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Blog: Monday, October 3, 2016

Students' Social-emotional Skills and Health

There has been a constant push from the federal and state governments to improve the academic outcomes of our nation’s children but, until now, little emphasis has been placed on the development of social-emotional skills and health. A new coalition, exSEL, has been established to raise public awareness and initiate efforts in this area.

The new focus on social-emotional skills are meant not simply to prepare graduates with the personal skills that employers expect but also to help children deal with life challenges, to prevent and respond to bullying, and to reduce high risk behaviors. As we review state accountability data for our students’ academic skills, let’s also spend some time evaluating our students’ social-emotional health and behaviors.

Last spring, the Regional Youth Health Survey was administered to middle and high school students throughout Worcester County. The survey monitors youth behaviors in the areas of unintentional injury and violence, sexual behaviors, alcohol and drug use, tobacco use, and dietary behaviors. It certainly doesn’t cover the range of behaviors and skills associated with social-emotional health, but instead focuses on high-risk behaviors that may contribute to death and disability. Its goal is to help schools improve health-related policies and programs by better understanding the students they serve. 234 Leicester Middle School students and 389 Leicester High School students completed the survey. Key findings include:

  • Leicester students engage in physical activity more often than their peers throughout the county. 62% of LMS and 56% of LHS students engage in physical activity 5 or more days per week. Not surprisingly, students do not report biking or walking to school as the town offers little in the way of safe routes for pedestrians.

  • A higher proportion of LHS students reported unhealthy dieting habits such as refusing to eat for long periods of time (24 hours), taking diet products (pills, powders, liquids), and vomiting or using laxatives (28% vs. 11% regionally).

  • The number of high school students having ever tried marijuana has decreased from 46% to 39% in the last year but is still higher than the region (33%). Additionally, there is a perception among both LMS and LHS students that marijuana is not harmful.

  • A slightly higher proportion of Leicester middle school students report feelings of depression and suicidal ideation, when compared with the region (27% vs 25% and 15% vs 13%). 6% of LHS students report having attempted suicide. These figures, although similar to regional data, are disconcerting; the obvious potential effects are not something we would want for even a single member of our student body.

  • 31% of students reported having a firearm in their home.

  • Daily tobacco use (5%) is higher at LHS than the regional average (3%) as is the proportion of Leicester students who report ever trying cigarette smoking (25% vs 18%).

  • E-cigarettes are a growing problem as few students believe that e-cigarettes cause harm and the rate of use is higher (43%) than the region (34%).

  • Fewer LMS students report drinking alcohol before the age of 13.

Most troublesome are the students’ driving behaviors, as one in five middle school students report being driven by a person under the influence of alcohol while this figure is one in six for high school students. (The question did not reveal whether the driver was a fellow student or an adult.) 15% of LHS students report texting or emailing while driving.

Responses to questions concerning violent behaviors can be interpreted as increased risk, contributing to an unsafe climate, or as students not having the strategies to address issues in other ways. When we teach students coping strategies and negotiation strategies, we provide alternatives to violence. Anti-bullying curriculum, likewise has positive influences on behavior beyond the specific issue of bullying. The administrative team will be looking more closely at the data relating to both bullying and electronic bullying and will be devising plans for addressing these behaviors. Additionally, specific questions relating to emotional health and suicide-related behaviors will need a closer look before action steps can be devised.

Looking at academic vs. social-emotional data is not an either-or. If we are to serve our students well, we will have to concentrate on the whole child. Our work to improve our school for our students must include a continued push toward better instructional practices and an increase in health education and the development of social-emotional skills.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 4:00 PM | 0 comments

Blog: Wednesday, September 14, 2016

School Improvement is a Marathon

Like many of you, I spent quite a bit of time this summer watching the Rio Olympics. It almost didn't matter what event was on - gymnastics, beach volleyball, soccer, tennis or track and field - I was enthralled. I learned a few things as well, thanks to knowledgeable announcers and athlete interviews.

The longer distance events for track, including the marathon and 10,000 meter event, were particularly interesting. Kenya's Eliud Kipchage, a favorite, won the men's marathon and in an interview revealed, "the secret is good planning and good preparation." Decisions about when to move ahead and how fast to run at various intervals aren't simply made on the road; they are planned and practiced.

