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.

Friday, December 1, 2017

2017-18 District Priorities

I can’t believe it is the beginning of December!  It seems that only last week we were putting away our beach towels and preparing for a new school year and the arrival of our students.

But now that summer is way behind us and the school year is in full swing, let me share how impressed I am with the level of engagement, work, and learning I have observed this autumn in multiple visits to classrooms throughout the Needham Public Schools.  We are fortunate to have talented teachers and administrators promoting challenging learning opportunities for and building strong connections with each one of Needham’s exceptional young people.

Administrators, teachers, and staff are also working hard to use the District’s 2017-18 Goals to improve and strengthen learning for all students.  Some of the key activities within each goal area include:

Goal One:  Advance Learning for All Students
  Implement writing units of study across each elementary school and level.
  Articulate K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math (STEAM) curriculum and experiences; identify K-12 interdisciplinary experiences for all students.
  Expand and strengthen culturally sensitive and inclusive instructional practices, PreK-12.
  Promote the growth of teacher leaders to strengthen their capacity to support professional learning.

Goal Two:  Develop Social, Emotional, Wellness, and Citizenship Skills
  Complete equity audit to ensure all students have equal access to high quality and inclusive programs and instruction.
  Align social & emotional learning curriculum, instruction, and practices to the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL) Framework.
  Administer district survey to measure and understand the impact of SEL practices.
  Ensure Community Service Leaning activities complement and strengthen SEL programs.

Goal Three:  Ensure Infrastructure Supports Student Learning Goals
  Develop new Technology Strategic Plan.
  Commence construction of the Sunita L. Williams Elementary School and Needham High School expansion.
  Develop plans for Fall 2019 implementation of full day and publicly funded Kindergarten.
  Continue to build on the strong culture of collaboration that empowers teacher voice and responsibility.

The district goals are meant to be a guide and a map and not a list of specific directions; School Improvement Plans and individual educator goals detail the steps and outcomes necessary to support these, and other, key district priorities.  We intend to use the goals and actions steps as a way to focus our work and resources in order to improve the learning experience for each child.  The goals are ambitious and the outcomes may be imperfect, but we are committed to the work and the opportunity to collaborate to advance teacher, school, and district initiatives. 

Later this spring we will update the community on our progress and seek input about how we might improve our efforts to ensure all children experience a rigorous, challenging, and creative education in the Needham Public Schools.  To view the complete goals document, check out the district’s website: 2017-18 Needham Public Schools Goals

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Next Generation MCAS

In spring 2017, students in grades 3-8 across Massachusetts, including in Needham, participated in the new MCAS test in English language arts and mathematics for the first time.  This "next generation" MCAS test is completely different and a more rigorous assessment than the MCAS assessment that had been administered in our schools for nearly the last 20 years.  During the week of November 6th, you will be receiving the results of your child's performance on this new assessment.

As you review the report, here are a few things to keep in mind:
· The next-generation MCAS is a new test with a different approach to assessing student performance in grades 3-8.  Spring 2017 scores are not comparable to previous years’ scores.
· The score levels for the next-generation MCAS are different from those of the legacy MCAS.  The four new categories are:  Exceeding Expectations (E), Meeting Expectations (M), Partially Meeting Expectations (PM) and Not Meeting Expectations (NM).  They replace the categories of Advanced (A), Proficient (P), Needs Improvement (NI), and Warning (W) used for the legacy MCAS.
· The new standards for "Meeting Expectations" are more rigorous than the standards for reaching the "Proficient" level on the legacy MCAS.  Therefore, some students who scored Proficient on the legacy MCAS in 2016 may score only “Partially Meeting Expectations” on the new 2017 MCAS. 
· The Spring 2017 is a baseline year for the new test in grades 3-8 and will set the achievement level for coming years.
· High school students are still taking the legacy MCAS tests. The next-generation tests will be introduced at the high school level in spring 2019.

We ask that you keep in mind that MCAS results are only one measure of your child’s performance.  Students in Needham are learning and growing both academically and socially, and teachers are supporting the diverse needs of all our students.  We remain on par with our comparable communities and continue to outperform the state on many measures, including the MCAS, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams.  Additionally, our teachers design local assessments and tests that provide detailed and helpful information about their students.  In short, we use many measures to understand student growth and target areas for student growth.

