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, March 27, 2014

3/25 School Committee Meeting: Part II

Two other significant pieces of our meeting on Tuesday: policy changes and the revised FY15 budget draft.

Policy Updates
We've taken a first vote to update the School Council policy to change the way School Improvement Plans (SIP's) are presented. It's recommended that Councils present the SIP's to their school communities first (in a public meeting), in order to collect feedback and make any changes (or not) as they wish. Then the Councils will formally present to the Supt. (in public meetings). Supt. Taymore must review and approve SIP's annually by July 1st. The Supt. will then present them to the Committee in a meeting held prior to our regular business meeting by August 1st.

A first vote was also taken on a series of Support Services policies including school safety, pest management, first aid, school security, vandalism, school evacuations, school closings, school owned materials, recycling, student transportation in private vehicles, and free and reduced lunch. They are all available from our agenda packet for 3/25.

Revised FY15 Draft Budget
Supt. Taymore explained that we have a structural deficit in our budget of $600K and the city doesn't have it to put on the base, but has supported us this year. In addition, the city has agreed to set up a special education stabilization fund so that should we need significant special ed. expenses during the year (e.g. a student moves into the district with substantial needs) we won't have to suddenly cut expenses to meet the budget. She said that this budget is adequate and that three weeks ago she felt like she would need to cut staff but thanks to city support, that won't happen. She has given up requests for additional staff (beyond the one critical need), but explained that we have gained improved staff with the hard work they are doing and we now have the ability to offer new teachers a better salary schedule.

Supt. Taymore also explained that she has taken a lot of risks in this budget. She reduced the special education tuition and transportation line by not backfilling monies from graduating students to anticipated incoming students with needs. She reduced the long-term substitute line but if a staff member will be out for a long period of time, we will need to stop using subs at the high school. Technology will be bonded (thanks to the city) but we always need more and we won't fund it this year. She has refused (at least to this point) to participate in new kindergarten assessment requirements that expect each K teacher to be supplied with an iPad (a cost equivalent to two paraprofessional salaries).

The budget is a moving target. We hope that the state will come through with another $25/student as part of our funding. We hope that special education reimbursements from the state are set at 75% vs. something lower. We hope that federal grants don't continue to be cut. We hope that the institution of a budget freeze in Sept. won't negatively impact teaching and learning. Although hope is not a strategy, the Supt. does have a strategy to continue supporting high-quality student outcomes and believes this budget does it to the best of our ability.

Melrose Education Foundation spokesperson Jen McAndrew's op-ed in today's Free Press offers some great food for thought on the budget (read it here:  http://melrose.wickedlocal.com/article/20140326/NEWS/140326993/2011/OPINION). 
The Committee will host a public forum to hear from the community's on April 2nd at 7:00. You can send comments or suggestions to us at any time. We anticipate voting on April 8th.

Thanks - as always - for learning about what's happening in our district and individual schools, and please send along your thoughts on the FY15 budget or any other school-related topic!

3/25 School Committee Meeting

Highlights this week focus on budget and policy as well as a couple of other notes.

Points of information
* Roosevelt Principal Grace Basile has tendered her resignation as of June 30th and Supt. Taymore will bring forward a plan for finding her replacement at the 4/8 meeting.
* 16 French students returned Sunday from a homestay with St. Witz (near Paris). To see evidence of their excellent experience, check out http://melrosestwitz.blogspot.com/.
* A cyber-seminar was held this past week to help parents and students understand the challenges around use of technology in ways that aren't appropriate or healthy and how to address them. In addition, the middle and high school have sent notices to parents regarding some of the web sites being used for inappropriate conduct in many areas of the country.
* Seniors who are participating in 4th quarter internships are technically off-campus after next week. These students have opportunities to pursue experiences in a wide variety of topic areas and have found them to be practical and rewarding. Special thanks to our local organizations who provide wonderful support for our students!
* Textbooks continue to be purchased from the bond money approved by the Aldermen last year. Prior to purchase, different selections for each course of study (e.g. geography) are reviewed and thoroughly vetted by teachers, the respective department chair, Asst. Supt. for Teaching and Learning Dr. Adams, and the Curriculum Working Group (comprised of administrators, teachers, parents, a community member, and me). 
* MPS IT Director Jorge Pazos is pursuing some grants that may help pay for some technology - more info as he gets results. (BTW - did you know that the IT Department has a blog? It has interesting reads on school bandwidth and traffic. Check it out: http://tech.cityofmelrose.org/)
* As of Tuesday there were 261 students registered for Kindergarten this fall which is similar to last year's experience. (As of 10/1/13 we had enrolled 279 K students so we expect more students to enroll between now and the start of school.)
* Staff is working very hard in the areas on which Supt. Taymore's Strategy Plan focuses. 

