Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

City Wide PTO: 12/9/14

Tuesday morning’s City Wide PTO meeting began with the Superintendent’s report, and she spoke to issues as requested by members and placed on the day’s agenda. She provided a copy of the 12/8 letter to elementary parents that spoke to Ethics Commission regulations around gift giving to teachers. (Please see the principal if you have questions.) Gifting can be done in different ways, individually to a teacher, as a class gift to a teacher, or as a gift to the school. She is working with the Melrose City Solicitor to develop language around gifting, since school gifts must be accepted by the School Committee. Class or school gifts (not individual gifts) are the property of the school, not the teacher.

Next, Supt. Taymore addressed policy and practice regarding holidays and observances. She provided a copy of the Committee’s new policy (Policy IMD, posted in the District Policy Manual in the Committee portion of the school web site). She then addressed a question around middle school dances, indicating they are not school functions. Flyers distributed regarding the dances are no different from other flyers representing non-profit organizations and events – she approves most of those while declining to approve for-profit flyers for distribution to students.

Supt. Taymore then provided an Aspen update. Teachers are 90% trained in the “Pages” portion of the software, where there is a place for homework, etc. (If teachers already have web sites set up for students, they just need to link to them from Aspen rather than create an entirely new page.) It is intended that Pages will take the place of elementary newsletters since the newsletters are so time-consuming to create. All schools except for Horace Mann have an Aspen mentor to support teacher training and coaching in buildings. The ECC doesn’t use Aspen because student names aren’t in the system, but teachers there are doing an excellent job communicating individually. It is expected that technical issues around grading (e.g. a grade like 85% might be entered by a teacher, but Aspen could convert it to 100% so it is misrepresented for parents/students) will be addressed by Aspen technicians in January (who are likely finding this problem in other districts too).

Finally, Supt. Taymore addressed questions about communication in the district. She explained that it is a theme for the staff this year. Parents want consistent information about topics coming from all schools, e.g. if a teacher will be out for an extended period, please indicate what will happen, when, etc. The district works to balance confidentiality vs. helping parents understand how to support their child during a transition time and the Supt. will talk about this with the Leadership Team. The other theme for the year is cultural proficiency as we have a population that is growing in diversity. Administrators are working with teachers to support the embedding of thoughtfulness and proficiency in daily teaching, including lessons, materials, and current events (e.g. how do teachers respond to student/class questions about Ferguson?). There are strict laws (and moral responsibility) around non-discrimination including race, but also religion, economics, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. (Note: to see Committee Non-Discrimination Policy, please look in the Policy Manual for policies AC and ACA.)

After Supt. Taymore’s departure, members offered communication suggestions for the School Committee, including making more use of Facebook (for things like results of the school funding survey, notice of upcoming meetings and agendas, what kinds of things can parents impact like the Fine Arts Director, etc.). They said that the changes to last year’s budget process were helpful, and they would like even more information and understanding this year.

Calendar notes: The ECC is working to fund a new playground, jump-started by a $10K grant from the city. (Their goal is to raise $30K by 4/15/15.) Community Reading Day is scheduled for 3/4/15. Trivia Bee is 3/28/15.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Curriculum Materials Working Group: 12/8/14

In February 2013, Supt. Taymore initiated formation of the Curriculum Materials Working Group, facilitated by Asst. Supt. of Teaching Dr. Margaret Adams, and composed of elementary, middle, and high school teachers and administrators along with a School Committee member. Our charge was to review curriculum materials that were recommended for purchase (using both district and money that was bonded by the city) and vet them based on criteria such as curriculum documentation (like topic outlines), how assessments inform instruction (e.g. if students aren’t understanding, content needs to be taught differently), accessibility and implementation of technology components (is the book online? can students study using online quizzes?, etc.), professional development training and help (helping teachers learn how to make best use of the book/tests/etc.), and whether the materials support differentiation and advanced learner needs (is there help to modify teaching the topic to help students who struggle and also challenge students who need more rigor?). Content area department chairs presented their recommendations for the courses most in need of new materials, and after agreement that the recommendations met the criteria, they were purchased. Those materials are now fully employed in classrooms.

