Sunday, September 27, 2020

Invite Hope to Stay

(Following are remarks I shared with the Faculty and Staff on September 1st upon our return to school to plan for a new year.) 

As I contemplate a new school year—a year like one we’ve never experienced—I am also taking stock in the world around us and the national events that dominate the news cycle, clog our social media, and unsettle even the most “chill” among us.


I want to talk with you today not about district goals, hybrid learning, your remote schedule, training or disinfectant; I want to share with you two words that have crowded my thoughts on my morning runs:  Fear & Hope.


I want to let you know what’s on my mind as we confront a new and challenging school year, and these two words keep surfacing in my thoughts:  Fear. Hope.


Let’s start with Fear.  Why not?  It’s the easiest to acknowledge.  There is a lot of fear around us, impacting folks in different ways.  I mean, it’s pretty scary out there:


• Videos of hurricanes in the Gulf and wildfires out West run like apocalyptic movies that we here in New England watch from afar on TV


• Record high unemployment that has impacted families, friends, and colleagues, many right here in Needham


• Political acrimony and animosity, especially at the Federal level, which nurtures conspiracy, resentment, and hate


• Violence against people of color, particularly Black men; Racial inequality & civic unrest fueled by longstanding systems of oppression and racism


• A global disease that has killed almost 900,000 people and upended the way of life for the entire planet.


There is a lot to worry about, a lot to be afraid about.  A lot to fear.

Sometimes fear is created by the cowards among us; those who hide behind power to manipulate reason and provoke terror. There is rage, anger, and deceit coming from the highest offices in this land all the way to the neighbor who maligns and denigrates the newly placed “Black Lives Matter” sign in your front yard.  There are those who nurture and exploit our fear; they blame the other for misfortune or economic malaise. They trade in half-truths and lies; they encourage bigotry, hate and intolerance for the other—the other person who looks, or prays, or loves differently—all in an effort to incite and instigate; all to embolden fear.


And there is another kind of fear, a fear which has its roots in a genuine and legitimate concern and worry about how, for example, we can manage this pandemic, help those who have lost loved ones or jobs, confront the ambiguities of social distancing, testing, and masking. We wonder:  Will my family be safe during this health emergency?  What if I get sick? How do I teach under these circumstances?  Can I be successful with my students? Who can I depend on?  With so many unanswered questions and concerns, it’s disconcerting, unsettling, and frightening.  And fear easily and happily fills the void.


In all of this, we wonder how as a family unit, a community, or nation we can navigate through the uncertainty, the charged messages, and doubt.  How do we manage the anxiety we are experiencing as parents, co-workers, and educators?  What a thing, this fear is; it can limit us and weaken and destroy our ability to move forward and to heal; it can cripple and capsize our aspirations and dreams.


Fear is stoked by those lacking courage and it also exists when we feel vulnerable and at risk.


I believe the antidote to fear and fear mongering is truthfulness and honesty; empathy and understanding; valor and bravery—all of this is the essence of hope.  This kind of hope dashes fear and makes room for listening, learning, leaning in, and stepping forward. On the eve of a new school year, even one as complicated and convoluted as this one, we find ourselves with fear all around us—but HOPE before us.


In this new school year, even with its uncertainties, we have a responsibility to build caring relationships with our students and support innovative learning… We have an opportunity to inspire civility, respect, and an anti-racist culture in which all children are valued and loved. We have an obligation to serve our students, empower their lives, and give hope to this world.


So what does hope look like in the Needham Public Schools in the fall of 2020? 


•  It looks like the work of over 300 Needham teachers who took the summer to reconsider curriculum, reinvent their instruction, and revise programs to meet the needs of all students in a new academic year;


•  It looks like the implementation of a Full Day Kindergarten program based in play, exploration, and self-discovery that demonstrates the power of student choice in learning.


•  It looks like the continued development of our Portrait of a Needham Graduate competencies which support equity and reinforce problem solving, collaboration, creativity, social responsibility, and student voice as key attributes of a successful grad.


•  It looks like the recently completed School Facilities Study which will be presented in September and outlines a pathway to re-envision Mitchell and Pollard.


•  It looks like the investment the School Committee and community made to provide increased special education supports in all areas to boost learning for our most vulnerable students.


•  Hope looks like the hundreds of Needham youth who filled the streets in June to protest the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police and the racial injustices that persist in a nation we love. Their chants of “Black Lives Matter” must be heard as a cry for equity and their words are also a hope-filled call to action.


•  And hope looks like the planning of 20 educators who researched, designed and will lead the implementation of our very first ever K-5 Racial Literacy Curriculum which will complement and enrich a revised 4th and 5th grade social studies program that incorporates diverse perspectives and experiences.


