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.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Data in the Classroom"

On March 26th, Supt. Cyndy Taymore and Asst. Supt. for Teaching and Learning Margaret Adams, in conjunction with the Melrose Education Foundation, sponsored an interactive evening allowing attendees to learn about and explore the concept of using assessments to help teachers improve their teaching and students improve their learning.

Supt. Taymore and Dr. Adams began by setting the expectations for the evening in the same way that teachers set expectations when teaching a lesson - by detailing what we should be able to do by the end of the program ("Describe the assessments used in the Melrose Public Schools and name their purposes. Explain how assessments are being used by teachers, principals, and other administrators to inform instruction, curriculum, and assessment for individual students, groups of students, schools, and the district overall"). 

Really useful: they defined "assessment" ("a general term that refers to the process of gaining information about student learning" like scoring, reporting, analyzing the results, etc.) and "instrument" ("a specific type of data collection tool or mechanism used in an assessment process"). Some assessments are "on-demand" (at a specific place and time like an SAT) and others are performance- or project-based (like science labs, open responses, etc.)

Following a 30-minute powerpoint review of a wide-variety of assessments at different grade levels; an explanation of "District Determined Measures (DDM's)" (where each district in the state decides separately on how they will measure how much students learn, like using portfolios, pre- and post-tests, etc.); and the concept and importance of the Looking at Student Work (LASW) protocol (that has teachers sit together and grade things like student essays, then compare, talk about, and agree how they would all arrive at the same grade for that work).

We then broke into six groups and rotated through six project-based tables facilitated by teachers and administrators and took a stab at doing some of their work, like comparing different samples of student work, answering math questions ourselves and then deciding how we would score, etc. (Wow - not as easy as it looks........)

Not only did we achieve the intended outcomes, but the evening allowed us to gain understanding around what teachers do in their common planning time, showed how parents should gain confidence that different educators that teach the same class are grading similarly, and gain more perspective on the media's portrayal of educational testing and data use. An outstanding learning experience for attendees! 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

4/8/14 School Committee Meeting

An excellent meeting last night covering a wide variety of topics. Here are some highlights:

* City Recycling Coordinator Jessie Schmitt, along with two dedicated MVMMS parents, are working on reducing waste in the school starting with styrofoam trays. If you have ideas on this topic or want to get involved, contact Jessie at jschmitt@cityofmelrose.org.

* Supt. Taymore presented participation numbers for each MHS sport over the past four years. This year's spring participation is 21% over last year's - way to get involved students! She also posted the average GPA for each winter team and continues to focus our attention on the concept of student-athlete rather than just athlete.

* Enrollments look to level out around 3400 (not counting the ECC), so that is the number the Supt. will use for planning purposes. Comparisons at key enrollment dates (10/13 and 3/14) were presented for review. She noted that K enrollments were expected to increase from the original projections on the FY15 review and that there would likely be a decrease of 8th-9th graders given that some students choose private schools at that juncture.

* An opportunity for 8th graders to visit Costa Rica over next year's April vacation has been proposed. The idea has been sent to the Site Council and PTO for review and recommendation since we don't even run a domestic trip for middle schoolers at this time. What do you think - should middle school students participate in foreign trips run by the schools?

* Education Stations Jr. prices for next year were reviewed and approved.

* School lunch prices were reviewed and there will be no change from this year's prices. The contract with our food service provider, Chartwells, was also renewed for the upcoming year.

* Supt. Taymore indicated that seven students are tentatively planning to take advantage of the school choice option in Melrose next year.

* Four policies were put forward for consideration by the community and the Committee, three of which speak to the management of respectful and productive negotiations with our six collective bargaining units (unions), and one addressing gifts to schools. We will be discussing them and considering a first vote at our 4/29 meeting.

* The budget categories were approved for FY15 and we discussed a variety of priorities should money become available. The budget is constantly in flux, and will be to a greater extent through June, and then (hopefully!) to a lesser extent after that time. As there will be changes, we may revisit discussions around how to direct the Supt. to apply taxpayer dollars in the interest of student achievement.

As always, I am so grateful to all who follow and participate in work that benefits our students. Thanks so much and enjoy the beautiful (hooray!) weather.....

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Citywide PTO - 4/8/14

A very full agenda for today's meeting, with Supt. Taymore offering her thoughts on a variety of topics. Here's my take on the morning:

Principal searches:
* Key responsibilities of principals are evolving from past expectations. The job now consists of three main areas: instructional leader (to improve academic output), operational, and managerial. There is also a cultural component (fostering a respectful, collaborative, professional workplace). They are in classrooms all the time.
* The Middle School search has gone quickly in order to secure the most highly qualified candidate as soon as possible since we are competing with other districts for the best and this is a challenging position to fill. The community is encouraged to attend the meet-and-greets (4/10 for the 2nd candidate and either 4/14 or 4/15 for the third since the 14th is Passover). 
* The Roosevelt search will begin right after vacation.

Learning Walkthroughs...
...are a key piece of what administrators now do. There is a state protocol (http://www.doe.mass.edu/apa/dart/walk/ImplementationGuide.pdf) that helps teams of observers explore instruction. The team plans a "focus of inquiry"(i.e. something to look for in the few minutes of observing a classroom) and then later, the team can give two kinds of feedback: positive ("I saw students doing ___") and "quick wins" ("something you could try right away is ______"). It's being piloted in our schools now and will become more formalized in the fall. It supports constant improvement in the classroom.

