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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

School Committee Meeting of 10/27/15

Notes from last night’s meeting are below, and as always, my opinion only!

Supt. Taymore led off the meeting with her Superintendent’s Update. She noted that 2nd Grade teacher Michael Oginski will travel to Washington, D.C. next month to accept the Blue Ribbon Schools recognition on behalf of Lincoln School staff and students. She also announced that November will be “Education Month” in the schools, and will feature Kindergarten, Middle School, and High School activities, as well as Parent University (11/14, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.), a partnership between the district and Melrose Education Foundation. Finally, she reviewed our response protocols for various drills as part of the district’s Emergency Evacuation Plan, and will be returning to the Committee in the future to present on this topic.

MVMMS Principal Conway spoke to the Late Start Time Task Force, indicating that they were looking to the Committee for guidance on next steps in their process. They’ve completed their research and have developed many options, from starting school 15 minutes later to up to an hour later. Many teachers have reservations about moving the time, and this is one subject of collective bargaining (which will begin in the spring). It was noted that making a decision soon would be useful so that parents can begin planning should changes be made. It was agreed that we would hear from legislators at our next meeting regarding the state’s direction on this topic, and also bring questions and/or priorities that will be compiled and sent to the Task Force for their consideration.

Supt. Taymore presented an early draft of the 2016-2017 school calendar in order to talk about topics that she intends to bring to the Committee, including the recommendation to collaborate with SEEM on a common professional development day (next year’s Election Day, which is a busy time since it is a presidential election), discussion around a second professional development day (after MLK Day again? Another day?), and a question regarding Good Friday (since many districts are moving away from this vacation day, like Stoneham and Reading, with North Reading maintaining a half day).

The Budget Process and Timeline for FY17 was approved. One significant change will be the implementation of a Saturday session in March that will allow for all presentations by staff members to occur in an 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. timeframe. This change should shorten the overall process (easier for the community to follow, and for administrators to accommodate in their schedules) while allowing Committee meetings to focus on questioning and deliberation of budget decisions.

Polices approved on a first vote included JKAA: Physical Restraint of Students, EBC: Emergency Plans, ECAF: Security Cameras in Schools, IJND: Access to Digital Resources, IJNDC: Web Page Publication, and IJNDD: Electronic Communication/Social Media. There was discussion around policy JICH: Drug and Alcohol Use by Students based on the consideration to recommend that school nurses receive training in the administration of NARCAN in case of an opioid situation. The Committee approved this recommendation and Ms. Thorp will bring it to the next Melrose Health Department meeting this week (since the nurses report through MHD).

Announcements of the Chair included a Committee vote to open 25 School Choice spots at MHS: ten freshman, ten sophomores, and five juniors (which was approved). The artifacts attached to Superintendent Taymore’s goals for this year were also approved (i.e. the evidence she must present to show she has accomplished her goals at the time of her review). The Competency-Based Learning public forum will be held on December 3rd at 6:00 p.m. in the MVMMS Auditorium.

Remember, all meeting agendas and documents are available on the melroseschools web site. Next Committee meeting is November 10th and will begin at 6:00 with a roundtable meeting with legislators. The regular meeting will begin at 7:00. 

Happy Halloween, and see you after we “fall back!”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

School Committee Support for Override

Below please find the letter submitted to the press by Committee Chairman Kristin Thorp following the Committee's vote on 9/8 to recommend. This letter is also posted on the School Committee page of the melroseschools web site. 

Melrose School Committee Support for Override                             September 14, 2015

On Tuesday, September 8th, the Melrose School Committee overwhelmingly voted (six in favor and one against) to support the City of Melrose Proposition 2 ½ Tax Override scheduled for placement on the November 3rd ballot. This recommendation was not made lightly; it was explored in the utmost detail and with meticulous review, supported by research and recommendations from a variety of separate working groups and committees, including the Budget Working Group, the Curriculum Materials Working Group, the Technology Working Group, the Professional Development Committee, and Department teams that review all elements of teaching and learning in a content area (for example, Social Studies). As taxpayers ourselves, we recognize and appreciate that we are recommending an action that requires sacrifice, but we believe very strongly that it is an investment in educational quality that will allow Melrose children greater opportunities that we can barely imagine today.

