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Blog: Saturday, December 26, 2015


2015: The Year in Review in Leceister

It’s that time of year when every news and sports show reflects on the year that’s coming to a close. The Year: 2015; Year in Review (a recap of the best horse-racing moments from the past 12 months); Morning Drive – Top Shots of 2015; A Toast to 2015; All the Best, and All the Worst 2015 are just some of the shows being aired on this last week of 2015. Using this same theme, I’m providing some reflections on 2015 in Leicester.

District Improvement Leicester schools continue to engage in district improvement efforts first initiated at the Future Search, which involved an array of stakeholders representing our community, parents, students, and staff. Our action plan employs strategies that guide the work of every administrator, teacher, and staff member. Bold, benchmark goals help us to monitor our progress as we aim for achieving the vision for Leicester schools.
During 2015, we made significant progress toward improving the instructional experience of our students by implementing and leveraging the educator evaluation system to improve teaching and learning; aligning curriculum and assessments; expanding curricular offerings; implementing a system of interventions, support, and enrichment; and improving professional development offerings for teachers. It will, admittedly, take some time before student performance data reflects the investments that have been made but our efforts this year have resulted in substantial progress. World languages were reintroduced to the middle school, a system of assessments and interventions are catching students early who may be falling behind, and our written curriculum ensures that every Leicester student has access to a viable and guaranteed instructional program.

Facilities Building upon the comprehensive capacity/programmatic and engineering assessment of the facilities approved by voters at the May, 2014 town meeting and conducted in 2014, the district was granted funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority and from the town to replace the roof of the high school. The project will be completed in 2016.

Improvements to the technology infrastructure continued at the Middle and Memorial Schools, providing wi fi access in all school buildings. Planning is now underway to replace aging hardware and to initiate a one-to-one Chromebook program for high school students for the 2016-17 school year.

In 2015, the high school gym floor was refinished and new playgrounds were built for our youngest students. The phone systems are being replaced, one school at a time, and various energy projects were completed throughout the district.

Special Education In 2015, 273 Leicester students with identified disabilities had Individualized Education Programs (IEP), with 243 in in-district programs and 30 in specialized schools outside of Leicester. We now employ two full time behaviorists, one of whom is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). These professionals provide direct services to students in addition to providing guidance to staff so that students can successfully access the curriculum and make progress within the least restrictive environment.

In addition to serving students with IEPs, Leicester Student Services ensures that children and youth experiencing homelessness are provided protections afforded by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Unfortunately, 2015 saw an increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness. Our hope for 2016 is a healthy home and family for every Leicester student.

Leicester High School There were 435 students enrolled at LHS in 2015. Of the 100 graduates of the Class of 2015, 94% went on to higher education, 3% to Armed Services and 3% to the work force. Twenty-seven (27) students were recognized as John and Abigail Adams Scholars and were eligible to receive four (4) years of free tuition from a Massachusetts college or university. Leicester High School values the success of each student and continues to develop strategies to reduce an already low (1.6 %) dropout rate.

The percentage of students scoring at the proficient or advanced levels on the MCAS is above the state average in both English and mathematics. In 2015, 192 AP exams were administered to LHS students; 111 of these AP exams (58%) were qualifying scores. Additionally, extra-curricular activities and field trips add to students’ experiences. Extra-curricular activities include The Arrow, book club, chemistry club, film club, gay/straight alliance, environmental club, history club, math team, art club, foreign travel club, ski club, international club, student council, National Honor Society, drama club, scrapbooking club, Star Trek club, chorus, Tri-M Music Society, photography, bowling club, and yearbook.

Athletics Leicester High School boasts a 95% participation rate for athletics, exceeding the state participation rate, which is 78%. In the spring of 2015, both the girls’ softball and tennis teams qualified for district tournaments. Individually, boys’ tennis players qualified for district competition, and the doubles team defeated Division 1 South High Community School in the first round. Both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams qualified for the district tournament and the boys’ basketball team was invited to the prestigious Clark Tournament for the first time in over a decade. Our cooperative hockey team, the Worcester Wildcats, qualified for the district tournament and made it to the finals. In the fall, the golf team and boys’ and girls’ soccer teams qualified for the district tournaments. Leicester High School also participated in the third year of cross country. The varsity football team was very successful, tallying a 6-2 record before being eliminated from the playoffs. The cheering team was named Shepherd Hill Invitational Champions and exceeded their previous years score at the state level by placing 5th in their division.

