Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 10/5/16 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the end of the minutes.

Written by: Diego Hammerschlag

Committee members: John Portz, Chair; Kendra Foley, Vice-Chair; Guido Guidotti, Secretary; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Candace Miller; Mark Sideris; Dr. Theresa McGuinness, Assistant Superintendent; Craig Hardimon, Human Resources Director.

Recognition: Benjamin S. Lowry, National Merit Recipient for 2015 PSAT

Postponed

High School Student Advisors

Several clubs have started their 2016-2017 activities.

Teaching & Learning Showcase: Environmental Initiatives at Watertown High School

AP Environmental Science is open to juniors and seniors. Several experiments and activities have been performed to raise awareness. For example, blind tasting of water, etc. The Environmental Club is not currently active but students hope that it will be restarted in the near future. As per future plans, they hope to start a Hydroponic garden and small scale composting.

Kendra Foley suggested environmental initiatives are good for presenting at Science Night and other events around town.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer shared several examples where small individual choices can make a larger impact on the environment.

Public Forum #1

Maria Baia, Chair of SEPAC, spoke about reaching out to the Watertown Community. Maria indicated that all SEPAC events are open to the community and most of them are of interest to all families. Detailed information about mission, schedules, and contact information can be found on the SEPAC web site or Facebook page. A SEPAC booklet was passed out as well.

David Stokes spoke on behalf of Watertown Strong Schools (WSS) urging the School Committee and public to vote NO on question # 5 on November 8th. Our schools need substantial updates in the near term, which could cost $200-400 million dollars per estimates from the recent Master plan study. WSS acknowledges the merits of the CPA but urges Watertown officials to table the CPA discussion until plans for the school buildings are finalized and tax implications are better understood. WSS believes a tax override for the CPA could jeopardize a future tax override to fund necessary school renovations. Please read WSS’ “Schools Before CPA” statement on our website.

Presentation & Discussion: Boston College Family Engagement Study

Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Ph. D. presented a study that started in 2015 as a partnership. She also reported additional grants from several universities were awarded to further fund this study. A ‘Needs Assessment’ was done across ~2600 students and their families. The study found the 5 top non-English languages spoken amongst families are Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Armenian, and Pashtu. The study looked into the demographics of various organizations that connect parents and schools (PTO, Site Council, etc.). The study confirmed healthy, active PTO and Site Council organizations and ~95% attendance of families at parent-teacher conferences. It also highlighted strong parent-teacher ties and an increasing number of family engagement activities (Movie night, Science night, etc.). Some of the gaps identified were:

  • Logistical issues for parent-teacher conferences at the high school.
  • Lower attendance rates for English as a Second Language (ESL) families.
  • ESL families also have less participation in PTO / Site Council (due to unawareness, language barrier, etc.)
  • Gaps are consistent with state and nationwide issues.

Several recommendations were made to increase school engagement with families. It was first recommended to work to minimize barriers, mainly time and schedule, and to try to reach out to families in the language spoken at home whenever possible. Also mentioned, was the importance of fostering 2-way communication instead of the traditional announcement type communication. The study plans to pilot the use of family liaisons and interpretative services.

The study also found that there is a ‘snowball’ effect when successfully reaching out to families. Interestingly, WPS web sites are of limited effectiveness given language and access challenges and texting (SMS) was found to be much more effective. Lastly, time sensitive handouts can also pose a challenge to families who do not speak English for the obvious reasons.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer identified with the findings; her Mom did not speak English fluently and engaging in school organization was not in her cultural background.

Candace Miller inquired about how the study managed to reach out to previously unreachable ESL families. She also suggested WPS add the ‘Google translate’ button wherever possible the web sites. This is a free service, which provides translation into most languages.

Presentation & Discussion: Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS)

The results of the YRBS survey were presented by Stephanie Sunderland-Ramsey and Melanie St-Pierre. In the future, a digital version of the survey will also be available. One of the key goals of the survey is to identify preventive strategies. The detailed presentation is available on the School Committee site. The following are some of the findings:

  • Tobacco use in high school is down significantly consistent with National trends
  • Alcohol use in high/middle school is slightly down. This is one of the more concerning risk behaviors given its easy access.
  • Marijuana use in high/middle school is flat. Legalization is seen as a negative step since it makes it more accessible.
  • Non-medical use of prescription drugs in high school was measured for the first time
  • Depression & suicide in high school was up. This may be due to higher incidence or due to more data available. It is being watched closely.
  • Depression & suicide in middle school was measured for first time in 2014. The data looks for periods of 2 or more weeks of sadness.
  • Bullying in high/middle schools shows a stable trend and close links to body image.

Kendra Foley asked the definition of lifetime use of drugs. This means at least 1 incidence of a minimal amount dependence on the drug.

Candace Miller re-iterated the need to convert the Athletic Subcommittee into a Student Development Subcommittee that could better addresses students’ social/emotional development.

Guido Guidotti inquired whether any substance is of greater concern. Answer was alcohol given its easy access.

Elieen Hsu-Balzer reminded all that e-cigarettes are no longer allowed in WPS properties.

