As the 2016-17 school year gets underway, I wanted to take the opportunity to welcome everyone back. As you get back into school mode, I would like to highlight many of the exciting and innovative things going on in the Dracut Public Schools:
Behind the scenes, we are adopting a number of high-impact strategies and programs that will provide our teachers and principals with opportunities unavailable to other districts in Massachusetts. We have also been recognized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as selecting and supporting instructional models and strategies that as seen in high-performing districts across the state.
At every turn, we are working to modernize our schools. This modernization includes not just hardware and software. It includes critical work in making the curriculum and instruction more relevant and dynamic. It is about bringing value-added to everything we do in support of our students. That our graduates continue to be accepted into the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country speaks to the passion and commitment we have.
It has been almost a year since I accepted an invitation to visit The White House and participate in a meeting of superintendents and higher education leaders in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education from across the United States to discuss the Maker Initiative. This was a fabulous opportunity to connect the Dracut Public Schools to school districts from across the country in support of student learning.
The Maker Movement celebrates creativity, design, invention, and exploration. Across the United States, Maker spaces are popping up (including spaces in Lowell, Burlington, and Nashua), and most recently, a network television show, America’s Greatest Makers is being aired, celebrating this cultural phenomenon.
In public schools, this movement is being adopted across the country in support of traditional STEM fields. With the addition of the traditional Arts, STEAM concepts are taking hold. At The White House event, I committed the Dracut Public Schools to incorporating Maker and STEAM concepts into our curricula. I am excited to report that a variety of initiatives are underway in all of our schools:
We have only just begun. The Dracut Public Schools will continue to develop, refine, and expand our efforts at harnessing the creativity of our talented teachers in support of engaging and relevant 21st Century learning opportunities for our children.
As reported by Junior Tayleigh Tierney-Honan:
Recently, Dracut High School Seniors had the opportunity to participate in a Credit for Life Fair. This was a unique chance for Seniors to experience real-life financial circumstances in a controlled environment. In advance of the fair, students were asked to choose an occupation. The day of the fair, they were directed to travel to over 15 booths, each specializing in different real life circumstances such as credit and lending, housing, and transportation. Additionally, students had to navigate through unexpected, unanticipated life events that they are likely to encounter in the future (such as such as the birth of children, or job promotions). Each booth presented students with choices to be made in regards to their personal finances based on their given salaries; all while facing real-life expenses and dilemmas.
As a Junior, it was enlightening to see the Seniors going through each step and evaluating their financial situations. I was able to talk with Senior, Julia Demopolulos who said, “I am a little bit nervous about how this will turn out for me. This is a career that I have been planning on for my future. This fair has helped me see how to plan better for when it comes time to make these decisions for real.” In the end, some students were able to maintain good credit while others, who had to learn the “hard way” were glad that this was just a mock situation.
The Credit for Life Fair was made possible through a competitive grant awarded to Dracut High School through the efforts of, Mr. Charles Mone, who is also the leader of the DHS DECA Club. A special thanks to Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union who provided materials and over sixty employees who manned various booths; the Dracut Rotary, along with Mr. Taber and Mrs. McHugh. Dracut was one of only nineteen high schools able to put this fair on, giving the class on 2016, a memorable opportunity. Kudos to Mr. Mone for providing the Senior Class with such an enlightening experience
I hope everyone has enjoyed the summer of 2015. We are excited to welcome back students in grades 1-12 on September 2nd, and our newest Kindergartners on September 3rd. There is quite a bit going on in our schools:
Additionally, on the operational side, we are going live with a number of improvements:
In regards to the ever present concerns over the district’s finances, the final budget for this year included a reduction of 6.6 teaching positions. During the winter and spring, I regularly provided public updates on the state of the budget as it evolved. The budget process, which begins in October, and is only completed by a vote of the School Committee after June Town Meeting, is a dynamic process that includes conversations with the Town regarding expected appropriation levels, the State in relation to grant funding and aid, and ongoing assessment of other revenue sources (user fees for example). Projections change in each category regularly. It has been the operating principle of this administration and the School Committee to bring as much transparency as possible to the process. That transparency necessitates public comments about revenues and expense estimates that are constantly shifting.
I spoke at the June Town Meeting and indicated that estimates of revenues and uncertainty of the state budget (that was not finalized until weeks after the school budget had to be set) were likely to cause staffing reductions but that we were hopeful that state funding and an impending lease of the Parker School would resolve most of our shortfall. Indeed, subsequent to the start of the fiscal year, these matters were resolved to the benefit of the district. We were able to restore 5.6 of the positions lost.