Technology and PARCC:
Technology has shifted from a "want to have" to an operational cost that requires planning and investment. (For example, today, a new segment of our school data went live with the Dept. of Elem. and Secondary Education. That means that our computers can work with state information, and do district manipulations of test scores so administrators can be looking at the data constantly and identifying areas in which students need more help, etc.  Supt. Taymore is working with the City on bonding equipment to increase district technology purchases.

Previously at Citywide...
... PTO's has asked the Supt. how they could help with district efforts to support students. She reported that one idea is to have PTO's think about whether they would consider the purchase of a cart of Chromebooks. This technology would address needs for education throughout each day and also for PARCC. (Laptops aren't necessary for these types of efforts, and iPads change so quickly that we might not get a long enough return on the investment.) One cart with 30 Chromebooks would cost about $10,500. The city would do the actual purchasing in order to follow state regulations. If PTO's were interested in this kind of investment, the Chromebooks could be in classrooms by the beginning of November.

Final take-aways:
* There will be a wrap-up (for now) of the district's FY15 budget discussion at tonight's School Committee meeting, with a review of priorities should additional funding become available.
* Upcoming events: MHS's The Pajama Game (performances this Thurs., Fri., and Sat.); the ever-popular Celebrate the Arts display of fine and performing arts on 4/17 sponsored by the Victoria McLaughlin Foundation (who fund many MVMMS activities and its library), and the upcoming Melrose Education Foundation fundraiser in collaboration with Pepperberry (around Mother's Day) to support their spring round of mini-grants.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Steve Almond’s “The Gift of a Great Teacher”

Below are a couple excerpts I found particularly poignant from the Connections column in March 23rd’s Globe Magazine. (Check it out at
 http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2014/03/22/what-great-teachers/vmeEwseIKWDxgvGNywNgjK/story.html.) Almond reflects on his experience as both a student and a teacher. (Then I’ll add my two cents…)

 “A good teacher, after all, wields the authority of a parent with none of the psychological baggage. The best of them are semi-mysterious figures whose wisdom seems boundless and whose approval helps us discover who we are.”

“Teaching, especially at the primary and secondary levels, isn't about giving grandiose speeches or playing the Svengali. It’s about managing classrooms full of kids at very different places intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. It’s about prepping students for standardized tests when you'd rather be fostering their imaginations. Most of all, it’s about the thousands of small acts of attention, of encouragement and guidance and discipline, by which a teacher transmits his [or her] passion for learning to his [or her] charges. Standing before a class, you have to portray your best self – fair, patient, wise – for hours on end.”

This year Teacher Appreciation Day is May 6th, but it’s never too early or too late to thank a teacher who inspired you or your child(ren). Melrose is fortunate to have so many excellent teachers – slip one of them a note soon – you’ll make their day!

4/2 School Committee Meeting

We heard from Supt. Taymore that the "B" budget she has presented, although still $15k short of balanced based on what we are expected to receive from the City, will help us continue making progress, but is not close to an amount that realizes her vision for what the students of Melrose deserve.

We discussed fees and voted to:
* Raise elementary instrumental music fees from $175 to $225.
* Raise the Food and Consumer Science class fee (for food) from $65 to $70.
* Maintain fees for MHS photography class and transcripts.

We also voted to approve the bottom line budget of $27,166,695 and subsequently discussed some priorities should additional monies become available (from the state to the City), voting to make the Director of Fine and Performing Arts the first item funded.

Our next meeting is on Tuesday, April 8th at 7:00 and we plan to finalize the agreed-upon budget categories based on what we know at this time. We are also slated to continue discussion on budget priorities if additional funding becomes available. Just a reminder that the budget is always in flux (which is why you see us vote transfers between and among budget categories during the year). We don't carry balances in our revolving accounts anymore and unplanned expenses will directly affect the ability to fund planned staff, supplies, technology, etc. 

Please ask questions and/or offer feedback prior to Tuesday's meeting! 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

IS College for Everyone?

The Fordham Foundation published an article by Michael J. Petrilli on March 20th with the headline “College isn’t for everyone. Let’s stop pretending it is.” (http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/college-isn%E2%80%99t-for-everyone-let%E2%80%99s-stop-pretending-it-is) Although the article focuses on the frequent push for lower-performing students to attempt college regardless of their readiness, in the interest of exploring the issue for Melrose students I would ask “Is immediate college matriculation always the best choice for all MHS graduates?”

The statistics around earnings for college graduates are clear – they earn significantly more over a career than non-college graduates. What is not always discussed is the wisdom of pushing a student who is just not ready - academically, socially, or emotionally – to attend a college or university immediately following high school. As we are in the season of college acceptances and commitments, it’s a good time to ask ourselves as a community whether we will judge our students and our schools by the percentage of students immediately going on to 2- and 4-year institutions. Are students failing themselves and their high school if they take some intentional down-time before re-committing to serious academics? Is it preferable for every single student to instantly choose college English class over a more hands-on experience? College list prices are daunting – how about a year of work in order to sustain a continuous college experience rather than having to stop and work in the middle?

Every student (and every individual for that matter) needs to employ life-long learning in order to achieve personal, professional, and financial growth. K-12 education should provide a rigorous curriculum and foster partnerships among teachers, guidance counselors, and families to serve the unique and developing needs of each student. Then we will be prepared to answer a much better question with respect to how the schools have performed with respect to student outcomes: “Is each and every student leaving our classrooms well-prepared to do whatever they realistically choose, well-supported with respect to making quality decisions about their future, and able to marry the two to find a good fit for their next big adventure?”