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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

No More Empty Seats: Let's Keep Kids in Class, Learning!

Recently the School Committee requested information and data about chronically absent students in the Needham Public Schools to help inform the development of new attendance policies. It’s not a pretty picture, particularly post pandemic as absenteeism rates climbed in the Needham Public Schools.  We are not alone: Absenteeism has soared across the country since 2020 in schools and in the workplace.

Blame it on COVID, the hankering for remote work, or the stresses of modern family life… Whatever the reason, somewhere along the line learners and workers stopped showing up.

A few weeks ago a principal told me that the mother of an elementary student was not concerned about the 30 plus days of school the child has missed this school year because the mom figures the child will “catch up.”  A good friend and colleague who teaches at a prestigious medical school lamented that his students were missing lectures, labs, and classes due to, as he put it,  “the sniffles” or a need for a break or extended holiday. “I've never seen anything like it!” he exclaimed.



We need to help young people and their families reset the attendance button, and the Needham School Committee has charged me and the principals with developing policies and procedures that will hold students accountable for their attendance and provide the support they need when they can’t get to classes.  The School Committee endorsed the following belief statement that will guide our ever evolving policies and practices in the coming year and beyond:

We believe:

Learning is a continuous and ongoing process: Regular attendance allows students to stay on track with the curriculum, avoiding gaps that can be difficult to bridge later.

A student’s active presence and participation promotes deeper understanding: Ongoing collaboration, class discussions, group work, and student and teacher interaction are vital for the development of knowledge beyond rote memorization.

School is a social environment: Consistent attendance allows students to develop social and emotional skills, teamwork, and build positive relationships with peers and teachers.

Habits for lifelong learning: Attending school instills discipline, time management, and a responsibility to learning that benefits students as they progress through the Needham Public Schools and prepare for their futures lives.

These statements will guide our work with students in the coming years. We also need to make sure that we have interventions for students - low income students for example - who are struggling to be fully present in school and ensure that our practices, programs, and policies engage and empower them for success. 

I believe we must have both accountability and support for students who are chronically absent. There are often underlying causes for extended student absences, and we need to understand the reasons and context for absenteeism. We owe it to our families and the young people we serve to let them know that learning in person is not optional; that sometimes there are consequences for absences; and reassure them we will provide the academic, counseling, mental health and behavioral support they need to attend school, stay in class learning, and achieve success.






Monday, April 1, 2024

The MCAS: An Imperfect but Important Tool

It’s MCAS season, and I’d like to use this post to remind the community that despite the imperfections of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, it remains an important tool for Needham educators to help us understand learning strengths and needs and to lift all students.

First, let me acknowledge that this test has its problems. For example, it only assesses a student at a particular point in time, and if that student is not at their best on that day, the scores will reflect that. The MCAS also consumes a significant amount of time and takes teachers away from providing additional instruction and programming that otherwise would benefit students.  Further, the test prompts anxiety and stress among some students which undoubtedly impacts their performance. Finally, the results are not immediately available to use to assist a student who may have a specific skill deficit.  

However, the MCAS is an important assessment that provides information and data that helps shape programming and holds schools accountable for moving student learning forward:

  • The results of the test can help teachers identify areas of strength and weakness for individual students or grade levels.  Additional supports can be made available for students and instructional programs adjusted.
  • Key skills and content in reading, writing, math, and science are assessed which requires that all students, regardless of school or zip code, are receiving consistent curriculum and experiences as they progress through their educational career.
  • The MCAS is a standardized benchmark which allows Massachusetts families and students to compare performance across the state and learn what additional support may be necessary.
  • The assessment is the only one that allows educators to break down data among various subgroups (English Language Learners, special education, low income, and students of color) within their districts and across the Commonwealth to see how we are addressing wide educational disparities and gaps.
  • Over time, educators can use the results to see trends and to assess whether certain programs and instructional techniques are effective.
  • As a high school graduation requirement, the MCAS assesses basic skills necessary for students to be successful beyond the 12th grade in whatever they choose to do.
  • Yes, the MCAS is imperfect and imprecise. But rest assured that in the Needham Public Schools, MCAS results are used to target assistance, provide data to understand trends, and to discuss and plan program improvement.  While we continue to explore a comprehensive and authentic student performance portfolio based on the competencies embedded in the Portrait of a Needham Graduate, the MCAS complements the work of our outstanding teachers and is viewed as one of the important tools - but not the only tool - we use to strengthen our school programs and ensure all students are growing and learning.


