Sunday, April 29, 2018

Needham's May Town Meeting: The Community Rises to Support its Children

Now that spring has arrived, it’s time for Needham’s Annual Town Meeting, a tradition that goes back to the Town’s founding in 1711.

A review of the 2018 Warrant for the Annual Town Meeting shows that several important items will be discussed and debated, including funding for school and town operations, various capital projects, zoning for marijuana establishments, changing name of “Selectmen” to “Select board”, pedestrian safety, and the purchase of property for the planned new fire/police headquarters.  It will be a busy four nights as Needham’s elected representatives to Town Meeting hear from various boards who have both proposed and studied the 66 articles that will come before the Annual and Special Town Meeting on May 7, 9, 14, and 16th at Needham’s Town Hall.

This is my 12th Town Meeting as Needham’s superintendent, and I continue to be impressed with the high level of coordination, discussion, debate, analysis, and management that are evident in this annual ritual of local town governance.  In particular, the organization and preparation of the Selectmen, Finance Committee, School Committee, Planning Board and others is impressive and allows Town Meeting representatives to understanding key issues and ask questions that clarify or question information so that individuals can make thoughtful decisions and votes.  The boards are supported by talented staff members and Town leaders, including Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, Assistant Town Managers Dave Davison and Chris Coleman, Police Chief John Schlittler, Fire Chief Dennis Condon, DPW Director Rick Merson, and a variety of other Town department heads who work tirelessly to provide answers and responses that will inform good decision-making.

Keeping everyone in line—and as he is frequently clear about, “Within the four corners of the article in question”—is Town Moderator Michael Fee who presides over Town Meeting with firmness, integrity, focus, balance, and a good sense of humor at the right time.  He is unflappable during serious and sometimes controversial debates; and he is also patient, evenhanded, and fair to all who seek to share their perspective, ask a question, or offer a comment.

This year School Committee Chair Aaron Pressman will share with Town Meeting a brief report on the Needham Schools, and he will review the school department’s budget request for the 2018-19 school year.  As in years past, Town Meeting members will ask clarifying questions about school needs and this year Mr. Pressman will respond with as much information and data as possible to satisfy the request.  And if this year is like the others I have witnessed, Needham Town Meeting Members will again ask good and hard questions and then rise to support Needham’s young people with a budget and resources that will boost and enrich their learning—and, in turn, strengthen the community. 

If you would like to read more about Needham’s Town Meeting: 2018 Needham Town Meeting Information

For information about the FY19 School Budget plan that will be proposed to Town Meeting: Needham Public Schools FY19 Budget Message to Town Meeting

Monday, March 5, 2018

Portrait of a Needham Graduate

An open letter and invitation to the Needham Community:

Dear Needham Public Schools’ Students and Families:

I think it’s time to talk about your future.

Just the other day I realized that the first class to experience the planned full day Kindergarten program in Needham, will graduate from Needham High School in 2033.  That’s right, 2033!  I can’t even imagine what the world will be like in 2033, and it’s both daunting and exhilarating to consider how best to prepare all our students—including those who come before 2033—for today and tomorrow.  I’d like to share an idea about preparing all students for the challenges and opportunities in the years ahead.

I am reminded of a quote attributed to John Dewey, an educational innovator from the last century: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”  More recently my friend and mentor, Anthony Bent, shared with me:  “We should not be preparing children for our past but for their future.”  These observations have really made me think about our current world and your future:

  Career options and economic opportunities for your generation will involve increasing levels of entrepreneurship; technology-driven solutions, including digital automation and AI (Artificial Intelligence) and data management; and innovative and disruptive technology tools, marketplaces, and economic development.

  Environmental and security challenges, including the impact of climate change, the availability of increasingly limited resources, cyber-warfare, and unstable and shifting international alliances, will proliferate.  Renewable energy development, food sourcing, weapons development, and questions around sustainability will drive policy-making, growth, and innovation.

  Issues of race, social justice, poverty, equity, economic development, immigration, and educational opportunity for a nation that is increasingly ethnically and racially diverse will dominate decision-making and planning in the United States.     

