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.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

School Committee Meeting: 5/27/14

A productive meeting, and the last with our current (and fantastic!) student representatives. Here are some highlights:

* Due to savings realized by the retirement of one staff member and the departure of a long-term substitute, a Chair for the Department of Visual and Performing Arts (K-12) will be hired. (The position is posted here: http://www.schoolspring.com/jobs/job.cfm?jid=805852&status=20,30.)

* Revenue generated from four School Choice students (students who pay to come to Melrose schools from other districts) will allow the district to move a teacher from part-time to full-time.

* The METCO program is deeply embedded and important to our community, supporting 125 Boston-based students. While the district is improving its ability to provide quality academic services to these (and all) students, there is work that needs to be done to ensure that METCO families feel welcomed and a full part of the school community.

* New Bridge Director Jennifer McAllister is working hard to fill the big shoes left by Emily Rubenstein. She's off to a great start and has continued the many great programs that allow students and teachers to receive a wide variety of support services.

* The foreign language exchange with Soverato, Italy was approved. Ciao students!

* The Elementary Handbook was approved for 2014-2015 and changes in language were made around K-1 recess, absences, etc.

* Policy updates were proposed in the areas of fiscal management, Bullying/Teen Dating Prevention, Background Checks/Fingerprinting, and School Enrollment.

* The Committee discussed whether to offer middle school students the option to participate in international school-sponsored field trips. It was agreed that trips would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

If you'd like to see the documents related to any of these topics (and others not reflected here, like the warrants and past meeting minutes), please click on "IQM2" under School Committee on the melroseschools.com page. Hope you are enjoying these beautiful spring days and it won't be long before we all say ciao for the summer!

Monday, May 26, 2014

College Entrance Exams and Test Preparation

On February 24th, I wrote a post on whether college entrance exams predict college success, citing evidence that they do not. However, they still remain a fact of life for many aspiring college students since a significant number of colleges still use them as one criterion for admittance. (The list of colleges that don’t require them is here: http://www.fairtest.org/university/optional.)

Although written in 2009, an excellent article on testing and prep was published in Westchester Magazine and can be found here: http://www.westchestermagazine.com/Westchester-Magazine/November-2009/To-Prep-or-Not-to-Prep/. This section is pretty interesting: “Prep can include learning (or re-learning) actual material, but what many in the test-prep industry mean when they talk about prep is a “method”—or, some might say, tricks. These include taking practice tests to become comfortable with the format (and save time by dispensing with name-writing and rule-reading quickly), concentrating on early questions (which are easier but have the same point values), eliminating answers that are clear “traps” (for instance, math questions requiring multiplication to solve often have false answers that seem correct and which you could get from simple addition), and guessing rather than leaving answers blank (after omitting just one answer choice, a student is statistically better off guessing than leaving a question blank). “There’s no doubt that familiarity with the peculiarities of the test and how they can be handled can make a big difference,” says Lee Hart, a private math tutor in Purchase.”

As parents, what can we do to help our children perform as well as possible? First, work with your child’s guidance counselor to plan out a reasonable testing schedule so that it takes into account when students have the most content knowledge and when it accommodates the many other important activities in which the child is involved. For example, if the student might be looking at quite rigorous schools, taking SAT II’s at the end of sophomore and junior years when content knowledge is still fresh may be helpful. In the fall of junior year, thinking about a schedule for SAT’s and ACT’s can allow for planning of desired test prep and lessen the stress of taking all of the tests in a short time-frame.

Second, think about the type of test prep that works for your family. It could be a local test prep company, entering the lottery for MIT’s reduced-price test prep (ati.mit.edu), or self-studying (check out http://ineedapencil.ck12.org/ and others).

Finally, help your child with the registration process (watching those deadlines so you’re not paying late registration fees or being closed out of local seating, requiring searching for geographically distant test locations). Encourage them to be ready the night before with their ticket, ID, pencils, etc. – and talk about the no-electronics policy and how the child will survive for four hours without sending/receiving a text :).  A good night’s rest, a solid breakfast and a couple laps around the block wouldn’t hurt to be ready either. (I know, I know – they are teenagers – but we do the best we can!)

Now is a great time to check in with MHS guidance counselors to start thinking about next year’s plan – especially since school staff are working to help your child finalize their schedules. They are ready and willing to partner with you on behalf of your child!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

To AP, or not to AP, that is the question.....

Heard around town: why is Melrose High now offering Advanced Placement (AP) classes to underclassmen and why are more students in all grades being encouraged to participate in AP offerings? Great question!  If parents or community members want the facts around this decision, please get in touch with Principal Farrell, Department Chairs, or Guidance – they are happy to talk with you. In the meantime, here are some thoughts from my perspective (as parent of a Class of 2014 college grad, rising college sophomore, and HS junior)………

·      What is AP? AP courses are standardized courses/tests in a variety of subjects that are provided by The College Board (a non-profit who also brings us the SAT) and that are expected to reflect extensive rigor. Here’s the link: http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/home.

