Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Resources our Schools Need in the 2015-16 School Year

The FY16 (School year 2015-16) budget proposal outlines the resources the schools need 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.  The proposed budget requests an additional 5.4% funding increase, although most of this increase is to provide for a similar level of service. In fact, about 90% of the total request proposes the same level of service next school year as we have now.

District administrators developed the FY16 budget plan to meet contractual obligations, growing special education costs, and expanded student enrollment, particularly at the secondary level.  Increased funds for Prek-12 special education and high school staff are requested as part of this plan, as well as resources to support curriculum initiatives and technology implementation throughout the District.

  Contractual Salary Increases  Negotiated contracts for all employees account for $1.3 million, or less than half of the total requested increase.

  Increased Special Education Costs  Increases in the number of special education students moving into Needham, special education tuition and transportation, the addition of a new group home in the Town of Needham, and the expansion of the Preschool program account for another $1.3 million, or 43% of the $3 million new funds requested.

  High School Enrollment  The high school is projected to grow by 50 students in the FY16 school year.  A modest proposal to increase staffing by 2.4 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) teachers in foreign language, math, social studies, and the arts is included.

  Curriculum and Technology.  A modest increase in funding is requested for the continued development of middle school curriculum leadership, math programing, technology management, software and website upgrades and licenses, and the continued implementation of the middle school Personalized Learning Initiative are proposed and represent about $300,000, or 10%, of the total budget request.

The administration also reallocated existing funds as much as possible and practical to support this budget proposal.  Where possible, we have moved existing resources around to meet new challenges, and some administrative responsibilities will be increased to address a growing list of state and federal mandates.  Unfortunately, many important and worthwhile proposals suggested by principals and administrators—all designed to enhance and strengthen student learning—have been deferred to the future.
I believe the budget proposal is prudent and carefully considered, but it will be a challenge to secure all the resources required to move school programs forward, especially as the Schools and Town balance a variety of important needs.  You may view the plan and additional information about the budget on our website: FY16 Proposed Budget Plan

The School Committee is extremely interested to hear feedback about the budget plan, and they encourage you to attend the upcoming Budget Hearing scheduled at 7:00 p.m. for Tuesday, January 20th at Broadmeadow to learn more about the plan and voice your ideas, questions, concerns, and comments

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Newtown by Taking Action

In a few weeks we will pause and remember the innocent lives taken at Sandy Hook Elementary School during a violent and horrific rampage that shocked the country and prompted a national conversation—once again—about gun control, mental illness, and school safety.

After the senseless and cruel murders, the parents of the victims were left to wander the country pleading with lawmakers to update and change gun laws as one way to prevent a similar massacre in the future.  Unfortunately, powerful lobbyists and political gridlock obstructed common sense gun reform, and nothing really changed.  Although the families may feel they were not heard through the political process, they should take some small comfort knowing that parents, police, school leaders, and local policymakers here in Massachusetts have renewed efforts to ensure schools are safe and secure for all children and the teachers who care for them.

I often remind principals that school safety is Job One and everything else is secondary.  Fortunately, here in Needham our principals and teachers embrace that responsibility with resolve and purpose in an ongoing effort to review school safety protocols, procedures, and practices.  So far this year Town and School administrators have been involved in the following activities:

  Principals and administrators have reviewed and discussed the Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security.  The report, commissioned by the Governor last year, details recommendations and steps communities and schools should consider to enhance student safety and wellbeing.

  Principals, staff, and administrators have convened a School Safety Taskforce to review safety procedures, including emergency drills and lockdowns, to learn if a more robust and responsive emergency response protocol is appropriate for Needham schools.  As part of this effort, administrators and police officials have recently received training and information about the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) program to determine what makes sense to introduce in our schools for students and staff.