Special Education Draft FY15 Budget
* As of Tuesday, 620 MPS students receive some kind of special education services which represents 16.8% of our enrollment (up from 15.9% on 10/1/13). The state average is 17%.
* Ms. White-Lambright's proposed budget contains no request for new personnel.
* Next year we anticipate 52 students will be placed out-of-district (down from 53 this year, although that could change at any moment).
* We try to use in-house programs to help HS students. Next year our post-graduate program has room for additional enrollments (and students from other districts can apply and would pay tuition).
* Social and emotional needs are growing, with more students who might especially need "wrap-around" services (at the beginning or end of the day).
* We are morally and legally obligated to offer all students a free and appropriate education and that's what we seek to do. We can't control what special needs incoming students may have but must be prepared to provide services. 
* Of critical importance: our special education education is only as good as our regular education program. By embedding a tiered system of support (determining student understanding in every subject area on an ongoing basis and helping students grow to the next level), the need for special services later on should decrease in particular areas (like K-3 reading instruction as a foundation for being able to understand information in subject areas like math, science, and history later on).

Info on the rest of the meeting in the next post! (And don't forget that you can access documents related to many items above at melroseschools.com, School Committee, IQM2, agenda for 3/25.)

Friday, March 21, 2014

3/18 School Committee: Curriculum and Other Topics

The rest of Tuesday night's meeting:

Asst. Supt. for Teaching and Learning Dr. Margaret Adams spoke to the curriculum budget (including professional development). She will be bringing forward her annual professional development plan soon. Teachers have been working hard on ELA and math instruction, and will be adding more focus around science practices in the coming year in anticipation of new science standards coming from the state. 

Supt. Taymore spoke to gifted services, indicating that students who are already identified will not re-identify (i.e. retake the assessment). She also clarified that Melrose does not have a discrete gifted program, but that flexible grouping is applied in ways like clustering and implementation of the workshop model in order to ensure that students are receiving the right level of instruction to master content with appropriate rigor. The middle school has more opportunities for movement according to ability (with the variety of electives), and the high school has individual course selection. An Elementary Curriculum administrator (recommended in the Supt's preferred budget) would be tasked with focusing more efforts on gifted education.

The budget timeline has been updated and posted in our packet for the evening.

We agreed to offer a salary range of $105K-$115K to the successful Middle School Principal candidate.

Next meeting is Tuesday (3/25) at 7:00 at which time we will discuss the special education budget, a revised budget draft, and a variety of new policies. Please take a look and tell us what you think!

3/18 School Committee Meeting: Technology

We continued our budget discussion in Tuesday’s meeting (this time in the areas of technology and curriculum), and also addressed a couple other pertinent issues. City of Melrose IT Director Jorge Pazos (who also manages the schools) spoke to technology issues within the context of the budget and IT as a whole.

·      What we need: 1.) a new elementary model (that now includes one teacher computer and 3-4 student computers but needs to be designed around student needs in classrooms for each particular year); 2.) district-wide lab computers that include 150 elem., 90 middle, 110 high (these could be Chromebooks on a cart – not nec. fixed; 3.) 300 classroom PC’s for teachers; 4.) enough available computers of the correct configuration for PARCC testing once it’s all on-line.

·      Current and future issues: 1.) we are behind in our replacement schedule (should be every six years except for CAD which is every three years); 2.) we meet PARCC specs for our current computers but we don’t meet the requirement around all students having access at test-taking time; 3.) we are an XP shop and XP is going away; 4.) elementary building inequities and how to rectify that (HM doesn’t have enough electrical outlets, some buildings have more/less printers, Roosevelt and Hoover installations couldn’t be finished last summer due to budget, etc.); 5.) IT specialists will require more and on-going training in order to stay current with changing technology and be more efficient and effective.

