Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What is great about Waltham's schools...Getting excited for the new year

As the new school year looms on the horizon, and new backpacks and shoes are being purchased, I am grateful for the fact that our school system in Waltham is so good, and that my son is so excited to be going back next week. Yesterday he received a post card, REAL MAIL, from his soon to be first grade teacher. He was THRILLED and we sat down to read it together as he was getting ready for bed.

Recently Liz Humphries-McCarthy wrote in her Waltham Patch blog about the benefits of our Waltham schools. I could not agree more with the points she made. Make sure you read it. Like Liz, when we had our son and began talking to other parents whose children were around the same age, some of them indicated they would move to other towns before their children started kindergarten, because they didn't think the Waltham school system would be up to their standards. We would have periodic mom get togethers, and inevitably the conversation would turn to how the schools were doing educating some of the mom's older children, and people would begin talking about average SAT scores and MCAS standings. And again, there would be this general consensus that moving to a "better" school system would be the thing to do.

There were a few of us who would not express that view though. I found myself expressing what I perceived were and are the strengths of the Waltham school system. Here are two I think are important:

Diversity. I love that my son hears different languages being spoken by his peers with their families. I love that he knows there are different holidays celebrated at their homes, and they eat different foods than we do. I want him to experience as much of this diversity as possible, to understand that the whole world doesn't look exactly like him, and doesn't always see the world through the same lens as we do. And that none of that is bad or wrong, just different and unique.

Teachers. Admittedly we only have one year under our belt at Stanley, but we have been so impressed with the quality of the teaching staff, the commitment of the admininstrative staff and the fact that Cooper is so excited to go back to school next week is a testiment to their dedication. It was weird transitioning from the very immediate and constant contact we had experience with day care/pre-school to the almost complete lack of one on one interaction with the teaching staff in kindergarten. I eventually reached out to his teacher after the first week to check in and tell her she should always feel free to give me feedback on how Coop was doing, if there were issues or whatever, and that email was the best means of contacting me unless there was an emergency. That was well received and we spent the year sharing updates and information periodically. She knew we were open and receptive to ALL feedback, and when my class clown of a child pulled a few "hilarious to the kindergarten set" stunts, or acted out, she let me know so we could reinforce what proper and acceptable behavior was in the classroom. She also shared the positive progress he was making, letting me know what she was working on with him and we used that information to provide more positive reinforcement at home.

And this is what gets at the heart of why just leaving to go to a "better" school system is so problematic to me. Schools work best when we as the parents stay involved. When we are invested in how our children are doing, when we work with the teachers to make the system work. And I am not saying that the people who leave for different towns won't be just as invested and involved. But if you think a system is not working, maybe helping to make it better is a good idea. As I work with students at the college level who have come out of the Waltham system, as I see my friends whose children have been educated in the Waltham system graduating from high school and going on to do wonderful things, I see success stories. I see how being in a system that values not just the college track student, but the student who may want to study the culinary arts or cosmetology works to prepare ALL of its students for the future.

Is Waltham's school system perfect? No. I would suggest no school system is perfect. Waltham has a few challenges facing it in the near future for sure, including an increased demand on its facilities and the teachers, as well as the reaccreditation of the high school. It has been well documented we are concerned about turnover and persistence in the teaching and administrative staff. But when looked at as a whole, when you look at the work being done on a daily basis in our schools, I think we have a system to be proud of; a system worth sticking around for.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Waltham School Committee meeting of Aug. 6...

The Waltham School Committee held a special meeting last night, Aug. 6th, to present the evaluation of the Superintendent, Dr. Susan Nicholson, among other action items. All members were present, as well as myself and three other members of the public and two members of the media.

This is the first year that Waltham is using this particular evaluation tool, one mandated by the Department of Education, so it was new to everyone. The overall result of the review of Dr. Nicholson resulted in a rating of Proficient. This is on a scale of four options, including Not Satisfactory, Making Progress, Proficient and Excels (I may not have the exact wording for each option, but the general sense is accurate). She was rated on four goals that had been established for the year, and each goal was rated on a scale of Not Met, Making Progress, Met, and Exceeds. She received a rating of Exceeds on one goal, and Met on the other three.

Comments that were read at the end of the evaluation suggested Dr. Nicholson is well liked and respected by her coworkers and staff, and is doing a good job overall with moving the district forward and making good progress on student outcomes. Among the items suggested for improvement were working on conflict resolution and focusing on the positives within the district as well as the negatives.

Dr. Nicholson questioned one of the Met ratings on her goal of 70% of all 2nd graders reading at or above grade level. The actual number came out at 72%. She felt that warranted an Exceeds rating. Robert Cincotta responded that as he was working through how to rate that goal, he asked himself what he would rate her if the result had been 68%. He felt that a variance of 2% in either direction still warranted a Met rating. Susan Burstein added that this was the one goal which she did not have direct control over. The teaching staff and the students impacted the end result and as such, it seemed fair to consider it having been met. There was a suggestion that in the future if a goal like this was being established, using a range instead of a hard number would make more sense.