  Medical advancements and biotechnology will result in longer and healthier lives; science and space exploration will continue to flourish; personal innovation, ingenuity, and creativity will be prized and rewarded; social media and the creation of new technologies to communicate, solve problems, and build community will help guide and strengthen a new generation.

  Increased civic engagement, including the need for diplomacy, language acquisition, and religious and cultural understanding within and across communities and governmental bodies, will be required to avoid polarization, authoritarianism, injustice, and violence and to build a sense of an ethical community of care and service.[1]

So here’s the idea: We should have a broad conversation about what kind of educational experiences we want for our students at all grade levels as we propel them towards graduation, the challenges ahead, and their future lives.  I think we should research, discuss, debate, and articulate the key attributes, skills, and qualities we want for Needham’s young people, now and as far into the future as we can see.  We will develop a framework—a Portrait of a Needham Graduate—that will inform our work and help us to establish our priorities and plans around which the community can coalesce and contribute.

The timing is right to engage educators, students, and parents in a forward-thinking conversation like this.  First, the world is becoming more complicated, and the knowledge, skills and tools we provide students in 2018 may be insufficient for 2025, 2030, or 2033.  Second, the need to ensure an equitable and inclusive education is essential now if we want all children to have access and opportunity as citizens, parents, entrepreneurs, and leaders in this amazing and dynamic world.  Finally, we need to provide clarity and coherence for the adults in our community, especially our educators, who are tasked with providing for, educating, and leading our young people during a time of increased accountability and competing demands, priorities, and interests.

The good news is that Needham’s parents and educators are already engaged in thinking forward and providing excellent academic support and programs.  It’s time to assess both our current practices and to consider and promote ideas that will boost student learning.

Developing a Portrait of a Needham Graduate will allow us to:

  Reflect on the direction of the Needham Public Schools;
  Explore which key attributes, skills, and knowledge our children—You!—need for the future;
  Operate within a framework of equity in education, preparing all students for the world they are facing; and
  Build a community consensus around the district’s vision, goals, and strategic priorities.

To accomplish this work we will invite a broad-based group of 30 to 40 members of the community, including high school students, educators, parents, business and civic leaders, and higher education representatives, to meet over the next several months to develop a Portrait of a Needham Graduate and strategic priorities that can be shared, debated, and ultimately adopted by the School Committee.

The conversation will reflect the many voices, wisdom, and values of this amazing community.  The work will be invigorating and may challenge some of our assumptions about what the educational experience should be in the Needham Public Schools.  The end product, like a portrait hanging in a museum, will reflect the nuances, perspectives, and experiences of its creators, and it may be imprecise and contain imperfections.  But we will strive to use information, research, and data to create a Portrait of a Needham Graduate, one which is aspirational and will provide a framework for the critically important work ahead—the development of the education, success, and livelihood of the young people in the Needham Public Schools. 

It’s an idea whose time has come—for you and for those who come before and after you. If you are interested in participating in the process for developing a Portrait of a Needham Graduate, please complete the form which can be found at the following link: Portrait of a Needham Graduate

Respectfully and with great hope and faith in your future,

Dan Gutekanst
Superintendent of Schools

[1] Franklin, Daniel. “The World in 2018.” The Economist 01 November, 2017.
      Marx, Gary. 21 Trends for the 21st Century. Bethesda, MD: Educational Week Press, 2013.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Building a Community of Caring at Pollard

Beginning in this school year the School Committee is recognizing students who embody the spirit of the district's core values:  Scholarship, Community, Citizenship, and Personal Growth.  In November, two Needham High School students, seniors Isabel Barnet and Oliver Hirshland, were recognized for their scholarship.

This month the School Committee acknowledged the brave efforts of seven Pollard Middle School students who bonded together to organize a “think in” in response to recent racist and homophobic graffiti found in a bathroom at the school. Bailey Chandler, Ari Anthony, Jeniyah Joseph, Ida Miles, Daniela Cajigas, Lia Santiago, and Tatiyana Dietz were all recognized and presented with a certificate for modeling the district’s core value of Community.