·      Relevant notes to above: 1.) Mr. Pazos recommends doing middle school installations this summer (300+ Dell Optiplex computers @ at the state bid price of $850/computer for the budgeted $288K); 2.) Winthrop will field-pilot PARCC within the next couple of weeks which will give us more information on how it will work and what assumptions we need to change; 3.) thought is being put into the kinds of computers that work best in different situations, i.e. fixed vs. tablets / Chromebooks cost less than PC’s but need wireless and require a $35 software mgmt. fee / iPads are $500 ea. and offer no volume discounts; 4.) a student-driven help desk would be very useful at the high school; 5.) more educational support staff (e.g. another Visual and Blended Learning Teacher) would allow expansion of those opportunities for students.

·      Supt’s Comment: Technology in schools has moved from a nice-to-have to a must-have. It is part of instructional materials and integral to teaching and learning. The costs are significant – even light bulbs for the Smart Boards are over $250 ea. – and the big-ticket items can no longer be accommodated in the operating budget.

·      Mayor Dolan's Comment: Recommends that a Capital Computer Committee be created (similar and in conjunction with Capital Plan Committee) and that we figure out how to bond every year for $250K-$300K of computers to take that expense from the schools and move it to the city side.

More on the meeting in the next post!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"5 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew...

...Your Children Can Do More Than You Think"

This past Thursday, New York Times' Motherlode blogger Jessica Lahey posed this question to teachers: "What one thing would you want your students' parents to know?". She found these themes:

* Your kids can do much more than you think they can do.
* It's not healthy to give your kids constant feedback.
* We promise not to believe everything your child says happens at home if you promise not to believe everything your child says happens in our classrooms.
* Your children learn and act according to what you do, not what you say.
* Teach your children that mistakes aren't signs of weakness but a vital part of growth and learning.

I think the beauty of these themes is that they are simple, useful, and apply to children of any age. Read her full post here: 


Friday, March 14, 2014

School Committee Meetings of March 11th

We had two meeting segments this past Tuesday night........

First, we met with our facilitator from the Mass. Assoc. of School Committees, Dorothy Presser, to continue reflecting on the kind of work we do, and making it more efficient and effective. A template has been built to help presenters construct more concise and useful presentations, and we talked about keeping our agendas focused on student achievement. In June, we'll have more in-depth discussions about district overarching and SMART goals, from which we will approve goals for Supt. Taymore that are in alignment with those for the district. (That will allow School Councils to then think about their work with respect to what the district is doing, and then encourage PTO's to focus their always-generous support on those areas in each school. We will all be working separately - but also together - to help each student in the district to improve.)

Second, our regular meeting continued the budget discussion in the area of supplies and materials. A few items of note:

* This budget is intentional around matching needs of instructional materials with educational needs.
* Music and art supplies are calculated on a per-pupil basis.
* Supply expenses went up for some schools and down for others, partly depending on how quickly each school has exhausted their current supplies.
* Supt. Taymore hopes to purchase as many science materials as necessary and appropriate, given the evolving science standards.
* We may need to purchase some materials for the new course offerings at MHS depending on how enrollments shake out.
* The Band-Aiders have been very generous with their donations in the area of instruments, etc. and as such, there is no additional budget for those items. (Thank you!)
* Melrose is behind other districts in what we budget for supplies and materials, but we aren't that different from other middle class communities. 
* Professional development is just as important (or more) than materials since it's the person who stands before students that has the most positive correlation to student achievement.

Next week we'll explore technology; and curriculum, instruction, and professional development. We'll also learn more about gifted services. Finally, we're moving the Public Budget Hearing from March 25th to April 2nd. (The revised budget calendar is in the IQM2 packet for 3/18.) Please let us know if you have questions and/or suggestions, and thanks so much for following this process!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Citywide PTO - March 11th

Super meeting today with Melrose Citywide PTO! Here are some highlights:

Joan Ford Mongeau, Executive Director of the Melrose Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the merchants' "Celebrate Melrose" event on April 26th in support of Melrose PTO, Inc. When we shop at participating Melrose businesses on that day, those merchants will provide a donation to help our PTO's. It's a win-win;  shoppers get the benefit of high-quality merchandise and services right here at home while knowing they are supporting the schools in a unique way, and businesses get the benefit of shoppers new and old as well as an opportunity to help the school community. Check www.melrosechamber.org for more information as the date approaches, and remember that April 26th is just when you'll be looking for the perfect Mother's Day, graduation, and wedding gifts, so shop local!!

