Wednesday, May 31, 2023

325 Years of Combined Service to the Students of the Needham Public Schools!


Congratulations to the 20 staff members whom we celebrated and honored on the occasion of their retirement from the Needham Public Schools!  At a recent ceremony we recognized our retirees and thanked them for their collective 325 years of service to students and their families. 

To view photos from the retirement reception, click here:  Photos 2023

I reminded our retirees of a proverb that has taken many forms over the years and goes something like this: “You will not enjoy the fruit of the tree you plant this year.” I thanked them for patiently and lovingly nurturing so many young lives - young people who will, in time, guide, support, and lead us.  Indeed, our work as educators is not for the present; it is for a hope filled future.

I also acknowledged to the retirees and their families that Needham teachers and staff members are sometimes hard on themselves, often looking to see how they could have crafted a lesson differently, returned assignments more quickly, or reached out to a student’s family in a more timely way.  Our staff members are frequently looking for opportunities to better themselves and always wishing they had more time to improve on their work with students and one another.  They are tough on themselves and are rarely satisfied with being just “good enough.”

Many educators, including Needham’s educators, are often guilty of focusing on their blemishes and downplaying their accomplishments. There are teachers who worry too much about how they have fallen short or failed others; they fret about being perfect rather than recognizing that teaching and learning is imprecise, more art than science. We are, after all, imperfect adults tasked with the huge responsibility to nurture and improve the lives of the children in our care.  Teaching is a uniquely human endeavor subject to the frailties - but also the possibilities - of the human condition.

I reassured the retirees that their service and commitment has profoundly and positively impacted the lives of our young people and their families - even if it is hard to see all of their successes at the moment. Their dedication, however incomplete and imperfect, will shape and guide our students’ lives and the lives of the entire community. 

I concluded by telling our retiring staff that the students they cared for will not recall their perceived missteps or missed opportunities; instead they will remember an encouraging word and pat on the back; a broad smile, and the high expectations they had for their students’ growth and success.  

And we, of course, will remember them for being outstanding colleagues!

Friday, March 31, 2023

Focus on School Safety

I remind principals that ensuring student and staff safety is our number one priority in the Needham Public Schools.  Without a sense of security, safety, wellbeing, belonging and care our schools will not nurture and support learning environments that will allow students to thrive.

Sadly, schools around the nation spend an increasing amount of time, money, and human resources thinking about, planning for and addressing matters of school security and student safety and wellbeing. I have written before about school violence, and, unfortunately, it remains top of mind each day of the school year for every school leader. 

While there are no guarantees that we will never experience the kind of senseless and horrific school violence most recently experienced in Nashville or Uvalde, I believe we have implemented a balanced and thoughtful approach to school and student safety:

• The Town of Needham and the Needham Public Schools have come together in several ways to ensure public safety in our schools and community.  For example, after the Newtown tragedy Town Manager Kate Fizpatrick and I teamed up to create the Needham Schools Emergency Advisory Team (NSEAT) to provide a collaborative and community-based approach to school and student safety.  

• The Needham Police Chief and I have collaborated on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that details the role of the police and School Resource Officers in the school setting.  We are deliberate in stating what police officers can and can't do in the school setting, and we are equally clear that school administrators and personnel must not take on law enforcement responsibilities within the school building. While some school districts locally and around the country have paused or ended their relationship with local police departments, I am proud of the partnership we have established with the Needham Police and look forward to ways we can strengthen the relationship to benefit our students, their families, and the staff.

• Two Needham School Resource Officers (SRO), one primarily assigned to the elementary level and one to the secondary level, provide a regular and daily presence in our schools and classrooms.  They consult routinely with building principals and staff and provide guidance to students and families in need. Both of our SROs also assist with safety drills and planning throughout the school year, and they have been involved in helping to lead the Needham Police and Fire Departments in active shooter drill trainings, most recently held during a school holiday period at one of our schools.

