Sunday, October 14, 2018

Update on Portrait of a Needham Graduate – A Shared Vision of the Future for our Students

In response to my blog last March, more than 200 Needham community members and staff expressed interest in the Portrait of a Needham Graduate process, and 53 have participated in workshops and represented their stakeholder groups: students, educators, parents, business and civic leaders, and higher education. We have met for three full-day workshops and have grounded our work in research and data on future trends in education and changes/challenges in society that we must prepare our children to address. The presentations, articles, and videos previewed by the Portrait participants are available to the entire community at

The speakers and panelists at the Portrait sessions have been thought provoking and our small group discussions helped shape the vision for the future of education in our community. Perspectives of local leaders from business and higher education influenced our understanding of how to prepare students for jobs and life-long learning. Although the conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students must master STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, math – because that’s where the jobs are, according to our research, the top characteristics of success are soft skills, like communicating and listening well, having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues, being a good critical thinker and problem solver. STEAM skills—in Needham we also include an “A” for the Arts—are vital to the world we live in today, but these skills alone are not enough. Broad learning skills are what some large companies seek when they hire new employees and what some higher education institutions care more about than grades or results on standardized tests. Furthermore, in a fast-changing workplace, the ability to acquire new knowledge and skills is critically needed. At the very least, learning how to learn just may be one of the puzzle pieces for navigating an uncertain future.

After discussing, debating, and articulating our vision for students at all grade levels as we propel them towards graduation, the 53 members of the Portrait committee drafted a framework for the broader community’s consideration. A graphic facilitator from a local firm, Collective Next, assisted in synthesizing the attributes, skills, and knowledge we believe Needham’s young people need, now and as far into the future as we can see. I invite you to review the draft list of competencies at and to provide us with your feedback on the overall Portrait process by completing a short survey:

Using multi-pronged approaches, the Portrait committee is communicating with as many stakeholders as possible throughout the month of October and into early November. Community forums are being held; presentations are being made at various organizations’ meetings; the Needham Education Association is involved; and discussions are scheduled in each school. The intent is for members of the Portrait committee to be ambassadors for this effort by presenting information and soliciting feedback so that everyone’s voice can be heard.

The last of four sessions with the Portrait committee will take place on November 16th. Informed by feedback from the broad community, the 53-member committee will be poised to consider strategic priorities with the Portrait in mind. We will look at instructional practices and professional learning that integrates the attributes, skills, and knowledge made explicit by the Portrait. The committee will generate suggestions for actions to help us make progress in a new direction.

Developing a Portrait of a Needham Graduate has been inspirational and the impact at the school, department, and classroom level will be considered before this framework is finalized. At a regularly scheduled School Committee meeting in the spring, the members will be asked for their approval of the Portrait and the critically important work ahead of helping us prepare ALL students for the challenges and opportunities that await them.

I welcome and invite your feedback and support!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Back to School: It's All About Equity

The following is excerpted from my remarks to the staff at our annual "back to school" meeting held on August 29th.

I’m so proud to work with you in the coming year as we create the conditions needed to engage Needham’s young people.

As you think about the new year ahead, as you prepare for your students, I’ll ask that you frame your thinking and your planning around one critically important concept that, as your superintendent, I expect we will prioritize:  Equity.  It’s time we make a coordinated and thoughtful plan to address equity in the Needham Schools.  It’s time we move the needle on performance for those students who have historically not achieved at levels commensurate with many of their peers.  It’s time to ensure our instruction is engaging and our schools safe for each child and free of bias, bullying, and hurtful acts that demean and diminish.

As you instruct your students throughout the year, work with colleagues, and collaborate with families and caregivers, consider how your efforts, actions, programs, and conversations can be based on a foundation of equity.

Now to avoid any confusion about what I mean by equity in our schools, allow me to share my definition of equity. I considered several sources, including dictionaries, language and educational texts, and civil rights organizations.  I’ve reviewed the Equity Audit we commissioned last year and its implication for our students and families. I’ve listened to teachers, parents, and students, and I’ve arrived at this, admittedly, imperfect definition:

Equity:  Fair and just access, inclusion, and participation; the practice of nurturing a learning environment in which all children are empowered to grow, create, and achieve; freedom from bias and discrimination; an understanding that each child possesses personal gifts and attributes and brings these to the classroom which strengthen learning for all; a process by which we promote justice, engender respect, and inspire hope.

Let’s consider this a working definition, a starting point for our work. I’ll ask that you use this definition as a basis for the development of curriculum and assessments, the design of learning activities, the purchase of books and materials, hiring staff, the facilitation of meetings, and just generally going about the business of school.  Keep this definition in the forefront, take action based on its intent and meaning, and be part of the change that is so urgently needed.

So my charge to you is this:  Take small steps and learn from mistakes to ensure an innovative and high quality educational program for all the children we serve.  Take small steps and learn from mistakes to ensure equity and to assist all children—gay/straight, brown/white, English speakers and English learners, abled and differently abled, Muslim, Jew, Christian, or non-believers—to assist all kids to develop the skills, mindset, imagination, and courage to tackle the challenges and envision the opportunities ahead.

Let’s do this work with honor, humility and a profound sense of hope and joy in all of our young people whose learning we support today and whose leadership we will depend on tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Caution! School Construction Zone in Needham!

This has been a busy summer for school renovation and construction projects in Needham! 

The Mitchell Elementary School is getting a new playground, the Broadmeadow Elementary School is having new flooring installed, and a bathroom renovation project at Pollard Middle School means new plumbing, fixtures, walls, and handicapped accessibility. We have also just kicked off the design process for new modular classrooms at Mitchell to accommodate Full Day Kindergarten anticipated in the fall of 2019. 