This year’s work has centered on instructional practices (e.g. teaching strategies). We met most recently this past Monday, and spent the majority of time working with Gr. 6-12 English Department Chair Angela Singer, who built on past information presented by Math Dept. Chair Christina Cardella, on Understanding By Design or UbD, a framework developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. (More info here: http://www.authenticeducation.org/ubd/ubd.lasso.) The primary goal of UbD is “student understanding: the ability to make meaning of “big ideas” and transfer their learning.” Teachers are “coaches of understanding, not mere purveyors of content or activity.” Lesson planning is done “backward from the desired results.” Ms. Singer shared staff work related to applying this philosophy and practice in 10th grade English; for example, looking at a unit on “Viewing Ourselves and Others” that includes learning new literary terms, “discussing how events in a person’s life affect his or her perspective,” reading a selected work like To Kill a Mockingbird, and then engaging in activities that might include writing an essay analyzing relationships in the book, annotating the text, writing a dialectical journal, and/or using a learning practice like “Turn and Talk” where pairs of students share thoughts specific to the lesson with each other. Learning in this way makes the work meaningful to students (engaging them and helping them become more responsible for their own learning) while providing them the skills and abilities required by the state. Teachers are working incredibly hard to develop lessons structured in this way, using planning time and staff meetings (and arguably some personal time!) in the interest of helping students maximize their academic potential. Outstanding work by our teaching teams and leaders!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Forum on Student Stress at MHS: 12/8/14

Good start to the discussion around student stress last night. Thanks to the MHS PTO for getting this issue on everyone's radar in a focused way and organizing; the panelists who added insight to concerns; and the parents, students, and teachers who attended and participated. Some highlights:

* Student stress is not just a Melrose issue - it is becoming more commonplace in all districts
* The community should have an opportunity to learn about the state/federal mandates that become criteria for determining how school schedules are built and courses are determined
* Winchester is employing mitigations that include things like raising awareness, incorporating information in health/wellness classes, and providing coping mechanisms like yoga instructors, meditation, etc.
* The goal for appropriate student scheduling should be based on student growth vs. competition between/among students or the desire to "get into a good college" (since that is subjective depending on what slots the college admissions office needs to fill based on their business model)
* The district is responsible for providing rigorous course and level opportunities, counseling students regarding appropriate course selections and placements, thoughtfully assigning and communicating homework, and suggesting resources if it's determined that a student needs more stress-related/emotional support
* Parents are responsible for exploring and prioritizing their child's needs and interests, working with school counselors to agree on a school schedule that balances those needs and interests, and watching for signs of stress that may be concerning
* Students are responsible for actively participating in decision-making around their schedules, saying yes to courses that reasonably challenge them, and saying no when they feel that the variety and/or depth of their participation in the sum of their activities needs more careful prioritization (e.g. a student might take a heavier course load and take on fewer outside activities, or a lighter course load and pursue a time-consuming passion outside the school day)
* Guidance will begin piloting small-group parent conversations on 12/16 - call MHS if interested
* Food for thought offered by administrators, parents, and students: * determine whether exams should be in full days or half days; * are there enough guidance counselors for the school population?; how does administration communicate expectations around rigor (the "why" in addition to the "what"); * administrators are learning that summer work for students taking many high-level courses is over-burdensome and are addressing it; * could school start later?; * students need help from parents to manage their time, get enough sleep, eat properly, socialize enough - most of all, parents need to listen to and talk with their kids; * could G block return to the rotation vs. being fixed?; * coaches/extra-curricular leaders should be consistent in their approach to supporting academics/not penalizing participants for choosing to see a teacher vs. being at practice on time, etc.; * can stress mitigations be built into students' days?; * middle school parents should understand what high school schedules look like and how to start thinking about appropriate choices
* This situation needs addressing by all parties, not just the school, the parent, or the student in isolation

My note: This forum focused almost entirely on academic stress, so when we continue this conversation perhaps we could expand our thinking to include complementary/different stressors students face, like economic pressures at home, dating and relationships, homelessness, and the unique challenges faced by METCO, new-to-America, military, and LGBTQ students.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Read this before you go to sleep.....

