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Friday, April 8, 2022

It's Springtime: Hiring Season in the Needham Public Schools!


Spring is a busy time of year in schools throughout the area as principals, human resource folks, and superintendents work to fill critically important teaching and administrative roles for the new school year beginning September 2022.


In the Needham Public Schools, we prioritize and emphasize the critical importance of the hiring process, and I am proud that we are much more selective than comparable communities.  I am also proud that we are actively searching for candidates who are racially and ethnically diverse to ensure our students are growing and learning from people of all backgrounds.


I often tell principals that after providing for the safety and health of all students and staff, which is clearly Job # 1, their second priority is hiring a talented staff.  Besides safety, there simply is no other important work to do than ensuring the people we place in the classroom and school offices are well qualified, thoroughly vetted, and focused on student needs.  A child only gets a chance at 4th grade once, so we want to ensure the teacher we hire meets our standards and will nurture a strong learning community within the classroom, with the child as the center of attention.


This is also true for school leaders.  My second most important responsibility as superintendent (Safety is Job #1!) is to make sure we cast a wide net to secure smart, creative, hardworking, and qualified individuals who are committed to academic excellence, the social and emotional needs of students, and building a dynamic and inclusive community.  Research has shown that the strength of the building principal is directly related to the success of students, so we go above and beyond to ensure that we organize a lengthy and rigorous search process that results in the identification and hiring of top notch teachers and administrators.


What does the process look like?  There are a several components as outlined in a recent administrative training session, including:


  • Recruitment of talented and diverse staff.  Our district website shares the information about openings, and we also post on other websites and attend local job fairs with a particular focus on hiring for diversity.  We are eager to consider non-traditional candidates who have capacity for growth and challenge, and we often post our positions for a long period of time to give as many folks as possible the opportunity to apply to Needham.  We also contact universities and local district administrators to see, for example, if they know of an aspiring school leader we might tap for a role.

  • Principals and administrators screen applications and only bring in candidates we want to learn more about and who have the prerequisite skills and certification (or who will be able to secure the certification) for the specific role.  We provide interview and bias training to ensure we are aware of our own blindspots and biases. Hiring teams are then organized and typically include teachers and school staff; parents and secondary students are often invited to participate as well.  For example, during the recent Sunita L. Williams principal search about 20 5th grade students interviewed the finalists and then provided feedback on both individuals (Students always ask tough questions and their feedback is candid and spot on!).

  • After the hiring teams identify two or three finalists to move forward, we ask teacher candidates to teach an in person lesson either at one of our schools or at their school. After the lesson we will have a conversation with the candidate about how the lesson went and, importantly, we will talk to students to get their impressions. 

  • Principals and administrators conduct additional reference checks on a desired candidate and complete a recommendation packet which is forwarded to my attention and a final interview with the teacher.  While not every superintendent meets with recommended teacher candidates, I think it is crucial to interact with and review the qualifications of each individual before they are formally offered the position.  It is time consuming to meet with dozens and dozens of candidates but, once again, it is the 2nd most important responsibility we have in the Needham Public Schools.

  • For administrators, we have the finalists return to the school for a full day of classroom observations, interviews with staff, conversations with students, and faculty and family meetings.  Staff, students and families are asked to provide written feedback on an administrative candidate.  

  • An additional step that many districts do not take but we see as a critical component in the search for a school leader is the site visit. We ask administrative and principal candidates to host a site visit to their school so a team of Needham staff can observe and then interview administrators, teachers, community members, students, and supervisors. Recently, for example, we sent a team to Denver to learn about a principal candidate and an assistant principal search team is heading to North Carolina to see that administrative candidate. It is important to explore where an assistant principal or principal candidate works and observe how they interact and lead in their school setting.  This gives us a chance to have one on one conversations and candid discussions with the folks a candidate works with on a daily basis; it allows us a chance to see if the individual really “walks the talk.”

  • For administrative candidates additional reference checking, a written task and sometimes a review of one’s portfolio all round out the extensive search process.  I typically schedule an additional one on one meeting with a finalist to review additional questions and to ensure their questions have been answered before an offer is made.  


Our process is intense, inclusive and time consuming, and I believe it allows us to be choosy about who we bring on board in our schools.  We are eager to continue our Spring 2022 hiring process as we work to ensure the best educators work with the amazing young people of the Needham Public Schools!


Saturday, February 26, 2022

Going Mask Friendly on March 7th

Beginning on March 7th, face coverings and masks will no longer be required in the Needham Public Schools for students and staff.  