In our roles as an oversight board for the schools, we have the privilege of hearing the community’s educational questions and concerns, like:

·      How do we hire and retain excellent teachers?
·      How do we ensure that teachers can teach to every student in a classroom, including those with learning differences and limited knowledge of the English language, high achieving/gifted students, and students who face unique and personal challenges that may compromise their ability to adequately advance academically?
·      How do we ensure that students have recent, relevant, and high-quality curriculum materials including textbooks and library media resources; on-line learning tools; and laboratory, engineering and design, art, and music supplies?
·      How do we ensure that students entering college, the military, or the workforce, learn and use technology that they will be expected to understand when they arrive?
·      How do we ensure that students, who in today’s era are expected to become global citizens (whether by Internet access, formal study, or travel), have the support and opportunities to do so?
·      How do we ensure that students have built a solid foundation for their future lives with key skills valued by employers, like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity?
·      How do we ensure that yearly school funding isn’t always at risk of being cut based on what the federal and state governments can supply and/or whether the City has $700,000 in free cash each October to put toward a school budget that law requires we approve by the previous June?

Over the past three years, the Superintendent and her staff have employed district budgets to address the above-mentioned challenges and have made marked progress, including reorganizing staff positions and hiring new staff in order to focus efforts on specific educational goals, implementing union contracts that respect the professionalism and hard work of the staff combined with meaningful accountability, developing a broad and deep training system for teachers, raising rigor and expectations in all core subject areas while expanding the breadth of course offerings at the middle and high schools, and purchasing new and engaging curriculum materials that feature elements designed to teach all students with an eye toward the student as a citizen of the world. In addition, the City’s Board of Aldermen have voted to invest in building improvements, like the high school’s HVAC overhaul, state-of-the-art science labs, and the Learning Commons/Administrative Office renovation, along with the Hoover entry/window revamp project; and they have supported the purchase of curriculum materials that had been long neglected in the face of more pressing needs. They have also voted each year to move free cash to the school budget in October to cover the portion that was not in the general City budget. The district has sought out federal, state, and independent grants, while parents, community organizations have helped by raising money. Each and every school and team/club/activity deeply is grateful for the support from the community. Have these efforts resulted in improved academic results for students? While there is always room for improvement, we think they have, and the district’s Data Dashboard on the melroseschools.com web site details assessment results so you can decide for yourself.

Superintendent Taymore spoke to addressing teaching and learning challenges in her growth budget at the beginning of 2015 and we believe that her recommendations, which have evolved into the override request for the schools, puts the district in a position to achieve greater learning growth and financial stability. Strategic staffing at all levels, including both classroom teachers and support/coaching staff, will engage more students in discrete subjects, while helping teachers to teach more effectively and students to learn in ways that will better inform their post-secondary lives. Curriculum materials will be implemented and then put into a viable review and purchase cycle so we don’t have to play catch-up in the future. Teachers will be trained to use these increasingly complex and diverse materials. The special education budget can begin stabilization by setting aside money to cover the potentially significant and expensive services a new student may by law require when moving into Melrose. And we will remove the need to risk teachers’ jobs and student services, every single year, because while we build an appropriate budget, we have to keep our fingers crossed that some of the monies will become available later in the year.   

Why are we confident that these funds will be managed responsibly and not just as a one-year investment that gets lost in future City budgets? Because the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen have shown repeatedly over the years that they value the schools, and that the public’s trust in them is well founded. Quality leadership is key, and the collaboration between the City and the district is strong and focused on the growth and improvement of the Melrose Public Schools. We’ve watched the Superintendent and her staff develop the district’s vision by way of a series of high-quality operating plans and documents, including the Strategy Overview, that are reviewed by the Committee on a consistent basis. We evaluate the Superintendent using an agreed-upon process grounded in the state’s educator evaluation system and have found her efforts, attitude, work, and collaboration to be effective and in the interest of all students. The Superintendent’s philosophy of constant self-reflection and continuous improvement is embedding itself in the school community, and the Committee expects that to persist for many years to come.

The workplaces of all Americans are changing at a rapid pace. The ways we apply for jobs and interview for them are different; professional training has evolved (for example, employers cannot expect you to change the way you work if they have not taught you how); the use of electronic devices and tools complement relevant traditional print materials in workplace research, creation, and collaboration; we interact with colleagues from around the country and around the world; and we are always keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line given fluctuating revenue pipelines and waves of political change that affect how employers are funded. Equally, the classrooms of early childhood and K-12 education are changing to meet the requirements set by colleges and universities, the military, and ultimately, the evolving workplace. Our students deserve the opportunity to reach their full academic potential within the constraints of a responsible and accountable framework.