    To learn more about our most recent MCAS results and how we use them: MCAS 2023















    Friday, March 8, 2024

    Don't Forget to Thank the Mentors in Your Life

    Do you ever stop to think about the people in your life who have provided guidance, inspiration, and have positively influenced your career?  

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the mentors I’ve been privileged to know and who have impacted me in different but profound ways.  They have encouraged me, given me confidence, and provided honest and needed feedback. There are so many people I have admired and who over my 43 year career have made time for me both as a teacher and a school leader: Julie Behrens, a patient and caring English teacher who took me under her wing my first year of teaching… Frank Gavel, a crusty former Marine and school administrator who kept me afloat through my first couple of years as an assistant principal… and Kate Fitzpatrick, Needham’s Town Manager whom I continue to rely on for advice, guidance, and often just to vent.

    Other mentors have also played a significant role in shaping my trajectory as an educator and leader:

    • Fr. Paul Harman is a Jesuit and was one of my professors at Holy Cross College where he was the first to encourage me to consider teaching.  He believed I had the kind of energy and a belief in young people that are core to a successful educator.  He helped connect me to my first teaching position in Los Angeles, and he has continued to follow my career as superintendent and has encouraged me in a role that I never thought I’d have when I was a junior in his educational philosophy course all those years ago.


    • Fr. Thomas (“TJ”) James hired me for my first teaching job and coached me through some very challenging and difficult times at Verbum Dei High School.  TJ often came into my classroom after school with a smoldering cigarette dangling from his mouth (this was 1981!) and listen to my complaints about my students’ behavior or missing homework.  One day, through a smoky haze and as he quietly stared out the window, he explained that each of my students had a story to tell and it was my job to learn their stories so that I could best serve them. “Don’t pity them because they have challenging lives and circumstances; but know them for who they are and use that knowledge to secure their respect and empower their success.”


    • Dr. Anthony Bent offered me the principalship at Shrewsbury (MA) High School even though there were outstanding and more qualified administrators from Shrewsbury who also desired the role. Throughout our time together he reminded me that personnel was “Job #1” before anything else.  I learned from him that an organization flourishes or fails due to the quality, experience, and dedication of the human beings who are leading the learning both in the classroom and front office.  The curriculum is important, he’d say, but the adult who delivers that lesson to the child has a greater impact and influence than any textbook or syllabus.


    • Dr. Irwin Blumer chaired and guided my dissertation to success at Boston College in 2003. Dr. Blumer, a former and widely respected superintendent, was a no nonsense professor who had little time for whining about the difficulties of managing home, family, school, and graduate level work.  “You signed up for this, didn’t you?” he’d ask. Behind his sometimes brusque and frank demeanor was a man of incredible integrity who cared deeply about social justice and the need to elevate those who have been traditionally marginalized in the school setting, including students of color.  


    Fr. Harman, Dr. Bent, and Dr. Blumer have all stepped back from their careers but continue to mentor and guide others.  They continue to lead lives of honor, principle, and strong character. I am indebted to each one of them and grateful for their mentorship.

    Fr. James, TJ, died in the fall of 2022. Shortly before he passed away I had called him in Louisiana where he had retired to say hello and to express my gratitude for his patience and wise counsel all those years ago in California. On the phone his gravelly voice brought back memories of my many conversations with him, and we laughed together about the good, and sometimes hard, times he helped me through. Before we hung up and I thanked him one more time, he simply said, “Pass it on, Gutekanst.”

    There is no time like now to connect with your mentors and thank them for all they have done for you.  For me, well I am going to work hard to take up TJ’s challenge.

    Fr. Thomas James, SVD
    Principal of Verbum Dei High School
    Los Angeles, California
    1980-86

     




    Monday, January 15, 2024

    Resolutions for a New Year!

     Here are my top five New Year’s resolutions for 2024:


    • Increase parent and community awareness about district programs and academic excellence. Share additional examples of how the Portrait of a Needham Graduate competencies are coming alive in the classroom for all students; provide more opportunities for all students to access advanced coursework and participate in interdisciplinary learning, like 9IP; highlight and celebrate student excellence in the NPS.


    • Double down on efforts to ensure equity and inclusion are the foundation upon which all of our work is designed and built.  Use the REAL Coalition to: encourage more student voice; provide training around restorative practices that are an alternative to traditional discipline;  continue to recruit, hire, and retain a dynamic, talented, and diverse staff; create policies and programs that support all learners and ensure that older students from all backgrounds and faiths have thoughtful and challenging discussions around race, bias, war, and conflict without feeling ostracized or marginalized.