The decision to find all opportunities to retain our teachers and continue to provide varied programming in light of budgetary constraints; most notably an appropriation for transportation significantly below our needs, forced the district to raise user fees for athletics and institute a transportation fee for elementary students living two miles or closer to their school. While we understand the fiscal strain placed on families, we believe that there was no alternative if we wished to maintain the integrity and robustness of our academic program.
I am confident that we are positioned to educate your children as vibrantly as always. I thank you for giving the Dracut Public Schools the opportunity to serve the children of Dracut, and look forward to a productive and eventful year.
The Dracut Public Schools is a proud member of the Community of Caring character education family. Community of Caring is an evidence-based, nationally-recognized character education program that has been adopted by over 1,200 schools in 46 states nation-wide and in Canada. The headquarters of The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Center for Community of Caring is located at the University of Utah. In Dracut, all of our schools have adopted this program.
Community of Caring is built around five core values: CARING, RESPECT, RESPONSIBILITY, TRUST, and FAMILY. These five values serve as a foundation and umbrella for school activities and initiatives. Conversations about the values are embedded within lessons and the life of each school. Each school will have a Community of Caring committee to help lead school wide projects; and each school has a lead coordinator, who works with the building principal to coordinate activities and support classroom teachers.
By developing schools as caring, respectful, responsible, trustworthy and family-oriented communities, we put children, teachers and school staff at the center of education as the values are weaved into every aspect of school life and the existing curriculum.
In Dracut we are building character as well as building minds.
In 2013 the district began a lengthy and comprehensive review of all aspects of the district’s organization and structure. That review included support from external professional organizations such as the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials (MASBO), the Massachusetts Association for Pupil Transportation, and the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS).
As I have been stating since the inception of the reorganization work, all of our efforts have been focused on strengthening the academic program while maximizing the efficiency of our operations. For our district this construct is imperative.
Part of the district’s reorganization involves changes to our transportation system. As many of you know our previous configuration included a three tiered bus system (three different start/end times). This system had been identified for a number of years as being inefficient as many of the routes had low ridership (as few as 12-15 students on a bus at one time). These observations included those of external organizations. Ultimately, based on our assessment and those of external organizations, the district decided to tackle the tiered transportation system.
The immediate programmatic advantage of a two tiered system was our desire to take advantage of common bell times for the four elementary schools. The shift allows for elementary teachers to collaborate across not just grades, but across schools. Being able to align the elementary schools will create a middle school population that has learned similar things in a similar manner, with similar expectations. This allows the middle school to begin its work with our students with a student body better prepared to grow more effectively in advance of high school.
The common bell time created by shifting to a two tiered bell schedule also allows the administration and faculty to work collaboratively with the educator evaluation system. A major component of this system is the development of common assessments in all grades and in all subjects. Without the ability for teachers at all four schools to work together, the development of common assessments is virtually impossible.
The heart of the district is the instructional core: students, teachers, and the instruction provide d through a robust curriculum. As you know our Curriculum Department consists of one person, David Hill, the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. He is charged with managing the instructional program of the district.
That instructional program is many faceted, encompassing the requirement to develop, align, and revise our curriculum for every grade, subject, and class in the district with the Common Core standards. The Curriculum Department is also responsible for supporting the principals in systematizing and improving the instructional program. Additionally, the academic program includes the creation, implementation, and review of the assessments developed internally as well as the management of external testing (MCAS). Without mechanisms to create, implement, and assess all of that work, the instructional program does not improve. It does not grow. It does not adapt to the changing nature of our society.
The reorganization of the district (from K-4 elementary schools, a 5-6 intermediate school, a 7-8 junior high, and a 9-12 high school) to a district with fewer transitions for students (K-5, 6-8, 9-12) was an enormous undertaking. The redistricting of students, the renovations of the physical plant, the shifting of many teachers, the adoption of a middle school philosophy, and the alterations to the existing curriculum have been completed. The remaining hurdle is the shift in our transportation model.
We have been working closely with our longtime transportation provider North Reading Transportation to minimize the disruptions such a shift creates. There are many moving parts: transfer of internal data for route population and validation, submission of transportation requests from parents, and the creation of routes. To date there have been weaknesses in all aspects of the transition. We have been in constant contact with NRT throughout the process and will continue to do so.
Challenges and stressors to the complex logistical system that is transportation in a district of almost 4,000 students will occur for a couple of weeks. Drivers for NRT, many longtime residents of Dracut, have been conducting “dry runs” of their routes and are working with their dispatcher to alter inefficient routes as they are observed. NRT and our Business Office are responding to phone calls from families and will continue to do so as quickly as possible. The priority for NRT and the district is the assessment of health and safety concerns.