We believe that this override is necessary to continue the educational progress that the citizens of Melrose have envisioned; and we believe that our students deserve the best we can give them. Please stand with us to support this override so we can give them our best.

Thank you,
Kristin Thorp

Melrose School Committee

School Committee Meeting of 10/13: MCAS, Staffing, Supt. Goals, and More

Last Tuesday’s Committee started with a brief presentation by Early Childhood Center (ECC) Director Donna Rosso, joined by School Psychologist Jaime Hickey Wiklund and Social Worker Jennifer Centore as they took on the maiden voyage of our new “MPS Highlights” segment, coming once per month. They noted that there are now 320 students at the ECC and that social/emotional/behavioral skills play a large part in student learning. They’ve purchased an updated version of the Second Step curriculum that includes positive behavior interventions, including self-control and self-regulation. Teachers and paraprofessionals have participated in trainings that prescribe the use of consistent language so that students hear and understand expectations about success in every classroom (and can be used as they progress to elementary school). The program is becoming embedded, rather than stand-alone, instruction.

Announcements of the Superintendent included a report from the School Wellness Advisory Council that noted health and wellness actions required of different stakeholder groups. A schedule of events is being developed for Kindergarten registration for the coming year in anticipation of including more outreach and understanding. The district and Melrose Education Foundation are partnering to host Parent University on 11/14 at MVMMS. It’s designed to help parents and community members learn more about the schools. Technology purchased with monies approved by the Board of Aldermen in early October is being received and imaged in order to place it in schools as soon as possible. A three-year grant received by the Melrose Police will provide for a School Resource Officer at MVMMS.

MCAS results were presented by rotating groups of Directors, Principals, and Asst. Supt. of Teaching and Learning Dr. Margaret Adams. Great strides have been made at MHS toward closing the achievement gap. In ELA, they are attributed to data analysis, additional writing in class and at home, and having highly trained teachers for special ed. students. In math, students realized the highest percentage of students ever in the advanced category. They are still closing the achievement gap in math. Science scores at MHS were similar to last year with more students proficient vs. advanced. This content area remains a significant challenge at the elementary level and even more so at the middle school level.

A staffing presentation was developed that explored the elements surrounding teacher retention. The reasons teachers stay in the district include having a positive relationship with their supervisor, professional development, opportunities to be leaders, and feeling that others trust their skills. The Superintendent has developed recommendations that have budget and administrative implications, and include things like finding more ways for teachers to be involved with the community-at-large, developing more relationships with higher ed. to place more student teachers in-district, hiring more teachers with dual certification, creating programs for more minority hiring, and providing even more leadership opportunities.

A number of policy agenda items were presented, including intentions around review of finance policies, policies that need editing based on change in law/regulation, and policies that address latex allergies (a new concern in our district).

The detailed Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Annual Report was provided for review.

The initial phase of approving FY16 Superintendent goals was held, as we approved the Standards and Indicators on which she will be evaluated during the coming year.

As always, documents are on the melroseschools web site under School Committee. Vimeo of the meeting is on the mmtv3.org web site, under Government Meetings. Next Committee meeting is Tuesday, October 27th at 7:00 in the Aldermanic Chamber.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Annual Reporting, Staffing, Science Fairs, Competency-Based Learning, Odds and Ends

At last Tuesday’s City Wide PTO meeting, Supt. Taymore spent over an hour with the group speaking to a number of issues in the district. Here are the highlights from my perspective:

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Annual Report
By September 30th of each year the district (like all in the state) is required to submit a comprehensive financial report to DESE for the prior year. The school budget in Melrose does not include employee benefits (equal to about a third of total salary expense) or maintenance. The report was submitted on time and in full. An audit of the report is conducted annually and is usually presented in the March timeframe.

Longevity of teaching staff is cyclical, and we are currently in a cycle of teachers who are relatively early in their careers. Turnover in the world of teaching is changing to become more like private industry; teachers change jobs much more frequently (vs. staying in one district for their entire career), they may relocate due to relocation of a working spouse, or they may decide to take time off to raise a family. In Melrose, the reasons for turnover are split pretty evenly among retirements, leaving for a larger salary, and relocations. Melrose has developed excellent professional development and in some cases, teachers are “poached” because they have developed knowledge and skills sought by other districts. Upcoming professional development includes training in science work, the new elementary reading series, Google, social studies curricula (stemming from the Social Studies review cycle completed earlier in the year), and special education for regular education teachers.