• In collaboration with public safety officials, we conduct four to five fire and active shooter drills in our schools annually. School staff receive training around these protocols, and each school and classroom is equipped with safety manuals that provide guidance for responses to emergency situations.  In addition, staff are able to access emergency protocols and tools using a phone app.  Before active shooter drills take place, principals and staff work in developmentally appropriate ways to train and alert students.  A sample elementary lesson outline can be found here: Elementary Drill Lesson  This 2016 video outlines the general plan for the school response to an active shooter: Needham Schools Spotlight: School Safety and ALICE.

Finally, and more than anything else, it's important to ensure all students feel welcome, included, and safe within the school setting and that a caring and trusting community, guided by responsible adults, exists for each child.  

Teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, teacher assistants and building administrators provide the social and emotional and mental health supports that empower students to help them experience a sense of belonging essential to their wellbeing and growth.  Ultimately, it is the human capital we have invested in and the human interactions we nurture that will keep our schools and community safe, secure, and open for learning.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The More Things Change...

The ongoing renovation of the Needham Public Schools Administration and Operations Building, named after 19th Century School Committee member Emery Grover, has provided an opportunity to reflect both on the past and the present.  

In preparation for our move to temporary quarters and while sifting through the “EG Building” attic and long forgotten closets and store rooms, I discovered a trove of historic and academic information and documents that chronicle the story of the Needham Public Schools from the 1800s to the present. 

Early 20th and 19th Century School Committee Reports

What’s clear is that a lot has changed in Needham since the Emery Grover Building was constructed in 1893 as the town’s first high school - and a lot has remained the same.

One of the biggest changes (and challenges) has been the incredible growth of the community over the years.  For example, in 1923 School Superintendent John Davis reported that the total enrollment of 1,800 pupils that year exceeded the capacity of available classroom space. One hundred years later we now enroll over 5,500 students, and we are still short on classroom space!

We have also grown more racially and culturally diverse. In the last 20 years the Needham Public Schools has gone from enrolling a 90% white student body to enrolling about 73.0% white students with 27.0% representing students of color.  In addition, the percentage of students for whom English is a second language has increased from about 4.0% to over 11.0% of total student enrollment. Today, over 51 languages are spoken by our students and families, including Spanish, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, and Azerbaijani among many others. In the same period of time the number of low income students has tripled from 2.7% to 8.2% of overall enrollment.  

Our families and student body look different today than they did a century or even a generation ago, and this diversity has strengthened the community, schools, and learning experience for all of our students. (Click here for more information about demographic trends in the Needham Public Schools.)

What hasn’t changed is the Needham community’s strong commitment to a quality education for every child. 

Since before the Civil War, the Needham community recognized its responsibility for providing a rigorous and excellent educational experience for all students.  In its 1859 report to the community, the Needham School Committee praised parents and families for their engagement: The purpose of a school depends very much upon the interest taken in it by the parents.  In many of our schools the parents have long since taken a deep and active interest in their children’s progress and welfare.”  

The same 1859 report revealed that providing adequate compensation for teachers must remain a priority for the community: Though some think we are now paying our teachers too much, we are constantly losing the services of the best of them, because they can obtain better pay elsewhere… The only alternative seems to be, either to increase the teachers’ pay a little, or to retard the present healthy progress of our students and schools…”

What’s really striking about this mid 19th Century report is how, even then, the community recognized the critical need to develop the social and emotional skills of children:  “The moral character of a school is of vital importance; mental cultivation at the expense of the cultivation of the heart, is a curse rather than a blessing.  Not the more knowing & the more scientific, but rather the more virtuous the child, the man, and the people - the more happy and more useful.”

Today, 164 years later, those very sentiments are echoed in the district’s current Portrait of a Needham Graduate competencies and strategic priorities which we continue to believe are critical to the growth and success of students.  

Cover of the 1861-62 Report from the Needham
School Committee and Superintendent

For sure, a lot has changed in Needham over the years, and we have become a stronger and more diverse community of learners and leaders. And a lot has remained the same. 