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Leicester Middle School In 2015, Leicester Middle School housed 428 students in grades 6-8. Our current instructional offerings include the four core courses of math, English, science and social studies. Grade 6 students are provided with an additional period of mathematics; grade 7 students receive instruction in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math); and grade 8 students learn Spanish. Our related arts program includes physical education, health, and music/band. We offer a wide variety of afterschool programs and activities, including competitive sports, drama, newspaper, ski club, art club, yearbook, coding club, band/chorus, peer leaders, NJHS and student council. Our plans for the 2016-2017 school year include adding French and developing a library media program.

Leicester Memorial School and Primary School In 2015, the Primary School enrollment was 388 students in pre-kindergarten to second grade. Leicester Memorial School enrollment was 362 in grades 3-5. In addition to core academic subjects, students in the elementary grades take art, music, health, and physical education.

The teachers at both schools continue to enhance the mathematics curriculum as well as to refine how we teach literacy in the early grades. In 2015 we implemented a new core reading program, Wonders. Primary School's pre-kindergarten program continues to provide our youngest students with rich academic and social emotional opportunities through the use of Tools of the Mind. Teachers in all grade levels apply Responsive Classroom techniques for an effective and safe classroom environment.

Despite our best efforts to provide a quality instructional experience, some students struggle to meet the high expectations in math and reading. In response to these demands we have coordinated efforts to enhance our intervention programs. Both schools continue with a Response to Intervention (RTI) approach, supported by Title I funding, to identify student learning gaps and provide targeted and systematic remediation in those areas. The foundation of this approach is the use of data for monitoring student progress and making sound decisions about the focus of interventions.

Governance Our School Committee has worked hard to build its knowledge and skills to lead our district, engaging with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees for training and resources and putting in countless hours to review district policies and finances. Their work and the work of our administrative team have led to stronger relationships with town officials. Our journey to provide the citizens of Leicester with the best services in a cost effective manner can best be achieved through a collaborative effort of town and school departments.

Communication In 2015 we improved communication with the public through improved websites and the use of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Finances 2015 was a far cry from 2013, especially in terms of finances, which have stabilized, resulting in more consistent staffing and appropriate investments in professional development, technology, and curriculum materials.

New Staff and Administrators We welcomed many wonderful new teachers, staff, and administrators in 2015. Emily Soltysik moved from the Memorial School to the Primary School while Tina Boss moved up to a principal position. We welcomed Joyce Nelson as the new middle school principal and Courtney Bachand and Joanne Forsythe were hired as assistant principals. Laurie Cascione moved up to the food services director position and Jim Souza was hired as our facilities director. Ellen Whittemore now serves as our director of finance and operations.

Everything accomplished in 2015 came accompanied by unrivaled care for our students and community along with a good dose of humor. A look back at 2015 could not be complete without a mention of #shepherdspie. Once confirmed that it was a common case of food poisoning and affected students and coaches regained their health, the story became an object of conversation and source of many jests.

Here’s hoping that 2016 brings academic and athletic success and continued humor and good will.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 8:50 AM | 0 comments

 Blog: Friday, November 27, 2015


Restorative Practices

By many measures, the character and behavior of Leicester students are well above their peers. Last year, 26 high school students were suspended, down from 37 the year before. District-wide, the 2013-2014 percentage is 2.1%, as compared to 3.7% statewide. Some healthy behavior habits are also better here than statewide. From the last Youth Health Survey, administered two years ago, the rates of texting or e-mailing while driving for Leicester were significantly lower than state and national rates.

One need not analyze data to draw a positive impression about Leicester students; a walk through the corridors of all four schools reveals order as well as respect among teachers and students. Gauges of chromic absenteeism (10% or more excused and unexcused absences), fights, and other undesired behaviors are likewise lower in Leicester than statewide.

