Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Don’t worry about Teaching. Focus on Learning.

We have enjoyed a great start to the school year in Needham!  Before students returned to classes earlier this month, I met with all of our teachers, staff, and administrators to prepare for the new school year ahead. 

I urged them to not worry about teaching.  I encouraged them to focus, instead, on learning.  Following are excerpts of my comments to the faculty and staff at our August 31st meeting:

This year let’s keep our eye on how we are learning and how our students are learning rather than worrying and fretting about how we are teaching.  Let’s de-emphasize the teaching and highlight the learning.  Let’s turn it around a bit.

In fact, let’s do two things: Let’s lean on one another to share ideas, create plans, listen, observe, and problem solve.  Use your colleagues—whether you are a teacher, nurse, aide, or secretary—to learn and innovate together.  We simply can’t afford to do it alone. 

Let’s lean on our students to do the very same thing.  Let’s involve them in deep and real ways to enrich and support the learning dynamic in the classroom.  For example, I know this year our 7th grade teachers will often be leaning on our 7th grade students to assist them with iPad and technology questions.  What a great opportunity for teachers and students to learn together!

Sometimes we are afraid to learn because it inevitably leads to a wrong answer, misjudgment, or mistake. I think it is simply more comfortable to direct, administrate, and teach.  It puts us in control, and we retain power and confidence! Learning, however, leaves you vulnerable, questioning, uncertain.  Learning leaves us exposed.

That space between not knowing and deep understanding is scary and uncomfortable;  it’s a place that creates stress, tension, and doubt.  It’s also a place that is exciting, promising, mysterious—and can be great fun. Fortunately, we are in a District that will support our learning in this space; we have the mindset, tools, and energy to take risks and try new things or make new relationships.  Our core value of personal growth promotes learning readiness and the evolving educator evaluation model supports this kind of learning.

Now if we are going to focus on learning—and with thanks and apologies to Canadian education researcher Michael Fullan—I’ll expect that we adopt some clear expectations around how we will learn together.   I want all administrators and teachers to support their own learning during faculty meetings, collaboration and common planning time by taking five actions I have borrowed from Fullan that I believe will improve instruction and provide better results for all learners, especially students:

1.     Discuss specific student needs (Who are my students?  Does a student require ELL support?  How can we assist them to master new vocabulary? What is the family dynamic?)
2.     Use data that clarifies student needs (Review grade level math data.  Discuss the results of common assessments or MCAS. Consider the use of attendance or discipline reports to guide decision-making.)
3.     Pursue creative and demanding instructional practices (Interdisciplinary learning, integrating the arts and wellness, “Thinking like an Historian.” robust writing and presentation opportunities—the key here, by the way, is high expectations!)
4.     Monitor, discuss, share, and celebrate learning progress (Share and talk about your successes and failures!  Are the interventions working? Visit a colleague’s classroom to observe.  Highlight and celebrate the work of colleagues and students.)
5.     Repeat. (Do it all over again!)

In order to boost learning, this is how our lead learners—teachers and administrators—should use the time the District has provided. 

Colleagues, in the coming days, scores of young people will arrive in our classrooms and schools, and they will be both excited and anxious to begin a new year.  Let’s commit that we will focus our work this year and always on their learning and on our professional growth.

Let’s use our time, resources, and experiences to lean on and support one another in collegial, collaborative, and joyful learning—learning that will enrich our students’ lives and make this world a better place.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Dr. Stern's Advice for College Students: Stay Healthy. Be Safe and Smart.

As students head off to college this week, I am reminded about a recent conversation I had with our School Physician, Dr. Alan Stern, M.D., a local pediatrician and Needham community member and parent who has attended to the needs of hundreds of the community’s children and young adults.

Dr. Stern explained to me that as college-bound students come in for their physicals before they head off to freshman year, he offers them some simple but important advice around sleep, diet, exercise, substance use, and relationships.

  Sleep  Make sure you get plenty of rest and sleep if you want to be alert and awake for class and college success.  “If you want to earn A’s,” Dr. Stern tells them, “You have to catch some Z’s!”

  Diet and Nutrition  Eat regularly and enjoy healthy food.  Fast food and late night snacks are no substitute for balanced and nutritious meals.  Use your meal card to stay fit and healthy.

  Exercise  Stay healthy and fit with a good diet and regular exercise.  Get into the fitness room, jog in the neighborhood, and workout with friends to shake off the day and keep your body and mind strong.

  Alcohol and Drugs  Alcohol and illegal substances are more easily and readily available and accessible in college.  Most college students do not abuse alcohol or drugs, but binge drinking has become a serious health and safety problem.  Think about when, where, and with whom you party and talk to your parents or older siblings about how best to handle certain situations involving drugs and alcohol.

 Relationships  Intimate relationships can develop in college, and it’s important to be smart, safe, and prudent.  This is especially true when it comes to relationships that develop as the result of alcohol and drugs.  Always be aware of your surroundings and stay with friends when you venture out to parties or gatherings.  If you are not comfortable with someone, there is probably a reason for you not to get involved!

Thanks, Dr. Stern, for the good advice.  Undergraduates should also take advantage of on campus health and counseling services when questions or concerns arise.  And to the College Class of 2019:  Best wishes and stay healthy and safe!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Taking Care of Business: School Building & Maintenance Projects in Needham this Summer

This time of year it’s pretty quiet around town:  Needham’s families are away on summer vacation, kids are at camp, and you can actually find parking near the Town Common!