Mo Farah of Britain won the 10,000 meter even after falling about halfway through the race. To my untrained eye, there wasn't anything spectacular to see during his run but the announcers, confident in his ability to win, encouraged viewers to "just wait and see" and then it happened: he pulled away from the pack and appeared to run at beakneck speed with little exertion.

I don't run marathons but instead engage in the important work of school improvement. This work, it can be said, is a marathon, not a sprint. Preparation, planning, and patience are all necessary for success. Quick fixes, either for our health or the health of schools and communities, often don't have lasting results. Unfortunately, we all are subject to impatience and are prone to switching tactics right before the rewards are realized.

Leicester's Future Search was held over three years ago (May, 2013) and identified the improvements community members wanted to see in our schools. Broad areas for improvement included finance stabilization, facilities, technology, professional development, and achievement. District committees have worked since that date on each of these areas and have made great strides. Consider:

Finance - At the time of the future search we were facing staff reductions and a decreasing school budget. Clear plans for revolving fund expenditures were nonexistent and most had little faith in the budgeting process or in the town's ability to adequately fund school programs. Town departments quibbled over their share of town revenues. While we aren't currently flush with funds for schools, finance is stable. Income from School Choice and other revolving funds are budgeted in the year following so that current year's income can be used for unanticipated needs. Town revenues are better reported and departments, including the school department, have increased confidence that needs can be met.

Facilities - A facilities capital committee, consisting of school committee members, administrators, parents, and select board members supervised a facilities study, helped identify small capital projects, approved applications to the MSBA for larger projects, and most recently oversaw the high school roof project. Just this week we were notified by MSBA that they would be conducting a senior study of our middle school - the first step toward inviting us to conduct a feasibility study, which would then lead to a new facility, should we also gain town approval. This is three years in the making, yet at least 5 years before realization of the goal.

Technology - Wifi access was nearly nonexistent in 2013 and teachers brave enough to incorporate technology into their lessons often had to implement a back-up plan due to unreliable access. Sites like YouTube and Google were filtered and inaccessible. Before any noticeably significant technology innovations could be realized, the district spent 2 years improving the infrastructure - wiring, switches, and other behind-the-scene work. This year we rolled out a 1:1 initiative at the high school and increased access to devices at our other schools and teachers and students are already using that technology in innovative ways - to improve communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Professional Development - If teacher feedback from our recent professional development day is any indication, the quality of professional development has improved significantly. Our professional development committee uses PD standards to ensure that offerings are well connected to needs, are cohesive, and of high quality. Our comprehensive professional development plan includes mandated trainings, reviews past offerings, tracks tuition reimbursements and individual professional development participation and plans for half and full professional development days well in advance.

Achievement - Ultimately, the most important thing we can improve is student achievement but this is the most elusive of goals. In order to realize improved student achievement, the work of school improvement must be done within a well-managed, adequately financed, technology enriched environment and with well developed staff. Given these improved conditions and given the good work that has been done in our schools to improve our system of assessments and interventions (RTI), our curriculum, and curricular materials, we are well poised to embark on the home stretch of this most important marathon.

We may have not yet pulled ahead of the pack in all areas but, like for Farrah and Kipchage, you are encouraged to keep watching...

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 7:41 AM | 0 comments

Blog: Monday, August 29, 2016

Back to School!

When Leicester students return to school on September 6th they will be greeted by a well-trained, professional staff that includes some new faces; improved facilities; improved technology; and new textbooks and instructional materials. Many of these improvements have come in response to needs identified at a Future Search held three years ago. On May 31st and June 1st of 2013, a group of 78 stakeholders representing students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members met to create a common vision for the district’s future. The three strategies identified: engaging instruction and effective interventions, development of staff skills, and improved infrastructure and resources, have guided the improvement work that has led to the changes students will experience this coming school year.

Facilities improvements will be the most obvious changes students will notice. Most notably, a new roof was installed at the high school this summer. Leaks from the roof had threatened damage to the underlying structure and occasionally disrupted activities at the school. During the evaluation of the existing conditions of the roof, the need to address rising wall issues, including cracked brick masonry, open mortar joints, and failed sealants, were identified. While addressing these issues added to the overall cost of the project, these repairs were essential to address water infiltration issues.