  The Town Manager, Kate Fitzpatrick, and I formed The Needham Schools Emergency Advisory Team (NSEAT) in the aftermath of Sandy Hook to meet semiannually with the Town’s public and private school leaders to discuss school safety, security, and health and share ideas and strategies.  Our recent fall meeting included public safety officials and school leaders from the Needham Public Schools, St. Sebastian’s, St. Joe’s Elementary School, Monsignor Haddad Middle School, Walker School, and Olin College.  A recent Needham Schools Spotlight cable show highlighted school security:  October 2014: Needham Schools Spotlight: School Security

  Health and Safety Committees, comprised of school staff and parents, meet at each school to discuss student health, safety, and wellbeing.  And the School Committee and administration have prioritized Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs throughout the school system, including providing SEL advocates at each school who assist the principal and staff with initiatives designed to help students develop resilience, tolerance, care, respect, and awareness about those around them.  Guidance counselors, nurses, coaches, administrators, and teachers provide the structure, support, and encouragement young people need to confront personal and emotional difficulties that may prevent them from participating fully in the life of the school.  Connecting young people to a caring adult is the most important safety and security feature a school system can invest in.

We still have more work ahead of us; school safety and security requires regular and ongoing discussion and planning.  I will never promise that we have it all figured out or guarantee that tragedy will not strike our community or schools.  Our efforts are robust but imperfect. 

But we will continue to think about the unthinkable and work with public safety officials, staff, students, and families to consider and implement plans and protocols that are appropriate and responsible.

And on December 14th we will remember, once again, why this work is so important.
In memory of Daniel G. Barden (2005-2012) and all of his classmates and teachers 
at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut

Friday, October 31, 2014

2014-15 School Committee Priorities and Goals

The Needham School Committee recently adopted the 2014-15 District Goals.  Administrators and staff will use the goals to guide our work in the coming year as we collaborate to improve learning.  It is an ambitious plan, and one we are proud to share with the community.  I encourage students, parents, and community members to become familiar with the plan and ask us about our work along the way.

The document does not describe all of our work nor does it detail each step we propose to take to address a variety of opportunities and challenges.  But we believe the goals provide the context, structure, and direction our schools need to move forward and strengthen teaching and learning for all children. Throughout the year the School Committee will receive updates about action steps related to the goals, and in June they will receive a full report about our progress to date. 

The School Committee is particularly committed to communicating four key initiatives embedded in the goals:

  Articulate building and renovation needs at Hillside in anticipation of a construction project that will require a debt exclusion and the community’s support.
  Articulate classroom and core space needs at Needham High School in anticipation of a Town Meeting request for both design and construction funds.
  Begin a community discussion and conversation around a pathway to implementation of full day Kindergarten in the Needham Public Schools. 
  Ensure the roll out and implementation of the iPad Personalized Learning Initiative at High Rock is successful and shared broadly in an effort to continue to build understanding and support at the middle school level.

You can expect to hear the School Committee discuss and emphasize these initiatives in the year ahead, especially as the community weighs various Town and School building projects as part of the anticipated Facilities Master Plan due out next spring.

The School Committee understands that the Needham community prioritizes education and expects results that demonstrate the commitment and investment parents, citizens, and taxpayers have made to the schools.  They also understand that the community must be engaged and participate in a conversation about the needs of the schools if Needham wishes to sustain an educational program that benefits all children and makes Needham an attractive and vibrant town.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Collaborate... Innovate... Inspire

Following are excerpts from my comments to the Needham Public Schools staff upon their return to school September 2, 2014.

This morning I wish to challenge each and every one of you with three expectations for the new school year:  Collaborate  Innovate  Inspire  It it is my expectation as your superintendent that you consider these simple yet challenging words and decide how you will act on them in your role in the Needham Schools.  Fortunately, in most ways this is an easy lift for Needham’s professionals who have already established a culture of collegiality, creativity, and excitement.

The community has generously provided us with additional time to work and plan together to improve student learning.  Let’s use this time to build relationships, converse with one another, problem-solve, review data, share information, learn from one another, and improve practice.  Examples of collaboration abound in this district:  Grade level and data teams… Critical Friends Group… Middle school clusters…Literacy Task Force…

This coming year, take this work to a new level; lean on each other and push one another to grow and learn.  Use the district goals, School Improvement Plans, and your students’ learning needs to establish team goals and guide your practice and planning with one another. By the way, if you are truly collaborating, you are taking risks and making mistakes and that’s OK.  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 sincere, honest, and deliberative conversation and collaboration, learning organizations cannot flourish.

