Below is the State of the Schools Address that was delivered by Superintendent of Schools John Doherty at Town Meeting on November 15, 2018
Mr. Moderator, Town Meeting Members, Select Board, Finance Committee Members, School Committee, Fellow Town Leaders and Department Heads, School Building Principals, District Administrators, Members of the School Community, and Invited Guests. It is my great privilege tonight to represent the hundreds of dedicated educators of the Reading Public Schools, and to deliver to you the annual State of the Schools address. Tonight’s address will focus on both the accomplishments and challenges that face our district. However, I want to begin this evening by focusing on our most important resource, our students, and to that end, I am honored to recognize three Reading Memorial High School Seniors who are the recipients of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Award for Academic and Community Excellence. It is always difficult to select these students, given how many deserving candidates we have here at Reading Memorial High School. The three students being recognized this evening have demonstrated strong academic skills, participate in extracurricular and community service activities, and are currently in the top 5% of their graduating class. I have had the opportunity to meet with each of them and they are genuinely great kids, which is a tribute to their families who are here this evening as well. It is with honor and pride that I present this award to our first recipient who was a student at the Barrows Elementary School and Parker Middle School, is currently the Vice President for the RMHS Student Government, and participates in the Mock Trial Club. A member of the National Honor Society and the Spanish National Honor Society, this student has excelled in rigorous classes including AP Physics I, AP European History, AP Calculus, AP Spanish, AP English Literature, and Honors Accounting. This recipient envisions a career in Political Science and Law, and has applied to Colombia University, University of Chicago, Northeastern, Tufts University, Boston College, Georgetown, Villanova, and Brown. He has served in 3 internships; one for the Suffolk County District Attorney, one under Representative Brad Jones, and one for Richard Hegarty. He is also a member of the RMHS Varsity Hockey Team. When asked which teachers had the greatest impact on his educational journey, he said retired Barrows teacher Eileen Litterio, Parker Teacher Brian Cormier, and RMHS teachers Giulio Binaghi, Zac Broken Rope, and Jim DeBenedictis.
It is with great pleasure tonight that I recognize Michael Miele. Michael, please come forward to receive the 2018 Massachusetts Association of School Superintendent’s Award.
Tonight’s second recipient attended Joshua Eaton Elementary School and Parker Middle School and is a talented cellist. Academically, this student is a curious and engaged learner who is currently taking several high level courses including AP Calculus, AP Studio Art, AP English Literature, AP French, Honors Physics, and Honors World Issues. A member of the National Honor Society and RMHS Drama Club, this student is also very involved in community service activities, volunteering at the Reading Food Pantry and the Boston Food Market. She also is a member of the BOLD Leader club which teaches leadership skills to girls in middle school.
Next year, she plans on majoring in Archeology and is applying to Yale, Boston University, Columbia University, Wesleyan, NYU, and Tufts. The teachers who have had a significant impact on this student’s journey are RMHS History Teachers Kara Gleason and John Fiore.
It’s a great honor to introduce to you, Madeline Liberman! Maddie, please come forward and accept the MASS 2018 Superintendent’s Award for Academic Excellence.
Our third and final recipient attended Birch Meadow Elementary School and Coolidge Middle School. A member of the RMHS Drama Club, this student is also the Vice President of Finance for the Dance Marathon Club, and volunteers at the Reading Public Library where she serves as a Net Guide and helps senior citizens use the library technology. Academically, this student is taking several rigorous high level courses including AP BC Calculus, AP Physics C, AP Art, AP English, and AP French. A member of the National Honor Society, this student is also a National Merit Semi-Finalist which means that she is in the top 16,000 students in the country who took the PSAT last year. She will be notified in February if she is a National Finalist.
Next year, she plans on majoring in Engineering and Architecture and is applying to Yale, Rice, Cornell, and Harvard. The teachers who has had a significant impact on this student’s journey are RMHS Math Teacher Kelley Bedingfield and RMHS English Teacher Zac Broken Rope.
It’s a great honor to introduce to you, Megan Coram! Megan, please come forward and accept the MASS 2018 Superintendent’s Award for Academic Excellence.
Congratulations, Michael, Maddie, and Megan!
These students, together with the dedicated educators who have supported them each and every day, are quite honestly the living personification of the state of our schools. You will see many more specific accomplishments over the last year, highlighted in the two documents that you have received this evening. The first document focuses on the accomplishments of our entire PreK-12 district and the other, the RMHS School Profile, is specific to our high school and is distributed to colleges and universities across the country. Before I go further into my remarks, however, I would like most of all to say thank you…thank you to all of those who help make our schools—(and thus our entire community) a successful place to learn and grow. This includes our dedicated and caring staff, a strong and committed leadership team (many of whom are here this evening), and the tremendous support that we receive from our parents and from each one of you—(truly from everyone in our community). I am proud to work in a school district and in a community where this dedication is part of our culture and where we work together for the greater good and for the future of our children.
