around race and culturally proficient practices.  We do not shy away from tackling these issues or having difficult conversations; instead we embrace the challenge and are very excited to increase our efforts to support, engage, and empower all students, including students of color.

We intend to seize this opportunity to learn, improve, and grow, and, of course, the Needham community, including students and parents, will continue to be our partners in this important work.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2017-18 School Year Budget Proposal

Earlier this month I submitted the FY18 (School Year 2017-18) budget proposal to the Needham School Committee for their consideration.  The budget presentation and documents may be found on the district's website: FY18 NPS Budget Proposal  The budget plan is based on the district's values and goals, maintains existing services, and proposes funding for a few key program improvements.

The budget plan outlines an additional 5.57% funding increase over the current fiscal year, although most of this increase is to provide for a similar level of service as we have in classrooms and schools this year.

Several key budget “drivers” are impacting the proposed FY18 budget plan.  Among them:

•  Contractual Salary Increases  Contractual obligations for all existing employees account for $2.0 million, or less than half 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 and Class Size  While overall enrollment is projected to increase only slightly next year, there remains a need to ensure class sizes stay within acceptable School Committee policy guidelines.  I will propose 10.12 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) classroom teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to keep class sizes steady and make up for the loss of grant funds. I also outlined the need for 13.87 new FTE for administrative and support staff, including several teacher assistants required to meet mandated student services.  

•  Increased Special Education Costs  Increases in the number and increasingly intensive needs of special education students being served, special education tuition, transportation for special education students, and other mandated costs total approximately $.81 million of the new funds requested.

  Targeted Program Improvements.  Unlike the FY17 budget plan in which we were unable to include any significant increases for program development, in FY18 I propose $517,914 in new funding for teaching, learning, and infrastructure improvements.  Some of these recommendations include:  A Pollard math intervention teacher ($60,820), increased interdisciplinary support ($19,043), elementary and high school instructional technology teachers ($90,001), Science Center staff ($21,751), administrative support at High Rock and in Human Resources ($105,897), and upgraded technology supplies, software, and services ($76,177).  Additionally, I propose an increase to purchase Chromebooks ($20,000) for the incoming 9th graders as the Personalized Learning Initiative moves into the high school.  The budget plan also includes a recommendation for increased funding for substitutes ($48,344) in order to fill significant vacancies that exist.

Where possible, we have reallocated existing resources to meet new challenges, including a growing list of state and federal mandates.  Unfortunately, many important and worthwhile proposals suggested by school leaders—all designed to enhance and strengthen student learning—have been deferred to the future.

While the budget proposal is sensible and carefully considered, it will be a challenge to secure all the resources required to maintain existing programs, especially as the Schools and Town evaluate a variety of important educational and municipal needs. 

I am mindful that the Town Manager, School Committee, Finance Committee, or Town Meeting may have different priorities, so this plan remains a work in progress throughout the winter and early spring.  In other words, based on available resources and in close collaboration with Town boards, various line items in the proposal may be changed, increased, or deferred for another time.

The School Committee welcomes input and suggestions about the budget plan and encourages parents and community members to email them with comments at and attend or tune in to upcoming meetings.  The School Committee will study and discuss the budget proposal throughout December and January, and they will hold a formal public hearing on the budget at Broadmeadow on Tuesday, January 17th at 7:00 p.m.  Please also refer to the District’s website for additional information about the budget proposal:  FY18 NPS Budget Proposal

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Schools are Counter-Cultural!

Years ago my mentor and former superintendent Dr. Anthony Bent remarked:  “Schools are counter-cultural.”  Today, as we prepare students to participate as active and engaged learners and citizens in a vibrant democracy, particularly in the wake of a noisy and acrimonious national election, his observation is especially meaningful.

Public schools are a microcosm of the larger community, representing the various socioeconomic, racial, political, ethnic, and religious differences that exist in our diverse and complex society.  Each day, children with wide-ranging abilities from a variety of family structures, backgrounds, faith communities, and neighborhoods stream into the public school to learn and grow together.  Public schools model, however imperfectly, the highest aspirations and ethos of a democratic society by promoting diverse viewpoints, valuing differences, and establishing collaborative and cooperative relationships among students.

For public educators it’s an incredible challenge—and an important responsibility—to respect both the local community's culture and to support a school culture that values the uniqueness of each child within a safe, tolerant, and courteous learning environment for all students where empathy, patience, and civility are encouraged. 

Unlike the broader community where rancorous debates, unseemly tweets, and boorish behavior are often tolerated, the schoolhouse must be a safe haven for considerate discourse, openness, fairness, and respect.  In the schoolhouse, diverse viewpoints should be encouraged and celebrated in developmentally appropriate ways, even if one's viewpoint makes another uncomfortable.  But it should always be a conversation and not a rant.  The children under our charge are expected to model the behavior some adults often eschew.

In that sense, then, schools are counter-cultural.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when I was the principal at Shrewsbury High School, a handful of Muslim students approached me and asked if they could start a Muslim Student Cultural Club.  Given the context and the timing of their request, I was at first surprised and hesitant but quickly got behind the idea and asked the students to find a faculty advisor.

Several weeks later some staff, students, and parents expressed concern about hearing students speaking Arabic to one another, carrying the Koran, and praying on mats after school.  Who are these kids and what are they up to?  Why are we allowing this behavior in school?  They should act like us.  (The “us”, by the way, included Christians, Jews, Hindus, and nonbelievers.) Some of the Muslim students were teased or bullied; one or two refused to come to school.  The national mood at the time was tense and charged; and public schools, being a reflection of society, often mirrored a similar climate of anxiety and fear. 

It took time, but through education, patient dialogue, and perspective-taking we worked through the concerns and mistrust of the many about the few.  The teacher advisor and students even pulled off a teach-in and celebration of Islam for the whole school to enjoy.  We eventually broadened efforts to acknowledge and understand a variety of other ethnicities, races, and backgrounds—much of it the direct result of a few brave Muslim students who, at a time of national fear and uncertainty, simply wanted to get together to form a school club to learn about and support one another. As a country we remained wary of the terrorist abroad; but as a school community we got to know on a human level the Muslim sophomore wearing a hijab, seated in biology class, and, much like her classmates, racing to complete a lab before the bell and a lunch period with friends.

Eventually the Muslim Student Cultural Club and other student-driven initiatives around race, religion, sexual orientation, and disability awareness became incorporated into the educational and social fabric of our large and comprehensive high school.  What appeared at first to be at odds with the prevailing mood and norms of the broader society became routine and part of the school’s community and culture.  We simply expected more of ourselves and our students within the schoolhouse; we aspired to be better and demonstrate more civility.  In this way we became counter-cultural and reflected back to the broader community how it just might be possible to learn from and respect one another if we take the time to ask questions, listen deeply, and acknowledge another’s personal story.

As we approach a winter season of hope and peace, I remain excited about the work we can do as educators and parents in the Needham community to assist young people on their journey of learning, growth, and self-discovery.   Let’s continue to provide a space for students to be curious, innovative, compassionate, and civil. Let’s accept they will make mistakes and take wrong turns.  

Let's also continue to model for them the qualities, behaviors, and traits we know our community values and that will promote their growth and development. Let's acknowledge we won't always get it right.  And that's OK.

For the sake of the community and our children, let’s celebrate the idea that our schools are counter-cultural.  And let's be darn proud of it.