The Commissioner’s update on masking, improving local health metrics, high staff & student vaccination rates, availability of testing options, and the district’s commitment to maintain healthy schools have resulted in the Joint Committee on Health & Safety recommending to the superintendent that the mask mandate end & that a mask friendly K-12 learning environment become effective Monday, March 7th.

As of March 7th, Individual K-12 students and staff can choose whether to wear a mask or not; unvaccinated individuals are strongly encouraged to wear a mask. All will wear masks in health offices and on school transportation. (Preschool staff and students will remain masked for the time being.)

The district will reinforce personal choice around masking. Mask friendly respects the individual choices of students and staff; acknowledges that some individuals have personal or family health concerns/needs that must be supported.

Principals, teachers, and staff will use the week after break to share developmentally appropriate messages and lessons to help students understand what it means to learn and play in a mask friendly school and classroom.

To learn more about how the principals and staff are preparing for a mask friendly learning environment, watch this ten minute video featuring Principals Bourn and Garlick: Ten Minutes with Eliot Principal Karen Bourn and Broadmeadow Principal Andy Garlick. To view additional information, including recent health metrics and data, view this February 15, 2022 School Committee meeting presentation.

I'm excited that we are creating the conditions to support a mask friendly learning environment, and we will continue to monitor health and safety conditions in order to prioritize the health and safety of our students, staff, and their families.


Saturday, January 29, 2022

Next Up: Addressing the Infrastructure Needs of Mitchell, High Rock, and Pollard

Planning for the building infrastructure and programmatic needs of the Needham Public Schools (NPS) remains a top strategic priority for the Needham School Committee.

With the guidance and support of the town's Permanent Public Building Committee (PPBC), the NPS has engaged a designer, Dore and Whittier Architects, to study which major school building projects should be addressed in the next several years. 

The School Committee is trying to address several important goals with the planning process, including:

• Address physical infrastructure and significant programmatic needs at Mitchell, the district's oldest school (70 + years)

Address physical infrastructure and significant programmatic needs at Pollard, including end of life modular classrooms

• Address overcrowding and the lack of adequate program space at the middle level, including Pollard and High Rock

• Mitigate the impact of construction on one or more generations of students

• Avoid expensive building maintenance over time (which will be complicated by the MA building code threshold limitations) 

• Avoid wasting significant funds on temporary modulars (for a Mitchell project)

• Accomplish needed building renovations within a reasonable period of time.

• Provide elementary capacity, including preparing Needham for the possible introduction of Universal PreK  

During the course of the study, the replacement of the Mitchell Elementary School and the possible renovation and expansion of Pollard as a 6-8 campus have been discussed.  You may view a recent School Committee and Permanent Public Building Committee presentation about the planning process here: School Facilities Master Planning Process

Renovating and/or replacing Mitchell and Pollard will be expensive and take time but both projects are necessary to meet the needs of students and staff. Additionally, the possible relocation of the 6th grade onto one 6-8 Pollard campus on Harris Avenue requires serious consideration, especially if this offers efficiencies in terms of staffing, programming, and space and allows the current High Rock School to become the district's sixth elementary school to meet anticipated elementary enrollment and program needs.

To learn more about the school master planning process and to share questions and comments, the NPS will host a virtual Family and Community Meeting on Tuesday, February 8th at 7:00 p.m. Look for the link to be posted on the district's website or in an email. Please join us to learn more about these important school projects.


Thursday, January 6, 2022

Budget Proposal for the 2022-23 (FY23) School Year

In December I shared the 2022-23 school year (FY23) budget proposal with the Needham School Committee.  

The request provides the resources required to address existing staff contractual obligations, classroom and special education needs, and the District's Portrait of a Needham Graduate Five-Year Strategic Plan.

The proposed plan totals $87,200,560 and represents a $3.6 million, or 4.3% spending increase over the current budget year. I believe this request has been thoughtfully considered and will allow us to continue to support the academic programs, learning interventions, and mental health and social & emotional needs of our students.  The requested resources are particularly important as we continue to support all students during the ongoing pandemic.

The Needham School Committee encourages community members to attend the FY23 School Budget Public Hearing scheduled for Tuesday, January 18, 2022 at the Broadmeadow School at 6:30 p.m.  The meeting is also broadcast on local cable and a Zoom link will be provided prior to the meeting for those not attending in person.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Helping Parents and Families Talk to Middle School Students about Hurtful and Racist Acts

Like principals across Massachusetts and the country, Needham principals have been dealing this school year with unexpected and often challenging student behavior.  Much of the behavior is a result of students being together again and full-time in the school setting and relearning what it means to work alongside peers in the classroom, on the playground, or even riding on the bus.  