Pollard students Bailey, Ari, Jeniyah, Ida, Daniela, Lia, and Tatiyana with Principal Tamatha Bibbo, METCO Director Joanne Allen-Willoughby, METCO staff Leslie Smart, and Superintendent Dan Gutekanst

These students initiated and organized an event to help the middle school community heal and find a path forward to respectful dialogue and conversation. The girls bravely stood before their classmates and shared their fears, their feelings, and their hopes for the future.  Not only did they share about their personal experiences, they invited others to do so in a powerful and productive way.  They invited all middle school students to meet in the school cafeteria to come together, share their stories and make t-shirts to spread positive messages in place of hate. Together this small group of young women took a painful event and turned it into a ray of light and hope for the entire community.

One of the girls stood before an auditorium of middle school students and shared:  “We want to thank the staff and administration for how they handled this.  We understand that this school has made tremendous efforts to make everyone here feel welcome. Hate is taught. We are not born looking down on another’s differences.  Even though we’re all surprised and some of us are hurt by these negative comments, our voices together overpower just one. We’re all human. We’re all equal.  Fear and ignorance is nothing compared to the love and strength all of us have within us.”

Congratulations to Bailey, Ari, Jeniyah, Ida, Daniela, Lia, and Tatiyana for demonstrating courage and a commitment to a caring community!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Budget Plan for the 2018-19 School Year

In December I submitted a 2018-19 (FY19) Budget request to the School Committee for their review and consideration. 

This budget proposal outlines the resources the schools need next year 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.  Key budget documents and a presentation to the School Committee can be found here: FY19 Needham Public Schools Budget Proposal

The FY19 budget plan was developed to address contracted salary increases, growing special education costs, expanded student enrollment, and targeted program improvements. 
Several key budget “drivers” are impacting the proposed FY19 budget plan.  Among them:

•  Contractual Salary Increases.  Negotiated contracts for all existing employees account for $1.8 million, over 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, Class Size, Program support.  While overall enrollment is projected to increase only slightly next year, there remains a need to ensure that class sizes stay within acceptable School Committee policy guidelines.  I propose a net increase of 8.75 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) teachers at the elementary and secondary levels to keep class sizes steady and provide for special education programming and support. I also propose 2.37 net new FTE paraprofessionals and administrative support staff to ensure student needs are addressed and to provide ongoing support and training for the professional staff.

  Increased Special Education and Student Support Service Costs.  Increases in the number of special education students being served, special education tuition, and other mandated costs amount to $414,820 of the new funds requested.

  Targeted Program Improvements.  The FY19 budget plan includes $516,517 for targeted program improvements.  Most of these funds - $350,000 - are proposed to be held in reserve by the Town for Full-Day Kindergarten, which is planned to be implemented in the 2019/20 School Year.   Other improvements include $65,700 to add an additional bus to reduce the number of students on the wait list for transportation and help with overcrowding on the buses.  Additionally, I am proposing resources to ensure our English Language Learners receive additional instruction at the elementary level.

This preliminary budget plan has been carefully considered and reflects the School Committee and community’s high expectations for its young people.  Please share your thoughts and ideas about the budget plan by contacting the School Committee at or by attending the upcoming budget hearing at Broadmeadow scheduled on January 16, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

We Have Work To Do

We have work to do. 

Those are the initial findings of a report commissioned by the Needham Public Schools (NPS) to study and understand issues of racial equity and inclusion in our schools and classrooms. Our equity consultant, Ms. Christine Robinson, shared the Equity Audit: Initial Findings with the School Committee at a recent meeting attended by almost 100 parents, teachers, and administrators.

Ms. Robinson interviewed or conducted focus groups with over 250 parents, community members, staff, and students and studied various documents, policies, and student data as part of her audit of equity and inclusion in the NPS.  She grounded her study within a conceptual framework of intersectionality, a theory that suggests individuals possess multiple identities, including race, gender, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental and physical disability, as well as other forms of identity.  Intersectionality means it is insufficient to look only at one’s race when considering equity and inclusion because we possess other identities that may intersect with our race to impact our experiences in the world.