The roof project was funded through free cash, capital stabilization, and other sources of revenue as well as a 59.21% reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). The design of the roof project was completed by Gale Associates, Inc. and the majority of work is being done by Greenwood Industries under the oversight of the town’s Owner’s Project Manager (OPM), Hill International. Also at the high school, the front concrete entryway is being replaced, though not until after the school year begins.

Although done at a cost much, much less than for the high school roof, we are most excited to showcase the work done at the Middle and Memorial schools, where the libraries have been remodeled and new furniture purchased. The spaces, once outdated and institutional, are now comfortable learning environments for students and staff. Also at the Middle School, the painting of hallways is complete. New sinks in Primary School classrooms replaced some that had not been functioning properly.

Much of this work extends the life of the school buildings and provides appropriate and safe environments for students during this period of time in which more permanent solutions to the district’s facilities concerns can be addressed. Two years ago, a capacity/programmatic and engineering assessment of school facilities in Leicester was completed by Johnson Roberts

Associates, Inc. to provide information to the School Committee for making decisions regarding all major facility improvements, including renovations, additions, or new construction, over the next 10 years. The engineering analysis of the facilities resulted in significant recommendations for facility modifications and repairs, which relate to life safety and/or code compliance, compliance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA), energy conservation, school security, or protecting major facility systems.

The facilities assessment and subsequent planning work is being overseen by a committee consisting of school administrators, school committee members, a select board member, parents, and town residents. This committee, as well as the town’s Select Board and School Committee, authorized applications to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for CORE projects for Leicester Middle School, Memorial School, and the Primary School. Decisions regarding these applications are expected late this fall.

Improving the technology infrastructure began three years ago and was completed last year, providing all four schools with fast, reliable wi-fi access. We are excited and proud that this fall, every high school student will be provided with a district-issued Chromebook for accessing the Internet. A pilot program implemented last year provided staff with strategies for using this technology in innovative ways to engage students in rigorous, student-centered instruction. At the Memorial and Middle Schools, there is one Chromebook cart for every two classrooms, providing greater access to technology for students and teachers in grades 3-8.

Additional music equipment, including two new electronic pianos, guitars, keyboards, and other musical instruments, were purchased this spring and summer in order to build music programming throughout the district. A first-ever jazz band and the middle school will provide students with an engaging opportunity to showcase their musical talents. New textbooks and science kits also have been purchased to replace outdated instructional materials and additional purchases are being planned. In some cases, textbooks had been older than the students using them!

New staff include special education team chairs, French teachers, additional core instructors, a new director of student services, an additional board certified behavior analyst (BCBA), and a library media specialist at the middle school, among others. The qualify of staff we are attracting to Leicester is impressive!

For many years the middle school went without a licensed librarian, its book collection had been left unmaintained, and the space underutilized. The French program at the middle grades, cut years ago, is now being reinstated. Students with a history of trauma or a manifested behaviors due to a disability can now be better served by appropriately trained staff, alleviating the concerns expressed by families this past year.

Administrators, School Committee members, and I are excited to welcome back teachers, staff, students and their families to continue the work that brings quality instructional programming and a source of pride to the community.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 9:21 AM | 0 comments

Blog: Monday, August 8, 2016

Professional Learning to Continually Improve Leicester Schools

This summer, Cate Calise, our Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, and I worked on a comprehensive professional development plan for Leicester Schools. We started by reflecting on the professional development activities of the 2015-2016 school year. Next, we made a list, which continues to grow, of mandated professional development. Also included in the plan are information about our professional development committee, professional development standards, procedures for requesting professional development, and a plan for professional development days and half days.

I thought I'd share our review of the professional development activities of the 2015-2016 school year, since it's something to be proud of - Leicester Schools attends to professional learning at all levels. Our plans continue to improve and our teachers additionally spend a considerable amount of their own time and resources toward improving their knowledge and practices.

