On Thursday Evening, November 17th, Superintendent of Schools John Doherty gave the Annual State of the Schools Address to Town Meeting. Chair Jeanne Borawski introduced Dr. Doherty with the following remarks.
Chair of the School Committee Jeanne Borawski’s Remarks
Thank you Mr. Moderator. Good evening Town Meeting Members, town and school staff, community members, and my fellow elected and appointed representatives. I am happy to be introducing the State of our Schools on behalf of the Reading School Committee.
At this time next week, we will not be sitting together in this auditorium. We will be sitting with our families and friends, overly full of food but also of gratitude. This is a time of year when we reflect on all that we have to be grateful for. I know I speak for the vast majority of parents in Reading when I say that the quality of our public schools is something for which we are deeply grateful.
If, like me, you have children, you are profoundly lucky to live in the state of Massachusetts. International assessments show time and again that Massachusetts public schools are the strongest in the nation and, in fact, are globally competitive. The fact that we here in Reading hold our schools up for comparison to other Massachusetts public school districts means that we are choosing to compare ourselves to the best of the best.
Over the last couple of years, I have had the opportunity to observe classes at the pre-school, elementary, middle and high school level. Across the board, our schools are full of innovative, creative, and passionate teachers. We have principals who are among the best in the state. Our students are overwhelming thoughtful, talented, curious, kind, and respectful. Parents in this community are fully committed to their children’s education; they make sure their kids arrive to school well-fed, well-rested, and with a healthy respect for the importance of education. Reading parents partner with our schools with generous donations of time, talent, and money. You could not pick a more supportive town in which to raise children.
The state of our schools, in short, is excellent. But they are far from perfect. We do face challenges in the upcoming year. Although we have seen steady district-wide improvement in standardized test scores, there are some groups of students who are not achieving the level of success we want for them. We will continue to focus on identifying these students and improving their academic achievement with the greatest sense of urgency. As a community, we continue to have fixed expenses rising faster than our revenues. As a result, we will be challenged to make program and staffing cuts again this year. We will approach these challenges openly and honestly, and will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that every student in the Reading Public Schools has the opportunity to reach their highest potential.
Before I turn the podium over to our Superintendent, I want to express my gratitude. Every year, this body chooses to dedicate the lion’s share of our tax dollars to support our public schools. Our commitment to you is that this money will be carefully invested in a way that will help all of our kids become thoughtful, engaged, productive members of our community. We are deeply grateful for your support of our children. Thank you.
Superintendent of Schools John Doherty’s Remarks at Town Meeting
Mr. Moderator, Town Meeting Members, Board of Selectmen, 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 with great honor and privilege that I present to you the 2016 State of the Schools Address.
I am delighted to start my remarks this evening, as I do each year, by introducing to you the two Reading Memorial High School Seniors who are receiving the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Award for Academic and Community Excellence. Each year, it is always difficult to select only two students, given how many deserving candidates we have here at Reading Memorial High School. Both 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. In addition, I have had the opportunity to meet with both students and they are genuinely great kids. It is with honor and pride that I present this award to our first recipient who was a student at the Birch Meadow Elementary School and Coolidge Middle School and has served in a leadership position as President of the RMHS French Club. In this role, this student organized a fundraiser last year in support of the people of Paris after the terrorists’ attacks. She tutors younger students in French; and she co-founded an after school program for elementary school children to help them acquire an appreciation for a different language and culture. Academically, this student has excelled in rigorous classes including AP Calculus, AP Physics, Honors Engineering, Honors Film and Literature, AP French, and AP Chemistry. She has attended summer courses in Engineering and Biomedical Systems at Brown University and a Congress of “Future Medical Leaders” in Biotechnology at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell. In addition, this student is involved in a number of meaningful activities but is most passionate about dance, a creative outlet requiring both physical and artistic strength. For the past 10 years, she has performed in The Nutcracker in roles ranging from Clara to a reindeer to a point mouse. She sees herself continuing dancing in college. This recipient envisions a career in engineering and has applied early decision to Vanderbilt, Boston University, and Northeastern where she would like to major in Mechanical or Biomedical Engineering. She dreams about a career where she can have an impact on the lives of others. When asked which teachers had the greatest impact on her educational journey, she said recently retired Birch Meadow teacher Rick Downes and RMHS Physics Teacher Nancy Najmi. It is with great pleasure tonight that I recognize Alisyn Bourque. Alisyn, please come forward to receive the 2016 Massachusetts Association of School Superintendent’s Award.