However, the Youth Health Survey of 2013 revealed that Leicester students reported higher rates of both electronic bullying and having been bullied on school property than was reported on regional, statewide, and national levels. Additionally, Leicester students reported slightly higher rates of cigarette, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, and prescription drug use than regional, state, and national rates. We are anxious to review the results of the Youth Health Survey for 2015, which will be administered before the close of the calendar year, to see which way these rates are trending.

Regardless if more evidence exists suggesting a positive culture than a problem, efforts are underway to focus on character education, bullying prevention, substance abuse prevention and explicit teaching of positive learning behaviors. First, students spend about 22% of their waking hours in school each year; families can’t be solely responsible for their development as social beings. Second, while the occurrences of very poor behavior are fewer in Leicester than statewide, minor infractions, such as silliness, pushing, roughhousing, and minor teasing are typical and diminish the effectiveness of the learning environment. Last, working through disagreements and understanding differences will continue to be an important life skill to apply in work, the community, and family life.

At the Primary and Memorial Schools, teachers have been trained in the use of Responsive Classroom. Through RC techniques teachers apply their knowledge of child development to create orderly environments and nurture a positive school community. Accountable talk focuses on clear expectations, rather than punishments and authority. In a responsive classroom, you are more likely to hear “Sydney is sitting up, ready to learn,” than to hear “I’m going to send you to the principal’s office if you don’t stop talking.”

Across the country, the use of “restorative practices” is having dramatic, positive effects, especially at the middle and high school levels. Through restorative practices, relationships are restored after infractions, rather than divided further by punishments. Some schools are being prodded in this direction by new regulations about suspensions. In Massachusetts, Chapter 71, Section 37H3/4 requires that principals, when deciding the consequences for a student, “consider ways to re-engage the student in the learning process; and avoid using expulsion as a consequence until other remedies and consequences have been employed.” Others, hoping to improve student learning, base their actions on research that conclusively shows that a positive school climate is associated with improved safety, relationships, and academic outcomes.(1)

I could never do justice to the subject of restorative practices as well as Rick Phillips, Executive Director and Founder of Community Matters. His recent blog entry, “How school Punishment is Being Replaced by Restorative Approaches,” explains the basic principles of the approach while the Community Matters website (http://community-matters.org) includes additional resources.

Like any changes made in schools, it is not done right, the expected improvements won’t be achieved and, in fact, things could get worse. Schools that have replaced traditional punishments with community service without focusing on restoring relationships or that focus entirely on reactive approaches (waiting for a student to do something wrong), rather than proactive approaches (learning together how to avoid the wrong in the first place) fail to positively affect the school climate.
As an introduction to this approach, Leicester will be hosting a regional workshop on Restorative Practices this May. The workshop is supported by a $2,500 grant from the New England School Development Council (NESDEC). More information about the event will be shared with district staff and with neighboring schools in the upcoming months.
1 Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Higgins-DAllessandro, & Guffey, S., (2012). School climate research study. National School Climate Center School Climate Brief, (3). (Available on: http://www.schoolclimate.org).

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 2:21 PM | 0 comments

 Blog: Monday, November 9, 2015


Leadership Beyond Compliance

More and more Tweets, professional articles, and trainings in education focus on leadership and are not confined to traditional educational leaders – principals, superintendents, and directors. There is a call for leadership at all levels, in the teaching profession and among students, to contribute toward a better educational experience in schools.

We celebrated leadership this past week in several ways. Almost 40 high school students were inducted into the National Honor Society. In addition to demonstrating scholarship, inductees must exhibit service, character, and leadership. Kate Campanale was asked to speak at the induction ceremony due to her role as a leader in our community. Through her service as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Representative Campanale petitions for legislation on behalf of the community.

On the same night as the NHS induction ceremony, Tyler Keenan was honored by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees as a member of the All-State School Committee. This award honors local school committee members who have made significant contributions to their community and who serve as an inspiration for their peers and constituents.

