Below are Dr. Doherty’s remarks during his State of the Schools speech at Town Meeting on November 12th.
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 and thousands of students in the Reading Public Schools, as I deliver to you the annual State of the Schools address. Tonight’s address will focus on the collective accomplishments and progress in our district with a vision toward the future.
To that end, I want to begin this evening by recognizing two 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 two 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 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 a class officer for the RMHS Student Government and is a member of the Middlesex League Champion girls swim team. This student is president of the Cradles to Crayons Club, a group that collects donations of clothing, shoes, books, and other essential items for children in need. She also volunteers her time at the YMCA Sunday Swim for students with disabilities.
A member of the National Honor Society, this student has taken or is currently taking a total of 10 Advanced Placement Classes at the Reading Public Schools. Currently, she is enrolled in AP English Literature, AP Statistics, AP Government, AP Spanish, AP Physics, and the History and Science of Epidemic Diseases. This recipient envisions a career in molecular biology, and has applied to Northeastern University, Johns Hopkins University, College of William and Mary, University of Pennsylvania, Villanova University, and Washington University in St. Louis. When asked which teachers had the greatest impact on her educational journey, she said RMHS science teacher Ray Albright, RMHS math teacher Jane Shea, and Parker Teacher Brian Cormier.
It is with great pleasure tonight that I recognize Allison Tompkins. Allison, please come forward to receive the 2019 Massachusetts Association of School Superintendent’s Award.
Tonight’s second recipient attended Joshua Eaton Elementary School and Parker Middle School and is a captain for the RMHS Gymnastics Team. Academically, this student is currently taking several high level courses including AP Government, AP French, AP US History, AP Physics C, Honors Poetry, and Multivariable Calculus. A member of the National Honor Society, this student is also very involved in community service activities, including the YMCA Sunday swim where he works with students with disabilities and is one of the leaders for the group.
Next year, he plans on majoring in Biomedical Engineering or Material Science and is applying to University of Pennsylvania, United States Naval Academy, Stanford University, MIT, Northeastern University, and the University of Michigan.
The teachers who have had a significant impact on this student’s journey are RMHS Teacher Math Teacher Bob Mooney, RMHS Chemistry Teacher Frank Buono, and Parker Middle School Math Teacher Brian Cormier.
It’s a great honor to introduce to you, Lucas Marden! Lucas, please come forward and accept the MASS 2019 Superintendent’s Award for Academic Excellence.
Congratulations, Allison and Lucas!
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. 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.
My remarks this evening focus on three main themes: The progress of our district, our commitment to teamwork and collaboration, and a vision moving forward.
As I mentioned in my remarks last year, due to support of this community through a Proposition 2 ½ override, our school district received a tremendous infusion of support in the areas of curriculum, instructional technology, and training for our staff. This has resulted in our school district making progress in several key areas, including science, English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Mathematics. I am proud to announce that our school district continues to improve in several key academic areas of our MCAS, SAT, and AP results. We are now in the third year of the next generation MCAS in Grades 3-8 for literacy and mathematics and we saw increases in literacy for Grades 3, 4, and 6, and in math in Grades 3, 5, and 6. In the grade levels where we did not see the increases we would have wanted, our principals, teachers, and district staff are working to analyze the data, which will then inform improvements to curriculum and instruction. We continue to use MCAS results as just one of many data points to thoughtfully inform and improve instruction.
I did want to share with Town Meeting a particularly significant accomplishment our students achieved this year that is, I believe, directly related to this body. Several years ago, Town Meeting voted to fund expensive new science curriculum for the Reading Public Schools. We have spent the last several years implementing this curriculum which includes purchasing materials, training teachers, and refining instruction every year. This new curriculum, along with the work that our curriculum team under the direction of Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Chris Kelly has done to align our standards with the state standards, and of course, the efforts of our teachers to effectively teach the curriculum. The results are the gains that we saw this year in science, where in the first year of the next generation science test, 70% of our students exceeded or met expectations compared to 48% in the state in grade 5, and 65% of our students exceeded or met expectations compared to 46% in the state in Grade 8. Thank you, Town Meeting for your support in this critical area.
We are now in the second year of the new state accountability system and we continue to show progress in this area as well. The new system includes data points such as MCAS scores, attendance, and percentage of students in AP and honors courses to give a more complete picture of the schools and district.
I am pleased to report that all 8 of our schools received an overall classification of “not requiring assistance or intervention” and as a district, we received a rating of “substantial progress towards our targets”, which means that all of our schools are on the right path to student success. In addition, we met the requirements for special education. As a district, our accountability target percentage increased from the year before with significant progress made in reducing chronic absenteeism and access of students to honors and AP courses.
In addition to the above, we have focused our training for all staff in the area of equity. For instance, during our day long professional development day last March, the Reading Spring Institute focused on the topics of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Twenty-five workshops were offered which focused on meeting the needs of all learners. The workshop themes included race, religion, gender, learning styles and mental health. Our work has continued in this area as one of our more popular Reading Institute courses focuses on cultural proficiency. This course is part of our three-year induction program for all teachers new to Reading.