One of Needham's school leaders, High Rock Principal Jessica Downey, recently shared with families how the school has been addressing difficult student behavior, including acts of graffiti and racist and homophobic taunts.  Please check out the thoughtful and helpful advice Ms. Downey and her staff offered to families as we work together to assist young people in school, at home, and in the community:  November 19th Message to Families

We are committed to supporting our young people as they grow and learn in the Needham Public Schools, and we welcome your partnership and feedback as we collaborate to support all of our students.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Hey, Parents: Let's Get Involved!

Recently a parent asked me if the district had considered COVID surveillance testing as a way to monitor the health and wellbeing of students in our schools.  Well... yes. When I explained that surveillance testing, as well as any number of other COVID-related health and safety issues, had actually been a major part of ongoing conversations and the subject of several School Committee meetings over the last 18 months, the parent expressed surprise.  "Is there a way," the parent inquired, "to get more communication and to be involved?"

I often hear from parents who say they want to be more involved or are unsure how to be involved in their child's school or education.  Sometimes parents or community members say they wish there was "more transparency" about how the business of school is conducted.  So let me take this opportunity in the early part of the school year to share a few ways parents and families can stay connected and be involved in the life of the Needham Public Schools.

• Join the PTC (Parent Teacher Council) at your school and plan and participate in events, programs, and meetings focused on the needs of the students and staff there.  PTC meetings provide an opportunity for parents to connect with the principal and to meet other families. Each school's website has a link to that school's PTC, including officers and infomration.

• The Special Education Parent Advisory Council or SEPAC is another way to get involved and to learn more about special education services in the NPS and to meet and interact with other parents and staff who share ideas, programming, and advocate for the needs of students and families.

• The English Language Learner Parent Advisory Council or ELPAC provides a forum for families and parents of students whose first language is not English.  This school year, more than 28 languages are spoken by our English Language Learning students, and the ELPAC is a great way for families to stay informed.

• Our Boston resident families can participate in all of the aforementioned groups as well as the Needham METCO Parent Council. The meetings are typically held in Boston (and more recently via Zoom) and provide a great way for parents and families to learn about the Needham Public Schools and to share ideas and suggestions.

• Each school has a School Council composed of staff, parents, community members, and at Pollard and the high school, student reps.  The School Council advises the principal about the implementation of the School Improvement Plan and meets regularly to learn about the challenges and opportunities the school community is facing.  To learn more about Needham's School Councils, check out the recent training provided to all School Council members: 2021-22 School Council Training

• Booster organizations are another great way to stay connected and be involved in the life of your high school students.  The NHS Rocket Boosters provide fundraising and support athletics at Needham High and NHS Friends of Music advocates for and supports high school musical and theatrical productions and events.

• The Needham School Committee is the elected body that oversees the Needham Public Schools and establishes and reviews educational goals, programs, budget and policies for the district, consistent with the requirements of the law and standards established by the Massachusetts Board of Education.  The Committee generally meets twice per month and all meetings are open to the pubic and accessible on local cable television and online.  Your School Committee representatives want to hear from you, so reach out to the schoolcommittee@needham.k12.ma.us 

• I often send out emails and tweets to families, students, and the community about topics of interest, including weather-related information, school closures, and updates.  Please make sure to sign up to receive emails and log in to Twitter for updates!

Stay involved, stay connected, and let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns: my email address is dan_gutekanst@needham.k12.ma.us

Thursday, September 30, 2021

A New School Year... New Challenges!

Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared with teachers and staff upon our return to school in August:

We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, and I am excited to dig in. Let me outline some of our key school and district plans:

  • First, safety.  A healthy and safe school environment for all of our students and staff remains the priority.  Ensuring that we have the policies, programs, and protocols in place to provide for a healthy and safe learning experience is our shared responsibility and critical to keeping schools open for learning.  

  • Our 2021-22 School Opening Plan details how we will respond to the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of our students, particularly those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  So many of you have already invested significant time and energy developing lessons, resources, and plans to help accelerate our students’ learning, and the School Committee and community have stepped up to provide the resources we need to make it a reality.  Additional math and literacy support at the elementary and middle school levels will strengthen our efforts to assist students; additional staff within the high school’s transition program will assist vulnerable students.  Extra elementary teacher assistants will facilitate learning and help at lunch time.  A revised elementary schedule will require time and patience to work out all of the kinks; but it will be worth it for our younger students who will have more consistent and structured time with their classroom teachers.  