Why focus on leadership? It certainly can’t be any type of leadership that brings about greatness because we have plenty of governmental, educational, and business leaders and all do not realize excellence. David Culberhouse, an educational leader and writer, posits, “the leaders who’ll have real impact will be those who move past compliance into creativity… beyond implementation into innovation.”

If we accept Culberhouse’s argument, we then need to ask what we are doing in Leicester that moves us “past compliance into creativity” and “beyond implementation into innovation.” The Massachusetts legislature and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education certainly keep us busy just keeping up with compliance and implementation. A tight budget provides another challenge. Excuses are plentiful but cannot be used as a barrier to creativity and innovation.

Administrators still need to complete their lesson observations, submit their budget, and ensure safety. Teachers still need to teach to standards, assess student learning, and provide a positive classroom environment. Students still need to engage in their learning, complete homework, and be respectful. All of this is hard work in itself. Getting beyond the compliance to creativity and innovation will distinguish the leaders among us and will ensure that we provide students with more than mediocrity.

Our district improvement efforts include a focus on expanding world language programming and consider blended learning – the use of both online and face-to-face instruction. An initiative to improve school libraries doesn’t simply contemplate staffing and book collections but ponders the design of learning commons that include “maker spaces,” technology access, and project work space. Ongoing improvements to our teacher evaluation system doesn’t stop at designating a certain number of observations and goals but extends to revising the observation form to improve the quality of feedback provided.

As we continue to do our work as educational leaders, teacher leaders, student leaders, and community leaders, let’s challenge ourselves to stretch beyond compliance to true innovation. 1,650 students are counting on us.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 7:34 PM | 0 comments

 Blog: Sunday, October 25, 2015


Our Learning Organization

“A learning organization is an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” (Senge, 1990)

A commercial from the 2012 winter Olympics, well worth a watch (see this link), reminds us that it takes many falls and failures before Olympic success. Of course, we all know this. Whether we are a parent watching our 6-yr-old child at batting practice, a teacher listening to a kindergartener stumbling over a word, a 9th grader learning to golf, or a newlywed trying to recreate grandma’s meatballs, we know that learning from experiences, especially from those experiences that weren’t successes, is extremely beneficial.

We don’t always think about how this principle applies to organizations. Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline continues to be the most cited text about learning organizations. Since that publication, numerous articles proclaim the benefits of taking a learning stance. An article in Harvard Business Review (Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino, March 2008) cites examples of this approach from business, hospitals, and military organizations. At the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, a policy of “blameless reporting” resulted in “everyone working together to understand safety, identify risks, and report them with out fear of blame. … Over time, these learning activities yielded measurable reductions in preventable deaths and illnesses at the institution.” The authors also cite the U.S. Army’s After Action Review (AAR) process, “which involves a systematic debriefing after every mission, project, or critical activity. This process is framed by four simple questions: What did we set out to do? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What do we do next time? …Then the results are codified by the Center for Army Lessons Learned, or CALL. Such dissemination and codification of learning is vital for any organization.”

This year, we have taken on a renewed effort to update safety protocols, establish teams for safety plans and recovery efforts, and work on other efforts to reduce risk and increase safety. We apply the principle of organizational learning to this work, meeting after the bomb threat at LHS to debrief our bomb threat protocol, decide upon minor revisions, then codify these revisions through our written protocols utilized by all four schools. The most recent food borne illness episode (see ‪goo.gl/n70e9h) provides another opportunity to apply our learning to reduce the risk of future issues. This will be done with great care. Knee-jerk reactions, such as eliminating all potluck dinners or locking down dining commons after hours, will do little to help us to become an organization that serves the community well.