During the 2015-2016 school year, the district offered professional development opportunities to district staff through a number of means. Professional development days and half days provide mandated trainings as well as professional development tied to school and district goals. Course reimbursements are provided to district teachers who have attained a masters degree. Conference fees are reimbursed for approved conferences and workshops. New teachers are provided with a mentor and meet regularly with their mentors who also benefit from the program. In addition, district committees offer a number of options for district staff who not only would like to build their own skills and knowledge but also hope to contribute to district improvement efforts.

Reported here are data on the participation of district staff with optional offerings.

Course and Workshop Reimbursements

Of the $35,000 budgeted for course reimbursements, $27,813.25 was disbursed to staff who took graduate level courses this school year. These staff members represent 28% of the total number of teachers in the district. In total, 96 courses were taken by teachers. 39 teachers requested reimbursement for one course and 11 requested reimbursement for two courses. The remaining 46 requests were for credit only. Of the courses taken, 45 (47% of courses taken) were the SEI endorsement course, which is required for licensure. Among others, courses included 21st Century Teaching Tools, Managing the 21st Century Student, Implementing ELD Standards, Targeting Standards Instruction in the Inclusion Classroom, and Peer Observation & Collaborative Coaching.

Thirty (30) teachers attended workshops, some at a cost and most requiring professional development substitutes. Thirteen (13) teachers both attended a workshop and were reimbursed for course credits.

Mentor-Mentee Program

The district is committed to retaining and supporting the development of excellent teachers. Some goals of this program are to retain highly-qualified new teachers, improve instruction and learning, and create a system-wide atmosphere of collegiality. Twenty-four (24) teachers participated in the mentor program, either as a mentor or a mentee. The mentor program consisted of two full days of new teacher orientation during the summer followed by monthly meetings as well as informal conferencing between mentor-mentee pairs. The program focused this year on building a system for mentor mentee observations to develop effective teaching practices using the 5D framework and educator evaluation training.

Curriculum Work

Committees were established to complete the math curriculum and initiate curriculum work in science and ELA. Eighteen (18) teachers participated in one or more curriculum committees and gained knowledge of new state frameworks and effective instructional and assessment practices.

District Improvement Committees

Eight (8) individuals participated on district committees, which included the PD, Evaluation, District Improvement, Code of Conduct, and Library committees. Some of the 8 served on multiple committees.

School Committee Professional Development

Three (3) School Committee members attended the MASC/MASS Fall Conference, which provided topics relating to educational law, budget, evaluation, facilities, and policy development.

Administration Professional Development

Members of the administrative staff attended conferences, workshops, and local and state meetings. Three administrators attended national conferences (ASCD and AASA). Many administrators participated in workshops offered by their state organizations (MASS, MESPA, MSSAA, etc.). Two administrators participated in ALICE train-the-trainer training, described further below.

Teacher Leaders

Each year we hold two teacher leader days. The first day is in August and school leadership teams have a chance to kick off their work for the school year. The second day is in the spring. This year, the August day focused on learning targets (an instructional focus), leadership, and meetings as transformational tools. The spring day focused on the use of data for continuous improvement and featured the DSAC data support professional who shared data available through the DESE websites.

Custodial Training

The district custodians participated in a wide array of professional development this year. Training focused on safety and inspections, including EBU testing and maintenance, hand & power tool safety & procedures, fire extinguisher use and inspections, portable ladder requirements, emergency eyewash & shower testing, asbestos awareness and the 1st stage of lockout tagout. In addition, the district custodians attended a 10 hour OSHA training. Upon completion of this training all were deemed OSHA 10 Certified. Leicester is the only school district in the state to have 100% of the custodial staff to have this certification,

Safety Training

Just prior to the 2015-2016 school year, two administrators became certified to train staff in the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate) philosophy and strategies, which aim to keep staff and students safe in the event of an active shooter situation. During the 2015-2016 school year, all teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians and cafeteria staff were trained in ALICE. Additionally, the district safety team created lesson plans that were delivered by the teachers to the students to teach the students about the ALICE philosophies and a parent information night was held in order to inform parents about what their children will be taught and more about the ALICE philosophy.

School and district administrators received the first level of PREPARE training, which helps schools in the recovery process of a tragic event. A level two training is scheduled for the fall of 2016. This training will provide staff with skills to counsel students during the recovery phase of a tragic event.