There are so many elements of the learning process that are out of parents' control, so it's nice to know there are a few left that are in our control. We need to get our kids to bed and to sleep in order to help them learn and remember.

This NYT's Motherlode blog post from 10/16 details what parts of the sleep cycle best support different types of retention - great advice when your child is finishing that last bit of homework (and simultaneously texting her BFF's) way after her regular bedtime.


Friday, November 21, 2014

School Committee Meeting of 11/18

Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting began with Melrose Chief Information Officer Jorge Pazos commenting on “Technology Guidelines for Internet Safety.”  He spoke to what the schools are doing to keep students safe online. We then discussed a recommendation around Gifted and Talented testing submitted by Supt. Taymore, and approved eliminating testing at the elementary level to focus more efforts at the middle school level. (The elementaries will continue to improve the practice of differentiating instruction based on students’ knowledge and progress.) The featured speaker at the meeting was Asst. Supt. of Teaching and Learning Margaret Adams, who presented on “Aligning Standards, Assessments, and Instruction.” (Find the video at the bottom of the page here: http://melroseschools.com/families/curriculum-and-instruction/.)

The Committee began discussion around the school calendar for 2015-2016, and the Supt. provided a memo explaining her recommendations. If approved at the 12/9 meeting, the school year would begin for students on September 1st and end on June 16th with no snow days, and June 23rd with five snow days.

The Committee conducted its annual self-evaluation from which we may amend/adopt goals for the coming year. A summary report will be presented on 12/9 for consideration. We reviewed recommended policy changes on the instruction of students, and all policy updates were approved with a second vote planned for 12/9.

Chairman Thorp presented recommendations for artifacts to be used when evaluating Supt. Taymore next year and those were approved.  Ms. Thorp also presented the results of the school finance survey (along with all comments – names redacted of course). The survey will be referenced as we begin to think about the budget for next year. The draft rolling agenda for next year’s meetings was presented so the community can see some thoughts on plans for next year.

We briefly discussed the MASC conference, and it was announced that Ms. Thorp was honored at a closing banquet with an All-State School Committee award which is “…intended to honor school committee members who, during the previous year have made a significant contribution to their community or their school committee either through specific action or as an inspiration and role model for their peers and constituents.” Congratulations!

As always, the full agenda and related packet documents can be found on melroseschools.com under “School Committee” under “IQM2.”

Wishing you all the happiest of Thanksgivings – our schools are incredibly thankful to have you as parents, partners, and volunteers!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Family Engagement for School Committees

It was a privilege to participate in the MASC conference panel session entitled "Moving Beyond the Bake Sale: Strategies for Effective Partnerships for Student Success", with former Lexington SC member and current member of the MA Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Mary Ann Stewart (who organized and facilitated) and Plymouth SC member Kim Hunt. As Mary Ann wrote, "When schools work with and engage families, those families become powerful partners, allies, and advocates of the school and students do better." Our attendees did a fantastic job (in a mini-breakout) sharing some of their district's family engagement challenges along with a wide variety of solutions. Then our panel commented on how school committees can enhance family engagement in the context of three primary roles: budget, policy, and superintendent evaluation.

A few take-aways:
* Plymouth prints and distributes a 5.5" x 7" card detailing their mission and visions statements, core beliefs, and goals from their 2011-2015 strategic plan.
* Refocus site councils to actively assist principals in aligning School Improvement Plans with the district's strategic plan.
* Conduct focused neighborhood meetings to inform the general public on the phasing of new building construction and hear building concerns.
* Use the budget document to inform communities about where money is spent. Use color and visuals (photos as well as charts and graphs) as well as explanatory narrative.
* Use budget monies for teacher professional development around engaging parents and families in enhanced ways.
* Carefully review community engagement policies ("K" policies) from districts' policy manuals, and then compare them to what other districts are doing in that area; that approach can help communities identify areas where they want to be more purposeful.
* Other areas of the policy manual can be explored and enhanced too, like adapting principal hiring policy to encourage the use of search committees that include parents and others.
* Explore the areas of the Superintendent Evaluation Instrument that align with district goals in the area of family and community engagement. Do you want to improve cultural proficiency? Two-way communication? Community and business connections? Make sure superintendent goals are consistent with whatever you choose as a district (understanding that everything can't be done in a year) so all stakeholders are working in parallel.

