Monday, October 31, 2022

Dear Governor Baker: Please read this!

Before I begin, Governor Baker, let me first take this opportunity to thank you for all you have done over the last several years to guide Massachusetts.  You and your administration have dealt with numerous crises, including COVID; stewarded state finances thoughtfully and carefully; and you have modeled for politicians around the country what it means to be civil and fair minded, even when there is disagreement or discord. Thank you for your leadership!

I have one small favor to ask of you as your term in office ends.  It won’t grab headlines and to about 99% of Massachusetts residents, it will likely not register as anything meaningful to them in their daily lives.

Here it goes:

Can you ask the Operational Services Division (OSD) within the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to reconsider its October 1st determination that next school year (FY '24) local school districts and towns will need to pay an additional 14% in tuition to the private special education schools that serve the children who require services local districts can’t provide?

Without getting too wonky on budget policy, the law, and special education programming, let me just say that this little known move by OSD will significantly impact school budgets, just as we are all trying to serve students who have struggled mightily over the last couple of years.  In FY ‘24 and based on recent Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) figures, this 14% tuition increase could conservatively cost as much as a whopping $92,807,590 to local communities.  This amount represents 14% of FY21 school district expenditures on in-state private school tuitions (DESE function code 9300), or $662,911,356 - the most recent data available from DESE.  (There is much more information here: FAQ about OSD tuition increase)

Over the last dozen years the tuition increase has averaged below 2% annually, and it was manageable and we were able to incorporate this into budget planning in a sustainable and responsible way. In the Needham Public Schools, where we are already preparing the budget for the 23-24 school year, we will have to plan for an additional $800,000 in order to cover the cost of this tuition spike; and that will mean other student services and programs will need to be cut back to pay for such an enormous increase. 

The OSD believes private special education schools need additional funding due to inflationary pressures and staffing shortages.  I agree!  Here in Needham we send many students to private special education schools in Massachusetts (and beyond), and I want them to have excellent support and care.  Like the public schools, private schools are also struggling to fill key and vital positions so it makes sense to consider additional funding.  But that has to be balanced with the reality of local district funding needs that will surely be impacted if next school year, FY ‘24, we need to cut services to all students, including those hardest hit by the pandemic to pay for an unfair and unreasonable 14% tuition increase.  Instead, how about a phased approach over the next few years coupled with an increase in state special education spending for all?

Governor, I know you have a lot on your mind as your time in office winds down.  I also realize that the FY ‘24 budget will be in the hands of your successor, yet the planning for the state’s FY ‘24 budget is happening now in the Office of Administration and Finance.  I urge you to have the OSD reconsider its decision and propose a FY ‘24 tuition increase that is fair, reasonable, and sustainable for all communities.

I believe a move like that will continue to demonstrate your fiscal prudence and your commitment to all of the students of the Commonwealth.

Thanks for listening.

Friday, September 23, 2022

What is School For?

A recent series of articles in the New York Times asks big questions about the purpose of schooling in America. As we begin a new school year, it's important to remember what this community believes a Needham Public School education is all about.

To prepare our students for their future, we developed a strategic framework for equity and excellence in education. It is a long-term plan that drives us toward this shared vision we call Portrait of A Needham Graduate. The Portrait helps us bring into focus how dramatically rapid advancements are changing the workplace and society. At the same time, the Portrait helps us to acknowledge that even though their future is uncertain, our students will be prepared. We envision them as Creative Thinkers and Problem Solvers, Communicators and Collaborators, Socially and Culturally Responsive Contributors, Responsible and Resilient Individuals, and Empowered Learners. We believe our students’ collective and individual success depends on developing these competencies in preparation for the future world that awaits them.

The process of building and implementing the Portrait of A Needham Graduate is a community effort. Back in 2019, we engaged in the work with 53 stakeholders representing students, educators, parents, business and civic leaders, and those from higher education. Together, we researched and collected data on future trends in education and changes/challenges in society that our children must face. We benefitted then as we do today from the many voices, the wisdom and values expressed by diverse members of our community. 