Tonight’s second recipient attended Killam Elementary School and Parker Middle School and has excelled as a member of the RMHS Jazz Band. Academically, this student is a curious and engaged learner who has taken several high level courses including AP Calculus, Honors English, Band, AP Physics, AP French, and AP Chemistry. During 10th grade, he represented the school as a first-year chemistry student at the Ashdown Exam, which was held by the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society. He was one of the top scorers in the region, which opened up a second opportunity to take the qualifying exam for the United States National Chemistry Olympiad team. Additionally, he took on an independent study in undergraduate-level organic chemistry this year through MIT’s OpenCourseWare. He has also been named as a national Merit Semi-Finalist, a significant achievement where only 1% out of 1.6 million students in the country who took the PSAT qualify.
In addition to academics, this recipient is an avid piano player and fiction writer. He participates in online forums for writing and also has submitted his fiction works to publications. He also devotes time to our public library where he is a frequent volunteer. He has led tours of the new building, helped plan children’s programming and has been a “NetGuide” helping mostly elderly patrons learn how to more effectively access resources online. Next year, he plans on majoring in Chemical Engineering and is applying to Yale, Columbia, and MIT.
The teachers who have had a significant impact on this student’s journey in the Reading Public Schools include his Freshman English Teacher Kate Crosby, who opened up his world to creative writing, and Chemistry Teacher Frank Buono who turned a difficult class with a dense amount of information into a class he could freely enjoy.
It’s a great honor to introduce to you, Anson Huang! Anson, please come forward and accept the MASS 2016 Superintendent’s Award for Academic Excellence.
Alisyn Bourque and Anson Huang (Photo by Al Sylvia)
Congratulations Alisyn and Anson. My main objective this evening in this annual Address is to report on the state of the schools—and without question, our school system could have no finer examples of its mission than these two outstanding young adults and so many more like them. 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 for the last year, highlighted in 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 doubt, the values and spirit of our town—including a commitment to community, teamwork, and perseverance—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 goals—regardless of the challenge.
And while the district is overall continuing to make substantial progress, there are absolutely still significant challenges and issues that we continue to face. Using the annual state assessments as a measure, we have seen two years now of overall progress in the results at most grade levels, and we are proud that our high school moved to a Level 1 rating this spring. At the same time however, we are still working to improve our consistency and calibration of expectations across every school and every grade level, as there are specific areas in some schools that are still being addressed—and as many of you may already know, the Joshua Eaton Elementary School is designated as a Level 3 school by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as a result of not showing adequate progress on state assessments (especially for its High Needs Subgroup of students). Although we are beginning to see progress, there is still work to do in this area.
Using the Youth Risk Behavior Survey data as a measure, we are also seeing many positive trends for youth in our community, such as a decrease in the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. We continue, however, to see a concerning number of students being treated for anxiety or depression. Reading data also showed that these same students are showing an increased use of drugs and alcohol.
Other challenges have surfaced, as well, with the recent outcomes of elections. Some programs, regulations, and policies may be shifting, and of course, the results of the Proposition 2 ½ election will also have a significant impact on the schools. Revenue challenges faced by our community will result in significant program and staffing reductions to our district for the fourth year in a row—unfortunately during a time when we are transitioning to more rigorous state standards for our students.
In spite of these challenges, however, our staff are committed to the goals we have set forth for our children, and the students we just honored are examples that inspire us with their journey—and they inspired me to share some more of such examples.