The biggest projects, however, involve the Needham High School expansion and renovation project and the construction of the Sunita L. Williams Elementary School. Here is a quick update of progress to date: 

 •  The Sunita L. Williams Elementary School is on target to be opened next summer for the 2019-20 school year. Construction is well underway with exteriors being built and interior classrooms roughed out with walls, conduit, fire suppression systems, and HVAC components. The play areas in the back, including the trails, are also being prepared. A quick tour of the building allows one to see how the large classrooms will provide ample space for teaching and learning, and the unique media center design and large gym and cafe spaces are quickly taking shape. An amazing and student-centered design by Dore and Whittier Architects and an on schedule superbly managed construction project by Bacon Construction, Inc. means the school will serve generations of Needham's young people. For additional information about the project, please check out the district's website: Sunita L. Williams School Planning

Sunita L. Williams Classrooms and Cafe spaces

Sunita L. Williams Gym under construction

Sunita L. Williams School going up on Central Avenue!

•  The Needham High School Renovation and Expansion project is well underway but will not be completely ready as originally planned for the start of classes in September.  The $12 million project has been ambitious from the very beginning, and the design/construction team of Dore and Whittier and Consigli Construction have been working exceptionally hard since ground was broken in the early spring to have everything in place for the start of classes.  Unfortunately, the new ten classroom expansion and some of the interior work and renovations hit unexpected snags that will delay the project by a few weeks.  For example, while the interior renovations will be mostly complete and ready for students, the expansion will require finishing work. The gym will still require additional work and will be unavailable for a few weeks. The high school staff will assign students to temporary spaces until the expansion is ready a few weeks after school opens, and then the project will be complete and provide ample space for the growing student population at NHS.  While the project continues, the traffic pattern in and around the high school campus will remain as it was in the spring.  Principal Aaron Sicotte will send out updates to the high school community as they become available.

NHS Gym Renovation:  New bleachers, floors and ceiling

NHS Classroom Expansion on Webster St.

Yes, there is a lot of work ahead, but we are thrilled with the new and improved spaces and appreciate the generosity of the Needham community for supporting its students and schools!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

It's Been a Busy and Successful 2017-18 School Year!

The 2017-18 school year concluded successfully in the Needham Schools, and at its last meeting of the academic year the School Committee celebrated the many accomplishments of students, staff, and the community, including the following highlights:

•  Equity audit completed and broadly shared with community; Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership (RACE) Coalition developed to address areas of opportunity and challenge
•  Implementation of new writing units of study across the elementary level; Review of elementary ELA, math, and science curricula to ensure alignment with MA Curriculum Frameworks and new science standards
•  Increased and consistent use of data and data teams in common planning times across all grade levels; Development and communication of new District Curriculum Accommodation Plan (DCAP) across all levels
•  Technology Strategic Plan data show positive trends in the use of 1 to 1 devices to improve teaching and learning at all levels.
•  Implementation of teacher leadership teams at each elementary school; Personalized professional development and learning implemented
•  Aligned elementary report cards to District's Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) framework and structure
•  Shared 2016 MetroWest Health Survey data and began addressing areas of concern; Administered 2018 District Survey to Students, Parents, and Staff (Results will be shared in fall of 2018)
•  Broke ground on the new Sunita L. Williams Elementary School and the NHS classroom expansion project
•  Initiated planning and program development for 2019-20 Full Day Kindergarten 
•  District website upgraded; school security measures and safety planning increased
• Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) Sportsmanship Award in Golf, Unified Track, and Girls Rugby; First Division I State Championship Title for NHS Baseball Team   

It has been a busy and productive year, and we look forward to the opportunity to recharge our batteries over the summer, even as we begin planning for the 2018-19 school year.  For additional information about the district goals and a presentation to the School Committee, check out our website:  2017-18 District Goals Update

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Thanks and Congratulations to Retiring Staff!

The Retiring Class of 2018!
At our recent Retirement Reception we honored several NPS staff retiring at year's end.  Together they represent over 289 years of service to our students and the profession:  Diane Alessi, Newman, Tom Campbell, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources,  Suzanne Eaton, Pollard, Seth Evans, Mitchell,Amy Flax, Broadmeadow, Eric Frere, High Rock and Pollard, Paula Hartstein, Mitchell, Wendy Hodge, High School, Caryl Johnson, Newman, Linda Nickens,Newman, Joan Scheffler, Newman, Elaine Tenaglia, Newman, Margaret Thompson, Broadmeadow, Regi Thornton, Eliot, Dianne Yearwood, High School.

During the reception we reflected on the service of each individual and I offered the following remarks:

“… And yet, beyond all of your professional and technical expertise—your life’s purpose has been to inspire and ignite a generation of young people.  Young people who, from time to time, may forget some of the lessons you taught or the wounds you healed, but they, like we, will always remember and be encouarged by your sense of dedication, high expectations, hope and love.

Thank you for your deep commitment to the Needham Public Schools; thank you for sharing your lives with so many young people and adults, believing in them so that they, in turn, can develop the skills, creativity, a mindset, and the perspective to grow, flourish, and contribute to make our world a better and more just place.”

We wish our retirees well and thank them for their dedication and service!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 5, 2018

Portrait of a Needham Graduate

An open letter and invitation to the Needham Community:

Dear Needham Public Schools’ Students and Families:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully and with great hope and faith in your future,

Dan Gutekanst
Superintendent of Schools

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