This wise community believed then - and continues to believe today - that “the cultivation of the heart” is essential to our students’ potential and academic growth as well as the collective success and wellbeing of a vibrant, prosperous,  and caring community.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Our Students are Pretty Awesome Outside of the Classroom, Too!

Each day Needham students demonstrate their ability to learn, grow, and excel inside the classroom!  Examples abound:

  • Kindergarteners envision, design, and then build an accessible model playground as part of their experience
  • In social studies, 5th graders develop and act out passionate dialogues between Patriots and Loyalists 
  • 8th graders explore data science to understand the world around them
  • 12th graders pitch their capstone initiatives which are designed to improve the community as part of the Greater Boston Project

Outside of the classroom and in co-curricular programs, student athletes, engineers, artists, and performers are shining, too:

  • All students at every level, K-12, are fortunate to participate in art lessons designed to develop their skills and creativity.  Later this spring art shows at each school will highlight and celebrate the talent and competency of student artists.  A preview of the students’ work is the first showcase of the school year, the Needham High Senior Art Show:

  • The NHS Robotics Teams compete around the state and help to mentor Needham elementary students throughout the year.  They are getting “geared up” for a huge tourney at NHS in the coming weeks!
  • The Needham High School and Pollard Middle School Athletic and club sport program is the largest and most diverse in the state, fielding over 100 teams in a variety of athletic endeavors, including opportunities for Unified Sports, an inclusive program for 6-12 students with disabilities.  If you want to be inspired, check out the these recent video highlights:  6-12 Athletics
  • The Fine and Performing Arts (FPA) program offers all students opportunities to develop their instrumental, vocal, and performance skills through numerous concerts and showcases. A recent Elementary Honors Strings, Band, and Choral Concert brought the house to its feet and with one choral arrangement, Are You Proud of Me?, brought tears to many eyes.  If you want to get a sense of how K-12 FPA teachers prepare our students to perform amazing and uplifting music, check out the recent high school holiday concert:  El Cielo Canta Alegria and Frozen Choral Suite

Inside and outside of the classroom supportive Needham Public Schools teachers, staff, and coaches nurture and boost creativity, learning, athleticism, problem solving, and skill - all aligned to the Portrait of a Needham Graduate competencies and in service to our hard working and talented students and their supportive families.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Reflections on Lunch Duty

Over the last year or so I’ve had the opportunity to cover lunch duty at the elementary and middle schools.  It’s been a great way for me to connect with students, listen to their corny jokes, answer endless questions about snow days, and maybe even pick up a little gossip.  If you want to know what's going on in a school, stop by a busy cafeteria at lunchtime! (Don’t forget to try the spicy chicken patty sandwich at one of the middle schools.)

COVID, illnesses, and the recent shortage of staff for substitute coverage, teaching assistants, and even for lunch duty has put pressure on besieged principals and cafeteria managers to look for help anywhere and from anyone - including the superintendent.  Here is how a typical late morning call goes from a building principal to me:

Principal:  “Hi, Dan.  Hope you're having a good day.  Listen, what are you doing at 11:30 this morning?”

Me:  “Well, it’s a very busy day.  I am running a 5,600 student district with 800 staff in eight schools and trying to get a $92 million budget proposal passed while I contend with numerous parent concerns and try to keep the School Committee informed of the latest controversy brewing on social media.”

Principal:  “So you can do lunch duty today?  Great. Thanks.”