Are you asking hard questions at faculty, grade level, or department meetings?  Are you willing to listen patiently to a new colleague, fresh out of grad school, who lacks experience but just might have an interesting solution to a school-wide problem?  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? 

In collaboration with colleagues, consider new ways to address learning needs.  Ask your students to tackle authentic tasks and problems.  Tap into the use of technology to enhance and extend student learning and achievement. 

Innovative and imaginative teaching practices and programs are present in our classrooms.  Interdisciplinary learning, such as the high school’s Greater Boston Project, African-American studies, environmental science, and the middle school’s engineering course are examples of existing opportunities complemented by strong service learning and performing arts programs.

Da Vinci’s Workshop, a new lab at Needham High will allow students and staff an opportunity to “play” with technology, robotics, design, science, and the arts. 

Let’s continue to break down the artificial silos that separate academic disciplines and departments; let’s create even more experiences—like the new elementary STEAM program—to allow students to explore science, technology, and the arts. 

Perhaps the use of a technology tool, like a laptop or iPad, will allow a student to personalize a learning experience in a way that a classroom teacher can’t.  There is a tradeoff, by the way, when we integrate mobile technology tools into the classroom.  Teachers give up some of their authority and students gain more autonomy and responsibility.  That’s a little scary for the adults!  Students may do some things they should not do. But they also can become empowered to research, collaborate, create, and communicate in ways never before possible. 

Let’s engage our students with new approaches and fresh thinking. Do students have choice in your classroom?  Do they have a voice in their learning?  Can they show what they know in the form of a paper or a project?  Will you encourage them to demonstrate understanding in a way that matches their learning style? 

Lets embed into our practice, let’s make routine, the use of innovative planning and thinking inside and outside the classroom.

This is the most difficult thing I can expect of you.  Collaboration and innovation set us on a path leading to engaged and inspired young people. Without inspired and motivated students, their chances for achievement, growth, and a purposeful and meaningful life are diminished. 

The tone you bring, the relationships you establish, the connections you make, and the enthusiasm you activate will make all the difference in your students’ lives and the lives of those around them.

Think carefully about how you will inspire, engage, and excite learning.  Consider how you can bring imaginative instruction and un-common assessments into your classroom and school.  Think about how you will connect and develop a rapport with the shy, reluctant, and bored student.  Will you change up your lesson plan?  Tell a personal story to develop interest?

There can be no missed opportunities to comfort an anxious child or involve a recalcitrant student in a lively classroom debate. Make sure you establish a classroom and school environment that has high expectations and allows students to take chances and build friendships. Your actions should promote character and tolerance; curiosity and inquiry; humor and humility. Your students will remember you for it, and they will become stronger, resilient, and inspired.

And this last point brings me to my friend, James Hugh Powers. I invited Mr. Powers here because I want you to know that he is one of the people who inspires me in my work, and I am honored to know him.  I wanted you to meet him as well. 

Mr. Powers is 91 years old and a longtime Needham resident who grew up with two brothers, John and Pete.  He is a veteran of WWII and was a dedicated public servant, working for the Massachusetts Legislature during a long career. He served as a Town Meeting member for 60 years, and a few years ago Powers Hall was dedicated in his honor at the Needham Town Hall. 

Over the last nine years I have been superintendent, Mr. Powers has sent me dozens and dozens of letters, notes, and articles about education and teaching and learning.  His letters are beautifully written, eloquent, and poignant.  His command of education, history, politics, literature, and the economy is extraordinary.  He is absolutely devoted to education and the teaching profession.  He believes the work we do is critical to the success of a vibrant democracy and a fulfilled life. 

I have come to look forward to the notes he sends or the occasional times we spend together.  He always admonishes me to make sure I am supporting the most important ingredient in the school—the classroom teacher!  I leave my conversations with him refreshed, enthused, knowing that he represents the best of Needham and all of those who support our work with young people. 