So the end result was a good evaluation with an overall rating of Proficient for the Superintendent.

The meeting did not end there though. The committee went on to discuss what, if anything, the subcommittee looking at redistricting, for the lack of a better word, should be doing. After much discussion, the committee agreed that until the enrollment data for this fall is in, and Dr. Nicholson can get three years of data analysed, and the consultant who is going to be hired to look at our facility use and enrollment information is on board, the only thing that really can be done is to get to the Mayor the data she needs for the RFI that will be issued as part of the consultant hiring process. All other discussions around redistricting, including whether moving students around should happen by geography or based on programs (ELL, Special Education and Pre K) should not be ongoing at this time.

The next item was a motion to move the school committee more into the electronic age, and begin disseminating items for the meetings electronically instead of hard copy. Currently the administrative assistance spends 4-5 hours preparing materials and delivering them to the members. Going electronic would cut that time in half, and save trees and other resources. As part of this motion the Superintendent will research and identify electronic devices, such as an iPad, that would be purchased for the school committee members so they may access these items easily and use during meetings. A request for training on using whatever device is provided was requested and approved. This will go into action for the next meeting.

This discussion was followed by Lisa Limonciello making a motion to put an item on the agenda under new business. There was a brief discussion regarding if this was allowable in a special meeting but ultimately it was approved. The item was to ask about a meeting that will happen between the Mayor and any interested parents from the Fitzgerald Elementary school. The intial question was why was this meeting happening, and was followed up with a discussion regarding whether it was appropriate for the Mayor, as a member of the school committee to take such a meeting.

The Mayor explained that this meeting came out of a concern on her part that she had been hearing rumblings in social media, and from contact from parents to her directly that suggested there were "issues" at Fitzgerald. In her role as Mayor, she feels it is her duty to find out if there is a problem at a school, consequently she reached out to a parent and eventually asked if the parents would like to have a meeting. When pressed on what the topic of the meeting would be, the Mayor indicated she didn't know for sure, but she ultimately indicated the parents feel disenfranchised and she would like to better understand this.

Things got a little heated when Robert Cincotta indicated that he felt it was inappropriate for her to have this meeting. Both he and others felt that protocol and policy within the school committee would have parents go to the Superintendent before an issue is addressed by any other member of the committee or by the committee as a whole. The Mayor replied that it is her duty as Mayor to understand what is going on at any school if there is a perception there is a problem, and then stated that previously Mr. Cincotta had told her he feels it is inappropriate for her to respond to and interact with parents who reach out to her, but that it is OK for him to do so. Mr. Cincotta rejected that statement outright. When the Mayor persisted in stating this he demanded that she stop lying and eventually left the meeting. The issue continued to be discussed, with both Ms. Burstein and Ms. Limonciello stating that their concern was that A) parents who have issues first try to bring the issue to the Superintendent, and B) no member of the school committee discuss the performance of any employee of the school district in public with anyone. The Mayor responded that she had asked if the parents had reached out to Dr. Nicholson and that the response was yes, so she felt that issue had been addressed. She also stated she had no intention of discussing the performance of any individual including the Superintendent with this group of parents, but was concerned about issues around process.

Dr. Nicholson stated she was aware of an email that went from the Fitzgerald PTO to the parents regarding this meeting and that it was specifically relating to the Superintendent. She has no interest in having to defend herself in public, nor would that be appropriate. The Mayor again stated she would be having this meeting, which any member of the public and the school committee would be welcome to attend, to find out what the issues are.

Margaret Donnelly brought the discussion to a close by suggesting that part of the problem might come from the fact that in previous meetings parents had been told that they should not reach out directly to the school committee if they had questions or concerns, and thus there might be the perception that the school committee as a whole is not open to hearing issues. She suggested that while that had been corrected, if there is any question of the public feeling comfortable sharing concerns, if there are questions of transparency, that falls to the school committee to resolve.

The remaining items were standard items and then I left.

My impression of the meeting overall is that the Superintendent is viewed as doing a good job and moving the district forward in a positive manner. It was also clear that there are some concerns around the meeting with the Fitzgerald parents. It would be my expectation that the Mayor acts in accordance with school committee protocol and policies, while also doing her due diligence with her constituents. That is the job of Mayor after all. This speaks loudly to some existing issues at the parent level, concern about the turnover of staff, specifically principals and is obviously something Dr. Nicholson should be adding to her list of objectives for the coming year. Being Superintendent is a very hard job, and no one will ever make everyone happy. It is impossible. But if parents feel they are not being listened to, if they feel disenfranchised, there are probably steps that can be taken to address THAT issue. It also became apparent that members of the school committee had not been aware of the previous meeting the Superintendent held with the Fiztgerald parents regarding the hiring process of a new principal, which may be why none of them were present at the meeting. Add this to the fact that apparently the teaching staff at Fitzgerald did not get the message regarding the Superintendent also holding a meeting for them, and so none of them showed up for it, I would also suggest that communication might be something that needs to be focused on.