·      Why is it important? Because when colleges look at a student’s application, one criterion for admittance decisions is “Rigor of Secondary School Record” and all colleges look at it. To see how it might work, check out one of my go-to college databases, www.collegedata.com, and type in any school. Click on the “Admissions” tab and scroll down to “Selection of Students.” The rigor criterion is almost always in the “Very Important” column. A May 4th Boston Globe article explains this concept very well; find it here: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/regionals/west/2014/05/03/exams-near-more-students-ready-for-challenge/Nsk2jWPTPyHgjdt9NDcKtN/story.html.

·      How would a college measure “Rigor of Secondary School Record?” One way is to look at a student’s course selections to assess the level at which success is probable and determining whether the student chose to accept the challenge of more rigorous work (i.e. if a student took 9th gr. English CP and earned an A, did the student move up to the Honors level in 10th gr.?). With AP, colleges will look at what AP courses the school offers, assess whether a student might have been successful in that placement, and if so, whether it was chosen.

·      What if MHS doesn’t offer as many AP’s as other high schools? Colleges approach this quandary by reviewing the School Profile (find MHS’s here: http://melrosehigh.melroseschools.com/our-school/2013-2014-school-profile/), and considering whether a student took rigorous courses within what a school offers. The profile is updated each year and sent to each college by the guidance dept. in conjunction with each application.

·      Should my child bulk up on AP courses just to be competitive in the application process? Parents should talk to their child about their interests and aspirations. (Guidance does this too.) Does your child really like math? Foreign language? Art? When you look at his/her middle school grades, are there ways to challenge him/her in certain areas when entering 9th grade? Parents should partner with guidance and the student to ensure that all credit requirements are met for graduation while considering what the student enjoys and encouraging the student to challenge him/herself in areas where evidence shows he/she can succeed.

·      What should parents expect from MHS? The high school should be offering a variety of courses that provide opportunities at all levels in as many subject areas as possible (within fiscal constraints). Teachers should be as well-trained as possible to provide the kind of instruction that will support good outcomes on the AP exams.

Over the years, I’ve heard folks opine that the high school wasn’t rigorous enough, and one way administrators are addressing that is by offering more AP courses at a wider variety of grade levels. As parents we often struggle with how to best help our children – more pressure or less rigor? Instead, maybe we should be asking MHS staff, our children, and ourselves “What are the most appropriate courses for my student, and what is the right level for each and every one?” In the end, the result should be a graduating senior who has found an authentic path paired with a transcript and college application that showcase each student’s unique skills and abilities. That’s what colleges want to see, and more importantly, that’s what makes for a rewarding next step in life’s big adventure.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

5/13 School Committee Meeting

An especially nice to start to our meeting last night......National Honor Society Board members Lilah Drafts-Johnson, Caroline Kerwin, and Charlotte Hoff provided an overview of the activities of this year's cohort. Please take a look at their Powerpoint presentation on our website to see how our students are giving back to their fellow students and the community!

Our business part of the meeting touched on the following:

* Announcements of the Supt: 1. ECC registrations are 292 (compared to an enrollment of 280 this year) and K registrations are 280 (compared to an enrollment of 279 this year). Supt. Taymore suspects enrollments to increase; 2. All three Roosevelt principal candidates will have interviewed in the district by Friday and she expects to render a hiring decision by the middle of next week; 3. Supt. Taymore announced that she will appoint an interim principal at Lincoln Schools for the FY15 school year since it is late in the hiring season and she wants to start early next year to invite the most attractive candidates.

* Supt. Taymore spoke to summer programming, including the Extended School Year (ESY) program for special education students, the middle schools' Students Without Borders program (that includes 5th graders), and the fact that, unless we receive a grant to support an on-line opportunity (we'll know at the end of this month), students seeking credit recovery will need to enroll in another district's program since our program is not financially viable.

* Summer school work expectations were presented by the Supt. and are available for all to see. This document is intended to provide parents with an opportunity to preview how summer reading, etc. can be supported so that when students return in the fall, they are as prepared as possible for the next years' work.

* Asst. Supt. for Pupil Personnel Services Patti White-Lambright presented a comprehensive overview of special education programming and services for each level, including early childhood, elementary, middle school, and high school. She spoke to the current opportunities and challenges as well as what she sees for the future.

* Supt. Taymore and Director of Finance and Administrative Affairs Jay Picone updated the Committee on the FY13 End-of-Year Financial Report that is submitted to the Dept. of Elem. and Secondary Ed. There were two minor findings, and amendments have been filed to correct both.

* A variety of policies were placed on the agenda for information purposes only, including Financial Management, Bullying Prevention, Background Checks/Fingerprinting, and School Enrollment. They will be presented for a first reading at the next meeting.

