Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 3/7/16

Note: These are not official minutes

Middle School Announcements

Middle School students discussed all of the great volunteer and charity work that has gone on at WMS over the past school year.

Student Advisors

Discussed several topics: seniors are eagerly awaiting college acceptance letters, sports updates, etc. WHS Spring Muscial Fiddler on the Roof will be at the high school 3/17-19 at 7pm. Tickets are $10.

Public Forum #1

James Cairns, a Cunniff parent, spoke about overcrowding and the concern that the current Master Plan RFP that is being developed may not be in time to address short term needs.  He stated a need for emergency stop-gap measures to address the situation at the Cunniff, (especially the “nomadic 4th grade class”) and the other elementary schools. He credited Cunniff principal, Mena Ciarlone, and her creative solutions for managing the significant space constraints and also noted the flexibility of the teaching staff. However, he felt that something needs to be done parallel to the RFP process to manage the severity of the impact overcrowding is having on student's learning experiences.

Superintendent’s report (moved forward in the agenda)

Dr. Jean Fitzgerald plans to send the final re-write of the SOI (Statement of Interest) for the high school to the School Committee on Friday, 3/11. The School Committee will vote to submit it to the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) on 3/14.  Dr. Fitzgerald also stated that she intends to divide the Master Plan RFP into two parts. The first part would include an outside analysis of school enrollment, which would include the impact of the new development in town. The previous enrollment study done by NESDEC (New England School Development Council) and presented at the January School Committee meeting did not include new development.  She is meeting next week with a firm about the enrollment study.  The second part of the RFP would then contain the Master Plan. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she met with the three elementary school principals and the Preschool Director to discuss space issues. Dr. Fitzgerald also stated that she doesn’t want the current situation to extend into the fall.  “It can’t be.” (As an aside, the Early Steps preschool is expanding to include a classroom in the Phillips Building, and it is projected that by fall 2017 that space will be redesigned to accommodate two classrooms.)

The Cunniff principal then spoke about a meeting she had on 3/3 with the fourth grade parents at the Cunniff school regarding the new arrangement (in which the grade has been split into two classes of 21 kids and a floating class of 12). Ten parents attended that meeting. She stated that she is committed to meeting monthly with parents and provided Dr. Fitzgerald feedback right after the meeting. She noted that the families seemed generally comfortable with the current situation for now, but had a lot of anxiety about what will happen in the fall when these fourth graders moved up to fifth grade and there were still a projected 55 students to be accommodated. She felt that it would be best if Dr. Fitzgerald came to the next meeting with the families in April to better address those concerns. She also mentioned that on Wednesdays, when the students all came together as a group, that they will make it a project-based learning day so that the students could work in small groups. The kids do seem, in her estimation, to be happier and more comfortable moving around the classroom with fewer students. She concluded by saying that the situation isn't going to be easily fixed, but "everybody's working on a solution."

Elizabeth Yusem commended the Cunniff staff on their creativity and adaptability during this difficult time. Eileen Hsu-Balzer noted that the issue of space is an issue for all of the elementary schools.  She also was appreciative of the staff at the Cunniff and stated that she felt parents needed more information about the challenges facing the district and the solutions being sought. John Portz made similar comments.  The Cunniff principal stated that parents would be happy to know that the School Committee is working on the issue.

NEASC Accreditation Visit to WHS

Maureen Regan (6-12 curriculum coordinator) and Adrienne Eaton (high school guidance counselor) presented their work on the high school accreditation process through the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC). See the link to the presentation in the agenda document. There will be a site visit happening at the high school for four days from Sunday, 3/13, through Wednesday, 3/16. They will be developing 2- and 5-year plans for school improvements, and the accreditation process repeats every 10 years. Principal Lundberg also spoke and said that while the NEASC evaluation of Watertown High School will give the school valuable input, it won't "drive" the choices administrators make for the school or students-- they will incorporate that information into their own assessment of what is best for this school community.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer repeated a comment that she made at a recent budget and finance subcommittee meeting.  She stated that this process might require Watertown to make some additional changes that are not included in the current budget proposal.  The NEASC report isn’t expected until the fall.  Candace Miller asked what outcomes were expected from the work done though the accreditation process. Ms. Regan stated that the physical building is not in good shape.  She also mentioned that they took a hard look at WHS while doing the self-study and didn’t rate WHS as exemplary on any of the seven NEASC standards.  She said, “We need to up our game.”  She also mentioned that in the Endicott survey that was given to parents, students and teachers as part of the self-study, the teachers were harder on WHS than the students or parents. Kendra Foley asked if the results from the last NEASC process were used as a roadmap for change. Ms. Regan stated that there have been several changes in administration at the district and school level since then, as well as changes in requirements by the Department of Education. Ms. Regan essentially said that the NEASC process provides some feedback, but that the schools decide which changes to make that are in the best interest of Watertown students and that there are many factors that drive what changes are made (budget, administration, federal and state mandates, etc.)  Eileen Hsu-Blazer stated that everybody wants to make WHS better, but that it often comes down to a lack of resources.