Without a doubt, the values and spirit of our town—including a commitment to community and teamwork—are alive and well in our schools. They contribute every day to the success of our school district, and provide us the inspiration to continually reach toward our goals—regardless of the challenge.
Since I last delivered this address one year ago, there have been significant changes in our district, most of it has been positive. For the first time in my nine years delivering the State of the Schools address, I do not have to focus my remarks on the funding challenges facing our school district. This is because our most positive change, which has impacted the entire community, was the community support last April of a proposition 2 ½ override ballot question which restored and retained teaching positions, added curriculum materials, replaced outdated and aged technology, increased professional development and training, and provided additional curriculum and special education supports for teachers. Because of this additional financial support, foreign language and additional language arts classes have continued at our middle schools, class sizes have been reduced at our elementary schools, and our high school is now able to offer more course sections, additional electives and Advanced Placement Courses for all students. We are grateful of the work that was done by our community, town, and school leaders who worked together to accomplish this significant achievement. I want to recognize the work of “Yes for Reading” under the leadership of Erin Gaffen and Michelle Sanphy for building the infrastructure and grass roots support necessary for this monumental task. In addition, I want to thank Town Manager Bob LeLacheur and Town Accountant Sharon Angstrom for their leadership and the Select Board and School Committee for their commitment and support toward the override. I also want to thank Chief Financial Officer Gail Dowd for the countless hours that she put in developing two budgets for last year’s cycle and her commitment to the detail necessary to explain the budget story to the community. This was truly a team effort and the outcome would not have been possible without everyone working together.
Our accomplishments span over a variety of areas. First, I am going to focus on some of our academic achievements. I am proud to announce that our school district has improved in several key academic areas of our MCAS, SAT, and AP results. We are now in the second year of the next generation MCAS in Grades 3-8 for literacy and mathematics and we saw significantly strong scores in both areas for Grades 3, 5, 6, and 8. In addition, we saw significant increases in our Grade 5 legacy MCAS science scores. This is a testament to the continued effort of our teachers and administrators to make the curriculum and instructional changes necessary to align with the State frameworks and the additional curriculum purchases that we have made in science and literacy over the last few years. The SAT is also in its second year of the new test and we saw a seven point increase in the critical reading section of the test and a thirteen point increase in the mathematics section of the test. Finally, our 2018 Advanced Placement Scores showed that 84% of our students had a passing score of 3 or higher, an increase of 4% from 2017.
This past year was also the first year of the new state accountability system. Although the state discontinued the number rating system, they added descriptors and new indicators such as attendance and percentage of students in AP and honors courses to give a more complete picture of a school. There is also a greater focus on addressing the needs of the least performing students in each school. I am pleased to report that all 8 of our schools received an overall classification of “not requiring assistance or intervention”, which means that all of our schools are on the right path to student success. In addition, we met the requirements for special education and we did not need technical assistance or intervention. I would especially like to highlight the work of the staff and students of Joshua Eaton, under the direction of Principal Lisa Marie Ippolito where just two short years ago, the school was designated as a Level 3 school and did require additional assistance and intervention. Because of their hard work, Joshua Eaton had an overall accountability percentile of 81%, the second highest in our school district.
In addition to addressing academic needs, we have been continuing our focus on the physical and psychological safety of our students. Each school has been implementing different social and emotional learning curriculum activities and programs that include Open Circle at the elementary schools, Advisory Programs which include Facing History and Ourselves at the middle schools, and developmental guidance activities at our high school. The overall goal of our social emotional learning programs and curriculum is for each student to have at least one trusted adult that they can go to in our schools and that they feel safe.
The physical safety of our students has been one of our top priorities for the last several years and we have continued to emphasize it this year by working with police and fire to update our school emergency operations plan, having the facilities department, under the direction of Joe Huggins conduct safety audits of each school, and holding several evacuation and active shooter drills with public safety during the school year. One example of these drills occurred after school ended last June when police, fire, and schools, implemented a joint active shooter exercise for two days at Killam Elementary School. We are one of the few communities in the region that have done an active shooter drill of this level and complexity. We are also fortunate that one of the positions funded in the override last year was a second School Resource Officer. This additional position has already had a significant positive impact for our schools. In the district wide PRIDE survey that was administered to parents, teachers, and students last May and June, the category of school safety received the highest combined scores of any other category surveyed. This designation is due to the continued focus on this area, the emphasis on school safety drills, the level of behavioral health supports that we have at each level and the extraordinary teamwork between the schools and public safety. I would like to publicly thank Police Chief Mark Segalla, Deputy Chief Dave Clarke, Fire Chief Greg Burns, and RCASA Executive Director Erica McNamara for their continued efforts in working with the schools to ensure a safe and supportive environment.
