Translate

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Schools are Counter-Cultural!

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

Public schools are a microcosm of the larger community, representing the various socioeconomic, racial, political, ethnic, and religious differences that exist in our diverse and complex society.  Each day, children with wide-ranging abilities from a variety of family structures, backgrounds, faith communities, and neighborhoods stream into the public school to learn and grow together.  For public educators it’s an incredible challenge—and an important responsibility—to support a school culture that respects the uniqueness of each child and also nurtures a safe, tolerant, and courteous learning environment for all students where empathy, patience, and civility are encouraged.

Public schools reflect the local community, but they also must model, however imperfectly, the highest aspirations and ethos of a democratic society by promoting diverse viewpoints, valuing differences, and establishing collaborative and cooperative relationships among students. Unlike the broader community where rancorous debates, unseemly tweets, and boorish behavior are often tolerated, the schoolhouse must be a safe haven for considerate discourse, openness, fairness, and respect.  The children under our charge are simply expected to model the behavior some adults often eschew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

November 8th Election/Question 5: School Committee Urges Voters to Learn about the Proposed New Hillside School


 
Proposed new elementary school on Central Avenue to replace Hillside

The Needham School Committee encourages voters to learn about the proposed new elementary school on Central Avenue.  Chair Sue Neckes explains:

On November 8th, Needham voters will be asked whether or not to allow the Town to raise funds to construct a new Hillside School on Central Avenue.

The need to replace the existing Hillside Elementary School, built in 1959, has been well documented for years in the Town's Capital Improvement Plan and supported by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA):  Major building systems are beyond their useful life; the school is not up to modern code standards and is not handicapped accessible; it is undersized for the ongoing population and outdated for contemporary educational practices and programs; and, environmental issues at the current site, while well managed, have required diligent attention.

For several years, the Town, including the School Committee and the Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC) has worked with educational designers, architects and other experts to identify the best location for the school and to design it to meet the needs of the community and the children who will attend the school during the coming decades.  Town Meeting has approved funding for the new school at every step in the process.  The new school will provide the necessary and appropriate spaces for project-based learning; curriculum in art, music, Spanish, and technology; and special education.  Additionally, with space for full-day kindergarten, the School Committee and community will significantly reduce the barriers to accomplishing our goal of offering full-day kindergarten to all of our students. 

Based on MSBA requirements, the school is slated for an enrollment of 430, but through careful planning to ensure four sections per grade, the school will have capacity to accommodate up to 544 children.  Enrollment is expected to be 483 in 2020 when the school is scheduled to open.  The new school, planned to receive LEED Silver certification, will be highly energy efficient.  The properly sized classrooms with well-placed windows and purposeful natural lighting are designed specifically to provide the most conducive teaching and learning environment for current practices.

The specific wording of Ballot Question 5 is:

“Shall the Town of Needham be allowed to exempt from the provisions of Proposition Two-and one-half, so called, the amounts required to pay for the bond issued in order to provide architectural design, engineering, construction, site work and site acquisition for the Hillside School on Central Avenue?”

The total cost of the project is not to exceed $66 million, because that is the total amount Town Meeting has approved.  This amount includes the cost to design, engineer and construct the school, and will cover the town's cost of acquiring the Owen's Poultry Farm site and adjacent properties on Central Avenue.  The MSBA will contribute about 21% of the total project cost, approximately $13-14 million.  As both funder and watchdog, the MSBA has carefully reviewed and approved our plans and, not only offered its support, but its limited funds as well. The estimated impact on the annual tax bill for the average single family home to pay the annual debt service will vary over time, but will not exceed a maximum of $375 per year.  The School Committee, Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and Town Meeting all enthusiastically support this project and the financing plan.

The School Committee recognizes the tax burden placed on town residents in supporting this project.  We hope you will agree that providing a high quality education, an expectation of our Town and a reason so many of us choose to live here, requires buildings that support 21st century teaching and learning. 

For more information about the proposed new school:  New Hillside Elementary School

Monday, September 19, 2016

Welcome School Resource Officers!


Thanks to Needham’s Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and Police Chief John Schlittler who recently announced the assignment of an additional School Resource Officer (SRO) for Needham’s schools. Officer Ryan O’Leary, a Needham High School and recent Boston College graduate, joins police veteran Vin Springer who has served this community for over 30 years as a crisis negotiator, field training officer, and for the last 13 years as the school liaison. The presence of School Resource Officers on our school campuses complements the strong relationship that exists between Needham’s public safety and school officials, and we are excited to have both men on board.  

Ryan O'Leary (left) and Vin Springer (right)
 SROs Springer and O’Leary will work closely with the schools, staff, students, and families to assist us as we focus on student safety, security, and wellbeing.  For example, the SROs have been trained on ALICE, our new school safety protocol, and they will collaborate with principals around student truancy, bullying, or other matters that may require support and intervention beyond the purview of a building administrator. Already both officers have been in each of the schools and have been a positive presence at lunch time in our cafeterias where they have met and interacted with students.  Principals at the elementary and middle school level are introducing the officers to children so that they can build connections and relationships.