Supt. Taymore spoke to a variety of issues:

* The search for a new middle school principal is going well with interviews beginning next week.
* The budget is an ongoing topic and she meets with Melrose CFO Patrick Dello Russo regularly to monitor state revenues, the snow budget, and evolving cost expectations.
* The cost of special education is increasing greatly, not because more students are being placed out-of-district, but because their needs are becoming more significant (a statewide challenge). In addition, the cost of transporting those students is very expensive (calculated by the Supt. at $125/day) and is not reimbursed separately by the state. Asst. Supt. for Pupil Personnel Services Patti White-Lambright is working this year to comprehensively audit all special education services and determine any modifications that might support improvements to programming. 
* Districts are struggling mightily with looming PARCC field testing; dry runs are showing there are challenges to even prepare computers to accommodate use of the software. (When either online access or caching of the tests is in operation, all else on the computer must be shut off for security purposes, but significant manpower is required to do that on the machines and that takes time, along with sacrificing the other tasks those folks would be doing.)
* A question was asked about PTO's providing computers and/or equipment, and she indicated that PTO's can replace printers and similar peripheral-type gear (and those must be installed by district staff), but PTO's can't provide things like laptops or tablets at this time since we are focused on PARCC compatibility and equity across the district.
* At tonight's School Committee meeting, the agenda shows a proposed new policy regarding when and how Site Councils will present School Improvement Plans. The document is on the IQM2 page of the School Committee section of the website.
* The communication plan is in a holding pattern as it is currently difficult to get the right balance of participants. She will continue to work on this effort so the discussion can begin in earnest.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Challenge to Cities and Towns Around Healthcare

On February 10th, I had the great good fortune to hear the President of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Michael Widmer, talk about long-term fiscal challenges faced by Massachusetts residents. Mr. Widmer spoke to four primary issues: stagnant employment growth since 2001, a rapidly aging population, a declining workforce, and the high cost of doing business in our state (especially energy costs). He indicated that the impact on state finances of these issues include revenue growth < 5%, the growth of employee obligations (like pensions and healthcare), and cuts in federal spending. The impact trickles down to municipalities of course; there is slow growth along with enormous unfunded retiree liabilities (and he contends that spending on benefits and debt are crowding out the ability to provide basic services).

How can these challenges be addressed? Taxes could be increased (more revenue); do nothing (poor outcome as noted above); or engage in honest and thoughtful discussion around reforming benefits, specifically OPEB (aka other (than pension) post-employment benefits), which are primarily health-care related. Interestingly, in January, 2012 a special commission was convened "...to investigate and study retiree healthcare and other non-pension benefits...[as]... established by Chapter 176 of the Acts of 2011 to address the growing cost and unfunded liability of state and municipal retiree healthcare benefits." The final report, dated January 11, 2013, recommends a variety of actions. (Read it here:http://www.mass.gov/anf/docs/anf/opeb-commission/opeb-commission-final-report.pdf.) 

While it is critically important to fulfill obligations to retired employees while offering current employees honorable healthcare benefits, it's time to explore changes that will ensure a solid future for our cities and towns (including our schools). Those objectives are not mutually exclusive and need attention sooner rather than later. Melrose is taking an appropriate and fair step in this direction with the health insurance "opt-out" provision detailed by Human Resources Director Marianne Long at last Tuesday's School Committee meeting. She will evaluate the program in a year and recommend whether to continue it or not. That's the kind of initial approach we need to thoughtfully and respectfully address this challenge.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Big Changes Coming to SAT

It's been all over the media - significant changes to SAT beginning in spring, 2016 (sorry classes of 2015 and 2016). In fact, this change is a year later than originally planned. A new PSAT will roll out in the fall of 2015 in preparation for the new SAT.