Social Emotional Learning

Dr. Barbara Gortych (Assessment & Testing Coordinator K-12) and April Romano (Early Ed Director, Early Steps Preschool) gave a presentation on behavioral health programs and initiatives from preschool through grade 12 in Watertown. Please see the link to the presentation in the agenda document. These programs include socio-emotional modeling through use of puppets in the lower grades up to friendship groups, anti-bullying initiatives, parent outreach, resource and "opportunity" rooms for reflection and decompression, and additional behavioral support services through the upper grades. All grades have access to behavioral specialists who can work with teachers to develop functional behavioral assessments and behavior support plans. Some of these programs are currently being supported through an outside grant.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer of the School Committee commented that even if the grant is not awarded again this year, we should find a way to keep these programs funded.  Ms. Hsu-Balzer also made the comment that kids are coming to WPS at all different ages and grades and that WPS only has them for 6hrs. The state and federal government is asking schools to do something that in the past was done by parents, churches and other outside groups.  She also mentioned that there has been talk about giving students social emotional report cards.  Dr. Gortych stated that she was not in favor of a social emotional report card and suggested that something like that could do more harm than good. It was also stated that the MOVA grant wouldn’t be in place forever, however, there was some hope that it may be extended into next year. Dr. Gortych said that the most critical thing that was provided through the grant was the training.  Candace Miller asked how it was determined which programs were effective and which needed adjusting.  Dr. Gortych stated that no formal metrics were used, but that staff evaluated the programs through meetings and discussing what was working for some students and what may need to be adjusted to work for others, etc.

MSBA Workshop

There was a brief discussion revisiting the "Story of a Building" workshop that has been talked about in previous SC meetings. Please see the agenda for a link to the document.  John Portz, Kendra Foley, Eileen Hsu-Balzer, and Elizabeth Yusem, discussed some of their takeaways in considering the building design, including the impact of curriculum on space, the long-term projected needs of a school system in terms of enrollment, and the impact of town culture and identity. Mark Sideris (Town Council President) also noted the importance of getting the town on-board with a school-rebuilding project, stating that it does no good to obtain an MSBA grant and then have the town reject the proposal. He suggested the need for community wide involvement and brought up the issue of getting buy-in from all Watertown residents, not just those with children in the schools.  The debt exclusion override currently in place will expire in 2018.

Personnel Report

Craig Hardiman (Human Resource Director) mentioned two leadership vacancies that are currently in the process of being filled. The Assistant Superintendent position is down to three finalists whose bios are listed on the WPS website. A community forum to meet the finalists is set for Thursday, 3/10 at 6pm at the high school in the lecture hall. The Director of Special Education position is also vacant and interviews are being conducted now, with finalists to be announced hopefully by the end of this week (Friday, 3/11). A community forum to meet those finalists is tentatively set for 3/22, with location and time TBD.

Public Forum #2 – no speakers

Chairman’s Report

The next School Committee meeting will be held on Monday, 3/14 at 6pm at the high school library to discuss two topics: voting on the SOI and voting on the assistant superintendent position. There will also be a School Committee workshop/retreat on Wednesday, 3/16 from 9-12, with the agenda and location TBD (John Portz, SC chair, invited agenda item ideas). There should be more information on this workshop by the end of the week.

There will not be a Budget & Finance Sub-Committee meeting on 3/21 as originally planned, but there will be a Town Council & School Committee joint meeting at 6:30 at town hall to hear the report on an outside audit of the school's finances.

New Business

Candace Miller mentioned a middle school 5-year curriculum review cycle, in which each subject would be reviewed every 5 years on a rotating basis. She said that as we talk about buildings, "we also want to make sure that space is considered" with regard to curriculum needs. She said this has come up as a discussion in the middle school several times over the last few years.

Commentary

We agree with Jim Cairns about the need for a parallel process to the RFP in order to address short-term space needs for the upcoming school year. Dr. Fitzgerald outlined breaking the RFP into two parts: enrollment and Master Plan, but no timeframe was given.  Will the enrollment portion also include short term planning? How fast can that study be done and will short-term options be provided?  However it is accomplished, there must be some solutions by the fall.  We appreciate the Superintendent meeting with elementary principals and looking into different options.

Regarding the Cunniff situation, we feel that the Cunniff principal may be downplaying parent concerns a bit. While Cunniff parents are concerned about next year, our impression is that they are not comfortable with the current situation.  We continue to applaud all of the efforts made by the Cunniff principal and teachers to be creative and to do their best with the space challenges they are faced with.  We agree with Ms. Hsu-Balzer’s statement that more information should be forthcoming about the space challenges the district faces as well as any solutions being discussed.

We would like to applaud Maureen Regan and Adrienne Eaton on a very thorough presentation on the NEASC accreditation process for the WHS. During that presentation an Endicott survey of parents, students and teachers was mentioned. It sounded like that survey held a lot of excellent feedback and information about WHS.  We are looking into whether that study is public and if so, if it can be shared with the community.

Town Council President and School Committee member Mark Sideris made a comment during the MSBA workshop discussion that reminds everyone that the SOI and future plans for the high school needs to be a community wide discussion.  We would like to echo Mr. Sideris’ comments and encourage the administration and School Committee to start bringing this conversation to the community.  The current debt exclusion override expires in 2018 and any new high school will need funding.  The district and the town need to develop a plan for that upcoming deadline.  It will be a long process but discussions should start soon.

 

Minutes written by: Julie Cotton and Alyson Morales