You can find Mary Ann's excellent facilitator outline, the collaboration sheets from our mini-break-out sessions, and a list of resources using this Google doc:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Foundation Budget Review Commission: Danvers Hearing

This fall, the Massachusetts Foundation Budget Review Commission was formed to satisfy recently enacted law that requires exploring whether/how the Foundation Budget formula should be changed. This formula "defines the minimum level of school spending necessary to provide an adequate education to students" and ultimately impacts the amount of state money (aka Ch. 70 money) that cities and towns receive for their schools based on things like enrollments, programs, student demographics, etc. (For details on the calculation, check out http://www.doe.mass.edu/finance/chapter70/.) The Commission includes legislators, BOE/DESE reps, and reps from school-related associations (teachers, school committees, superintendents, business officials, etc.). There is also a seven-member Advisory Committee.

Last night in Danvers, the Commission held the first of six hearings to "solicit testimony from members of the public." MASC Field Director Mike Gilbert estimated the audience at 150 people. The meeting began at 4:55, and by 6:30 (when I had to leave) 17 people had testified including mayors, state representatives, superintendents, school committee members, MASBO consultant, and a teacher/association president. Speakers hailed from Marblehead/Swampscott/Lynn (Rep. Ehrlich), Amesbury, Winchester/Malden/Melrose (Rep. Lewis), Newburyport, Shawsheen Valley, Nahant, Triton Regional, Danvers, Dracut, Beverly, Winchester, Wakefield, and North Reading.

Some testimony:
* Need to keep politics out of this debate and focus on students
* School budgets are increasing much faster than Ch. 70 money which is unsustainable
* Two largest drivers of increases are health insurance and special education which are beyond the control of cities and towns; next two are technology and extended learning time; last three are library media services, full-day kindergarten, and wrap-around services (before/after school academic complements)
* Ch. 70 should follow students when those students leave a district
* Taking into account property values isn't useful
* [Underfunding] is a death knoll for neighborhood schools
* Gaps are widening between haves and have-nots (haves can accommodate by sending their children to private schools when publics can't afford even the basics)
* The special ed challenges now compared with '93 are the adding the best practice of inclusion along with the increasing complexity of diagnoses - and the rate hasn't increased
* Homelessness has increased dramatically
* Are co-curricular activities (athletics) part of a free and appropriate education? (yes?)
* Need to inflation-proof the formula
* State has no requirement for curriculum materials - should they?
* Teacher salaries are much higher than when the formula was enacted
* Charter school and vocational assessments are a big issue

Next meeting is on December 15th at 4:30 on the South Shore (location TBD).
#fbrc for Twitter folks....

Monday, November 17, 2014

“Teaching Forward: Effective Technology Integration in Schools”

At the MASC conference on 11/8, technology specialists extraordinaire Jennifer Judkins of Lynnfield (@jennjudkins), Jenn Scheffer of Burlington (@jlscheffer), and Traci Jansen of Wilmington (@tbjansen) addressed how school leaders can ensure that investments in infrastructure and devices are maximized.

They displayed a great visual drawn by Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) “on the role technology should play in teaching and learning spaces” (find it here: http://www.teachingquality.org/content/blogs/bill-ferriter/technology-tool-not-learning-outcome), and then moved on to Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model (https://sites.google.com/a/msad60.org/technology-is-learning/samr-model) that shows a more academic approach to same. They shared that much of technology use is actually substitution for actions currently achieved by another method like research on-line vs. print library, note taking and annotation on a device rather than on paper, and digital submission of work.

They spoke to a wide variety of technology issues, challenges, and successes in schools, including embedding 21st century skills using technology; the popular and useful student help desk at the high school level; the benefits of Google Classroom (“helping teachers create and organize assignments, provide feedback efficiently, and communicate with classes” / ref: classroom.google.com); and having students memorize and recite a “digital citizen rap” in order to hold them accountable for responsible use.