Presentation & Discussion: ELL Student Progress Update

School committee and WPS administration were thanked for recent funding allowing an additional 1.5 FTE for the 2016-2017 academic year. According to the presentation, 11% of WPS students qualify as English Language Learners (ELL).

The summer program has been very successful. Amongst other things, it has prevented ELL students from regression academically and in language over the summer. ELL students face an additional challenge in that they have limited exposure to English over the summer vacation.

As in our schools during the academic year, the ELL summer program experienced some space challenges due to all of the competing programs that run in the schools. For example, it prevented concurring adult classes in the same building while the kids were in the summer program. These are important since services for adults will further whole family exposure to English as well as help with school engagement and outreach.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer indicated it was all very inspiring and confirmed the summer program is currently funded through Title III.

Presentation & Discussion: 2016-1017 Goals & Priorities for the District

Chairman John Portz distributed tentative draft goals which are available on the school committee site. SMART goals for the Superintendent have been delayed pending the hiring of a new Superintendent.

Candace Miller suggested draft goals should be better framed and cited examples such as FLES, larger language goals and STEAM fit into entire scheme of the Math & Science curriculum.

John Portz acknowledged initiatives should be better framed. 

Acting Superintendent Theresa McGuinness shared that WPS has a document that track all ongoing initiatives across the schools. She indicated WPS should be able to share this info with school committee.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer agreed with feedback about framing and stressed the importance of hiring a new Superintendent.

Appointment of Dr. Theresa McGuinness as Acting Superintendent, effective October 8th, 2016

Dr. Theresa McGuinness was approved as Acting Superintendent although approval of the contract has not happened yet.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer expressed the concern that the contract may require separate approval given that it may have impact on salary amongst other things.

Guido Guidotti questioned whether there were policies that state the Assistant Superintendent automatically becomes Acting Superintendent in any circumstance. School committee indicated that is not the case.

John Portz indicated that we are 3-4 weeks away from selecting an Interim Superintendent.

Vote on Resolution Opposing Question # 2 – Expanding the Number of Charter Schools

School committee passed resolution on opposing question # 2. This is a NO on expanding the number of charter schools and consistent with the position of teacher unions and a large number of school committees in Massachusetts.

Approval of WMS Overnight Field Trip to Washington, D.C. (April 24 – April 28, 2017)

Donations can be made. Check should be made to Watertown Public Schools and sent to the middle schools with a memo ‘Washington Trip’. Donation funds are used to help fund students that otherwise could not go.

Reports: Student Enrollment

Handouts with monthly enrollment report are available on the school committee web site. The recommendation was made to use October numbers since September numbers frequently have a number of graduating and moving students unaccounted for. Need some clarification on out-of-district students in handouts.

Middle School Principal Kimo Carter indicated churn rate numbers are misleading since they are not done across the same cohort.

Update: Interim Business Manager Search

Applications are due October 10th

Update: Interim Superintendent Search

The search committee has been identified and the position was advertised in late September. The search committee met to review applicants on 10/5. A community forum will be scheduled for October 20th. The goal is for the search committee to recommend 2 or more candidates to school committee.

The search for a permanent Superintendent search is targeted to start, in late November or early December. The permanent Business Manager search is planned to begin once the permanent Superintendent is selected.

Update: Master Planning Study

Elizabeth Yusem indicated that a draft should be complete 10/7 and is hoping to distribute the Master Plan report after the Columbus Day weekend on 10/11. A special effort has been made to make the report especially clear such that the new Superintendent, not having been part of the process, can make the most effective use of it.

Acknowledgement

School Committee acknowledged the contributions and dedication of retiring Superintendent Dr. Jean Fitzgerald and retiring Business Manager Mr. Charlie Kelner throughout their years of service. 

Next Meeting & New Business

While the next School Committee meeting is scheduled for November 14th, due to the search for Interim Superintendent and Business Manager, it is highly likely that the School Committee will meet one or more times before then.

Candace Miller requested a calendar be announced with tentative Subcommittee meeting dates. There is a great deal of activity ahead of us and publishing a calendar early would help all interested parties.

Candace Miller also requested that new School Committee members be provided a tour of all schools in the district.

Commentary

Diego Hammerschlag
It is evident that there are a number of important hiring decisions ahead of us. Two important challenges stand out. One is that several positions, such as Business Manager, are essential for the day to day operation of WPS and should be addressed, whether temporary or permanently ASAP. The second one is that we should use all our past experiences to ensure a sound, clear, and transparent process that leads us to the best hires for our district.

The engagement study showed some clear value in engaging the community and also helped identify some strategies that may help non-english speaking families in our district. This study tied nicely into the progress that has been made with ELL students and hope to continue in the future.

I also want to acknowledge our Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Theresa McGuinness, for not hesitating to take on the additional responsibilities during this challenging transitionary period. I hope we can all support her throughout this time.

Of no lesser importance was the Youth Risk Behavior Survey presentation, which clearly identified many of the challenges in our community. I believe the findings should help us implement measures towards a healthier community and successful youth.