Science Fairs
Supt. Taymore has been working with a group of parents and administrators to make elementary science fairs more applicable to today’s model of education. There was much discussion around ensuring that all students had the opportunity to participate (regardless of their parent’s ability to help). The new model will be a “science conference” and there will be two elements. All elementary students must participate in the first element, and it’s tied to the curriculum and best teaching and learning practices. They will be given the option to then craft an independent project. Students will present in the afternoon and will be judged by other students using a consistent rubric. Adults will be invited to see the work in the evening. There will be no prizes. Timeframe is May/June. Hoover Principal Jenny Corduck is developing a Powerpoint presentation to explain the concept in more detail.

Competency-Based Learning
The Supt. reviewed much of the information presented at the 10/6 School Committee meeting and reminded the group that this concept has “taken hold” in the higher education world. She indicated that the district has come a long way in measuring student ability by assessing standards and this is the next logical step.

Odds & Ends
·      Bids for the Learning Commons are in, and it looks like the project may begin 4-6 weeks earlier than originally projected. Should it come in under budget the “first alternate” for work is a “maker space,” which would allow for the hands-on creation of projects (like a marshmallow cannon to explore physics concepts). It incorporates the arts into STEM (to make STEAM), and would include technology like a 3D printer.
·      The German and French students are overlapping their visits with Melrose hosts this year. MHS and MVMMS are one of the few secondary campuses in the state to offer five languages – especially at the two individual levels.
·      School choice will be discussed at the evening’s Committee meeting. We’ll be considering offering ten openings each at the freshman and sophomore levels and five at the junior level. We receive $5K for each student from the sending district and in the past have used it for MHS staff.
·      We will educate two Brazilian students beginning in January based on our participation in the Educatius program.
·      We are educating no kindergarten-level METCO students this year since the Melrose population was so significant that we had no more room.
*       City Wide members continue to work with the Chamber to determine actions we can take to respect the kindness the businesses show the schools without overburdening them.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Competency-Based Learning Model Coming to Melrose Schools?

On September 15th, Supt. Taymore introduced a concept for teaching and learning that is new to Melrose: competency-based learning. She declared her intention to bring a fuller presentation to the Committee and community on Tuesday, October 6th.  Please take a look at her report: http://melrosecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=2700 at 2.1.a. Here are some highlights:

What is the intention around Melrose education? The district wants to provide the best teaching and learning for each student, without categorizing or labeling them (e.g. “gifted,” “special education,” etc.).

What is offered now to address this concern? Things like grouping students according to ability and rotating them at the elementary level, or a middle school student could take a high school math course, or a high school student could get credit for a course by passing an exam. Supt. Taymore noted that each of these elements is being employed, but not necessarily consistently at every school and every grade level. It’s a work in process and consistently improving. MHS is implementing this best and the Middle School is getting there. But she wants to consider doing even more because she sees that teachers are working very hard in this area and developing significant skill that supports students in this way.

What would competency based learning mean for our students that is different from the way we do things now? Emphasize mastery vs. seat time, personalize learning (what you need, when and how you need it), and require demonstration of mastery of a subject or topic in the form of a tangible product or performance, etc. Students might move quickly through some topics and more slowly through others – but they progress at their own pace. If students can already show that they understand information, they should be able to move to the next topic or class or grade.

That makes sense, right? Why can’t we just implement this now? There are a lot of details to be figured out before proceeding. For example, the state requires 990 hours of high school time on learning. What if a student masters all the required content in less than that amount? Must all the time on learning hours be during the traditional school day (e.g. what if a student takes a class at Salem State at night – shouldn’t that count?) What if an elementary student has mastered all mathematics through grade 5 in January of that year – how does s/he access the 6th grade math curriculum when the middle school is across town?

Is this common in Massachusetts? No. Massachusetts, unlike many other states, has no policies around proficiency-based education, credit flexibility, or policies reflecting equivalents to "seat time." However, it's being done well in some places in New Hampshire and Supt. Taymore is looking to the Sanborn school district there for more information.

How do we talk about this and collectively learn more? The Committee voted to hold a public forum on this topic in late Oct. or sometime in November – please watch for it and participate! The Committee will listen to what the community and district have to say, and ultimately vote on 12/8 whether to proceed down this road. If proceeding is approved, the district would establish a task force to “explore model specifics, including logistics, legalities, instruction and curriculum needs, training needs, timetable, etc.”