Friday, July 26, 2013

What Are Parents Looking For...

This past Monday evening I attended the meeting Superintendent Dr. Susan Nicholson scheduled for any parents from Fitzgerald Elementary who had questions or concerns about the recent departure and consequent replacement of the principal for Fitzgerald. My son does not attend Fitzgerald, he is at Stanley, but I felt that as a candidate for the Waltham School Committee I should attend to hear what parents were saying.

There is, rightfully so, much concern about the number of principals this particular school has had in the last four years. This will be the fourth in that amount of time. Part of that is because after the long time principal retired three years ago, an interim was named until a permanent hire could be found. The same plan appears to be in motion again. Dr. Nicholson has made it clear the current search is for an interim person, as she didn't feel there was enough time to do a thorough search for a permanent hire before the school year starts. While that makes sense on paper, it does mean that there will be yet another new principal at Fitzgerald, after this one is hired. That search is probably going to be initiated in January, 2014.

Questions were asked regarding why Mr. LaRoche left. Dr. Nicholson agreed that in part it was because of  compensation but insisted there were other factors involved. This lead to a discussion of what would she and the committee tasked with finding a new principal do to ensure we would find someone who would stay. Obviously a review of compensation will need to take place, to see if there is a glaring discrepancy between what Waltham can pay its principals and what surrounding communities pay. The SC will likely need to take this on as an item to review in the near future.

When asked what would they like to see considered as a search was undertaken for both an interim and permanent hire, parents responded with what I considered useful and fair comments.

Someone who has experience teaching at the elementary level. The parent suggesting this felt that if a principal has not had experience teaching at this level, it is harder to know the challenges the teachers face in the classroom, and it is then harder to know how best to support, direct and advise them.

Someone approachable, both as a student but also as a parent. It seems that while the students really liked the outgoing principal, at least the parents present at the meeting did not find him easy to engage with, open to dialogue nor open to the support of the parents and the PTO.

Someone enthusiastic about bringing the community together. The Fitzgerald PTO seems to be a very enthusiastic and willing to be involved group. A new principal would be well served to work with, not against the support of this organization.

Another point mentioned was they would like a principal who is open to the school being utilized outside of the regular school hours. Apparently there were issues with both the Afterschool programming and use of the facilities by other organizations like the Boy Scouts. These types of programs are integral to the life of an elementary school and principals should be supportive of them.

Concerns were also expressed about the interim option. Dr. Nicholson seemed very positive about the people who had applied for the position, the majority of whom are retired former principals. Would these candidates have the motivation and energy to do the job as it should be done, with all the enthusiasm and commitment of a permanent hire? While I understand that concern, I think sometimes a person will bring even more to the table as a temporary hire than as a permanent hire for the very reason that it is not forever. Retirees have a lot to offer, and if these candidates are as good as she hopes, I am not worried. As for finding a permanent hire that is committed to staying, while you can make it clear you are looking for that kind of commitment, the fact is that you cannot control what happens in the future. As someone who has been hiring staff for over 15 years, people will say one thing and do another. Or life happens. All the hiring committee can do is be clear on what it needs and expects, and make the best choice possible.

A very valid concern about institutional history and memory was raised. A new principal will come in not familiar with the staff, with the challenges and strengths of the school. The learning curve is always a challenge in a new job. The unfortunate aspect of going for an interim hire is that this same territory has to be covered again by a new person in the near future. There is not much that can be done about the fact two new hires will happen in the next year to year and a half, unless by some stroke of luck a permanent hire surfaced in this current review of candidates, but that seems very unlikely. Hopefully the existing school administration, along with the files and records available, will help to inform the new principals regarding all that Fitzgerald needs and has to offer.

In the days after the meeting I heard through various channels the frustration that the parents present felt over how Dr. Nicholson responded to their comments and questions. I do not envy the Superintendent's position at all at this time. It is not an easy task, managing a school district. I do agree however, that while she appears to be open to comments and suggestions, it will be interesting to see what her actions say. As this hiring process goes forward, as a permanent principal is sought, will what the parents have to say be taken into account. If I am fortunate enough to be elected to the SC this election cycle, I can see that the challenges that will be on the table to deal with will include bringing a sense of a community working together, not at odds with each other, for the future of Waltham's school district. I see a couple of issues that will need to rise to the top of the itinerary, which will include but not be limited to compensation for principals, and whether year round, 12 month contracts for principals is the right direction to go in. apparently we are one of very few districts where the principals do not have a 12 month contract.