Over the weeks and months ahead, our teachers and principals will review and analyze these results to understand student needs and how we might make improvements in classroom instruction and test administration.  We want to continue to use the MCAS as one of many ways in which we measure and account for our students’ growth and achievement in the Needham Public Schools.

If you have questions about your child’s performance, please contact the school.  For more information about the MCAS and Needham's results, please check out this link:  Needham MCAS Information

A comprehensive report about these results and the MCAS will be presented to the School Committee later this winter.

Thanks to Dr. Terry Duggan, Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning, for providing this month's post!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Needham High School Expansion & Renovation: 1 Project Addresses 3 Critical Needs

At the October 2017 Special Town Meeting, Town Meeting Members will consider a request from the Needham School Committee to fund an expansion and renovation project at Needham High School where current and projected enrollment exceed the school's design capacity.  The project, totaling $14.2 million, will address three critical needs at the high school:
• Expands core academic classroom space to address significant overcrowding;
•  Renovates the original "A" Gym to repair several infrastructure problems and to meet growing school and community program needs; and
•  Replaces non-operational HVAC equipment.

View of High School Classroom Expansion from Webster St.
The classroom expansion component constructs a new ten-classroom wing at the Webster entry to the school.  The new wing will also include much needed conference, office, and storage space.  Several existing spaces within the high school would also be renovated to meet special education and student program needs.
The second component of this project would renovate the 1950s era "A" Gym, including the replacement or refurbishment of the floor, ceiling/lights, ventilation system, and walls; scoreboards and hoops would be replaced and/or relocated as appropriate.  Additionally, the project adds much needed equipment storage to the gym area to meet the demand for one of the largest interscholastic athletic programs in the state.
The third portion of the project improves boiler efficiency and replaces the defunct 300-ton chiller with two 250-ton chillers to provide adequate HVAC to the entire building.
If Town Meeting appropriates the funds for this construction project, work will begin next February 2018 and continue throughout the spring and summer; the expansion and renovations will be ready for the start of school next fall.
All three components of this one project will meet the needs of the high school for many, many years to come.  Students and teachers will have additional and appropriate space in which to learn and teach, and the building's infrastructure and systems will meet the growing enrollment and demand for services.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Listen Deeply, Make Mistakes, Inspire a Generation

Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared with the staff at our opening day meeting on August 28th:

Before I begin, I wish to extend my appreciation to my colleagues in the central office and all of the principals, administrators, and teachers who have worked to prepare for a new school year. I especially appreciate the efforts of our clerical, custodial, transportation, nutrition services, and technical staff who have tackled various projects getting ready for our students’ arrival on Wednesday. You know, the heart of our work is in the classroom—the exchange of ideas and learning between and among the teacher and students.  But our teachers are supported by so many others who assist them in this singularly important work. All of us, regardless of our roles, are on the same team, and all of us are serving for a greater purpose—to help young people learn, grow, and achieve.

Thanks to our dedicated School Committee members who support us throughout the school year; and I again appreciate having our Town Manager, Kate Fitzpatrick, here this morning.

I also want to thank a very special guest who braved travel from Houston through Hurricane Harvey to be here with us today:  Welcome to NHS Class of ’83 alum, Retired US Navy Captain, and NASA astronaut Sunita L. Williams! More about Captain Williams in a few minutes.

Well, I hope all of you had some down time over the summer months and an opportunity to relax and recharge!  

And now that we are back from our assorted adventures and travels we anticipate a new school year.  We prepare for our students’ return with great eagerness and, well to be fair, some degree of anxiety! This work you do is daunting and not for the feint of heart!  The work you do with children, shaping and encouraging young minds is a huge responsibility and it is a gift!  In my view, nothing is more important in society than helping young people grow and develop into adults who will assume their place in the community. Accept the excitement, anxiety and butterflies as both a sign of your preparation and readiness—and as a sign of the huge responsibility and commitment we have to the children and families we serve.  

I’ll confess to you that the superintendent also gets butterflies…  I stress out about what to say, and I often worry—a lot—that I will not meet your expectations.  I go for extra long runs to drain the fear and steady the nerves. I run a lot! 

To be honest, in light of national events, particularly the recent violence in Charlottesville, I have struggled mightily with how to address you. On the one hand, it’s important to keep politics and polarization away from the schoolhouse where we have an obligation to remain evenhanded, impartial, and balanced. In our roles as educators, as public officials, we can’t take sides. 