Want to read more? Check out these sources recommended by the Superintendent:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

GlobeDocs Festival Opens with Education Film

 Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary that speaks to the need to change educational models, particularly at the high school level, was screened last night at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater. An editorial in yesterday’s Boston Globe previewed the film, and was written by Ted Dintersmith who “organized, funded, and helped produce [it].” Hollywood Reporter reviewed the film this past January. Find it here: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/succeed-sundance-review-767812. You can also read the book with the same name (by Dintersmith and Tony Wagner) on which the film is based.

Dintersmith’s editorial claims, “The biggest obstacle to advancing education is that we cling to [an obsolete] model. Students shuffle from subject to subject in class periods punctuated by ringing bells. They memorize, cram, and drill on low-level material. They jump through (increasingly expensive) hoops, and develop skills for jobs that no longer exist.” He contends, “In the innovation era, we should be educating to our strength. We need to…reimagine our schools. Help our kids develop essential characteristics for the 21st century…Trust our teachers to bring compelling learning experiences to our students. Set high standards and hold all participants accountable...”

The movie centers on San Diego charter school High Tech High (http://www.hightechhigh.org/), which uses a project-based learning model of education to inspire innovation and entrepreneurialism. Classrooms are designed to be student-centered with collaborative decision-making; employment of learning in the interest of producing a tangible outcome; teachers as mentors, coaches, facilitators, and resources; and appreciation for each student’s humanity. A class of freshman students, selected teachers and administrators, and occasional parents are interviewed over a period of one school year, and clips of interviews with educational gurus like Salman Khan, Tony Wagner, and Linda Darling-Hammond are interspersed. Elements of teaching and learning culminate in the “final exam,” a public display of the year’s efforts.

My take on the film:
·      Fascinating to watch project-based learning in action; the passion of educators; and the dynamic among, and energy and commitment of, students.
·      Why were all the interviewed staff members men and all the parents women? Was the application of the female lead’s talents in fine arts and the male lead’s talents in engineering purposeful or coincidental?
·      By virtue of being an 86 minute film, a lot was left on the cutting room floor. What did groups do when members didn’t get along? How does a student demonstrate capability to a college admissions office? What was the rate of attrition back to traditional schools? How many students were ELL/LEP or had special education needs? Although 98% of students were accepted to college, what is their persistence rate?
·      For being an 86 minute film, a lot was included that fairly and honestly questioned the process. Parents wondered if enough content was provided. Teachers are on year-to-year contract. (My question: does that lead to retention of high quality staff and are they around long enough to provide continuity of teacher collaboration and the support of a professional culture?). 

Some notes:
·      As NYT Book Reviewer Lisa Miller notes in her 8/18 review of the book, “Less convincing is the assumption that undergirds this whole tract: that every person can – or should – be molded into an entrepreneur.”
·      The film’s follow-up panel discussion featured Dintersmith (a Partner Emeritus with Charles River Ventures), MA Secretary of Education Chair Jim Peyser, and Russlyn Ali (Executive Director of XQ: The Super School Project, funded with $50M by Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs).
·      The business community wants workers who are employable and fill their skills gaps. Young adults need to be prepared to work in jobs that do not yet exist. Parents want their children to succeed. Government needs to abide by the Constitution and provide the structure and money to enable a society that aligns with our country’s values.

Elephant in the Room…charter schools and traditional public schools, right? So here are my thoughts:
·      Parents deserve choices about their children’s’ schooling. Complete comparison data must be provided that allow making those choices. Parents who don’t have the time or understanding or language skills to access choice must not be penalized in favor of those who do. And there shouldn’t be judgment of parents once their decisions are made.
·      Schools must be provided equitable flexibility to craft change, because adding mandates on some schools while removing mandates from other schools doesn’t allow constricted schools to employ the changes necessary for student success. Any school that is innovating and proving that it results in better outcomes for students should be rewarded with less oversight and more funding. (It’s like parenting – scaffolding responsibility as children successfully meet appropriate benchmarks results in opportunities to achieve greater responsibility.)

·      Students are the only ones who deserve entitlement. They are entitled to a “free and appropriate education.” They are entitled to attend a school that is physically, emotionally, and educationally safe. They are entitled to be educated beginning where they are and brought to where they should be without judgment or labels. They deserve to be challenged, nurtured, coached, and mentored. And they deserve the support to grow into well-adjusted people who can work together, play together, mourn together, and laugh together. It’s our job to work together to support their entitlement.