Once the Portrait of a Needham Graduate was developed, we didn’t stop there. The foundational work of defining our vision was combined with input from 430 faculty and staff representing all our schools. We brought life to the Portrait by establishing four district priorities each with key strategies for realizing our vision as outlined in the FY20-FY25 Portrait Strategic Framework. It covers everything from curriculum, instruction, assessment, school structures, and staffing. As a long-term plan, it represents a district shift to be more future-focused, student-focused, and with students in the role of drivers of their own learning. 

Where are we now? At the end of each school year, the district publishes a Performance Report which captures the annual highlights of our progress. We build on previous accomplishments through defined actions for the upcoming year. With unfaltering dedication to educating all students, we are celebrating the district’s commitment to the implementation of Year 4 of the Portrait Plan. Please check out the FY23 Actions with attention to the priorities and strategic objectives around which the community can continue to coalesce and contribute. Here’s how:

  • Most importantly, whether you are a student, educator, parent, business or civic leader, please join us in communicating and celebrating the vision we have for all our students and their future. 
  • Incorporate the Portrait of A Needham Graduate into meetings you routinely attend in the community; engage people in conversations about what the Portrait means to them.  
  • Continue to advocate for the resources that are needed to implement the Portrait strategic framework.
  • Help us recognize students for exemplifying the competencies depicted in our Portrait graphic.

If you can imagine a community where everyone is discussing equity in education and where every student receives the learning opportunities and supports they need, that is how we will bring the Portrait of a Needham Graduate to life! 

Thanks to Director of Strategic Planning and Community Engagement, Diane Simmons, for writing this post!

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

On the Eve of a New School Year, Advice for Parents

Last year was particularly challenging for parents around the country, including here in Needham, as they confronted ever-changing COVID protocols; worried about learning loss; stressed about school violence in the aftermath of Uvalde; and fretted over curriculum initiatives that did (or did not) address issues of race and gender.  For many parents, everything related to school seemed to be a concern or a source of anxiety and frustration. Every issue seemed escalated, and emotions ran high. 

Unfortunately in recent years, many Needham teachers, staff members, and each and every school principal found themselves at the receiving end of angry, inappropriate, or vitriolic parent emails or phone calls that typically ended in frustration for both and, ultimately, did not resolve the concern about a student. There is no place in the Needham Public Schools for swearing, threatening behavior, abusive confrontations with staff, or even driving angrily away in a crowded school parking lot.

Our teachers, school staff, and principals deserve better. Our students deserve better.

Of course, parents should always feel comfortable speaking up and advocating for their children; that is a parent’s primary role and responsibility! And, to be clear, most NPS parents continue to approach problems and concerns about their child with respect, genuine concern, and in partnership with school staff. 

In the new school year both opportunities and challenges await all students, staff, and parents. Allow me to suggest ways parents and caregivers can proactively, positively, and respectfully address concerns and questions they may have about their child’s school experience:

  • Assume positive intent. Needham’s teachers and administrators are here to support and assist your children to grow and learn.  We want them to enjoy a healthy and happy school environment and flourish academically. When uncertain about a school protocol, teacher lesson, or classroom rule, express curiosity and ask to learn more. Blaming or judging before knowing the full context only serves to frustrate all involved.

  • Be patient awaiting a response. When emailing a question or concern to a staff member, give them a couple of days to respond. Teachers and administrators are typically not sitting at their laptops throughout the day responding to inquiries. However, we do have a responsibility to check our inboxes and respond to parent questions as soon as possible, but that will not necessarily be on the same day. If a parent inquiry involves the immediate safety or wellbeing of a child, call the school and ask to speak to the nurse, counselor, assistant principal, or principal.  Depending on the circumstances, other questions and concerns will be addressed within a few days.