Staff receive restraint training and must be recertified. Staff from SWCEC provide this training. The cost to the district for FY16 was $6,120. A spreadsheet with the names of those certified and dates for recertification is provided on this link.

Costs for Professional Development

Each educator participates in 4 half day and 4 full day professional development days. The cost of their salaries for this time is $272,332.08.

Substitutes for school days when teachers participate in Professional Development cost $15,431.82 from local funds and $1,681.42 from grant funds.

Tuition reimbursement totals $27,813.25.

The total cost for workshops/fees/mileage for both administrators and other staff is $96,363.03 (all funds).

Restraint training cost $6,120.

Title II expenditures are $29,794.74 (not including workshops & mentor/mentee)

The mentor/mentee program costs $15,295.97 for materials and stipends.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 10:30 AM | 0 comments

Blog: Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Hopes and Dreams for the Class of 2016

The graduation festivities of the week were much to do about the past. Together with the graduates of 2016, we celebrated past victories and past accomplishments. Class Day’s presentations were steeped in nostalgia as our graduates looked back upon the last four years of high school.

“Commencement” is defined not as a conclusion but as a “beginning.” Now is a time to look forward.

The graduates of 2016 are embarking on a new journey that will ultimately prepare them for an occupation and for life. My wish for these graduates is for them to find a lifework, a vocation, a calling. If the Bureau of Labor Statistics is correct, the average worker will hold more than ten different jobs before age forty. Unlike generations of the past that were trained for a specific job that was then done again and again, the millennials will be best served by building their skills as learners for the work of the future will be defined by change; changes in technology, communications, and strategies will continue to affect not only the work we do but how that work is done.

US News defines good jobs as those that “pay well, challenge us, are a good match for our talents and skills, aren't too stressful, offer room to advance and provide a satisfying work-life balance.” Also, the best careers are ones that are hiring, keeping graduates from living in their parents’ basements. Of the 100 Best Jobs of 2016 that are ranked according to their ability to offer this mix of qualities, nearly half are in medical professions. All but about a dozen require significant mathematical skills. While only 7 can directly be classified as computer technology careers, nearly all will require some tech skills, and many are relatively new careers necessitated by the growing use of technology in the medical field.

Those in my generation like to tell those younger that new careers WILL require adaptability and WILL require change but, in fact, our jobs as well have required us to continually learn and develop. Good teachers learn new techniques every year and the best doctors certainly don’t practice medicine the same way they did in 1990.

A college friend of mine began his career path as a job recruiter and has evolved to be a crowdsourcing expert. I admittedly never really understood what he did for a living but recently looked it up in Wikipedia. Crowdsourcing solicits services or contributions from a large group of people, paid or unpaid, most often through the Internet. I wondered if this process could help me to send off our graduates with our collective hopes for their futures and so I used the Internet to solicit the crowd for their hopes and advice for our graduates. Here is their reply:

  • We wish you much happiness in your future endeavors, whatever they may be.

  • We remind you not to let yourself become hindered by fear of failure.

  • Be bold, take risks, don't be afraid to fail, and find what makes you happy.

  • Live your lives to the fullest.

  • Have good manners, a good work ethic and be punctual.

  • Be the kind of person you would want to be friends with.

  • Make friends with people who are different than you.

  • Visit places far from home.

  • Learn to do something new that challenges you.

  • Employ innovation, enthusiasm, dedication, and passion for your job, and respect for yourselves and for others.

  • Enjoy the journey and have trouble-free tomorrows.

  • Take time to connect with Nature.

  • Surround yourselves with loving people.

  • Realize your potential; find you calling; stay curious!

  • Find your own way to make a difference in this life.

  • Strive for kindness and compassion.

  • Pick yourself up when you get knocked down.

  • Have hope.

  • Smile.

  • Be kind and courteous.

  • Serve others.

  • Have a an abundance of belly laughs and a heart full of love.

  • Carry happiness in your hearts, peace in your minds and strength to overcome life's challenges.

  • Embrace discipline, practice patience, say thank you often, be a critical and creative thinker, listen and question, consider failure a welcome opportunity to learn, be the active hero of your own life, and autograph your work with excellence.

I could not say it better. Best wishes to you all.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 12:41 PM | 0 comments

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