With a commitment to the values I mentioned (community, teamwork, and perseverance), our amazing staff and students make us proud each and every day—and so I want to use tonight’s address to highlight just a few of these stories that represent this tremendous commitment. The students mentioned this evening have all overcome their own personal challenges or they have made contributions to our community through the hard work and dedication of teachers who have made a difference in their lives. In short, they are what the Reading Public Schools is all about—and we could never find better models of the power of community, teamwork, and perseverance.
First, I would like to introduce to you Ottavio, a third grade student at the J.W. Killam elementary school. In September, 2014, when he was in first grade, Ottavio was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, a highly malignant brain tumor. Since then, this little boy has endured numerous surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments. Through it all, whenever possible, he attended school and was happy to be with his Killam friends. During his first and second grade years, Ottavio missed a total of 156 school days. But he persevered, attending school when he could, although some days were more difficult than others. This year, for the first time in two years, Ottavio started the school year cancer free. Ottavio has had many teachers who have made a difference in his life.
Ottavio and Killam Teacher Nina Balfe
His first grade teacher, Nina Balfe, shown here in this photo with Ottavio and his third grade teacher, Karesa Encarnacao. Both have shown extreme dedication, compassion, and support, not only to Ottavio, but to his entire family. Ottavio is encouraged by his teachers who remind him, “I will love you, push you, and encourage you to do your best. It will be hard but I will not give up on you or let you give up on yourself.” School is hard for Ottavio and he works hard every day. This school year, Karesa Encarnacao is his personal cheerleader—guiding and encouraging him along the way. Ottavio has a long way to go, but he is certainly in great hands with caring teachers and a supportive community.
As many of you know, we have many special education programs in our school district, but perhaps some of our most fragile students are in our K-2 Compass Program at the Birch Meadow Elementary School. The Compass Program is a program for students who are diagnosed with autism. Some of these students have a difficult time transitioning to school. These are students who may have had difficulty at first expressing themselves, identifying shapes, numbers, and letters, and interacting with other students. The families of these students may have had their own challenges as well, adapting to the needs of their children and the support they require to be successful in school.
The Birch Meadow Compass Program Honors Tricia Piacentini
Fortunately, these students have an outstanding teacher named Tricia Piacentini, or “Mrs. P” as she is so fondly called by parents and students. Tricia has done an amazing job with these students. She challenges and pushes them, and the children have shown amazing growth in their academic learning and social emotional health. She teaches each of her students with compassion and perseverance because she believes each child can learn, regardless of the challenges and disabilities they may face. As one parent put it, “Mrs. P has a rare and special gift to be able to help kids find the best within themselves and let them see just how smart and how good they can be.”
This past spring, Tricia was recognized by the Teamsters Local 25 at their 10th Annual Light up the Night Gala for Autism in Boston, an event that recognizes outstanding educators who work with students with autism. We are very fortunate in the Reading Public Schools to have Tricia, a talented teacher, who opens the world for students with disabilities. Tricia is here this evening. Tricia, thank you for what you do for our students.
Meet Nakeya and Victoria, who are ninth grade students at RMHS. Nakeya and Victoria are in our METCO program, a program that gives students from Boston the opportunity to attend suburban schools. Reading is very fortunate to have a strong METCO program with students in Grades K-12. What you may not know about our Boston students is that they make a significant amount of sacrifices to attend the Reading Public Schools. Their day starts at 5:00 a.m. or earlier so that they can catch their bus to Reading. It is sometimes difficult to make connections with their Reading peers because they are not able to stay late after school or participate in activities that would develop those friendships. They then have a long bus ride home, where most Reading students have a short 5 or 10 minute walk or ride. When Nakeya and Victoria first entered Coolidge as sixth grade students, they initially struggled with the transition from elementary to middle school and had difficulty making new friends. Their first year at Coolidge was very challenging.