  • Understand we protect your child’s privacy.  Sometimes a bullying incident, playground misunderstanding, or even a physical altercation between students will result in one or more students facing consequences and discipline for misbehavior. Often, the parent of the student who was the victim of an incident wants to know what punishment was given to the other student; they want to know how the other student was held accountable. However, Federal student privacy laws prohibit school officials from sharing or revealing information about one student to another student’s family, and this includes how another student may have been disciplined.  To understand how students are held accountable for their actions in school, review the student handbooks for details around student and school discipline.

  • Get involved in school.  I have previously shared ways for parents and families to stay connected to their school community, learn about academic programs, and advocate for their children and schools. Discover how you can be involved in the life of your school community by reading the principals’ newsletter, teacher communications, and staying in touch with school staff. Think about joining the PTC, Boosters, or other school-based organizations. 

  • Provide feedback.  Share your ideas, hopes, and dreams for your child with your child’s teachers and school counselor. And if you experience a lack of response from a school staff member or have a negative or unhelpful encounter at school, let us know! All human beings are imperfect, including teachers, principals, and superintendents.  We make mistakes, too. We encourage parents to share their perspective or experience to assist us to grow and improve in service to our students and families. Of course, anytime we give feedback to another person providing a service, it’s important to frame the concern with curiosity not condemnation.  When we do that, we will elicit a more favorable and actionable response - one that will support the student.

All of us in the Needham Public Schools look forward to a new year of growth and achievement!  We look forward to working with parents, caregivers, and families to support and encourage the amazing young people of the Needham Public Schools.

See you August 31st!

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Right to Live a Full & Productive Life is at the Core of our Nation's Principles.

The children and teachers murdered in Uvalde, Texas:

Nevaeh Alyssa Bravo, Jacklyn Cazares, Makenna Lee Elrod, Jose Manuel Flores Jr., Eliahna Garcia, Irma Garcia, Uziyah Garcia, Amerie Jo Garza, Xavier Lopez, Jayce Carmelo Luevanos, Tess Mata, Miranda Mathis, Eva Mireles, Alithia Ramirez, Annabelle Rodriguez, Maite Rodriguez, Alexandria “Lexi” Rubio, Layla Salazar, Jailah Nicole Silguero, 

Eliahana Cruz Torres, Rojelio Torres

A right to live a full and happy life is at the heart of our democracy and embedded in our most sacred documents.  I happen to think it is our first and most fundamental right.

The Declaration of Independence (bold font mine) outlines: "... unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." While the Declaration is not the law of the land, its purpose was to declare what our founders wanted and desired for the people, including the children, of this nation.

The introduction of the United States Constitution begins in this way :

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justiceinsure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Signed in 1787, the Constitution enumerates the limits and branches of government.  It was a few years later in 1791 that ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, was ratified and added to the Constitution. One of those rights is the right to bear arms.  

But long before that right was enshrined into the Constitution, both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution called out the need and the right for a just, civil, and fair America, one that values the dignity and livelihood of human beings.

I value our Constitution and understand that while it is an imperfect document it exists to offer freedoms and protections that no other nation has.  But I look at it and the Declaration of Independence, the two key and uniquely American expressions of liberty and justice, together and bound as one.  And in the aftermath of the racial terror of Buffalo or the brutality of Uvalde, Texas I am frustrated that any person, politician, or political organization can continue to ignore the original words in the Constitution that demand we "promote the general welfare" and "secure the blessings of liberty" for our citizens, our neighbors, and, most certainly for 19 little children at Robb Elementary School.

Yes, there is a right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights. I get it. As a media pundit said recently as he tried to explain why it's important both to support the right to have guns and keep guns away from certain people: "You know, this is complicated stuff."

What is not complicated is this: 19 children, who should be enjoying their summer vacations right now, eating ice cream, teasing their brothers and sisters, hugging their parents good night - doing the simple things children do -  are dead. Their right to live a full life and pursue happiness was taken away because in Texas the right to arm yourself with military grade weapons and boxes of ammunition is not as important as the lives of innocent children.