 Over the last year there has been a lot of conversation about the role of police officers in our communities and their level of commitment and understanding, especially in communities of color.  Needham may not have all the challenges of a Boston or Baltimore, but Needham does strive to be a welcoming, inclusive, respectful, and just community.  The willingness of Town Manager Fitzpatrick and Chief Schlittler to designate two exceptional men to the position of School Resource Officer when staffing is already tight, is a testament to this community’s belief in the fair, decent, and dignified treatment of all people, regardless of age, race, gender, or ethnicity. 

Officer Vinny Springer and Officer Ryan O’Leary, thank you for your partnership with the schools, commitment to young people, and your service to this community!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ready... Set...

Welcome back to school!  It’s been a busy summer of maintenance and renovation projects in the schools, professional development and training for the staff, and overall planning and preparation for a new school year and an anticipated 55 new students.  Here are some of the highlights:

 
•  School maintenance and building projects have been a priority for the Town.  The high school café has been expanded in the first phase of a project intended to provide additional space for the growing enrollment there.  The Pollard main office, some student bathrooms, and counseling offices have been renovated.  Many other maintenance and cleaning projects have been tackled in the schools by our incredible team of custodians, tradesman, and contractors who sweated it out all summer to buff floors, clean lockers, and wash windows.
 

In July the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) voted to support a new elementary school project to replace the existing Hillside School, and the community will vote on the project November 8th.  If the community vote is successful, construction of a new school could start next year!
 

Water bubblers at all the schools have been tested for actionable levels of lead (.15 ppb), and as of this writing only one bubbler at Hillside has subsequently been replaced with a portable water cooler out of an abundance of caution.   All other drinking fountains and bubblers at the seven other schools remain within acceptable water quality standards.  An additional set of testing conducted at Hillside on August 11th for a couple of bubblers that had earlier registered at slightly above .15 ppb indicate that no actionable level of lead was again detected.  For more information about the water testing and protocols:  Water Quality Testing
 

•  On August 17th, we held our annual staff orientation program for over 66 new staff, including teachers, support staff, and administrators.  Welcome aboard to new Needham High School Principal Aaron Sicotte and Mitchell School Principal Greg Bayse.
 

During June, July, and August teacher professional development, curriculum planning, and technology training engaged many teachers and administrators.  At all levels, more than sixty teachers spent time increasing their knowledge and comfort with technology to enhance teaching in the digital classroom.  Staff training around Cultural Proficiency, Responsive Classroom, and new online courses designed to assist teachers to modify and adapt practice for ELL and special education students were also well attended.  Dozens of staff members representing all the schools also participated in safety training using the new ALICE protocol.
 

Elementary STEAM teachers worked with staff at the Museum of Science to further enhance their understanding of how to integrate the various areas of STEAM into a meaningful learning experience for their students.  Pre-school teachers now have a well articulated, developmentally appropriate curriculum for their students that is aligned to the new standards for Social-Emotional Development and Approaches to Play and Learning.
 

This past week teacher representatives, School Committee members, and principals and administrators met at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Dorchester to discuss ideas about empowering educators' voices in the development of a shared vision for learning in our schools.  The conversation will be the first of several this school year designed to strengthen relationships and set priorities for leading and learning.

•  We are gearing up for a successful school opening on Wednesday, August 31st.  Bus routes have been planned, classroom supplies unpacked, and teachers are quite busy setting up classrooms in order to welcome over 5,600 students to Needham's classrooms.  Our enrollment continues to grow slightly, this year by an anticipated 25 new students.  In fact, in the last ten years, Needham's enrollment has increased by more than 585 students placing Needham within the top ten percent of all school districts by number of students enrolled.  Thanks to the community for its continued support of additional teachers and staff to keep pace with additional students and their growing learning needs.
 

Buildings cleaned, staff trained, and classrooms prepped!  In the spirit of the Rio Olympic swim and track officials:  Ready...  Set...
 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

2016 Survey Results: We Hear You!


 We are committed to gathering the perspectives of parents, staff, and students to better understand our strengths and challenges as a district.

2,351 parents of students in grades 3-12 recently completed the District Survey—an impressive 55.4% response rate compared with 52% when the survey was last administered in 2013. We combined the results of the Parent Survey with responses from 3,974 Students and 637 Staff (a response rate exceeding 90% in both cases!) to measure progress towards the District goals.