On the other hand, it is important to be unequivocal about what we expect here in Needham and what the law demands, regardless of political persuasion or one’s position on the Right/Left continuum. 

So here is the first thing this morning I want to be abundantly clear about: There is no place for bigotry, racism, homophobia, or hate in the classrooms of the Needham Public Schools.  All students and staff, regardless of their skin color, language, ability, gender identity or orientation, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or faith, have dignity and are valued and contributing members of this learning community. 

Or as my father put it to me in very simple terms when I was a little boy:  “Everyone matters.”

By the way, I acknowledge that some of our colleagues, students and their families may share different beliefs and perspectives on some of the issues of the day.  I respect that, and in the schoolhouse we all have an obligation to respect views that are contrary to our personal beliefs.  I happen to believe we have the capacity as a nation and the responsibility as a school community to make room for alternative views as long as we respect the individual dignity of each human being.

Now, permit me to share three challenges that will extend my statement about acceptance and tolerance, and that I hope will guide our work together in the coming year:

  Listen Deeply… and include all voices
  Make mistakes… and embrace new learning
  Inspire a generation… and improve the world

Listen Deeply… and include all voices
Let’s try and live up to the notion that if we spend more time listening to one another, we can learn more and we can develop a sense of trust, empathy, and connection with another. St. Ignatius Loyola urged people to (Speak little and listen much.”  Steve Covey Observed that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  It turns out that deep listening requires a conscience decision to suspend judgment even when we know the other is incorrect, foolhardy, and misguided(!)

Let’s make sure that we gather and include diverse student and staff perspectives; let’s encourage the quiet and overlooked child in our classrooms to voice her ideas and questions and not just hear from the loudest and most eager.  Let’s create safe space and opportunity in our classrooms, clusters, schools, and our community for the dissenting perspective, the marginalized voice. 

Personally, I know I must spend more time exercising my eardrums than my vocal cords!  I often find my inner voice getting in the way of listening; I find myself already coming up with the answer, solving the problem, or thinking about the next thing I need to do.  Instead of listening—deeply and patiently listening—and asking for a clarification or additional information, I frequently have moved on in my own little head figuring, “OK, I’ve heard this before.  I know what this is all about.  I don’t need to know anymore.  I have the answer.”  Listening requires patience and is an investment in the other person’s story or perspective.  Listening and including many voices can provide you insight and is an opportunity to make better decisions and take positive steps.  Listening deeply results in the development of trust, empathy, and confidence—it is an essential ingredient to a healthy and dynamic learning environment, one that values the experience of another.

Let’s demonstrate a willingness to ask and to listen—rather than to tell and be heard.  As educators we have a special responsibility to make sure we model for our students how to listen deeply.  In a world filled with the cacophony of divisive politics, hate-filled protests, and rancorous tweets, let’s model a respectful, civil, and authentic desire to listen carefully and completely to others. 

Make Mistakes… and embrace new learning
So my second challenge to you is to make mistakes and embrace new learning.  I’m encouraging you to screw up this year!

This coming year, try something new, take your work to a new level; lean on each other and push one another to grow and learn. Take new approaches and take advantage of the many resources around you.  For example, utilize the new District Curriculum Accommodation Plan, the DCAP, use School Improvement Plans, and consider your students’ learning needs to establish team goals and guide your practice and planning with one another. Give someone’s idea a chance even if the outcome is uncertain or unknown.   And don’t worry if something doesn’t work out.  It’s OK!  We have your back! 

Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmundson concluded that successful organizations allow professionals to work together in an atmosphere of open dialogue, trust, problem solving, disagreement, and failure.  Without a culture of collaboration and risk taking, learning organizations—our schools—cannot flourish.  We won’t move forward.

How can we encourage independent and innovative thinking within our students if we don’t allow ourselves the chance to confront long held assumptions or past practices?  Trying new approaches in the classroom or accepting a new direction in the school means we have to give up something; we have to make space for new ideas.

Sometimes new learning can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed.  It can create stress, tension, and doubt.  It’s also exciting, provocative, mysterious and can be the source of great joy, awareness, and fulfillment. Fortunately, we are in a District that will support our learning in this way; we have the mindset, tools, and energy to take risks and try new things, make new relationships.  Our core value of personal growth promotes learning readiness and provides the cover to think differently, and to try new approaches. 