Once I’ve shed my suit jacket and donned my latex gloves, I’m ready.  Here are a few things I have learned about kids and lunch duty over the last several months:

  • Social and Emotional Learning is alive and well in the cafeteria.  Kids are social beings, and they love to eat and hang out with friends in the cafeteria.  They are good about queuing up in the lunch line, being respectful and patient to staff and one another, and negotiating small issues that arise - like who is responsible for the spilled pasta? It’s also really great to see students include a variety of peers, especially those who have special needs, in conversation and banter at their tables.
  • Some kids have a hard time with food.  “Hey, Jake,” I said motioning with a napkin to the fifth grader who had pizza on his chin and applesauce on his brow, “Do you need one?” “Nope,” he replied, “I’m good.”  Jake got the napkin anyhow.  I’ve noticed that some exuberant boys chow down quickly as if it has been their first meal in days; others create masterpieces in their trays out of strawberry stems, hamburger buns, and chocolate milk. Generally, napkin use seems to be a novelty for many kids.  I just started walking around with the dispenser saying “Take one, it’s free!”  Everyone likes free stuff.
  • Students help out and clean up. Despite my concerns about the lack of napkin etiquette, it is very impressive to watch student table cleaners at the end of each lunch period.  Taking turns each week, they quickly and efficiently wipe down each table ensuring its cleanliness and readiness for the next group of diners.  Students are also very good about sorting their trash for recycling and, where available, composting. I hope they are helping out at home in the same way!
  • Volunteers, Custodians, and Cafeteria Staff are Awesome!  To keep this lunchtime operation moving smoothly each school day requires a lot of organization, planning, and patience.  The adults who manage lunches are special people!  The cafeteria staff prepare a variety of meals weekly; parent volunteers are cheerful and always smiling; custodians quickly move throughout the cafeteria sweeping, wiping, and emptying trash and recycling; school and office staff wander among the tables chatting it up with students, giving the OK to leave for recess, and occasionally providing a glare that says “I see you getting ready to throw that tater tot to your friend… don’t even try!” Lunchtime is efficient, healthy, nutritious and fun due to the efforts of these terrific folks.

I’ve learned the school cafeteria is really just an extension of the classroom where students practice taking turns and being patient, learn about and try new foods from a wonderful menu, socialize with peers, and take responsibility for their surroundings.  

Now if I can just get them to take a napkin with their next meal…

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Elephant in the Room

Recently, I became defensive at a parent meeting and had to remind myself about the elephant in the room.

The parents wanted to discuss a concern over student programming and, like any effective superintendent, I welcomed them into the office, inquired about how their children were doing in school, and then, with a notepad in hand, listened and jotted down their concerns.  

Until I stopped listening and became defensive. 

The parents were earnest and passionate as they shared their ideas and concerns, and they completed each thought with polarized statements like: “All students are feeling this way…” or “No child ever has an opportunity to…” or “The school district never provides programs that…”  Everything was absolute; every comment clearly indicated that the school district and its staff were at fault, misguided and inflexible.

Instead of being patient, I interrupted; instead of being curious, I was defensive. I pushed back and said they were incorrect and they misunderstood. I was eager to prove them wrong.  After some uncomfortable and testy exchanges I took a deep breath and remembered the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

In the Indian folk tale, several blind men come upon an elephant, and each one touches a different part of the animal. One blind man grabs the tusk and proclaims that the elephant is like a spear; another touches the elephant’s leg and says an elephant is like a tree; yet another feels the tail and asserts the elephant is like a rope.  The men argue with one another and each man insists he is right and the others are wrong.

Of course, none of the blind men are necessarily right about the elephant; neither are they wrong.  Each blind man is correct about how he “sees” the elephant; each man understands the elephant through their individual perspective and experience.  They have not yet experienced all dimensions and parts of the elephant, and so they must insist on their view as being the truth.  The moral of the story is that we all experience the world a little differently. 

When I was meeting with the parents I had forgotten to remember that in their absolute statements they were expressing their personal perspective, their truth.  They were sharing what they had experienced - and it was very real to them.  They had only touched the “tail” of the issue we were discussing and instead of helping them recognize the possibility of other perspectives, I became as defensive as one of the blind men and insisted that, “No!  You are wrong. The problem is this…” I was focused on proving to them that I was right, and they were incorrect. I wasn't listening for understanding.