As promised, we are sharing the results of the survey with Needham Public Schools’ parents, students and staff. Here are highlights of key findings for the district:

Evidence of Progress Toward the District Goals (average “agree/strongly agree” of Parents, Students, Staff responses)

Goal 1 - Advance Learning for All Students:
School sets high academic standards/Teachers want me to do well in school: 95%
Staff/School Administrators are responsive to input from parents: 93% (item not in Student survey)
Students understand how to use online tools responsibly / digital citizenship: 92%
Staff care about how much students learn/Teachers care about how much I learn: 92%

Goal 2 - Develop Social, Emotional Wellness and Citizenship Skills:
·I feel welcome at my (child’s) school/My school is a good place to work and learn: 94%
·My child is (students are) not fearful of being hurt by other students: 93%
·School staff (adults in my school) seem to work well with one another: 93%

Goal 3 - Ensure Infrastructure Supports District Values and Learning Goals:
·I am satisfied with the district administration services: 93% (item not in Student survey)
·The school library/media center is meeting my child’s (students’) needs / Media Center has the books and materials I need for school: 93%
·The district website provides me with useful information: 92% (item not in Student survey)
·I am satisfied with the administration at my (my child’s) school: 91% (item not in Student survey)

Areas Needing Attention (average “agree/strongly agree” of Parents, Students, Staff responses)

·Homework furthers learning: 74%
·Info on student progress: 73%
·Adequate space to meet instructional needs: 66%
·Not feeling stressed or overwhelmed by school: 51%

The voices of our parents, students and staff have been heard! The district survey allows our school district to celebrate strengths and respond to goal areas needing attention. Over the next several months we will engage the School Committee, parents, staff, students, and our School Councils in analyzing the survey findings in depth and incorporate the data, and appropriate action steps, into our school improvement plans.

To view a presentation of the survey results, check out the District’s website: 2016 Needham Public Schools Survey Results Presentation

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Needham Students Learning and Making Friends in China

Over the April vacation, a group of Needham elementary students, parents, educators, and town officials traveled to Beijing, China to strengthen our growing relationship with the Daxing District, one of 16 districts in the city of Beijing. Accompanying the Needham contingent was a film crew from the Needham Channel, which is producing a documentary about the unique relationship between Needham and Daxing.

Needham and Daxing Students and Families
A highlight of the visit was for 23 Needham elementary and middle school students to stay with local families and attend classes for the week at our sister school in Daxing, the Feichenchung Elementary School.  Our Chinese hosts believe it was the first ever elementary and middle school student exchange between an American city and Beijing!

The partnership between Daxing and Needham goes back five years when Mitchell principal Dr. Mike Schwinden contacted a local group, Boston Ivy, to arrange visits of Chinese students, teachers, and school administrators between our communities.  This recent visit culminated in a new five-year agreement between the school districts, and Mayor Shao of Daxing signed an initial agreement for a new city to city relationship with Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and Selectmen Matt Borrelli and Moe Handel.  Now the Daxing/Needham schools and city/town governments have established additional opportunities to learn, develop, and promote educational, cultural and community exchanges and partnerships.

Daxing & Needham Student Learn Together
For me, the power of this exchange and the evolving relationships between American and Chinese children and adults is the ability to connect with and learn about another culture, traditions, and system of government.  It’s harder to mistrust or even dislike a person from another culture and country if you have the occasion to play a game, enjoy a meal, or visit an historic landmark together.  Despite the challenges of language and custom, friendships have been established and new opportunities to develop understanding and respect are growing.  Consistent with our district’s core values—Scholarship, Personal Growth, Community, and Citizenship—I am pleased Needham is breaking down barriers and encouraging tolerance, empathy, and respect among those with whom we have differences.

It’s one way to make this world a little smaller.  And a little better.

To view a slideshow of our visit to Beijing, click here: China Exchange 2016

Thanks to Artie Perez for the photos!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Pathway to Full Day Kindergarten in Needham: It's Time!


After over a year of review and consideration, the Needham School Committee has released its Report of the Full-Day Kindergarten Study and Planning Committee to the community.  The report is comprehensive and urges the School Committee to act as quickly as possible to ensure a publicly-funded, equitable, and innovative Full-Day Kindergarten program is available to meet the needs of all learners.  

The report is not a specific plan for the implementation of Full-Day Kindergarten (a specific plan will require additional funding and resources) nor does it answer all the questions about how best to proceed, but it does ask the School Committee to take action on the efficacy of a compulsory Kindergarten program for all of Needham's children.  If the School Committee accepts the recommendations in the report, there will need to be significant planning and a community commitment to implement a program.

I happen to believe it is time for Full-Day Kindergarten in Needham, and this report is the first of many critical steps that we must take to make it a reality.

To view the report, click here: Full-Day Kindergarten Report

Additional information and opportunities to provide ideas and feedback will be proposed in the weeks and months ahead.  Please send feedback and ideas to the School Committee:  schoolcommittee@needham.k12.ma.us