It's really not complicated.  Just ask the families in Uvalde and Buffalo.


Friday, April 8, 2022

It's Springtime: Hiring Season in the Needham Public Schools!

Spring is a busy time of year in schools throughout the area as principals, human resource folks, and superintendents work to fill critically important teaching and administrative roles for the new school year beginning September 2022.

In the Needham Public Schools, we prioritize and emphasize the critical importance of the hiring process, and I am proud that we are much more selective than comparable communities.  I am also proud that we are actively searching for candidates who are racially and ethnically diverse to ensure our students are growing and learning from people of all backgrounds.

I often tell principals that after providing for the safety and health of all students and staff, which is clearly Job # 1, their second priority is hiring a talented staff.  Besides safety, there simply is no other important work to do than ensuring the people we place in the classroom and school offices are well qualified, thoroughly vetted, and focused on student needs.  A child only gets a chance at 4th grade once, so we want to ensure the teacher we hire meets our standards and will nurture a strong learning community within the classroom, with the child as the center of attention.

This is also true for school leaders.  My second most important responsibility as superintendent (Safety is Job #1!) is to make sure we cast a wide net to secure smart, creative, hardworking, and qualified individuals who are committed to academic excellence, the social and emotional needs of students, and building a dynamic and inclusive community.  Research has shown that the strength of the building principal is directly related to the success of students, so we go above and beyond to ensure that we organize a lengthy and rigorous search process that results in the identification and hiring of top notch teachers and administrators.

What does the process look like?  There are a several components as outlined in a recent administrative training session, including:

  • Recruitment of talented and diverse staff.  Our district website shares the information about openings, and we also post on other websites and attend local job fairs with a particular focus on hiring for diversity.  We are eager to consider non-traditional candidates who have capacity for growth and challenge, and we often post our positions for a long period of time to give as many folks as possible the opportunity to apply to Needham.  We also contact universities and local district administrators to see, for example, if they know of an aspiring school leader we might tap for a role.

  • Principals and administrators screen applications and only bring in candidates we want to learn more about and who have the prerequisite skills and certification (or who will be able to secure the certification) for the specific role.  We provide interview and bias training to ensure we are aware of our own blindspots and biases. Hiring teams are then organized and typically include teachers and school staff; parents and secondary students are often invited to participate as well.  For example, during the recent Sunita L. Williams principal search about 20 5th grade students interviewed the finalists and then provided feedback on both individuals (Students always ask tough questions and their feedback is candid and spot on!).

  • After the hiring teams identify two or three finalists to move forward, we ask teacher candidates to teach an in person lesson either at one of our schools or at their school. After the lesson we will have a conversation with the candidate about how the lesson went and, importantly, we will talk to students to get their impressions. 

  • Principals and administrators conduct additional reference checks on a desired candidate and complete a recommendation packet which is forwarded to my attention and a final interview with the teacher.  While not every superintendent meets with recommended teacher candidates, I think it is crucial to interact with and review the qualifications of each individual before they are formally offered the position.  It is time consuming to meet with dozens and dozens of candidates but, once again, it is the 2nd most important responsibility we have in the Needham Public Schools.

  • For administrators, we have the finalists return to the school for a full day of classroom observations, interviews with staff, conversations with students, and faculty and family meetings.  Staff, students and families are asked to provide written feedback on an administrative candidate.  

  • An additional step that many districts do not take but we see as a critical component in the search for a school leader is the site visit. We ask administrative and principal candidates to host a site visit to their school so a team of Needham staff can observe and then interview administrators, teachers, community members, students, and supervisors. Recently, for example, we sent a team to Denver to learn about a principal candidate and an assistant principal search team is heading to North Carolina to see that administrative candidate. It is important to explore where an assistant principal or principal candidate works and observe how they interact and lead in their school setting.  This gives us a chance to have one on one conversations and candid discussions with the folks a candidate works with on a daily basis; it allows us a chance to see if the individual really “walks the talk.”