One of the ways that our students build a connection to adults and have ownership to their schools is through the numerous extra-curricular and athletics programs that are offered in the Reading Public Schools. This past year, several of our athletic teams and extra-curricular activities had successful seasons with 4 Middlesex League Titles and 2 State Championships, one in Girls Swimming, and one in Boy’s Lacrosse. Our middle and high school band and chorus programs are very strong and each year, several students qualify for state and regional level performances. Our High School Jazz Band won the highest recognition possible earning a gold medal and performed at the Berkeley Music Center last May as one of the top Jazz Bands in the State. Our drama club continues to offer outstanding performances, including Mama Mia, which is playing this weekend in this very performing arts center. Our outstanding fine arts program, along with amazing student art work, is on display each year at our Artsfest in the spring.
Our schools, programs, and school leaders continue to be role models for other school districts in our state and country. In September, the Assistant Secretary of Education for the United States Department of Education and the Associate Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Education visited Reading Memorial High School, Birch Meadow Elementary School and RISE Preschool to see and hear about the strong special education programs in these schools. In October, Wood End Principal Joanne King and her staff presented at the National PBIS Conference in Chicago, the largest conference of its nature in the country. Recently, Parker Principal Ricki Shankland spoke at the Anti-Defamation League’s 12th Annual Women of Valor Luncheon in Boston where she spoke about the strong partnership between the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Reading Public Schools and the support that they have given us over the last several months. Finally, earlier this year, RMHS Social Studies Teachers Kara Gleason and Megan Howie had two articles published on Reading history, titled “Lives Lived Unfree: Stories of Reading’s Enslaved”. In these articles they examined some of the stories of enslaved people who lived, worked, died, and were owned as property in Reading, Massachusetts during the 18th century.
I could go on and on about how the Reading Public Schools is a great place for students to learn, to thrive, and to develop the skills necessary for the next steps after high school. This is due to the dedication of our teachers and staff, the commitment and leadership of our Principals, Assistant Principals, Directors, Team Chairs, and Central Office and District Administrators, and the support we receive from our community and our parents. I am grateful for their efforts.
However, like any school district, there are challenges. We continue to focus on closing the learning gap between our most vulnerable students including students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and English Language Learners. Under the leadership of Assistant Superintendent Chris Kelley and the newly funded K-8 curriculum coordinator positions, curriculum guides are being developed in each curriculum area that align with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. The aligned curriculum, along with the ongoing training, will give our teachers the tools and support needed to reach all students in the classroom. In addition, this past year, we began doing a complete comprehensive review of our language-based special education program and specialized reading services. The result includes developing and implementing an action plan focused on improving the program and services for students with dyslexia and other language-based disabilities. We will be doing similar reviews of other special education programs over the next few years. Having strong in-district special education not only benefits our students as they are given the opportunity to be educated with their peers in the Reading Public Schools, but also it is a more cost-effective way to educate those students which allows us to invest more of our educational funding to the general classrooms.
However, without a doubt, the greatest challenge that our school district is facing right now is the number and frequency of hateful graffiti that has been found in our schools. Since October 12th, we have had 10 separate incidents, eight at Reading Memorial High School and two at Parker Middle School, which have primarily impacted our Jewish, LGBTQ, and African-American Communities, Since May, 2017, we have had 33 separate graffiti incidents in our schools.
If in this part of my remarks I come across as angry, frustrated, and disheartened, it is because I am…and so are many others. I am not a member of the affected communities, so I will never know how they truly feel. But I do know this…We want it to stop and we want it to stop now. There is a population of students and staff that do not feel safe in our schools right now and that is disheartening. The symbols and words that have been found written or etched on our walls, on our desks, in our bathrooms, classrooms, hallways, and stairwells have a deep meaning to those impacted. These acts of hate will not define us as a community and it cannot defeat us a community.
The acts of hate are not just a Reading issue. The anti-defamation league is reporting that anti-Semitic incidents have grown to their highest level in two decades in the U.S. over the last two years. In Massachusetts alone during 2017, there were 93 reported incidents in schools, up from 50 a year before. This year alone, there have been reported incidents of hate speech at schools in Malden, Melrose, Arlington, South Boston, Wayland, Newton, and most recently, Framingham. History has also shown that these issues will escalate in a community before they lessen.
As we have in so many other areas, Reading can be a model for other communities. What I am optimistic about is the way in which our school community, in collaboration with Reading Police and the Town Manager have addressed these situations over the past two years. In addition to all of the curriculum and program advances that the schools have made in the last few years, the Reading Public Schools, Town Facilities Department, Town Manager, and Reading Police Department have developed and refined a protocol for notification, investigation, and communication of these incidents. This would not have been possible without all parties working together and understanding the roles and responsibilities that each have to play in situations like this. This strong relationship, which is not always the norm in other communities, has only grown stronger and is built on communication, trust, and a sense of purpose to keep our students and staff safe.