What's changing? The essay will be optional. There will be no penalty for guessing wrong. Vocabulary words will be more relevant. Paper or digital method. Analysis of text and data consistent with real-world application. Partnership with Khan Academy to offer free test-taking support. On test day, students are provided more info on how the test will work.

Why the change? Stiff competition from the ACT; more colleges and universities making both the SAT/ACT optional for applications; and complaints by students, teachers, and guidance counselors.

With any big change, some groups win and others lose. Here's my take:

*  Students (Winners): More realistic test, shorter test if writing isn't chosen, some free test-prep support (less chance for students who can't afford the prep to suffer poorer scores), option to test digitally.
*  Colleges (Winners and Losers): More equitable comparisons between socio-economically diverse test-takers, more realistic assessment of students' real-life knowledge, may not get a graded writing sample (but they still get application essays).
*  ACT (Too soon to tell): Some states require this test for graduation so students won't necessarily take both. Will states consider making either test count toward a grad requirement? Will more students decide the SAT is now so relevant they want to take it in addition to the ACT?
*  Test-Prep Services (Likely Losers): Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
* College Board (the SAT folks)/(Too soon to tell): Will this change turn the tide on the SAT/ACT college requirement exodus? Will they get some market share back from ACT? Will testers buy more SAT prep books from the CB?

Lest we kid ourselves, this change is all about the money. Although the College Board is a not for profit organization, they reap millions in a wide variety of fees from college-bound families for all kinds of services. Their market share has clearly dropped and there was a hint of mutiny in the air by students and colleges. Voila - new test. So here's the burning question: who will bear the financial burden of making the test's changes, providing the technology for digital test-taking, training proctors on the new rules, etc.? Students and administering schools. Students - watch those SAT test fees go up - and schools - watch your school guidance budget carefully....

Thursday, March 6, 2014

School Committee Meeting of March 5th

A couple items of particular note from last night's meeting:

* As of July 1st, all Melrose employees (including teachers) who have carried Melrose healthcare for at least two years will be able to opt out of the plan, provided they guarantee participation in another healthcare plan. In return, they will receive quarterly cash payments. This pilot program is designed to save on healthcare expense while ensuring that employees have access to an appropriate plan (and get the health support they need!). 

* ECC tuitions, athletic fees, and Education Station fees were all approved for FY15. For the ECC, there will be a 5-7% increase depending on the program (which was expected, since last year we raised the tuitions 10% but knew that they would need to be raised again this year to ensure that the program is self-sustaining). For athletics, Tier II sports increase $25; three sports move from Tier II into Tier III and Tier III pricing increases $50; the hockey fee increases by $20; and there will be no student or family caps. Education Station fees will increase across the board, but by 3% maximum.

* Supt. Taymore reviewed Revolving Account projections for FY15 (where monies for some expenses comes from) as well as her draft staffing and contracted expense budgets. It's helpful to reference her Draft FY15 Budget powerpoint from the 2/11/14 meeting to follow the items she proposes adding. We had great discussion on this topic, and the Supt. explained how the proposed new positions would improve teaching and learning.

All building principals along with Dr. Adams and a few teachers attended the meeting and they answered questions thoughtfully. We meet again next week and tackle supplies, materials, and technology. For more info on what budget topics are being addressed and when, check the packet documents (under IQM2 on the School Committee section of the melroseschools site) for the 2/11/14 meeting. Let us know what you think!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

MHS Students at MIT Model UN Conference

Social Studies Department Chair Bryan Corrigan posted the following about a great group of MHS students:
"The Melrose High School Model U.N. club took part in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 3-day Model United Nations conference recently.  MHS students participated in delegations representing multiple countries, including France and Australia.  Two Melrose High School students, Rachel Freed and Addison Dowell, were commended for their outstanding work on their respective committees.  Advisor Kevin Tierney, a 6th grade geography teacher at MVMMS expressed his delight with the team’s effort: “I am so proud of the students.  It is encouraging to see them so engaged in an activity with such real academic and personal value.”  Mr. Tierney notes that students displayed their skills in public speaking, negotiation, compromise, and persuasion."
Check it out here: 
What a wonderful experience - and well done!!