    • Ask Needham Town Meeting to fund a feasibility study to renovate and expand Pollard.  Using the School Master Plan for context and background, explain to the community that the Massachusetts School Building Authority has invited Needham into the pipeline to discuss a possible renovation and expansion of Pollard into a 6-8 middle school. In advance of the May ‘24 Town Meeting provide sufficient information to Town Meeting Members so they may make an informed decision to fund the feasibility study recommended by the Town Manager in the Fiscal Year 2025 Capital Improvement Plan.


    • Stay healthy! In order to tackle these resolutions and balance that important work with family and health, I have to stay true to my fitness schedule, eat right, put the phone down, and make sure my wife and I head out for weekend winter walks and hikes on local trails. Not sure who told me this, but it makes sense: “Do something that is good for you so that, in turn, you can do good for others.”


    Happy 2024!


    Tuesday, December 12, 2023

    If you are a school leader, Facebook is awful.

    I've concluded Facebook is awful.  

    Despite never having a FB account or profile, I suppose it's surprising that I have jumped to that conclusion. Oh, I am sure it serves its purpose for the millions of folks who wish to stay connected, make friends, conduct business, or share family updates and photos.  I think you can even buy and sell things on something called Facebook Marketplace, and it probably has additional features I have never heard of that make FB a big part of one's lifestyle.  I suppose FB has its benefits.

    Unfortunately, as a school leader, I just see the downsides.

    Here's the problem:  Facebook can also be a marketplace of misinformation, innuendo, and trading in false or incomplete, even harmful, narratives. In my role as superintendent I see well meaning community members and parents believe that whatever they read on FB to be gospel and the absolute truth.  Time and again folks jump to conclusions about what they have read, and then they repost material adding their own thoughts which often takes the comments to an entirely different orbit of misleading information and falsehoods that spin out of control.  It’s like a very bad version of “telephone” with each response to a post getting further and further away from the truth and reality.

    I have watched dedicated School Committee members, principals, and school staff chase down the dark FB rabbit hole because of a claim of bias, abuse, or misbehavior that was posted, sometimes secondhand, and ends up being completely false.  One parent, who recently posted about an alleged incident at a school that was later confirmed to never have taken place, told the administrator “I posted this for my friend because they are not on FB and people needed to know.”  Nope.  People do not need to know about something that never happened. Let's not amplify that comment or post which we have no idea is even accurate.

    Once a partial story or alleged misbehavior about something at school is posted, it sets off a cascade of reactions (and overreactions) that cause principals to waste valuable time and resources tracking down the truth before someone is hurt.  If inappropriate student conduct is actually observed, the first place the observer should go is to the police or school principal (or my office); simply posting information about an act of bias or a student fight without notifying the appropriate staff is reckless and lengthens the time it will take to sort out what could be a genuine issue. Furthermore, staff and student reputations are on the line when untruthful, hurtful, and misleading comments are made or reposted.

    The schools do not monitor FB or other social media platforms; the staff is focused each day on working directly with students and their families. Our teachers are busy, well, teaching children. Respectfully, here is my advice: If a parent or community member witnesses or even hears about a concern related to a school or student misbehavior, please contact the school’s principal and report it.  I promise you we'll take it from there and swiftly, appropriately, and fairly address the issue.

    Please do use Facebook to post family reunion photos, share a business opportunity, or express an opinion.

    Please don’t use Facebook to gossip, fearmonger, or spread incomplete or inaccurate information about a student, a staff member, or the schools. At a time in our country when there is fear, anxiety, mistrust and misinformation spreading with abandon, let's take this opportunity as adults to collaborate with school staff and support one another on behalf of the wonderful young people of this community.

    Thanks for reading. (Feel free to post on FB😉)


    Sunday, October 22, 2023

    Dear Students...

     

    I sent the following letter to students in grades 7-12 in the aftermath of the October 7th terrorist attack on Israel.


    Sunday, October 15, 2023


    Dear Students:


    The horrific events in Israel and Gaza over the last week have been difficult to process, and I have talked to students and adults who are confused, unsettled, and angry about what can often be a frightening and complicated world.

    I thought I’d share two very different stories that end up having a similar message - a message about listening to and connecting with people you may not understand but from whom you can learn a lot. At the end of the two stories, I’m inviting you to do something.


    Long before I was a superintendent I taught English at a boys’ Catholic high school in Watts, a long neglected section of South Central Los Angeles often overrun by gang violence. Some of my students had never really traveled outside of South Central LA and rarely did they have the opportunity to go on a field trip.


    But after studying literature related to the Holocaust, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, I decided to take my class to visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center near West LA. I thought a visit and tour of their Holocaust exhibit would allow them to learn more about what happened to the Jewish people during WWII.