And, like listening, we have a responsibility to model our learning, risk taking, and mistake-making to our students.  Let them observe us goof up, fall down, and reboot.  Last year in a classroom I observed a talented and experienced teacher pause during a math lesson and look at his notes and the work of a questioning student.  I watched as the student suggested a different way of solving a problem—one the teacher had not considered.  With excitement and glee, the teacher erased his notes on the board and invited the young scholar up to demonstrate a new approach.  The teacher embraced the opportunity to try something new and the students saw that adults can be learners too!

This year, make mistakes and embrace new learning!

Inspire a Generation… and improve the world
And this brings me to my third challenge: Inspire a generation… and improve the world.  We have a duty and responsibility to listen deeply to those around us, embrace new learning, and use then these attributes to empower young people to grow, achieve, and improve their lives and this world—a world hungry for their scholarship, service, and leadership. 

Kindle within your students a sense of belonging, of purpose, creativity, exploration, and a hunger for social justice and innovation.

This morning we are fortunate to have with us a witness to that spirit of inspiration. Let me again welcome Sunita Williams back home to Needham.  Allow me to share with you a little bit about Sunita L. Williams and her inspirational story.

After attending elementary school in Needham, Sunita graduated from Needham High School in 1983 and went on to the US Naval Academy and Florida Institute of Technology where she earned her MS degree in engineering management in 1995.

She has enjoyed a 30-year career in the Navy beginning with her commission as an ensign in 1987.  Eventually becoming a Naval Aviator, she was assigned to Helicopter Combat support and was deployed overseas, including in the Persian Gulf War. She served as Officer in Charge on the USS Slyvania during Hurricane Andrew relief operations.

Captain Williams has logged over 3,000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft.  In 1998, Suni was selected as an astronaut for NASA and began training in Moscow with the Russian Space Agency.  Subsequently she served on two missions aboard the International Space Station, first as a flight engineer and then as commander.  Suni spent a total of 322 days in space during which time she completed 7 spacewalks totaling over 50 hours; she held the record for the most spacewalks by a female astronaut until a few months ago! 

And during one of her stints on the Space Station, Suni decided—of course!—to run the 2007 Boston Marathon to inspire children to think about their physical fitness.  She completed it in an impressive 4 hours and 24 minutes at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour!

Additionally, Suni has inspired children around the world with her life’s story and commitment to education and young people.  She even beamed a lesson about space and planets to hundreds of Needham’s children lessons while she was onboard the International Space Station.

In 2015 NASA announced that Suni would become one of the first astronauts for US commercial space flights, and she is currently working with Boeing and SpaceX.

Needless to say Suni has received many honors and commendations from the US and the governments of Russia, Slovenia, and India.  She also received the NHS Distinguished Career Award in 2007 because, after all, we are the Rockets!

This past May, Captain Williams retired from active service in the US Navy at a ceremony onboard the USS Constitution.  I had the honor of attending, and Suni insisted that Needham students be invited to the ceremony; she met and spent time with two Class of 2017 grads, Jack Higgins and Beth Gordon, who are respectively attending the US Merchant Marine Academy and US Air Force Academy.  Both students told me Suni eagerly filled them in on Academy life and what to expect in the military.  She took the time to connect with two young people who were in awe of her. Sunita Williams has been on the forefront of the space program for 20 years; she is an incredible role model for today’s students and she exemplifies the potential of a career in the military, science, engineering, and public service.

In June, after due consideration, research, and much conversation, the Needham School Committee, recognizing Sunita’s roots in this community, service to her country and dedication to education and personal growth, and her unwavering commitment to young people, unanimously named the new elementary school on Central Avenue the Sunita L. Williams Elementary School.

Suni, it is an extraordinary honor to have you here with us today. Later this morning we have invited Suni to visit with faculty and students at Hillside and if there is time Sunni will visit the site of the new school which is scheduled to break ground later this fall.

I think it is fair to say that while Suni’s parents and family supported her throughout her life, Needham’s teachers also inspired her along the way!  In return Suni motivates other children and adults with a life of exploration, service, and commitment.   Inspiring others, it turns out, helps change lives and improves the world!

So I know the world our students are growing into is complex and messy.  We have a huge responsibility to prepare them for a journey of self-discovery, challenge, and, sometimes, personal failure.

Let’s do this work with honor, humility and a profound sense of hope and love in our young people.  And let listening, learning from our mistakes, and inspiring students guide our work.