Key findings in the report include:

·      Root causes of disparities in education are centuries in the making; they are embedded in our nation's history. Still today, disparities affect the lives of students, faculty, administrators, parents, and staff of NPS.

·      NPS is becoming more diverse each year with over 50 languages spoken at home by the district’s families, with a wide variety of cultures, faith traditions, types of families, sexual identities, races, ethnicities, learning styles, disabilities, and countries of origin. Not everyone feels welcome or understood in the Needham Public Schools.

·      NPS parents, students and staff report experiencing or observing multiple instances of discrimination at the micro-level (joking, teasing, bullying, isolation) or at the macro-level from the media, public/political institutions, public safety, or other adults.

It was both challenging and uncomfortable for me as Needham’s superintendent to hear these findings and realize that there are parents, staff, and students who do not experience the Needham Public Schools or Needham community in a way that is consistently safe, welcoming, supportive, and caring. Some students of color expressed feeling marginalized or harassed; their parents feel unheard and disconnected; and their teachers, for example, express concern and anxiety about doing or saying the right thing when the issue of race surfaces. 

The findings also suggest that when students feel marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or language, they experience a level of anxiety and distress that interferes with their learning and achievement.  As an academic institution whose primary mission is to educate all children to high levels, it is simply unacceptable to have any student feel unsafe or marginalized, especially if it results in a loss of learning and growth—and a loss of human potential.

So we have work to do.

Along with these key findings, the report suggests that we can build on our many strong assets (e.g., Launching Scholars) and existing programs (e.g., Social and Emotional Learning) to address real issues and challenges.  Fortunately, we have outstanding teachers, administrators, and staff who are dedicated to improvement and boosting student learning.

Some of the key recommendations include:

·      Listen deeply to the perspectives of diverse communities, respect their inherent wisdom, and be responsive to them.

·      Develop an inclusive partnership with schools and the community, with sensitivity to the needs of youth who have been traditionally marginalized. This group includes students of color, youth from poor neighborhoods, adjudicated youth, LGBTQ youth, disabled youth, youth in the child welfare system, homeless youth, and all other populations.

·      Provide additional training for teachers, administrators, and other staff to directly overcome implicit and explicit bias. Enable them to engage more frequently in difficult conversations, for example, about race, religion, sexual identity and orientation, and ethnicity.

·      Ensure our students receive a culturally responsive curriculum in all schools from grades Pre-K to 12, with ongoing review of data as part of an evidence-informed approach to ensue academic equity and achievement.

·      Build systemic equity in school cultures/climates; budget for and provide resources; expand communications and outreach to all families and students to ensure they are welcomed and included.

Ensuring a safe, positive, and equitable school culture are fundamental to who we are and what we believe; in fact the District’s core values, which are the foundation for everything we do, already articulate the critical nature of this work in Needham.  For example, our core value of Community is defined in this way:  A school culture that encourages communication, understanding, and is actively anti-racist.  A culture in which sharing ideas and valuing multiple perspectives ensures a caring community committed to the promotion of human dignity.  Our core values provide direction and reinforce the critical nature of this work.

There is a lot to consider here, and it will be the responsibility of each member of the school community and the Town to act.  With core values already in place to guide a talented and committed staff, we start from a good place.  We must also lean on the community to assist and support us.  Racist behavior, inequities in living (or learning) standards, bias against any individual, and an intolerance for human differences are not only school issues—these are issues for families, faith communities, the Town, and, indeed, the entire nation to address.  Clearly, and as the evidence suggests, we in the NPS play a key role.

With energy, hope, and a deep belief in the promise and possibility of each one of our young people, I commit to work with the School Committee, staff, parents, community members, and, especially students, to build on our strong assets and tackle these challenges.

Yes, we have urgent work to do — and we are committed to this work for the long term.

Let’s get on with it.