Some tips: develop a technology philosophy, educate stakeholders, and ask students to pilot devices before making large-scale purchases; be cautious when purchasing apps since they can't be recycled between/among students; and encourage parent understanding for home use (e.g. no devices in bedrooms).

Burlington Public Schools will hold an 11/20 session and two spring sessions entitled “1:1 in Action," featuring student-led tours and an overview of the help desk program.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Strategic Leadership: A Team Approach to Analysis, Planning and Progress"

Supt. Dr. Sal Menzo and Board Chair Roxane McKay of Wallingford, CT succeeded admirably in keeping up with the intense interest and questions during their excellent MASC conference panel presentation on Strategic Leadership. Some notes:

Analysis = using data and other indicators to make decisions.
Planning = clear, inclusive, living, informed, understood, supported
Progress = shared, on-going, celebration, community-based, communicated

What does Strategic Leadership require? A Supt. who's the instructional leader; a strategic mindset for all; and achieving, measuring, and celebrating success. (Read Carol Dweck's Mindset - Wallingford did it as a Community Read.)

Benefits include the "7 C's of Partnerships": context (purpose, relevance, and relationships); communication (diverse audiences, varied approaches, multiple formats, and consistent); collaboration (common understanding, appreciation/respect, trust); capacity (identify strengths, develop talents, share, recognize/celebrate); capital (human, political, financial, and emotional); consensus (knowledge, support, sustain); and celebrate (success, challenge in order to find opportunities for growth, plan to address challenges, and say thank you!).

Plan for strategic leadership by setting a strategic plan with measurable goals and objectives, partner/record and share progress, and express appreciation. Be transparent, share the vision, and consider how to recognize all who have supported the mission.

Communication and Media

Multiple panel sessions at the MASC conference on this topic as schools become increasingly engaged in reaching out to their communities in evolving ways. After attending “How to Blog/How to Tweet” (featuring @MAStewartMA, @TracyNovick, @Dr_Rodriguez21 and @MASC_Mike), “Social Media: How to Manage it Without it Managing You” (with Andrew Waugh, Esq. and James Toomey, Esq.) and “Media and Working with the Media” (featuring Chris Horan, President of Horan Communications), it’s clear that meeting people in cities and towns where they are is especially important – and with busy schedules it’s often on social media.

Here are some key tips:

* Schools and School Committees need to do a better job telling communities what is going on in schools and how their tax dollars are being spent.
* There needs to be clear understanding about what constitutes responsible digital citizenship for all stakeholders so that we are acting appropriately and within our roles.
* All forms of communication (blogs, tweets, Facebook, etc.) and the writing contained therein must be purposeful and clear, and posts should be often enough but not too often.
* School districts need clear policies around digital citizenship and social media.
* Most case law pre-dates new technologies and apps so much is uncharted ground, but knowing some of the key pitfalls is helpful.
* Carefully consider who is responsible for communicating what (district vs. teachers vs. School Committee, etc.).
* Always be conscious of the need for student and/or staff confidentiality - in many cases involving the media, the district can't discuss issues by virtue of the law.

Feedback welcome, readers! You can comment on this blog, e-mail me at margaretdriscoll49@gmail.com (or mdriscoll@cityofmelrose.org for School Committee related issues), or find me on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Conference Keynotes: Great Food for Thought!

Doug Stone……

…….co-author of the recently published Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When it is Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and, Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood), offered some excellent advice on the ability to accept feedback and use it for professional development and healthy relationships. Dr. Stone defined the three categories of feedback as appreciation (valuing and thanking), coaching (how to improve), and evaluation (ranking), and explained the three most commonly used triggers to disqualify feedback: truth triggers (we decide it’s wrong too early), relationship triggers (who are you to tell me?), and identity triggers (too upsetting to hear). He explained that hearing negative feedback is more damaging since we often tie it to “everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life.” Some tips: redirect that internal violence toward curiosity; turn the thought process from what’s wrong with the feedback to what’s right and then just test whether it’s helpful or not.