This past May, Mr. Powers attended the unveiling of a new memorial in the high school lobby dedicated to Needham residents who sacrificed their lives in war.  As a Marine Corps vet who fought on Okinawa and witnessed untold atrocities, Mr. Powers joined other Needham veterans for the unveiling.  And he also attended to honor his older brother, Pete. 

You see 70 years ago this December, Mr. Powers’s little brother, John, then a Needham High senior, came home from school and found his mother unconscious on the floor with a War Department telegram laying beside her.  It turns out that Pete had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and a proud family of three handsome boys lost the eldest son.  Mr. Powers, stationed in the Pacific at the time, only learned of his brother’s heroism and death much later in a painful letter from his father.

So this past May Mr. Powers stood at attention at the new memorial to recall those who died bravely for our freedom.  And he also touched Pete’s engraved name and remembered his older brother.  I’ll never forget the dignity, sacrifice, and love of that moment.

In a recent letter, Mr. Powers encouraged me to remember the essential nature of our work.  He wrote:

“You have a wonderful, promising, if mischievous and at times vexing, body of students (in the schools) each one of whom is a bundle of possibilities.  Motivate each one of them to his or her best effort, to settle only for his or her best effort.  And do not give up on a single one of them beset by troubles.  For the world out there in which they will be plunging after graduation remains a highly competitive, very challenging (and often) dangerous place, unsympathetic to sounders of uncertain trumpets.”

Mr. Powers, Jim, thank you for those salient words.  Thank you for leading a life of dedicated and inspired service to our nation and this community.  Thank you for your steadfast support of our teachers and schools.  And thank you for your loyalty and friendship.

Folks, you are the ones who must guide our young people in their quest for self-discovery, growth, and meaning. Education is the answer needed to assist children to develop the skills, mindset, imagination, and courage to tackle the most stubborn and intractable dilemmas of today’s world.  The problems all around us require sophisticated responses, intelligent discourse, and creative problem solvers who will collaborate and innovate to improve lives and brighten the world.

As you leave here today remember that we do this work with the strong support and commitment of those around us so that, together, we can Collaborate, Innovate, and Inspire.

Thank you for all you do and for letting me serve as your superintendent; it is a singular honor.  I hope you have a superb year.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

METCO Program Review

Needham recently completed a METCO program review to learn more about the opportunities and challenges facing our school community as we strive to meet the needs of all students, including our 155 Boston resident students who participate in METCO.

The review highlighted the many strengths of our METCO program, including the success of our METCO students, parent satisfaction, and staff involvement in student growth and achievement.

The program review also provided recommendations for improvement, including strengthening student support services for Boston students; increasing cultural proficiency and sensitivity within the district; and ensuring all students perform at high levels, especially at the secondary level.

Please check out the entire report on our website.  Click on this link 2013-14 Reports  and select 2014 METCO Program Review Report.

Additionally, please take a few minutes to watch the video of a recent Needham Schools Spotlight and hear the voices of several Needham High School students talking about their experiences with race and culture in the Needham Schools:   Student Voices:  Race and Empowerment in the Needham Schools

Friday, May 23, 2014

Memorial Day 2014: Needham's Fallen Brave

This morning, on the eve of Memorial Day, a beautiful new bronze plaque honoring Needham’s young men who died in service to our great country was dedicated in the high school’s foyer.  Dr. Jonathan Pizzi, Needham High School principal, shared the following remarks at the solemn ceremony:
WWII Vets unveil new memorial
Students read off names of the 97 Fallen Brave

Ladies and Gentlemen, Honored Guests, Town Officials, Colleagues, students, and most importantly, Veterans of Our Armed Forces:

It is with great pride and honor, as well as with a deep sense of sorrow, gratitude, and respect that Needham High School is able to provide once again a rightful and conspicuous place with which to honor our community’s Fallen Brave.  These individuals answered a call and lived and died knowing that they were fighting for a set of ideals and a cause that transcended their own individual interests.  They knew that the creation and then the very existence of this great nation depended upon their acting against human nature and advancing toward situations from which others fled in terror.