I hope that if parents or even non parents have any specific concerns about what the SC does take on as agenda items in the next school year, that they feel free to share them with me, but also with the sitting SC. They are your elected board and there to hear what you have to say.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Questions to ask a candidate for school committee...

I would bet most people, myself included, have not given much consideration to how they vote for a school committee member. Honestly, until I became a parent, I did not think at all about what the school committee does or why I should care about who is on the committee.

This is important. At minimum, even if you are not a parent, or your children are not in a public school, the school committee spends your tax dollars. The Waltham Public School budget is a matter of public record, and can be found here. You should at least take a look at it to know how those dollars are being spent.

School committees are generally non-partisan. The term is a four year term, and in Waltham, we have 6 elected seats. In general, school system employees, teachers, principals, etc. cannot be on the school committee while employed within the school system. On the Waltham SC, the mayor and the superintendant are members, with the mayor serving as the chairperson.

But what do they DO? At a high level, the school committee sets the vision for the school system within the city. They are responsible for the hiring, evaluating and in some cases, firing of the superintendant. They evaluate and adopt the policies that effect all of the schools in the community, and if there are conflicts that cannot be resolved otherwise, serve as the judicial or appeals board for the resolution of these matters. They monitor and manage the finances of the district, and manage the collective bargaining process, i.e. they manage the union negotiations.

The committee sets the tone for the entire school system, creating an environment that, if managed properly, creates a thriving educational system that supports the administrative efforts of the superintendant and principals, the teaching efforts of the teachers, and the learning and growth of the students at all levels.

Because of the critical nature of its work, it is important the school committee members work well together. If you have not done so, you should watch at least one Waltham School Committee meeting. They meet twice a month, usually on the first and third Wednesday of the month, with the exception of July and August. The meetings are broadcast on WCAC the local public access station. I usually record the meeting and then watch it later. What people should be looking for is how does the committee work together? Do they work well as a team? Is there a sense of people having the same interests and agenda or is there a sense of discord, a lack of organization or understanding of the issues? Do people seem to be working at cross purposes? Do things get decided in a timely manner or are decisions regularly put off?

It is important that they work well together, but that they are comfortable discussing, questioning and approaching each decision with an open mind. Working as a unit does not mean that ideas cannot be discussed and debated, but it does mean it is done with respect and consideration.

Do the members seem to be pulling in the same direction with the same motivation - making decisions that are right for the community - or is it a battle of wills and ego?

Do the members understand the community they serve? This is important to consider and not just assume that someone who has lived in your community for 25 years knows the community. He or she might know the community he or she grew up in, but do they understand the WHOLE community, its needs, its challenges, its strengths?

In the end, the school committee should be committed to the education and growth of the children in its community, ALL of the children, and value public education.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Hello, and a little bit about me...

My name is Michele Kosboth and I am running for the Waltham School Committee in Waltham MA.  About me:

  • My husband, Bob Tanski, and I have lived in Waltham in the Cedarwood neighborhood, for 8 years and have one son who will be in first grade this fall at Stanley Elementary.
  • 23 years working as a college administrator. Currently the Director of Student Financial Planning at Lasell College in Newton MA. Have also worked at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA; Marist College, Poughkeepsie NY; Orange County Community College, Middletown NY and Ohio University, Athens OH.
  •  Educational background: 
    • Master of Education, College Student Personnel, Ohio University, Athens OH
    • Bachelor of Science, Psychology, Geneva College, Beaver Falls PA
  •  As a college administrator, I see first hand how necessary a solid foundation in the elementary, middle and high school programs is to our communities. Whether a student chooses to attend college or not, whether he or she goes into college right out of high school, or goes into the work force, the education that student receives in their hometown sets them up for success in their adult lives.
  • I am seeking to serve on the Waltham School Committee because:
    • I have a child in the Waltham public school system
    • because I have a strong desire to bring students, parents and educators together, working toward the same goal of preparing our students for the future
    • I will bring to the position my years of experience running an office, hiring and managing employees, establishing and managing both an office budget but also managing the accurate processing of over $40 million dollars in federal, state and institutional financial aid annually, as well as my experience being part of the Enrollment Management division of the college and collaborating across many departments to assess and meet the needs of a diverse population of students
On a more personal level, I enjoy spending my free time with my family, making jewelry and singing in a jazz band.

I hope you will consider voting for me in the preliminary election on Sept. 17th and again in the general election on Nov. 5th.

If you are not yet a registered voter in Waltham, you have until Aug. 28th to register to vote in the preliminary election. Register at the City Clerks office at City Hall, 610 Main St. Waltham MA. Mail in registrations are available at the Waltham Public Library.