In addition, we have developed a strong relationship with the Anti-Defamation League, who is providing our teachers and administrators with on-going support and training. They have been providing student training at our two middle schools and the high school for our A World of Difference Clubs. These clubs will lead the student response in creating a culture that promotes respect and embraces diversity. Last year, the student club here at the High School created an RMHS Human Rights Resolution which was embraced by both staff and students.
Along the same lines, we have formed community partnerships with Reading Embraces Diversity, the Reading Clergy Association, and the Human Relations Advisory Committee who are using their roles to involve our community and help educate them that this is a community problem which requires a community solution. In short, through these challenges, we are bringing people together to forge new bonds and to model the values we hold dear for all our children.
I am also proud of how our administrators, staff, and students have responded to these incidents. One powerful example occurred two weeks ago, when Reading Memorial High School, under the leadership of Principal Kate Boynton, led a Community Candlelight Vigil of over 300 people in support of human rights, in celebration of diversity, and in opposition of hate, racism, and bigotry. The evening was inspirational and hopeful with stories and reflections from students, staff, and the community. Here are a few examples. RMHS Senior Talia Shor, a member of the Jewish Community, told her story which began on May 4, 2017 when she found the first of many swastikas that have defaced our schools. Talia passionately talked about how her classmates asked why she was getting so upset about a “joke”, in reference to the swastika. She said, “how can the deaths of 6 million of my people be a joke? What is a joke about that…it is not funny” RMHS Senior Autumn Hendrickson, a member of the LGBTQ community talked about how we need “allies…we need teachers and students to show their support.” She gave several examples of the support that she has seen in the last few weeks and how bridges are being built between different groups of people. RMHS English Teacher Zac Broken Rope, also a member of the LGBTQ community, told his own personal story about how he grew up in Nebraska, came out as a gay teenager when he was 14 years old, and tried to kill himself in a Nebraska cornfield when he was 15 years old because of the way he was treated and bullied. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful and has become a strong educator and role model for students and advocate for student voice.
This event, along with the Community rally on the common in October gives me hope and optimism that our entire community can come together to solve this issue. As Martin Luther King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We can no longer remain silent on this issue in our community. We are in uncharted waters as a school district and a community…in an area that very few districts have had to face. We need to shift from being reactive and defensive to being proactive and working together. I know that I speak for the Town Manager and the Chief of Police when I say we are already committed to that vision and direction. For instance, at a time when communities all over the country are seeing an up-tick in hate crimes or in hate-related graffiti, the staff and students of Reading have responded strongly and proactively by bringing people together, forming new partnerships, and strengthening our community values of respect and acceptance for all. Our plan focuses on response, communication, teamwork and education.
As a community, we already have a blueprint in place as to how this can be successful in our community. The Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse was formed 11 years ago in response to the growing number of adults that have died due to substance use. Over several months of discussion with Town and School officials and elected officials, the foundation of the coalition was formed. This coalition consists of many sectors of our community, including town, schools, police, clergy, students, businesses, parents, and health organizations. Each of us have a role to play in the coalition, with definite responsibilities and it is that interdependency that has led to the success of RCASA. Refinements have happened over the eleven years – for example a strong partnership with the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office created a diversion/restorative justice program for students that is now the model for other communities. Town and School staff have discussed how this blueprint might be used to focus on human rights and social justice issues.
We have shown as a community that when we work together, great things can happen. The override is an example of that type of effort. We have an opportunity to navigate these uncharted waters as a community and create a climate where everyone feels safe and respected. The schools and town government are willing partners to make this happen.
I began my remarks this evening by focusing on the students and I would like to conclude with the same focus. At the candlelight vigil, one of the emotional and inspirational highlights of the evening was the RMHS Chorus, under the direction of Kristin Killian, singing a song from the Broadway Show Dear Evan Hansen, called You will be Found. The RMHS Chorus was unable to attend this evening to sing the song live, but I am going to share with you a video of them singing at the Vigil.
Start at 1:01:53 Stop at 1:07:20
The examples of what you heard and saw this evening are just a sample of why we do this work in our public schools and why your support and the support of this community is appreciated and valued. It is for all students…those who sing, who perform, who compete, who study, and who may require additional support and assistance. It is for the students who are anxious, who need our guidance and support, and who have trauma in their lives. On behalf of the four thousand, two hundred eighty-two students and over 600 staff who teach and support these students, thank you for your continued support of our schools… as together, we continue to make Reading a place where all students are supported, a place where we develop the leaders of tomorrow, and a place where our schools continue to provide the strong foundation for the future of this great community.