    They were excited on the bus on the way to the Center.  Of course, being sophomores, they were loud, raucous, and teased each other mercilessly. I couldn’t wait to get off the bus and away from all that noisy chatter!


    Once inside the building, as soon as they saw an old and tattered prisoner uniform in a glass case with a faded yellow star sewn on the chest, the mood shifted. These smart, strong, boisterous young men became silent and quietly observed their surroundings as a petite and elderly woman, no taller than five feet, approached and welcomed us.  The woman, I recall that her name was Abigail, told us she would be our host for the visit; she explained that she was a Jewish Holocaust survivor and had been a prisoner at one of the many Nazi concentration camps. The boys were in awe of this tiny woman’s heartbreaking story, including the murder of her family and her survival in a camp. 


    At the end of the tour and sitting quietly in the Center’s chapel one of my students who was next to Abigail reached out and pointed to the tattooed prisoner number on her forearm and asked her why she didn’t cover it.  She had been tattooed by the Nazis when she arrived at the camp as a child. Didn’t it bother her to see it all the time, he asked? Abigail took up both of his hands to allow him to touch the tattoo on her arm and she stared right into his eyes and said: “I look at it every day as a way to remember my family who perished in the camps.  And it also reminds me how strong I am to have survived.  It is a sign of love and hope.”  In the quiet of the chapel, other boys rose to come and touch the tattoo on her arm as if it was an ancient talisman.


    The ride back to school was subdued, practically silent, as the boys looked out the bus windows thinking about what they had just experienced.  These young men, some of them from very difficult family situations, thought they had a challenging life and reason to be anxious and angry at the world.  But that day they met someone who helped them to see a new perspective; they had connected with a stranger whose powerful story helped to shape their understanding of themselves and the world around them.


    Years later, and on the other side of the country when I was a high school principal in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, I can recall the morning of September 11, 2001. I had just finished making morning announcements on the PA and was settling down for a meeting when a student knocked on my door and said I needed to come to the school’s TV studio.


    There in the TV class students had their faces glued to the monitors in front of them, watching the first of the Twin Towers to burn. Soon it became clear that what we were watching was an attack, and our lives were about to change.


    In the hours and days after the 9/11 attacks, the nation was afraid and anxious.  My students were also fearful and wondered if even our small community and high school was a safe place. Our students and teachers were on edge and worried; it was hard to concentrate on studies. Throughout the community students and adults alike soon became suspicious and pointed out and harassed darker skinned people, including students, some wearing head scarves. 


    Eventually several Muslim students, who had been afraid to speak out and mostly just dealt with the rude hallway remarks and taunts, came to see me and asked for something I was unprepared for:  They wanted to have a place in the school where they could lay down a small prayer mat and conduct their prayerful ritual at certain times during the day.  I was not expecting that, and I immediately worried this would just further inflame passions and bias.  The students pleaded with me arguing that the only way other students could begin to understand them is if they saw them as people who also pray, just like their Jewish and Christian friends who went to temple or church; they wanted their friends back, and they wanted to help them understand that their religion and their beliefs were not the same as the 9/11 terrorists.


    We identified a quiet place for Muslim students to pray, and, eventually, tensions and emotions eased; friendships renewed, science lab partners chatted it up again, teammates sat together on the bench at basketball games. It took some time but students renewed connections to one another.  They were simply teenagers trying to enjoy high school - pursuing music, athletics, and studies in hopes of attending a good college.  They were just kids hanging out at lunch, making fun of the substitute teacher, telling bad jokes, goofing off at band practice.  It took an enormous tragedy inflicted upon the United States and far away from our high school, but it resulted in students learning from one another, sharing their stories, and realizing they had more in common then they ever realized. 


    As you begin a new week of learning with your friends I’m going to ask you to do two things:


    First, recognize that some friends and classmates are still processing what has happened in Israel and Gaza and others aren’t really sure what to think or do.  That’s OK because we all need time and space to work things out, especially things that are scary and uncertain. Be careful, too, about what you read, see, and post on social media; there is a lot of misinformation and a simple post can spin out of control and hurt someone. Be patient, caring and understanding with your classmates. 


    Second, do something that might be hard for you: I want you to take a moment to reach out to a student you don't know and simply smile or say hello. Sit down next to someone new at lunch or maybe with the kid in the back of your science class. And if you have more time, ask them about what classes they take or sports they are interested in. Maybe you’ll share a story.