* The calendar of 2015 School Committee meetings was presented and approved. 

* Our district's overarching goals were set, of which there are four. They address student achievement, staffing and development, community engagement, and fiscal issues. Supt. Taymore will use these to propose her own goals, and those can be used as guidance for Site Councils as they develop their School Improvement Plans for next year as well as by PTO's to consider where they might best spend their generous dollars to support student academic progress.

* We talked about how we can advocate to our state and local legislators around issues that are important to Melrose and  posited that the unfunded mandate of purchasing and maintaining technology is a serious concern in our schools. Rep. Brodeur has been especially helpful in this area. We will build a timeline with his support and bring it, along with some advocacy ideas, back to the Committee.

An excellent meeting with  lots of good discussion! To all the mothers out there - hope your day was a happy one, and wishing you all a reflective but enjoyable Memorial Day Weekend!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

City Wide PTO - May 13th

Many thoughtful topics on today’s agenda:

·      *   Summer Reading and Homework: Supt. Taymore indicated that summer work provides an opportunity for students to keep their skills as current as possible, reducing learning loss that takes time to overcome when the next school year starts. Tonight’s School Committee meeting will feature a brief review of the expectations and communication around summer responsibilities for students at all grade levels, and the accompanying document is in the packets so you can get a preview.

·      *   Update from the PTO/Merchant Meeting: A closer partnership is forming between the PTO communities and the Chamber, thanks to some involved parents and Chamber Director Joan Ford Mongeau. Both groups are working to understand how they can better support student learning (as PTO’s have evolved from mostly entertainment committees to organizations that supply critical school needs) without overburdening our generous businesses.

·     *   Cultural Proficiency: Melrose is a changing place, with growing cultural and socio-economic diversity. How do we see our city and how do we ensure that we are welcoming and accepting of people who are both similar to and different from us? Conversations are taking place within the Melrose Human Rights Commission to consider how to support tolerance and appreciation for all. The school district is one small piece of that conversation and is listening carefully to learn how we can all contribute.

·      *  Who decides on courses to be offered at MHS?: Supt. Taymore provided clarification around responsibilities for determining MHS teaching and learning. Asst. Supt. of Curriculum and Instruction Margaret Adams guides the development of curriculum (including assessments, etc.), reviews curriculum materials, and develops and provides professional development (teacher training), while MHS Principal Farrell and her team (including the Assistant Principals and Department Chairs in collaboration with teachers) consider what it takes to provide a robust and rigorous education for students. The MHS team researches and recommends programs and courses that challenge students while meeting Common Core graduation requirements that are ultimately approved by the School Committee by way of the Program of Studies.

·     *   Communication: Always a challenge! How do parents receive information from schools in a timely and accurate manner? Supt. Taymore still wants to convene a Communication Plan Working Group but it’s a challenge as there are so many committees working on a wide variety of education projects. She will think more about how/when this group can form and consider how to get information out in a timely and effective way.

Monday, May 5, 2014

School Committee Meeting of April 29th

The Committee met last Tuesday night and explored a wide variety of topics. Here are some highlights:

* SEEM Collaborative Executive Director Cathy Lawson and Business Manager Greg Zammuto presented a review of their programming and clarified how Melrose's membership allows many eligible students to receive outstanding special education programming (that would be difficult and expensive for us to provide) on a cost-effective basis.
* Student Reps Lilah Drafts-Johnson and Amanda Sampson shared MHS news: Mr. Melrose (a really fun event for the kids) will be on 5/7, AP exams begin today (5/5) and continue for the next two weeks, check out the National Honor Society flowers at the front of the school, the spring choral concert will be 5/15, and progress reports will be issued on 5/13.
* Asst. Supt. for Teaching and Learning Margaret Adams presented the 2015 Professional Development Plan. It ties learning experiences of Melrose teachers to district goals and objectives and also allows them to apply that learning in ways that directly support what students need to know and do.
* The handbook for MVMMS and MHS was presented by MHS Assistant Principals Steven Fogarty and Jason Merrill. There is now one secondary handbook, which allows parents to understand expectations for all as well as see the transitions we expect students to make as they mature in our schools.
* Policies were discussed that apply to the donation of gifts to our schools (for which we are very appreciative!) and negotiations with our collective bargaining units (unions). They help set expectations around the roles and responsibilities of participating parties.
* A new rolling agenda was released in order to plan for future meetings.
* Supt. Taymore reported that an 11-member team from Colorado Springs was visiting last week to explore some of the excellent work being done in the district, including successes, challenges, and department happenings. 

So glad to see that spring is finally making an entrance! So many exciting happenings at our schools at this time of year. Thank you so much for all you do, and since it is Teacher Appreciation Week, please remember to thank your children's teachers who make such a difference in the lives of our children!