We are incredibly fortunate as educators in this community to enter into a new season of hope, one that I believe can marginalize and vanquish fear. We have an extraordinary opportunity to tap into the natural and youthful hope of our students and bring them up!  This youthful hope allows the most cynical and tired among us to endure difficult times, to persist, and to move forward even when the evidence suggests otherwise.  The bubbling energy, tenacity, and courage of young people reminds us why we do this work, why we care so deeply.


Yet, this is not easy work.  Battling fear with hope is challenging. 

Confronting a culture of ignorance, racism, intolerance, and incivility—all tools of fear—is exhausting. Unpacking one’s own uncertainties, anxieties, and worries is equally daunting.  And we have a choice.  We can make a difference; we can choose to vanquish fear and unleash hope. 


One of my favorite American writers is Maya Angelou, and she said this once: “Hope and fear cannot occupy space at the same time.  Invite one to stay.


This morning, in spite of the demagogues and agitators who hawk fear; despite the dangers and turmoil that exist in the world; and in consideration of the genuine uncertainties and doubts in our own lives, invite hope to stay.


You see, in many ways our work as educators is an act of defiance and love in a weary world hungry for dignity, justice, and peace.


Invite hope to stay and remember in the coming year that in each lesson you prepare, every family you assist, and each student you build a relationship with you are committing an act of hope; an act of hope in the power, possibility, and promise of each child. 


There can be no bigger responsibility.  

And no greater joy.


Here’s to a great year.


Sunday, May 31, 2020

We Stand Together

The death of George Floyd, the black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer last week, has resulted in outrage that continues to grow with good reason. The administrators of the Needham Public Schools recognize the root cause in this moment and are committed to addressing structural racism – to expose it, undo it, and help our community heal from its wounds.

We believe there is no place for racism or hate in the classrooms of the Needham Public Schools.
Our schools, and our work with every child, must be part of the solution of addressing the injustices, inequities, and pain that mar and stain our democracy and disproportionately impact our communities of color. We believe all students and staff - indeed all human beings - have dignity and are valued members of our learning community.

With energy, hope, and a deep belief in the promise and possibility of each one of our young people, the district administrators are committed to working with the School Committee,
staff, parents, community members, and especially students, to tackle the challenges of ensuring equity for all. The Race, Equity, Access & Leadership (REAL) Coalition guides this important work. More information with respect to addressing racist and hateful acts, and the importance of equity within the Needham Public Schools, can be found on the district’s website:

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Message to High School Students

This past week was supposed to be April vacation and many of you had plans to travel locally or even around the world to hang out with friends, meet new people in France, perform in a concert in Prague, or just loaf around on the beach.  I was going to go to Washington, DC to visit my daughters; instead, like you, I find myself standing in line outside the grocery store, waiting my turn to buy limited groceries—supplies that I will never take for granted again—and standing there with my face mask covering an expression that says: How on earth did we get here?  I mean, really, a pandemic? No toilet paper??

Never did we anticipate that your high school experience—or our lives—would be disrupted in this way. It is strange to be here without the energy, activity, and bustle of students filling the hallways, crowding the bleachers, belting out songs on the stage, finishing up that last piece for the art show, or laughing at Mr. Bookston’s awful jokes.

But here we are.  And, in the end, we will be OK as a community.  In my father’s generation, during another time in human history when the world was on edge, millions were drafted or enlisted to fight in WWII. My dad was asked to grab a gun and go fight in the Pacific.  Today,  I’ve just been ordered to stay home on the couch.  We’ll be OK, but I recognize it’s a challenge nonetheless.

I want you to know that your teachers and administrators are still here for you—well, virtually anyway.  I know it’s been difficult to shift unexpectedly from the lively and dynamic interaction of a vibrant high school community with almost 2,000 people to the relative solitude of family life and social distancing.  Your teachers are working hard and creatively to stay connected with you; make sure you stay engaged and involved.  This is especially true as you head next fall into new courses and experiences in your sophomore, junior, or senior year.  Everything you are doing, as imperfect and uncomfortable as it is, is preparing you for what comes next both in school and in life.  Make sure you email a teacher or counselor with a question or concern; they’ll get back to you with an answer or suggestion. 

Right now, teachers and administrators are reviewing our Remote Learning Plan to determine what changes may be necessary to ensure you are fully connected and learning. Up until the last day of school, Friday, June 19th, your teachers will continue to provide new opportunities for learning, and I will expect that you will participate in that work, complete your assignments, and check in with your teachers. And through this experience I bet all of us, teachers, students, and parents will learn new things about one another, our own skills, and this world.  In so many ways this is an unexpected opportunity to explore, grow, and discover.