    It’s often through listening to another’s story that we deepen our understanding of the world around us. I’ve learned that if we make human connections, especially with people we don’t know well, we can see our differences as strengths and make our school and this world a better place for everyone.

    I look forward to seeing you in your classrooms, in the hallways, and on the fields in the days and weeks ahead.

    Respectfully,

    Dr. G.


    Friday, September 29, 2023

    Superpowers!



    Following are excerpts from my address to faculty and staff at the first meeting of the 2023-24 school year.


    Do you ever consider the energy, the power you possess?  


    As an educator, regardless of the role you play in the school setting all of you have the extraordinary power - super powers, really - to change lives! And your super powers are subtle, sophisticated, and often understated but they are real nonetheless. Sometimes, it’s the very simple things you do, things that positively impact a child:  A quick glance of approval, the correct pronunciation of a child’s name, even a smile - all of these and more are the superpower moves educators make to lift young hearts and minds.


    In fact, research backs up this truth about a teacher’s influence and power.  A recent RAND Corporation study concluded that the teacher in the classroom has the greatest influence on student achievement - teachers, the report concludes, matter more than the neighborhood and background of a student, more than the building in which they teach, and more than the leadership in a district.


    John Hattie out of the University of Melbourne has spent his career studying the influence of teachers on the lives of children, and his research shows that teachers, especially teachers who collaborate on behalf of their students and work together on behalf of their students are the number one influence on student success. His conclusion? Teachers have the power to strengthen individual lives; and collectively, working together, educators have the power to shape a community, to build a nation.


    You, as Needham educators, have the superpower to shape the young lives of the children before you: How you arrange your classroom; whether or not you invite young minds to participate in the development of class rules; how you encourage student voice and choice… learning their stories so you can both understand these young people and then use their knowledge and background to shape the instruction.


    You have the superpower to create a safe and supportive environment in which all students feel valued and connected; to nurture a sense of security and build a space where students can take risks and shake off their mistakes and missteps.


    You have the power to expect great things from your students; you can’t let them wallow in their insecurities or pity their circumstances. Use their existing skills and stories to build the lesson, complement the curriculum and create the conditions for learning. Use your super power to build up each child.


    Here’s what superpowers look like in the Needham Public Schools:


    • A preschool teacher guides a non verbal 3 year old to express herself for the first time through an app on an iPad.


    • An elementary teacher curates a set of literature and books that represent the faces and diversity of the new students before him.


    • An 8th grade teacher acknowledges and honors a student’s request to be referred to with the pronoun “they” and not she/her.


    • A high school teacher consistently recommends underrepresented students into advanced levels of science coursework knowing two things: The work will be a challenge and her students can absolutely succeed.

    Teacher superpower moves set the conditions for learning, for success.  And your superpowers are unique to you; not everyone is the same. Some of your superpowers are subtle; each one has different gifts and strengths that we can wield in the school, in the classroom.  It’s not a cookie cutter approach.


    In Needham, we don’t write off kids! With a laser-like focus and a powerful belief in the possibility of each student, we lift them up. Using your superpowers you model a deep respect for human differences and the unique qualities of each child.


    One of your other superpowers is recognizing that what works for one will not work for another; with x-ray vision, you must discern the right move for each student.  And it is not easy; it is complex trying to determine how you can elevate, impact, and attend to the unique needs and characteristics of so many young people. You must be vigilant and intentional about how you use the power you have to inspire students.


    You are powerful.  But you are not omnipotent. It’s important to recognize that you’ll make mistakes and you can change and grow; you can improve. Don’t let failure or criticism be the kryptonite that takes you down. And remember that all of us have the responsibility to wield our superpower in service to our students and to propel and build up their learning.  


    Haim Ginott, teacher and psychologist, once observed: “I am the decisive element in the classroom.  It is my personal approach that creates the climate; it is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.  I can humiliate, hurt, or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.”


    As Ginott suggests, if we are not careful, we can easily tear down and turn off a student; we can marginalize and alienate young minds. 


    Now if we, as educators, possess superpowers, what about our students?  How can we help supercharge them? What do they require to grow and achieve? What do they need to change their lives and lift this world?


    I will argue that we have identified the superpowers they need within the competencies outlined in the Portrait of a Needham Graduate The competencies detail the superpowers our students need to learn, grow, and achieve.  And our collective responsibility as adult learners and leaders is to ensure we use our superpowers to, in turn, help them develop the superpowers embedded in the Portrait - superpowers that we believe will further strengthen and enhance their lives.  


    Beginning tomorrow, and each day of the school year, demonstrate your superpowers with energy, imagination, humility, and a profound sense of hope and love in our young people.