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 over this past year by working with police and fire to update our school emergency operations plan, having the facilities department, under the direction of Director of Facilities Joe Huggins conduct safety audits and upgrade the key access system for each school, and holding several evacuation and active shooter drills with public safety during the school year. As this body knows, we are in the process of implementing security measures in the town and school buildings to improve overall building security. We are currently in the bid process and a more specific timeline will developed once the bid process is complete.
Recently, the Killam PTO sponsored a community presentation that was done by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office and our School Resource Officers on cybersafety. In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Education have presented at both Wood End and Barrows on how to educate transgender youth and develop a culture of inclusion. Through our survey results, staff and students feel safe in our schools. 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 Deputy Police Chief Dave Clarke, Lieutenant Detective Rich Abate, 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 10 Middlesex League Titles since last fall and 1 State Championship in Girls Swimming. 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 Marching Band recently won the highest recognition possible earning a 1st place finish for music, best drum major award and gold medal performance at last week’s New England finals competition in Lawrence. Our drama club continues to offer outstanding performances, including Chicago, 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 students are also learning appreciation for our democracy and the sacrifices that have been made to give us the freedoms that we enjoy. This year, we are beginning to implement new curriculum in social studies in middle school with the biggest change being an eighth grade course in civics. This past week, several schools in the district honored our veterans at Veteran’s Day assemblies and breakfasts.
This tradition began 21 years ago when Joshua Eaton held its first annual Veteran’s Day Assembly, a tradition that continues to this day and is a highlight each year for our Joshua Eaton students and families.
Our schools, programs, and school leaders continue to be role models for other school districts in our state. This past summer, Killam Principal Sarah Leveque presented at the Massachusetts School Administrators Annual Conference on courageous leadership and the types of skills needed to be a principal in today’s schools. In addition, Sarah Leveque, Julia Hendrix, Beth Leavitt, Lisa Marie Ippolitto, Ricki Shankland, and Sarah Marchant are participating in the Souls of Leadership Course where principals from all over the state are thinking about their own practice in relation to school culture and climate where people can take risks, learn from those risks, and be vulnerable for the betterment of students. Sarah Leveque, Lisa Marie Ippolito, Beth Leavitt, and Joanne King participated in the DESE Principals Network where they shared best practices in education with other principals throughout the state. Working with the National School Reform Initiative, Birch Meadow Principal Julia Hendrix and her staff focused their work last year on making learning more accessible and equitable for all students. Our new Director of Student Services Dr. Jennifer Stys recently earned her Doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in Educational Leadership with her dissertation focus being reading within special education and working with adult learners to develop systems to teach reading. RMHS Principal Kate Boynton is currently in her second year of the doctoral program in Education Leadership at UMass Lowell.
I could go on and on about the progress that we are making and 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.
Collaboration and Teamwork
This leads me to the second area that I want to focus on which is the amount of collaboration and teamwork that is evident in our schools and between municipal government and our school district. Earlier in my remarks, I gave several examples of how we are working together as a school district to improve student learning. This same teamwork and collaboration is evident between municipal staff and school staff. Over the last year, there have been several examples of the effective relationship that exists, which is not the norm in other communities. This collaboration begins at the top where Town Manager Bob LeLacheur has always modeled a culture to work with schools to solve problems in the best interest of students.
One recent example of a collaborative effort involves the Turf II project, which was approved last April at Town Meeting.
This project was an interdepartmental effort between schools, DPW, Recreation and Town Facilities.
I am happy to report that we are in the final stages of this project and as you can see from the photos behind me, this project will be finished on time and under budget and will be ready for activities and events in the spring.
Other examples of town and school teamwork include, but is not limited to, collaboration in Human Resources, the School and Town Security Project, the Birch Meadow modular classroom project, the Elementary Space Planning and Enrollment Study (which I will talk about more in a few minutes), and of course, public safety. The recent boil water order is a specific example of how quickly and effectively town and school officials worked together in an emergency situation and coordinated communication to ensure that the community was given the information necessary to address the issue.
Most of these examples involve capital projects or facilities and I want to publicly recognize the efforts of Chief Financial Officer Gail Dowd and Director of Facilities Joe Huggins for their leadership in effectively addressing these projects and situations. They have spent countless hours on multiple projects to assure that the community is getting the best outcome possible for the funding allocated.
Vision for the Future
It is my strong belief that the Reading Public Schools are progressing in the right direction. We have the dedication, vision, talented leadership, effective teaching staff, and parent and community involvement to build on this momentum for the future.
Recently, the Reading School Committee approved the Superintendent’s Annual Goals and District Improvement Plan for the upcoming year. The district improvement plan is supported by academic and behavioral data that has informed our work. Our biggest challenge, which is common in many school districts, is closing the learning and opportunity gap between our general population and our most vulnerable students including students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and English Language Learners. Here are some ways that we are addressing this gap.