Your parents and family, too, are now also taking responsibility for your learning.  And I know that’s difficult for busy families and adults who are trying to balance their own work obligations with managing the household and making sure you have the support and space you need to attend to your schoolwork.  It’s a good time to recognize the stress some family members are under, including for yourself, and acknowledging that at this time in our lives we have to make room for mistakes, be patient with little brothers, jump in to do the dishes, or take a sibling for a walk.

Finally, let me take this opportunity to address our seniors, the great Class of 2020.  Like Mr. Sicotte, Mr. Ford, and all those who support and care for you, I am especially feeling for all of you right now.  I won’t pretend to tell you I know what it’s like to have senior year yanked out from underneath.  I don’t.  I know athletic teams had scores to settle and records to beat; I know that final concerts and art shows were in the works, and celebrations like prom, senior picnic, and, of course, graduation on Memorial Field were all part of what you expected, what you deserved—right at this moment it’s not my place to say “Don’t worry about it.” or “It’ll be OK.” because I really have no idea how you are feeling about the loss of this singular and anticipated rite of passage we call senior year.

But I can tell you that Mr. Sicotte, the high school administration, staff, and your class advisors and officers are thinking hard about what kind of celebration we can have for the Class of ’20.  It won’t be anything like you had expected or hoped for.  But we do intend to recognize you and all of your hard work; I am in the process, in fact, of signing diplomas in anticipation of the completion of your senior year.  And we will be thoughtful and creative to ensure our seniors leave NHS with diploma in hand, with many good and lifelong friends in tow, and with wonderful memories of 13 years of learning, growing, and achievement in the Needham Public Schools.  We will take care of you, and we will honor you for all you have meant to us and for all you have accomplished.

For now, your job is to be safe and healthy, help out where you can, and engage in the lessons and labs your teachers provide for you.

Our current circumstances, which will not last forever, remind me of something poet Maya Angelou once observed: “Every storm runs out of rain.”

Hang in there and take care of yourself and your family.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

No, I am not color blind.

I met recently with a parent who expressed concern about a program offered at one of our schools which involved children reading and learning about skin color.

The purpose of the program was to explore and address questions children often have about the differences, including skin color, they observe in others. Consistent with the district’s strategic priorities and goals to promote equity, understanding, and an anti-racist culture, the Needham Public Schools encourages and supports developmentally appropriate educational opportunities for students and staff to discuss and learn about issues of race, culture, and bias. We believe these lessons are integral to our work with children, and we also understand these conversations can be uncomfortable—probably more so for the adults than the children who are instinctively curious about the people around them!

The concerned parent, who is white, told me that he was upset with the school talking about skin color and race. He told me he was “color blind” to the differences in people and treats all people the same, which I am sure is true for him. He worried that talking about skin color or race could exacerbate racial tensions and divisions.  He wants his children to be color blind as well. I explained that not addressing questions of race leaves children feeling confused and as if they have said or done something wrong; they learn quickly that there is something taboo or bad about skin color when a caring adult shuts them down without explanation or conversation.  

The parent asked me directly: “Aren’t you color blind?”  After a pause, I answered, “No.” I shared with him that I was not color blind and that, in fact, I do see the differences in people, including their skin color and their race. I explained to him that for me to act as if our students of color all have the same experiences, opportunities, and privileges that I have as a white man would be disingenuous and dismiss the realities of their lives. I explained that I want and expect all children under our care in the schools, not some but all children, to be treated fairly, respectfully, and equitably. I also accept that if we ignore their unique gifts, including their cultural heritage or race, we lose a chance to learn, to build understanding and create meaning between and among different people.

Being color blind disregards the circumstances of that person and prevents one from being inquisitive about another’s life, culture, and story.  In short, color blindness whitewashes the world in an attempt to comfort ourselves and make believe that black and brown people, for example, all have the same experiences and opportunities in a predominantly white school and community when, deep down inside, we know that is not their reality. The equity audit we conducted in the Needham Public Schools confirms that many students and families feel invisible or marginalized in our classrooms and community. The Needham Public Schools strive to be inclusive, accessible and free of discrimination and bias, but we are a reflection of a broader society and culture in which inequality, unfairness, and bias exist, and this is particularly true for students of color.

In a 2016 article from the American Psychological Association entitled, The Myth of Racial Color Blindness, the authors write: “By noticing race and naming racism, one calls into question racial privilege and unequal treatment of people of color. For some, this causes anxiety and discomfort. On a larger scale, claims that discussions about race and racism cause racial problems provide people and institutions with a convenient rationale not to explore policies and practices that create inequalities, either intentionally or unintentionally.”[1]  In the Needham Public Schools our intent is not to inflame racial tensions but to acknowledge and respect the human differences that exist among us and accept that our students and staff of color often experience the world in a way unlike their white peers.  Our intent is to embrace rather than dodge the awkward and difficult discussion about race in an effort to break down barriers, celebrate diversity, strengthen relationships, and share unique perspectives.