We are meeting with representatives from the board of health to review and revise protocols relating to food borne illnesses, loss of power (that may result in food spoilage), and other matters of mutual concern. The high school administrators and school nurse will take the lead on this since they, at this point in time, have more experience than the rest of us here in Leicester. What is learned will be shared with the district safety committee to ensure that the protocols in all 4 schools are updated. The findings may have professional development implications (Who might be invited to training on FOODSAFE when we provide this training to our food service employees?), curriculum implications (Do we include food safety in our health curriculum?), and communication implications (Should we distribute information about safe pot luck dinners?). National data suggests that one in every 6 Americans experiences food borne illness each year but we can reduce this statistic in our own town if we are, indeed, a learning organization.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

Garvin, D., Edmondson, A., & Gino, F. “Is yours a learning organization?” First published in the Harvard Business Review (March 2008). Available: https://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization

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

 Blog: Sunday, October 4, 2015


Professional Learning

“The best teacher learning comes from seeing each other in practice.” Lainie Rowell

This year marks the second year we have used Lesson Study and Learning Walks as a means of improving teaching practices. Both processes have been used by high performing districts for many years and the premise -- if you want to be a high performing district you should start acting like a high performing district – is sound on its own. Yet, what is inherent in both practices is a focus on observing and reflecting on teaching techniques applied in real classrooms. This is what connects these processes to improvements in teaching and learning.

A continual focus on improvement can be an affront to any individual’s sense of worth. When is good good-enough? If we are putting our best foot forward, how can we improve further? If we are trying to improve, does that mean that we have been found lacking? When I took a teaching position in South Kingstown after three years in Providence, I was surprised at the amount of professional development and school improvement efforts were going on in this high performing district when there was nothing going on at the time in Providence (a low performing district). Sure, South Kingstown was much more affluent, but maybe their focus on improvement is what really kept them at the top of similar school systems in Rhode Island.

As opposed to bringing in a trainer in a one-time workshop then leaving teachers to apply new learnings as they see fit, both Lesson Study and Learning Walks can be partnered with training to practice what was learned and analyze the effect on learning in the school setting. Furthermore, these processes can also be used on their own to monitor and evaluate a multitude of teaching practices. Both have a long history yet may not be familiar to those outside of the school environment.

Lesson Study (jugyō kenkyū) is a professional development process that originates in Japanese schools. Through Lesson Study, teams of teachers work together to plan a lesson, often incorporating a specific methodology or approach, then observe the lesson being taught by a member of their group. The focus of the observation is on how the students respond to the lesson and what evidence of learning results. Teachers can then debrief, modify the lesson plan, if necessary, and/or apply their learning to future lessons.

Learning Walks go by a number of different names. The term, “Instructional Rounds,” was developed by a team from Harvard who named the process from the parallel process of medical rounds, long used in the medical profession to build knowledge and skills in medical diagnosis and treatment. “Teacher Learning Walks” have been described by the research team of Frey and Fisher from the University of San Diego as well as by the researchers at the Institute for Learning (IFL) at the University of Pittsburgh where a detailed “Learning Walk routine” is taught to school teams who then utilize the routine in their own schools as one step toward continual improvement. Regardless of the specific term used or the specific steps in the process, Learning Walks are all nonevaluative processes that entail groups of teachers and administrators visiting a number of classrooms in the school for the purpose of observing the instructional core – the interactions among the teacher, students, and curriculum – to build teaching expertise and monitor improvement efforts.

Both of these processes require that teachers be away from their classroom, however, we have minimized the time away through careful scheduling and sharing of substitutes among teacher teams. In Lesson Study, from 1.5 to 2 hours is needed for the lesson development and a similar amount of time on a different day is needed for observation and debrief. For Learning Walks, previously trained teachers can participate in an orientation, walkthrough, and debrief all within a half-day of school. In Japan, as well as many other countries, time is built into the school day for such activities. The teaching load in the United States is not always conducive to professional learning. In fact, through the budget cuts of the last decade, many teachers, including those in Leicester, have more students and less time for planning and collaboration than they may have had in the past.

We have benefitted from our work with DSAC (District and School Assistance Center, established by DESE) staff, who have provided training on these processes and on other, high leverage strategies that positively impact student learning. Moreover, Cate Calise, our Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, was a DSAC staff member prior to her time in Leicester and has worked to facilitate this learning so that we can to apply these strategies across all four of our schools. As we build back the educational programs we have lost in Leicester through many years of tight budgets, we hope to also provide resources for professional collaboration so that we can continue to use these processes to improve the instructional experiences of all Leicester students.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 11:27 AM | 0 comments


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