Coach Herman Boone………

……..the real Coach Boone of Remember the Titans fame spoke to leading, coaching, and the importance of respect, trust, character, encouraging success, and a sense of humor. He closed with the moving poem “It Matters to This One” (no attribution located but it can be found here: http://www.oafccd.com/lanark/poems/matters.html):

As I walked along the seashore, a young boy greeted me. He was throwing stranded starfish back to the deep blue sea. I said “Tell my why you bother, why you waste your time this way? There’s a million stranded starfish, does it matter anyway?

And he said “It matters to this one. It deserves a chance to grow. It matters to this one, I can’t save them all I know. But it matters to this one, I’ll return it to the sea. It matters to this one, and it matters to me.”

I walked into the classroom. The teacher greeted me. She was helping Johnny study, he was struggling I could see. I said “Tell my why you bother, why you waste your time this way. Johnny’s only one of millions, does it matter anyway?”

And she said “It matters to this one, he deserves a chance to grow. It matters to this one, I can’t save them all I know. But it matters to this one, I’ll help him be what he can be. It matters to this one and it matters to me.”

Succession Planning (What, Why, and How)

In an outstanding MASC Conference presentation by Bill Lupini, Supt. of the Public Schools of Brookline, conversation centered around building capacity for the transition of staff members who hold positions of strategic importance and/or require a special set of skills. Bill posited that the public sector doesn’t do as well as the private sector in this area.

Why is it important? Staff morale improves, there is a back-up plan when staff members leave, and districts can understand their talent gaps.

How do we do it? The Supt. and Committee must be committed and involved; there must be regular talent reviews and viable successors to key positions must be identified; take a pipeline approach and hold the leadership team accountable; smaller districts need to partner (regionally and with Collaboratives); accept that we’ll lose good people but also gain good people.

Best practices: Align with district strategy, assess performance and potential; integrate succession planning with performance management, recruitment, selection, development; make a commitment (time and resources) to staff development.

Other key practices: Implement leadership development practices and develop respective activities; develop mentoring relationships; enhance the visibility of high potential staff members; reinforce a culture of leadership development.


“Succession Planning for School Leadership” by Kathy Lacey: http://www.yooyahcloud.com/PA/03UHB/Attachment_4275_SANDSHOE_Kathy_Lacey.pdf

“Succession Planning 101” by Emily Douglas:

“Integrating Leadership Development and Succession Planning Best Practices” by Kevin S. Groves:

“Effective Succession Planning in the Public Sector” by Brian Wilkerson:

Friday, November 14, 2014

NEASC Accreditation - Is there still enough value to warrant the cost?

MASC Conference programmers offered a panel session featuring President/CEO of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges' (NEASC) Cameron Staples along with Commission on Public Secondary Schools' (CPSS) Director Janet Allison and Deputy Director George Edwards who spoke to the changes being undertaken to revise the accreditation process for their member schools. NEASC claims to accredit over 2000 schools and colleges and to be the oldest regional accrediting association.

They explained how, in the past, schools faced fewer mandates and regulations, and that meeting accreditation standards was a way for communities to reflect on their educational services and show improvement and accountability to students, communities, and colleges. In the current environment of significant regulation, NEASC is engaging in a comprehensive review through a peer review process. Services are changing, like providing a showcase of a model school program, development of on-line/web-based tool, and reduction of visiting teams to reduce costs.

Some questions from the audience: 1. With all state and federal mandates and assessment tools as well as teachers/administrators with quality evaluative skills, why do we need another (outside) accountability organization?; 2. Average member annual expense is $3800+/yr. dues and $20,000+ for the study – is this money well spent by districts (especially those that are small in size)?; 3. Colleges wouldn’t reject a student because a high school hadn’t been through the accreditation process and the diploma would be worth no less, so what is the real benefit to students?

Session handout of NEASC standards is here: https://cpss.neasc.org/downloads/2011_Standards/2011_Standards.pdf)

Take-aways for Melrose: what does NEASC mean for our students and our district, and are the dues and/or the self-study worthwhile investments of funds and teacher time out of the classroom? What can we learn from our colleagues in neighboring districts