  • This is the third year of implementation of the district’s strategic plan, the Portrait of a Needham Graduate.  I have previously sent out to staff the action steps for this coming year, so I won’t review them now.  I guess the most important thing for each and every staff member to keep in mind is our shared responsibility to assist in the work necessary to make the action steps a reality and to assist each student develop the skills and competencies that are at the core of our plan.  Our collective action toward this plan is not optional; it is integral to our work as individuals, as professionals, and as a district.  

  • One of the other tasks we are busy with is figuring out a path forward to renovating and replacing Mitchell, Pollard, and the School Administration Building.  All three facilities require attention, but the costs, timing, and resources necessary to address these needs requires focused energy, planning, and, critically, community support.  Fortunately, we work in a town that values education and has clearly demonstrated financial support for its schools over time, and I suspect this will be the case with these three projects.  

  • Finally, underlying all of our work in the district is a belief in equity and inclusion for all students, their families, and staff. Whether you are gay, straight, or gender non-conforming; whether you are in special education or an English Language Learner; whether you are homeless or socio-economically disadvantaged - we will support and be a champion for you!

 

In particular, this district is committed to racial equity and we are committed to being actively anti-racist; we believe in the inherent value and dignity of every human being, and we are reviewing programs, polices, and practices that marginalize or diminish any person.  We are hard at work creating opportunities for all children, especially those students of color who have been disproportionately impacted by well-meaning but hurtful instructional practices and curriculum that does not always represent them. I am proud that we have implemented a racial literacy curriculum at the elementary level; that we have prioritized the recruitment and retention of a talented and diverse staff; that we are considering restorative practices that help tp manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and building relationships and community.

 

As you instruct and counsel your students throughout the year, work with colleagues, and collaborate with families and caregivers, consider how your efforts, action, conversations, and intentions can be based on a foundation of racial and social justice - a foundation of equity.  This work is fundamental to our mission as educators and human beings.

 

We will have to pace ourselves and take a deep breath and recognize that it will all be OK to be imprecise and imperfect - to give ourselves permission to do the best we can.  


I’m reminded of Olympic gymnast Suni Lee, who we all watched win the gold medal for the women’s gymnastics all-around competition in Tokyo.  After she won the medal, she was asked by a journalist why she was rubbing her stomach just before her gold medal winning performance.  She responded:  “I was just telling myself to do nothing more and nothing less, and just telling myself to breathe because in that moment I literally felt like I was going to puke, I was so nervous." She looked at the reporter and added: "My normal is good enough, so I don't do anything more or anything less, I just have to do what I normally do."

 

“I don’t need to do anything more or anything less.” This is the wisdom of an Olympian - she did not tell the reporter she was thinking about how she had to be perfect; she told the reporter that she knew herself, and she knew that she had practiced and prepared for this moment and now it was time to breathe, relax and enjoy. She was ready.  

 

I know all of you put pressure on yourselves to be the best teacher, ideal coach, rockstar administrator, exemplary secretary or selfless teacher assistant.  I know how hard you work to create the circumstances for our children to thrive - And it can be exhausting and depleting.  It can make you want to puke!

 

As we work together to help our students develop the competencies embedded in the Portrait or understand their role in an equitable and socially and racially just community, trust yourself, lean on each other, and keep moving forward even if your pace and efforts are uneven or imperfect.  The important thing is to know you have a responsibility to join in the work of your grade level, school and district.  The important thing is to understand that what you are already doing is meaningful and masterful - it is already golden.  Remember the words of Suni Lee:  “Nothing more. Nothing less.”  It is a mantra - a standard - for all of us to live, learn, and lead by.

 

There is no greater responsibility or greater joy than helping young people grow, learn, and achieve.  We have both an enormous burden and incredible opportunity to assist in the development and shaping of young minds, bodies, and hearts. Regardless of your role in the NPS, you can empower a young scholar with an encouraging comment; you can boost a child each day with optimism, a kind smile, a pat on the shoulder, or acknowledging a child’s identity.  Our service is a gift to the community and our future lives.  Our service to young people is powerful, uplifting, and joyful. It is a sign of hope and humanity and is necessary to create the conditions of innovation, justice, humility, and love in our world.


Colleagues, I wish you a wonderful new school year! Thank you for your joyful service to our students.