Monday, January 23, 2017

Supporting All Students: Placement Practices in the Needham Public Schools

Some parents recently questioned practices related to the assignment and placement of students in the Needham Public Schools.  School Committee Chair Sue Neckes and Superintendent Dan Gutekanst respond to the parent concerns:

The Needham Public Schools works to ensure all students are assigned to a high quality teacher at every grade level and in each school to optimize each child’s experience, growth, and potential. The student assignment and placement process, which is directed and managed by the building principal, involves a close look at each child’s individual needs and academic goals.  

The Needham Public Schools creates heterogeneous classes that maximize the educational possibilities for all children.  Our primary goal is to create balanced classes in terms of gender, academic strengths, social maturity, special needs, and supportive peer groups, which are likely to promote healthy and productive learning environments.  Additional factors in the placement of students include programming needs such as special education, English Language Learners, and METCO.  Ultimately, the academic and social & emotional needs of each child drive decision-making at all levels.

There has been a long-standing practice to examine class lists and cluster assignments to ensure students of color, particularly African-American, black, Latino, and Hispanic students, are not isolated as an individual student of color in a predominantly white class or cluster.

The race or ethnicity of a child has not been a primary consideration in placement—the student’s academic and social & emotional learning needs are the primary considerations—but developing what the District believed to be supportive peer groups and to avoid racial isolation has been one of many considerations.

Recently the parents of several middle school children met with the School Committee Chair, Superintendent, and Director of Student Support Services and pointed out that they were unaware of the consideration of race during the assignment of students into classes and clusters. The parents believe it is a discriminatory practice and asked that it be stopped.  At the parent meeting on December 8, 2016, the Superintendent assured parents that the practice will be discontinued immediately.  The Superintendent also acknowledged that the District has unintentionally not been as transparent and clear around this practice as we otherwise should have been.  

Since the initial concern was raised by families to the administration at the middle school level earlier in the fall, our practices have been reviewed, data collected and analyzed, and additional consultation with legal counsel and outside educators has taken place so that the District can move forward in the best interest of all students.  With the encouragement and support of the School Committee, the Superintendent has undertaken the following steps:

1.     Sent a follow up email to the parents thanking them for raising the issue and assuring them the practice, which the Superintendent acknowledged was well intentioned and in place to support students and their academic, social & emotional wellness, will be stopped. 

2.     Met with principals and several other District administrators to review placement practices and let them know that race can no longer be a factor in the assignment of students.

3.     Scheduled a March administrative meeting for all District administrators to continue the ongoing discussions around culturally proficient practices in our schools.

4.     Began to investigate the possibility of inviting into the District an outside consultant who can assist the District to review its policies, programs, and practices to ensure they are a) equitable and inclusive, b) based on promising practices and research, and c) reflect our District’s core values and goals.

The Superintendent will provide an update about this work and progress in the spring to the School Committee, parents, and the community.

Finally, the Needham Public Schools takes seriously its role in providing support for all students.  We are fortunate to have exceptional staff and many strong programs in the Needham Schools, and we believe our existing initiatives and planning have been thoughtful and focused on meeting students’ academic and social and emotional needs.  This district and all of its administrators and teachers can take great pride in the work they have achieved around prioritizing the needs of all learners and the ongoing training, professional learning, and robust conversations around race and culturally proficient practices.  We do not shy away from tackling these issues or having difficult conversations; instead we embrace the challenge and are very excited to increase our efforts to support, engage, and empower all students, including students of color.

We intend to seize this opportunity to learn, improve, and grow, and, of course, the Needham community, including students and parents, will continue to be our partners in this important work.

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