Thursday, April 30, 2015

Space Needs at Needham High School

The School Committee and administration have been studying options for expanding cafeteria and classroom space at Needham High School.  Following are key questions about the identified needs at the school:

Q:  Given many School Committee and Town priorities and the limited resources available, why is the Needham School Committee looking to add space to Needham High School seven years after it opened?

A:  Needham High School lacks sufficient space to meet the current and projected needs of its students, staff, and families.  The community’s expectation for a high performing high school program cannot be met with the existing number of classrooms.

  The high school is—and will remain—over its capacity by 200 students, all of whom learn in classrooms designed below contemporary standards.  For example, Needham High School (NHS) was designed for 1,450 students and opened the doors in 2008 with enrollment of 1,404.  Current enrollment is 1614 and is projected to sustain an average of 1,652 students through the year 2028, the last year for which we have projections. 

  General classrooms at NHS include 760 square ft. of floor space designed to accommodate an average class size of 22 students.  (Current MSBA standards call for classrooms designed to accommodate 23 students at 850 square ft. per classroom.)  Over 125 classes, a quarter of all classes at NHS, hold 25 or more students; due to the lack of adequate space, the number of math, English, social studies, and foreign language classes with 25 or more students has doubled, going from 47 sections in 2007-08 to 95 sections in 2014-15.  The number of core academic classes with 28 or more students has quadrupled in the same time period, going from 5 sections in 2007-08 to 25 in the current year.  Large class sizes limit student-teacher interaction, instruction, and personalization.

  Over half the faculty is scheduled into two or more spaces, resulting in lost preparation time for travel and classroom setup, limited space for student/teacher conferencing, and the loss of an effective, consistent, and personalized instructional environment for students.  Students report that conversations with their teachers and requests for assistance are limited, abrupt, and impractical due to teachers moving back and forth between shared classrooms.

  Conference and collaboration spaces (e.g., METCO, Science, and English conference rooms) have been converted into much-needed classroom space, further limiting and restricting the teacher-student relationship.  This summer a science storage room and the language lab will be turned into permanent classrooms to help provide spaces for the additional 50 to 60 students attending NHS in the fall.

  Options for students will become increasingly limited due to the lack of appropriate space. For example, in the upcoming 2015-16 school year, the lack of an appropriate lab space will limit the numbers of students taking AP Biology.  It has become increasingly difficult to provide spaces for special education classrooms and other spaces to meet the needs of students who may have non-traditional learning needs.  The Greater Boston Project, a new and popular interdisciplinary course involving English, social studies, and math, has 30 students enrolled in the current year; next year’s enrollment tops 90.  However, given space constraints, the program will need to limit participation.  Without additional space, class sizes will continue to stay high; offices, storage areas, library spaces, auditorium, and other non-classroom spaces will be repurposed to meet program needs; and academic programs, including interdisciplinary learning, science instruction, and student support and special education programs will be dropped or curtailed in order to fit within the existing and undersized school building. 

  The cafeteria is undersized, and during most lunches the number of students assigned exceeds the cafeteria’s maximum occupancy of 488.  For example, the second lunch seating has an average of 620 students assigned.  As a result, students are forced to find alternative seating and/or juniors and seniors eat off campus.  The school can no longer simply add seats; additional space must be provided to meet building and safety codes.

Q: What is needed to address the identified space needs at Needham High School?

A: Needham High School requires a minimum of six new classrooms and an expanded cafeteria to sustain its current and projected enrollment and to meet the diverse needs of a high performing academic program.

  The addition of a minimum of six classrooms will a) provide appropriate learning spaces for high school academic programs, including math, English, social studies, science, and special education for the next generation of students; b) keep class sizes within acceptable ranges; and c) ensure students, teachers, staff, and families have adequate space to conference, collaborate, meet, and learn. 

  Certain spaces and rooms that have been repurposed to meet classroom needs will return to their original use and design.  For example, the English conference/curriculum room, currently scheduled with up to six classes, will be restored to its original purpose: a space for teachers, students, and families to study, meet, and conference.  The school will optimize its schedule and spaces to ensure students have options for academic and co-curricular programs.

  An expanded cafeteria with 2,500 additional square feet will alleviate overcrowding and ensure building and safety codes are addressed. 

  The FY16 Capital Plan details available funding for a project in the amount of $4.4 million.  Initial estimates, however, suggest a project with a café expansion and a minimum of six new classrooms may require funding in the amount of $6.7 million. 

The School Committee will pursue at least a cafeteria expansion project at the upcoming May Town Meeting and then work with Town boards and officials to continue to study affordable options for expanding much-needed classroom space. 

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.