Individual requests from parents for alterations for convenience will be processed once NRT and the district are comfortable with the overall structure of the routes. Ultimately the effective and efficient operation of the routes will take priority. Effective and efficient routing is a balance between ridership volume and time. Every effort will be made to ensure this balance is retained.
There is an expectation that some routes may change to one degree or another over the first couple of weeks of school as ridership settles and as the pace of the routes settle. Of particular attention is the length of the posted routes. The framework of the routing process includes the use of software specifically designed for the transportation industry. The algorithms used in these programs builds in measures of time that each stop theoretically takes, and calculates specific time for each student to board or exit a bus. NRT has told us that they do not expect route times to be as lengthy as the ones posted, once the routes and ridership settles.
I have also been in contact with the Dracut Police Department regarding transportation. They are working with us to minimize disruptions and address the safety of our students. This includes support at each school site over the first few days of school.
I thank everyone in advance for their patience as we tackle the last hurdle of the reorganization of the Dracut Public Schools.
A centerpiece of the upcoming district reorganization is the shift towards a grades 6-8 middle school model to support early adolescent development. In support of this effort, the district joined the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS), the most influential organization in the region, to help guide our efforts. This change is not in name only. The move to a comprehensive middle grades structure is complex and challenging. It is a challenge, however, worth tackling.
Member district belonging to NELMS have embraced the research and experiences that emerged through work originally begun by the Carnegie Corporation, a foundation established by Andrew Carnegie. Its seminal publication in the late 1980’s, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, re-conceptualized the educational environment of early adolescents. The follow up publication Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century is the framework through which the Dracut Public Schools re-imagines our middle school.
The goal of ensuring success to every student enrolled in our new middle school will be expressed and accomplished through the tenets of the Turning Points design:
To tackle the myriad challenges in opening our new middle school in September, I first started by making the Dracut Public Schools an active member of NELMS. Second I appointed current Englesby Intermediate School Principal Maria McGuinness to the position of Principal of the soon to be middle school effective July 1, 2014. In the interim Ms. McGuinness is working closely with NELMS in guiding our transition and supporting the work that is now occurring: the active engaged work of a steering committee and associated subcommittees, each of which is tasked with addressing one of the Turning Points tenets
One of the primary challenges Ms. McGuinness and the various committees have is the process of questioning and examining every aspect of our current intermediate/junior high school model. Nothing is too sacred so as to be unquestioned. The steering committee and its subcommittees, made up of over 30 (and growing) teachers and administrators, are actively engaged in pedagogical inquiry for the ultimate purpose of ensuring that we provide a robust and valuable middle school experience to our students.
Additional work is also ongoing related to other aspects of our school system, as the middle school will not exist in isolation. David Hill, the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, is working with Ms. McGuinness to ensure continuity between the elementary schools and Dracut High School. This work includes external sources and coordination and guidance from the department heads at Dracut High School to ensure that we position our students for success at Dracut High School and in their post secondary education.
In the coming months information will be provided as the committees conclude their inquiries and settle on structures for our new school. From inquiry, self reflection, and purposeful design will rise the stronger, more dynamic Dracut Public Schools.
The district has, for a number of years, transported students across attendance zones to a small number of large daycare centers as an accommodation. The school system has a responsibility to provide an education to Dracut’s children in the most effective manner possible. We cannot sustain practices that are not cost effective and discourage private business from responding to market forces. We have an obligation to effectively manage public resources so that all available dollars can be devoted to our classrooms.
Further, the district has also followed a practice of allowing students to attend schools in an attendance zone other than their own for daycare or hardship reasons. This practice impacts school enrollments and class sizes. Consistent with expectations, the new attendance zones were developed with census and current school enrollment data specific to the actual residence of the district’s students. The district also took future construction into account, to the degree possible, so that each school had sufficient capacity flexibility to absorb additional students. Given the limited capacity of the district to respond to class size fluctuations, we must put into place a system to minimize movement across attendance zones.
In the days since the School Committee approved the new attendance zones, we have listened to the concerns of families who utilize private daycares. In considering how to reorganize the school district while minimizing the impact of the systemic changes on these families, the district will enact the following processes:
We believe that a balance has been struck between accommodating parents with daycare needs and the district’s need to reorganize. By providing this accommodation, families and private businesses will have approximately 16 months to resolve private arrangements in time for the 2015-16 school year. Further, over the next few months the district will be responding to the feedback it has received relative to parents’ overwhelming desire to have the schools host before/after school child care. We are actively investigating such a support system.
If you have any questions related to the information contained in this letter please feel free to to speak with your child’s individual school.