After recognizing my blunder and realizing that the conversation had almost come to an impasse, I remembered the Indian folktale, took a deep breath, and we started over.  This time I acknowledged that their perspective was valid and after asking many more questions and expressing curiosity rather than judgment, we continued to have a productive discussion.  The parents also agreed that there were other perspectives, and there were other possibilities they couldn't see that helped them to realize their original concern was actually multifaceted and complex. There were no quick fixes, easy answers, or straight paths to a resolution.

I’ve come to learn over time that many concerns that parents, students, and staff have are often not straightforward issues that can easily be identified, defined, or solved.  Many concerns in education, and in life, are often nuanced, delicate, and complicated.  I actually think we mostly live, learn, and lead not in an absolute world, but we exist mostly in the gray - with the uncertainty, ambiguity, and subtle differences that make us human.

Listening to and acknowledging another’s perspective, empathizing with another’s personal experience, and expressing curiosity about an alternative view invites us to more fully explore a problem and understand an expressed concern. 

Remembering the elephant in the room helps us to move forward in a way that allows for more productive discussions and helps us to find solutions to sometimes thorny, complicated, and human issues.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Dear Governor Baker: Please read this!

Before I begin, Governor Baker, let me first take this opportunity to thank you for all you have done over the last several years to guide Massachusetts.  You and your administration have dealt with numerous crises, including COVID; stewarded state finances thoughtfully and carefully; and you have modeled for politicians around the country what it means to be civil and fair minded, even when there is disagreement or discord. Thank you for your leadership!

I have one small favor to ask of you as your term in office ends.  It won’t grab headlines and to about 99% of Massachusetts residents, it will likely not register as anything meaningful to them in their daily lives.

Here it goes:

Can you ask the Operational Services Division (OSD) within the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to reconsider its October 1st determination that next school year (FY '24) local school districts and towns will need to pay an additional 14% in tuition to the private special education schools that serve the children who require services local districts can’t provide?

Without getting too wonky on budget policy, the law, and special education programming, let me just say that this little known move by OSD will significantly impact school budgets, just as we are all trying to serve students who have struggled mightily over the last couple of years.  In FY ‘24 and based on recent Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) figures, this 14% tuition increase could conservatively cost as much as a whopping $92,807,590 to local communities.  This amount represents 14% of FY21 school district expenditures on in-state private school tuitions (DESE function code 9300), or $662,911,356 - the most recent data available from DESE.  (There is much more information here: FAQ about OSD tuition increase)

Over the last dozen years the tuition increase has averaged below 2% annually, and it was manageable and we were able to incorporate this into budget planning in a sustainable and responsible way. In the Needham Public Schools, where we are already preparing the budget for the 23-24 school year, we will have to plan for an additional $800,000 in order to cover the cost of this tuition spike; and that will mean other student services and programs will need to be cut back to pay for such an enormous increase. 

The OSD believes private special education schools need additional funding due to inflationary pressures and staffing shortages.  I agree!  Here in Needham we send many students to private special education schools in Massachusetts (and beyond), and I want them to have excellent support and care.  Like the public schools, private schools are also struggling to fill key and vital positions so it makes sense to consider additional funding.  But that has to be balanced with the reality of local district funding needs that will surely be impacted if next school year, FY ‘24, we need to cut services to all students, including those hardest hit by the pandemic to pay for an unfair and unreasonable 14% tuition increase.  Instead, how about a phased approach over the next few years coupled with an increase in state special education spending for all?

Governor, I know you have a lot on your mind as your time in office winds down.  I also realize that the FY ‘24 budget will be in the hands of your successor, yet the planning for the state’s FY ‘24 budget is happening now in the Office of Administration and Finance.  I urge you to have the OSD reconsider its decision and propose a FY ‘24 tuition increase that is fair, reasonable, and sustainable for all communities.

I believe a move like that will continue to demonstrate your fiscal prudence and your commitment to all of the students of the Commonwealth.

Thanks for listening.