In many ways today’s enemies of freedom are not as readily identifiable as a Confederate Raider or a Panzer tank.  Of course the omnipresent threats of war and terrorism force us to live in a state of constant vigilance and anxiety regarding our personal safety.  To my students especially, however, I offer this: pervasive individualism, moral relativism, indeed the intrusive practices of our own government agencies, threaten the very freedoms for which the 97 individuals named here fought and gave their lives.  The ideals of our Founding Fathers as spelled out in our Constitution are ours to study, to practice, and above all, to protect.   Consequently, and more so than the acquisition of any amount of material wealth, the education you receive here bestows upon each of you the responsibility to grow your intelligence, your critical thinking, and your participation in our democracy so that the new enemies of our way of life – and there are many - can be defeated at every turn.

In his memoirs, Winston Churchill penned the following words to describe the deluge of emotion that swept over him after learning of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941: “Saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful, for I knew I was now on the winning side.”

Long after this dedication ceremony has concluded and as we gaze and reflect upon this memorial to the 97 Fallen Brave, let us remember our quintessential responsibility to protect our basic American ideals and rights and allow ourselves to be swept up in the same emotions of sadness, relief, and gratitude as Britain’s then Prime Minister, and never, ever take for granted that whether at Bunker Hill, Antietam, Meuse-Argonne, the Ardennes Forest, the Pussan Perimeter, or Khe San, these soldiers and sailors made the ultimate sacrifice that we may ever sleep the sleep of the saved and thankful.   Thank you.

James H. Powers, USMC and WWII Veteran, honors his brother Pete who died in the Battle of the Bulge

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thank You, Needham! Next Steps!

On April 8th, Needham voters, once again, stepped up to support the community’s students and schools by passing an override to extend the school day and provide new and innovative programming for elementary students. 

I want to commend and thank parents and the community for their incredible and ongoing support of the Needham Public Schools!  I am honored to work in a community where citizens, including neighbors, parents, staff, and Town Boards—especially the School Committee, Finance Committee, and Selectmen—work so hard to understand the issues and collaborate closely to identify creative solutions, especially when it comes to addressing the needs and aspirations of our young people.  Thank you for providing the resources we will need to extend the school day at the elementary and middle school levels and offer additional elementary programs, including the arts, technology, and Spanish. 

Now the hard work begins if we are to be prepared for the opening of a new school year in September! 

In the weeks and months ahead I will share with parents, students, and staff the details around programs and schedules as they become available.  Currently administrators and teachers are working to plan new programs, hire the teachers required at the elementary level, and plan for the teacher and staff training needed to implement the extended day program in a meaningful and successful way.  We are excited to tackle this work, knowing that we have a unique opportunity to infuse innovation and new levels of collaboration into our school day for all students and staff.

One significant change that parents and students must prepare for at all levels is a change in the daily schedule, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels.  Please refer to the new time schedule below:

Needham Public Schools 2014-2015 School Start & End Times

8:45 - 3:10
8:20 - 2:45
8:20 - 2:45
8:20 - 2:45
8:20 - 2:45
8:45 - 3:10
Broadmeadow, Eliot, Hillside, Mitchell Kindergarten a.m./ p.m.
8:20 - 11:03/12:02 -2:45
Newman Kindergarten a.m./ p.m.
8:45 - 11:28/12:27 - 3:10
High Rock
7:40 - 2:10
7:50 - 2:20
Needham High School

8:00 - 2:35
Needham High School

 8:35 - 2:35

Beginning in September 2014 the elementary school day will be 25 minutes longer, and the middle school day will end ten minutes later.  In addition, each Friday morning at Needham High School, classes will begin at 8:35 a.m. to give teachers and staff time to meet and plan together.  And while NHS will only participate in a few early release professional development days, the elementary and middle schools will continue to have scheduled early release and delayed opening professional development.  This means that while elementary and middle school students will be dismissed early on some days, high school students will remain in classes until the conclusion of the school day, 2:35 p.m.

Over the summer principals will send out additional information about schedules and meetings.  If you have specific questions, please contact your child’s school directly for more information. Thanks again to a generous and involved community that invests wisely in our most precious resource:  Needham’s young people!