For adults—for me! —conversations about race can be uncomfortable and unnerving. But for children, conversations about skin color and race are natural and propelled by their curiosity, innocence, and developmental level.  We should not stifle or hush these genuine questions, we should accept them as learning opportunities.  Harvard behavioral psychologist Michael Norton observes that: “It’s so appealing on the surface to think that the best way to approach race is to pretend that it doesn’t exist, but research shows that it simply doesn’t work. We do notice race, and there’s no way of getting around this fact.”[2]

No, I am not color blind, and I’d like to think that I am on a journey in my understanding of other folks, including those who look, speak, pray, and love differently than I do. I still have a long way to go on my personal journey and understanding of others. I appreciate the father for seeking me out and for his willingness to dialogue about what we are trying to do in the NPS.  Our efforts in the schools are imperfect but our intent is clear:  We want our young people to become socially and culturally responsive contributors to a world that hungers for understanding, respect, and equity—a world that is prosperous, peaceful, joyful, and, yes, colorful.

(To learn more about our efforts in the Needham Public Schools to promote equity and inclusion, check out our website: )

[1] Neville, H., Gallardo, M., Wing Sue, D. 2016 Has the United States Really Moved Beyond Race?
[2] Nobel, C. 2012 The Case Against Racial Colorblindness. Harvard Business School

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The 2020-21 Needham Public Schools Budget Proposal: The resources required to ensure equity, build capacity for student learning, and address the strategic plan

This month I shared the 2020-21 school year (FY21) budget with the Needham School Committee.  The proposed plan totals $80,943,823 and represents a $4.9 million, or 6.5% spending increase over the current budget year. I believe this request has been thoughtfully considered and provides the resources required to address existing staff contractual obligations, enrollment growth, special education needs, and the District’s Portrait of a Needham Graduate Five-Year Strategic Plan.

The two key components of the budget plan include Level Service Requests and Program Improvement Requests:

  Level Service Requests
Level service requests represent the resources required to bring existing and necessary programs, contracts, and staffing levels into the new fiscal year. In order to maintain class sizes at acceptable levels, additional classroom, administrative, and special education resources are required and included as part of level service.

-  Contractual Salary Increases.  Negotiated contracts for all existing employees account for $2.9 million, about 60% 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.  Overall enrollment is projected to increase by 64 pupils in FY21, with 75% of this increase occurring at the elementary level and 25% occurring at the secondary school level.  A total of 2.4 classroom Full-Time Equivalents (FTE) are proposed for Pollard, and 1.5 classroom FTE are proposed for the high school.  A total of .77 FTE for elementary classroom teaching and math intervention support also is included. Assistant principal positions at High Rock, Mitchell, Sunita L. Williams, and Eliot are proposed to increase by a total of .8 FTE.

-  Special Education and Student Support Service Costs.  Increases in the number of special education students being served, special education tuition, and other mandated service costs amount to $1.3 million of the new funds requested, and include 8.1 FTE new special education, counseling, and English Language Learner (ELL) teachers and 2.09 FTE teacher assistants and administrative support.  The need to provide additional resources for professional services, which includes consultation, testing, counseling, and home services, is significantly increased and rising tuition costs for students requiring services outside of the district are also reflected in this budget plan. The most significant component of the plan, however, is to address inequities in the number of students served within our schools and adjust and balance the caseloads of special educators to ensure they are able to meet student needs and build program capacity within each school.

  Program Improvement
Program Improvement requests are meant to create, enhance, improve, or expand programs to serve student and school needs.  Due to the necessity of funding Level Service needs, it was not feasible to include much of the over $790,000 in program improvement initiatives sought by principals and program leaders.  However, funds totaling $100,633 for key teacher leader stipends, high school textbooks, and technology infrastructure are proposed as part of this budget plan.

I recognize that we have developed a plan that seeks more funding than the Town’s projections for revenue initially support. At this early date, we also are uncertain what possible adjustments to state funding may mean to the Town and School budgets. But we also are obligated to share with the School Committee and the community what resources are minimally required to meet student needs and address our strategic priorities. Additional details about the budget plan may be found here:  NPS FY21 Budget Proposal

The Needham School Committee encourages community members to attend the FY21 School Budget Public Hearing scheduled for Tuesday, January 21, 2020 at the Broadmeadow School at 7:00 p.m.