Under the leadership of Assistant Superintendent Chris Kelley, our K-8 curriculum coordinators Alison Straker and Heather Leonard, and RMHS Department Heads, curriculum guides are being developed in each curriculum area that align with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. These guides are scheduled to be completed by December, 2020. 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, we will be developing and implementing a five-year curriculum renewal cycle which will allow us to review and improve each curriculum area over a five year period. Director of Student Services Dr. Jennifer Stys is doing parallel work with staff to develop a five-year program review cycle which will review all of our special education programs over a five year period. This year, Joshua Eaton is one of small number of schools in the state piloting an early childhood dyslexia screener which will be required of all elementary schools next year. The results from the screener will give us additional data to identify students with dyslexia earlier so that they can access services earlier. It is important to note that having strong in-district special education programs and services 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.
There are two areas that I want to highlight from the district improvement plan that are more long term in nature, but are very important for the future of this district. They are the Elementary Space and Enrollment Study and the Vision of the Graduate Project.
The Elementary Space and Enrollment Study, which was approved at the 2018 November Town Meeting is now nearing completion and is ready for community feedback. Recently, the Reading School Committee heard an update on the study from Gienapp Associates who is coordinating the study. I encourage you to watch the presentation to get a more complete update. As I have reported in the past to Town Meeting, we have had space constraints at our elementary schools for the last several years. This concern prompted Town Meeting in 2015 to approve funding for six modular classrooms. Because of additional space constraints, this evening you will be asked to approve funding for three additional modular classrooms at Birch Meadow for the 2020-2021 school year.
Our elementary space constraints are being driven primarily by the increase in classrooms needed for special education programs, an increase in students enrolled in full day kindergarten, and the increase in classrooms needed for our RISE preschool. The study has also shown that we will have a slight enrollment increase at the elementary level over the next 10 years, with the majority of the enrollment increase being in the Killam and Birch Meadow districts.
Because we are already at or over capacity already at each of our elementary schools, redistricting alone will not solve this issue. As a result, Gienapp Associates presented options that could be utilized to address the space issues. These options looked at 4, 5, and 6 school solutions, which included different combinations of building or renovating a larger Killam Elementary School, putting additions to Birch Meadow or Wood End, building a sixth school at an undisclosed site, and taking Birch Meadow offline and repurposing it for another use. Like any set of options, each one has pros and cons that include a range of capital costs, additional operating costs, degrees of redistricting, whether or not preschool is located at one site and if we need to relocate students during construction. The project is eligible for MSBA funding, however, it should be noted that it is not guaranteed we will receive funding due to the competitive nature of the process. We have been consulting with Pat Thompkins the chair of the Permanent Building Committee and Liaison to this project and Town Manager Bob LeLacheur to receive their feedback as well.
Our next step in the process is to begin to hold information and community sessions to explain the project, explore different options in more detail, and answer questions from the community. I encourage you to attend one or more of these community sessions. We will be communicating dates in the next few weeks for the community sessions. Based on feedback received and recommendations, the School Committee will then vote on an option which then we will move forward to begin the MSBA process. If everything was completed and approved in a timely manner, the process is anticipated to take 3.5 to 5 years.
The other project that I want to highlight is the Vision of the Graduate.
As part of the NEASC accreditation process, Reading Memorial High School is required to develop a vision of what skills, knowledge, and dispositions Reading students should attain and develop during their Grades 9-12 years in our schools. We have decided to expand that discussion to include PreK-12 and make it a true district vision of the graduate. Our plan is to develop a Vision of the Graduate Committee comprised of different stakeholders in the community who will coordinate this process. This process will include receiving community input at various stages with an end date of November, 2020.
Essentially, we will ask our stakeholders these three questions:
- What are the hopes, aspirations, and dreams that our community has for our young people?
- What are the skills and habits of mind that our children need for success in this rapidly changing and complex world?
- What are the implications for the learning experiences we provide in our school system?
This vision will help inform our next district improvement plan and future direction for our school district.
As you can see, there are exciting things happening in our school district and we are poised for some great progress to be made over the next 3-5 years. We have the systems, the leadership and an infrastructure in place to take the Reading Public Schools to the next level.
I began my remarks this evening by focusing on the students and I would like to conclude with that same focus. We are proud of the fine and performing arts in our schools and take every opportunity to showcase our students. At this time, I would like to introduce to you the RMHS Select Choir, under the direction of our K-12 Fine Arts Department Chair Anna Wentlent, who will sing “Make Them Hear You” from the musical, Ragtime.
We have a great story to tell about our school district and 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. Our schools are for all students…those who sing, who perform, who compete, who study, and who may require additional support and assistance. Our schools are for the students who are anxious, who need our guidance and support, and who have trauma in their lives. Our schools are for students who come from stable, loving families and students who come from much more challenging backgrounds. Our schools are for students who come from families who have been in America for generations, and students whose families are new to our country. Our schools are for continued growth and evolution of learners who are ready to embark on the world upon graduation. 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.