  • For administrative candidates additional reference checking, a written task and sometimes a review of one’s portfolio all round out the extensive search process.  I typically schedule an additional one on one meeting with a finalist to review additional questions and to ensure their questions have been answered before an offer is made.  

Our process is intense, inclusive and time consuming, and I believe it allows us to be choosy about who we bring on board in our schools.  We are eager to continue our Spring 2022 hiring process as we work to ensure the best educators work with the amazing young people of the Needham Public Schools!

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Going Mask Friendly on March 7th

Beginning on March 7th, face coverings and masks will no longer be required in the Needham Public Schools for students and staff.  

The Commissioner’s update on masking, improving local health metrics, high staff & student vaccination rates, availability of testing options, and the district’s commitment to maintain healthy schools have resulted in the Joint Committee on Health & Safety recommending to the superintendent that the mask mandate end & that a mask friendly K-12 learning environment become effective Monday, March 7th.

As of March 7th, Individual K-12 students and staff can choose whether to wear a mask or not; unvaccinated individuals are strongly encouraged to wear a mask. All will wear masks in health offices and on school transportation. (Preschool staff and students will remain masked for the time being.)

The district will reinforce personal choice around masking. Mask friendly respects the individual choices of students and staff; acknowledges that some individuals have personal or family health concerns/needs that must be supported.

Principals, teachers, and staff will use the week after break to share developmentally appropriate messages and lessons to help students understand what it means to learn and play in a mask friendly school and classroom.

To learn more about how the principals and staff are preparing for a mask friendly learning environment, watch this ten minute video featuring Principals Bourn and Garlick: Ten Minutes with Eliot Principal Karen Bourn and Broadmeadow Principal Andy Garlick. To view additional information, including recent health metrics and data, view this February 15, 2022 School Committee meeting presentation.

I'm excited that we are creating the conditions to support a mask friendly learning environment, and we will continue to monitor health and safety conditions in order to prioritize the health and safety of our students, staff, and their families.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Next Up: Addressing the Infrastructure Needs of Mitchell, High Rock, and Pollard

Planning for the building infrastructure and programmatic needs of the Needham Public Schools (NPS) remains a top strategic priority for the Needham School Committee.

With the guidance and support of the town's Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC), the NPS has engaged a designer, Dore and Whittier Architects, to study which major school building projects should be addressed in the next several years. 

The School Committee is trying to address several important goals with the planning process, including:

• Address physical infrastructure and significant programmatic needs at Mitchell, the district's oldest school (70 + years)

Address physical infrastructure and significant programmatic needs at Pollard, including end of life modular classrooms

• Address overcrowding and the lack of adequate program space at the middle level, including Pollard and High Rock

• Mitigate the impact of construction on one or more generations of students

• Avoid expensive building maintenance over time (which will be complicated by the MA building code threshold limitations) 

• Avoid wasting significant funds on temporary modulars (for a Mitchell project)

• Accomplish needed building renovations within a reasonable period of time.

• Provide elementary capacity, including preparing Needham for the possible introduction of Universal PreK  

During the course of the study, the replacement of the Mitchell Elementary School and the possible renovation and expansion of Pollard as a 6-8 campus have been discussed.  You may view a recent School Committee and Permanent Public Building Committee presentation about the planning process here: School Facilities Master Planning Process

Renovating and/or replacing Mitchell and Pollard will be expensive and take time but both projects are necessary to meet the needs of students and staff. Additionally, the possible relocation of the 6th grade onto one 6-8 Pollard campus on Harris Avenue requires serious consideration, especially if this offers efficiencies in terms of staffing, programming, and space and allows the current High Rock School to become the district's sixth elementary school to meet anticipated elementary enrollment and program needs.

To learn more about the school master planning process and to share questions and comments, the NPS will host a virtual Family and Community Meeting on Tuesday, February 8th at 7:00 p.m. Look for the link to be posted on the district's website or in an email. Please join us to learn more about these important school projects.