Around the schools, though, it’s a different story.  The Town’s maintenance crews, craftsmen, and contractors are busy getting the schools ready for the fall and the return of students and teachers.  Thanks to the generosity of Needham taxpayers and Town Meeting, over $3 million is being spent on school maintenance and capital improvement projects this summer alone.  Key projects in and around the schools include:

  School Maintenance  Repairs are proceeding in each school building, especially at Pollard, which is undergoing an asbestos abatement project, HVAC upgrades, duct cleaning, and locker replacement.  The installation of new freezers, lighting, and flooring, as needed, at other schools is also part of the work plan. 

  Playgrounds  Outdoor play areas at all of the schools receive ongoing attention with repairs to play equipment, fencing, resurfacing, and general upkeep.  As a result of the ongoing work, our play areas are safe, accessible, and fun!

Newman Fields Reconstruction
  Newman Fields and Eastman Conservation  A major reconstruction and refurbishing of fields and the conservation area on the Newman campus are underway and should mostly be ready when school starts in September.  New drainage, fields, walkway, landscaping, learning areas, and handicapped accessibility will all be addressed with this $2.3 million project.

  Needham High School  Given the growing enrollment at NHS, the Town is investing in the refurbishment of some interior spaces to provide additional classroom seats.  Designed for 1,450 students, Needham High will enroll about 1,680 students this fall, and the
High School Classroom Refurbishing
additional classroom seats will definitely be needed.  The Town has allocated about $600,000 for all school maintenance projects, including the interior classroom work at NHS this summer.  (Architects are also developing plans to expand the high school cafeteria next summer.)

  Hillside Feasibility  The feasibility study is underway, and the School Committee, Selectmen, and Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC) will review and vote on options for a possible school venue and construction project in the fall.

The Town is clearly committed to maintaining and improving the schools in order to provide an excellent learning environment for each child.  Thanks to Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and her incredible team of professionals:  Dave Davison, Chris Coleman, Chip Laffey, Rick Merson, Steve Popper, Hank Haff, Patty Carey, Ed Olsen, Bob Lewis, Ben Anderson, Tony Delgaizo, and many others, including tradesmen, custodians, and support staff.

These dedicated folks work collaboratively with the schools and staff to ensure the Needham community remains a great place in which to live, work, play and learn.

Happy summer!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Superb Ending to a Productive 2014-15 School Year!

The 2014-15 school year concluded successfully in the Needham Schools, and at its last meeting of the academic year the School Committee celebrated the many accomplishments of students, staff, and the community, including the:

•  Implementation of new elementary programming in Spanish, Wellness, Music, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics); new interdisciplinary courses at the high school, including the Greater Boston Project and robotics/arts programs
•  Integration into the schedule additional time for staff to collaborate, meet, and plan
•  Development of common assessments at every level in an effort to improve the instructional experience for all children and ensure each child has foundational experiences and skills in grades K-12
•  Level One Status achieved by four Needham Schools based on improving MCAS scores
•  Expansion of opportunities to ensure the development of culturally proficient practices and school cultures in each building; expansion of our exchange program with the Daxing School District (Beijing)
•  Opening of the Da Vinci Workshop at NHS in partnership with the NEF and PTC Corporation; incredible elementary family STEAM fair (over 800 attendees!)
•  Continued implementation and strengthening of the educator evaluation program
•  Review and recommended enhancements to school safety protocols; pilot of the A.L.I.C.E (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) protocol
•  Launching of the 1 to 1 Personalized Learning Initiative at High Rock and middle school
•  Development of a possible pathway to implementing Full Day Kindergarten
•  Feasibility study to replace Hillside and expand high school space; Start of construction of Newman Fields and Eastman Conservation areas
•  Assessment of the impact of service learning activities on student growth and achievement
• Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) Sportsmanship Award in Skiing and Boys’ Volleyball (The volleyball team also went undefeated and captured the state title!)

It has been a busy and productive year, and we look forward to the opportunity to recharge our batteries over the summer, even as we begin planning for the 2015-16 school year.  For additional information about the district goals and a presentation to the School Committee, check out our website:  2014-15 Goals Update

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Thank You, Town Meeting Members!

Needham’s 2015 Annual May Town Meeting concluded after three long nights, and there was plenty to be grateful for as Town Meeting Members consistently voted to support several school projects and initiatives, including the passage of a $61.5 million operating budget.

Town Meeting also voted to support the following School projects and capital needs:

  Articles 31 & 32:  Newman Athletic Fields and the Eastman Conservation Area received $2.3 million in funding to support the renovation of the fields and the rehabilitation of Eastman.  The Eastman Conservation Area is a popular student destination and will be upgraded and made handicapped accessible.

  Article 41: School Capital Budget includes $511,145 to purchase technology, furniture, and copiers.   These funds will be used to keep school technology and infrastructure current and replace older desktops, some over seven years old.  Copiers and furniture will be replaced only as needed and according to a sophisticated inventory program.

  Article 39:  $150,000 was appropriated to design a 2,500 square foot cafeteria expansion at Needham High School.  The school’s enrollment far exceeds its design capacity, and this café project is the first of two phases of expansion needed at the high school.  Next year, the School Committee will work with Town Boards and Town Meeting to secure additional funds for a classroom expansion project.

In addition to these important school appropriations, Town Meeting also provided funding to address school building upgrades, needs, and maintenance.  Additional funds were voted for other capital needs and contingencies, including for all athletic fields, which are heavily used by Needham’s students and young people.

The Needham community, as represented by its dedicated Town officials, Boards, and Town Meeting Members, has once again wisely prioritized school needs as a clear demonstration of its ongoing commitment to children.  Thanks, Town Meeting!

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: