Monday, September 19, 2016

Welcome School Resource Officers!

Thanks to Needham’s Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and Police Chief John Schlittler who recently announced the assignment of an additional School Resource Officer (SRO) for Needham’s schools. Officer Ryan O’Leary, a Needham High School and recent Boston College graduate, joins police veteran Vin Springer who has served this community for over 30 years as a crisis negotiator, field training officer, and for the last 13 years as the school liaison. The presence of School Resource Officers on our school campuses complements the strong relationship that exists between Needham’s public safety and school officials, and we are excited to have both men on board.  

Ryan O'Leary (left) and Vin Springer (right)
 SROs Springer and O’Leary will work closely with the schools, staff, students, and families to assist us as we focus on student safety, security, and wellbeing.  For example, the SROs have been trained on ALICE, our new school safety protocol, and they will collaborate with principals around student truancy, bullying, or other matters that may require support and intervention beyond the purview of a building administrator. Already both officers have been in each of the schools and have been a positive presence at lunch time in our cafeterias where they have met and interacted with students.  Principals at the elementary and middle school level are introducing the officers to children so that they can build connections and relationships.

 Over the last year there has been a lot of conversation about the role of police officers in our communities and their level of commitment and understanding, especially in communities of color.  Needham may not have all the challenges of a Boston or Baltimore, but Needham does strive to be a welcoming, inclusive, respectful, and just community.  The willingness of Town Manager Fitzpatrick and Chief Schlittler to designate two exceptional men to the position of School Resource Officer when staffing is already tight, is a testament to this community’s belief in the fair, decent, and dignified treatment of all people, regardless of age, race, gender, or ethnicity. 

Officer Vinny Springer and Officer Ryan O’Leary, thank you for your partnership with the schools, commitment to young people, and your service to this community!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ready... Set...

Welcome back to school!  It’s been a busy summer of maintenance and renovation projects in the schools, professional development and training for the staff, and overall planning and preparation for a new school year and an anticipated 55 new students.  Here are some of the highlights:

•  School maintenance and building projects have been a priority for the Town.  The high school café has been expanded in the first phase of a project intended to provide additional space for the growing enrollment there.  The Pollard main office, some student bathrooms, and counseling offices have been renovated.  Many other maintenance and cleaning projects have been tackled in the schools by our incredible team of custodians, tradesman, and contractors who sweated it out all summer to buff floors, clean lockers, and wash windows.

In July the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) voted to support a new elementary school project to replace the existing Hillside School, and the community will vote on the project November 8th.  If the community vote is successful, construction of a new school could start next year!

Water bubblers at all the schools have been tested for actionable levels of lead (.15 ppb), and as of this writing only one bubbler at Hillside has subsequently been replaced with a portable water cooler out of an abundance of caution.   All other drinking fountains and bubblers at the seven other schools remain within acceptable water quality standards.  An additional set of testing conducted at Hillside on August 11th for a couple of bubblers that had earlier registered at slightly above .15 ppb indicate that no actionable level of lead was again detected.  For more information about the water testing and protocols:  Water Quality Testing

•  On August 17th, we held our annual staff orientation program for over 66 new staff, including teachers, support staff, and administrators.  Welcome aboard to new Needham High School Principal Aaron Sicotte and Mitchell School Principal Greg Bayse.

During June, July, and August teacher professional development, curriculum planning, and technology training engaged many teachers and administrators.  At all levels, more than sixty teachers spent time increasing their knowledge and comfort with technology to enhance teaching in the digital classroom.  Staff training around Cultural Proficiency, Responsive Classroom, and new online courses designed to assist teachers to modify and adapt practice for ELL and special education students were also well attended.  Dozens of staff members representing all the schools also participated in safety training using the new ALICE protocol.

Elementary STEAM teachers worked with staff at the Museum of Science to further enhance their understanding of how to integrate the various areas of STEAM into a meaningful learning experience for their students.  Pre-school teachers now have a well articulated, developmentally appropriate curriculum for their students that is aligned to the new standards for Social-Emotional Development and Approaches to Play and Learning.

This past week teacher representatives, School Committee members, and principals and administrators met at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Dorchester to discuss ideas about empowering educators' voices in the development of a shared vision for learning in our schools.  The conversation will be the first of several this school year designed to strengthen relationships and set priorities for leading and learning.

•  We are gearing up for a successful school opening on Wednesday, August 31st.  Bus routes have been planned, classroom supplies unpacked, and teachers are quite busy setting up classrooms in order to welcome over 5,600 students to Needham's classrooms.  Our enrollment continues to grow slightly, this year by an anticipated 25 new students.  In fact, in the last ten years, Needham's enrollment has increased by more than 585 students placing Needham within the top ten percent of all school districts by number of students enrolled.  Thanks to the community for its continued support of additional teachers and staff to keep pace with additional students and their growing learning needs.

Buildings cleaned, staff trained, and classrooms prepped!  In the spirit of the Rio Olympic swim and track officials:  Ready...  Set...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

2016 Survey Results: We Hear You!

 We are committed to gathering the perspectives of parents, staff, and students to better understand our strengths and challenges as a district.

2,351 parents of students in grades 3-12 recently completed the District Survey—an impressive 55.4% response rate compared with 52% when the survey was last administered in 2013. We combined the results of the Parent Survey with responses from 3,974 Students and 637 Staff (a response rate exceeding 90% in both cases!) to measure progress towards the District goals.

As promised, we are sharing the results of the survey with Needham Public Schools’ parents, students and staff. Here are highlights of key findings for the district:

Evidence of Progress Toward the District Goals (average “agree/strongly agree” of Parents, Students, Staff responses)

Goal 1 - Advance Learning for All Students:
School sets high academic standards/Teachers want me to do well in school: 95%
Staff/School Administrators are responsive to input from parents: 93% (item not in Student survey)
Students understand how to use online tools responsibly / digital citizenship: 92%
Staff care about how much students learn/Teachers care about how much I learn: 92%

Goal 2 - Develop Social, Emotional Wellness and Citizenship Skills:
·I feel welcome at my (child’s) school/My school is a good place to work and learn: 94%
·My child is (students are) not fearful of being hurt by other students: 93%
·School staff (adults in my school) seem to work well with one another: 93%

Goal 3 - Ensure Infrastructure Supports District Values and Learning Goals:
·I am satisfied with the district administration services: 93% (item not in Student survey)
·The school library/media center is meeting my child’s (students’) needs / Media Center has the books and materials I need for school: 93%
·The district website provides me with useful information: 92% (item not in Student survey)
·I am satisfied with the administration at my (my child’s) school: 91% (item not in Student survey)

Areas Needing Attention (average “agree/strongly agree” of Parents, Students, Staff responses)

·Homework furthers learning: 74%
·Info on student progress: 73%
·Adequate space to meet instructional needs: 66%
·Not feeling stressed or overwhelmed by school: 51%

The voices of our parents, students and staff have been heard! The district survey allows our school district to celebrate strengths and respond to goal areas needing attention. Over the next several months we will engage the School Committee, parents, staff, students, and our School Councils in analyzing the survey findings in depth and incorporate the data, and appropriate action steps, into our school improvement plans.

To view a presentation of the survey results, check out the District’s website: 2016 Needham Public Schools Survey Results Presentation

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Needham Students Learning and Making Friends in China

Over the April vacation, a group of Needham elementary students, parents, educators, and town officials traveled to Beijing, China to strengthen our growing relationship with the Daxing District, one of 16 districts in the city of Beijing. Accompanying the Needham contingent was a film crew from the Needham Channel, which is producing a documentary about the unique relationship between Needham and Daxing.

Needham and Daxing Students and Families
A highlight of the visit was for 23 Needham elementary and middle school students to stay with local families and attend classes for the week at our sister school in Daxing, the Feichenchung Elementary School.  Our Chinese hosts believe it was the first ever elementary and middle school student exchange between an American city and Beijing!

The partnership between Daxing and Needham goes back five years when Mitchell principal Dr. Mike Schwinden contacted a local group, Boston Ivy, to arrange visits of Chinese students, teachers, and school administrators between our communities.  This recent visit culminated in a new five-year agreement between the school districts, and Mayor Shao of Daxing signed an initial agreement for a new city to city relationship with Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and Selectmen Matt Borrelli and Moe Handel.  Now the Daxing/Needham schools and city/town governments have established additional opportunities to learn, develop, and promote educational, cultural and community exchanges and partnerships.

Daxing & Needham Student Learn Together
For me, the power of this exchange and the evolving relationships between American and Chinese children and adults is the ability to connect with and learn about another culture, traditions, and system of government.  It’s harder to mistrust or even dislike a person from another culture and country if you have the occasion to play a game, enjoy a meal, or visit an historic landmark together.  Despite the challenges of language and custom, friendships have been established and new opportunities to develop understanding and respect are growing.  Consistent with our district’s core values—Scholarship, Personal Growth, Community, and Citizenship—I am pleased Needham is breaking down barriers and encouraging tolerance, empathy, and respect among those with whom we have differences.

It’s one way to make this world a little smaller.  And a little better.

To view a slideshow of our visit to Beijing, click here: China Exchange 2016

Thanks to Artie Perez for the photos!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Pathway to Full Day Kindergarten in Needham: It's Time!

After over a year of review and consideration, the Needham School Committee has released its Report of the Full-Day Kindergarten Study and Planning Committee to the community.  The report is comprehensive and urges the School Committee to act as quickly as possible to ensure a publicly-funded, equitable, and innovative Full-Day Kindergarten program is available to meet the needs of all learners.  

The report is not a specific plan for the implementation of Full-Day Kindergarten (a specific plan will require additional funding and resources) nor does it answer all the questions about how best to proceed, but it does ask the School Committee to take action on the efficacy of a compulsory Kindergarten program for all of Needham's children.  If the School Committee accepts the recommendations in the report, there will need to be significant planning and a community commitment to implement a program.

I happen to believe it is time for Full-Day Kindergarten in Needham, and this report is the first of many critical steps that we must take to make it a reality.

To view the report, click here: Full-Day Kindergarten Report

Additional information and opportunities to provide ideas and feedback will be proposed in the weeks and months ahead.  Please send feedback and ideas to the School Committee:

Monday, February 29, 2016

Preparing Children for Their Future, Not Our Past

In their new book, Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our Kids for the Innovation Era, Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith (2015) take a hard look at key educational traditions and institutions, including standardized tests (SAT, PISA), Advanced Placement courses, and the typical American high school and college experience. 

Their conclusion?  American K-12 schools are increasingly becoming places where testing crowds out learning and higher education is more interested in magazine college rankings than producing intelligent, thoughtful, and creative young people.  They use data, anecdotes, and research to document a case for a re-imagined school experience, PreK-16.  They describe a dreary and desperate future for our children if we continue on our current path:

“Our country may continue to stumble from education reform to education reform like a drunken sailor… We’ll prioritize measuring irrelevant things and drill the innovation and creativity out of our youth… Our wealthiest parents will continue to get their kids into top colleges, arrange the ‘right’ internships, and—despite education’s failings—help their advantaged kids pull ahead.  The rest will plod through enervating school years, leave with abysmal career prospects, and have citizenship skills no better than mob psychology.  As the ranks of the chronically unemployed youth swell, the rift between the unrelenting rich and the disenfranchised rest will rip our society apart.  We will fail as a country, not because other nations defeated us, but because we defeated ourselves.” (p. 59)

I don’t think the future is as gloomy as Wagner and Dintersmith envision, and I am excited about the creative and exceptional learning opportunities available to Needham’s students; but I do believe educators, parents, and policy makers should consider how, exactly, we can best prepare our children for a world that requires innovative, nimble, curious, empathetic, and engaged young people—young people who will become adults in a dynamic, fast changing, and often unforgiving world.  As my mentor Dr. Tony Bent put it to me: We owe it to our students to think about how we are preparing them for their future and not for our past.

On Thursday, March 24th at 7:00 p.m. in the Newman Auditorium, the Needham Education Foundation and Needham’s PTCs will sponsor a viewing of the film, Most Likely to Succeed, which is based on Wagner and Dintersmith’s book and has been widely acclaimed.  A panel discussion follows and will provide an opportunity for Needham’s community members, students, faculty, and parents to discuss the film’s premise and the educational experience and expectations of Needham’s children.

I hope you can join us for this important conversation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

School Safety is Job #1

We have a fundamental responsibility to ensure our students and staff feel safe at school so they can focus on teaching and learning.  Everything else is secondary.

Sadly, the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and other recent mass shootings compel us to be proactive and to ensure we have current practices and procedures in place to respond in the event of violence or a crisis.

Fortunately, Needham’s administrators and teachers collaborate closely with the Town’s public safety officials to discuss, plan, and coordinate school security and safety protocols and drills.  To view a recent Needham Schools Spotlight cable program featuring a school safety discussion with Needham administrators and Police Chief Schlittler, click here:   Needham Schools Spotlight: ALICE

After much consideration and planning, the Needham Public Schools will adopt the ALICE protocol (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) to respond to a violent intruder. The ALICE approach provides tools and options for schools to respond more effectively and helps keep students and staff safe.  The current practice of having students hide quietly in a locked and darkened classroom under desks has not proven to be the safest reaction to an intruder bent on violence and mayhem.  For example, the “I” in ALICE, or Inform, means that school staff will receive quick information and kept up to date, in real time, about a school intrusion through the intercom system, classroom phone, or cell phones to ensure that students and staff are aware of the situation and can have a chance to react and respond appropriately and safely

In collaboration with the Needham Police, we have already trained several staff members and piloted the ALICE protocol at Mitchell, Hillside, and Needham High School.  Further training for all staff and developmentally appropriate student drills and training will take place in all of the schools over the next several months and into the 2016-17 school year. These scenarios and practices complement and support the other fire and bus safety drills students commonly experience throughout the year.  We expect to fully implement the ALICE protocol in the fall of 2016.

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 a tragedy will not strike our community or our 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.  The implementation of ALICE is one positive and necessary step in that direction.

To learn more about ALICE in the Needham Schools, click here:  ALICE Pesentation

Thanks to Superintendent Paul Stein of Wayland, Massachusetts for allowing me to share some of his perspective in my blog.