Nakeya and Victoria
When the students entered seventh grade, a new Physical Education teacher, Jennifer White started at Coolidge Middle School. Almost immediately, Jennifer made a positive impact on those students. She arrived early to school and hung out in the cafeteria so that she could connect with Nakeya, Victoria, and other students who arrived very early. After school, the students would hang out with Ms. White until the bus came. Because of Ms. White’s interest in these students and her willingness to serve as a role model, Nakeya and Victoria grew over their last two years at Coolidge going from fairly disconnected 6th grade students to involved and happy 8th grade students. As the students stated when I met with them, “She would be there for us. She was our own personal guidance counselor.” At last year’s 8th grade promotion ceremony, both girls awarded Jennifer White a Starfish Award for making a difference in their lives. Even today, as ninth grade students, Nakeya and Victoria still go to Ms. White when they have a problem even though they are not in the same school anymore. Jennifer, who is here this evening, is an extremely humble, caring teacher, a leader by example, and we are proud and honored to have her as a teacher in the Reading Public Schools. Jennifer, thank you for what you do for our students.
Next, I would like to introduce you to Ali, a very thoughtful and humble senior at Reading Memorial High School. In 2011, when Ali was in 6th grade, he lost his father to cancer. Ali was naturally devastated, but from that day on, he has been committed to pursuing a field where he can do research to find a cure. The summer after his Freshman year, Ali participated in a program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where he was exposed to a variety of different aspects of the medical field. In the summer of his sophomore year, he was accepted into a research program at Beth Israel and for the last two summers Ali studied protein networks in a laboratory setting at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. He presented his findings to physicians and scientists.
Ali has applied to several Boston area schools including Boston University, Tufts, and Northeastern where he would like to major in Neurobiology. When asked about what teachers have had an impact on his journey, Ali said his Honors Spanish 4 teacher Giulio Binaghi and his 7th and 8th Grade English Teacher, Erica LeBow. Mr. Binaghi taught him not only Spanish, Spanish literature, and history, but a great deal about life. Ali said that Mr. Binaghi has been an essential aspect of his character and intellectual curiosity development. He stated that Erica LeBow was the catalyst to many of his academic pursuits. Ali stated that “Her influence led me to take a keen interest in reading, but also reflection upon finishing a piece of literature. I often relate data that I collect in experiments at Dana-Farber to the words in a book and how they mean absolutely nothing unless I take the initiative to analyze it, detect trends and overriding themes, and formulate my own conclusions. I thank her for editing each and every one of my essays and providing critical feedback that helped polish my grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary. Ms.LeBow is truly passionate about teaching and I’m grateful to have known her as a teacher, mentor, and a friend.” Because of Ali’s experience in the Reading Public Schools and his outside work at Beth Israel and Dana Farber, he is passionate about public health and health care and he wants to focus on eliminating the ethnic and racial disparities in health care.
Finally, meet Laura, a Senior at Reading Memorial High School. For more than a year and a half, Laura has been working on her Girl Scout Gold Award project which has culminated in a published historical fiction children’s book on the life of Sergeant Joshua Eaton, who at age twenty was the only Reading man to die in the American Revolutionary War. Laura’s work was based on a clear need to educate the community about the importance of the life of Joshua Eaton and why the school is named after him. This year, thanks to Laura’s work, Sargeant Joshua Eaton was recognized at the Town Memorial Day Ceremony. To prepare for writing her book, Laura conducted extensive research on Sgt. Eaton including use of Reading resources, visits to Lexington and Concord and Saratoga, NY, extensive consultation with Everett Blodgett, town historian, research at the Massachusetts
RMHS Teacher Kara Gleason and Laura
Historical Society and State Archives, and use of many primary and secondary research sources. She received a historical preservation grant from the Town of Reading to help fund the publication of a high-quality, large, color, glossy edition of her book. In October, Laura presented to the students of Joshua Eaton at an all school assembly and read passages from her book to the students to help educate them on who Joshua Eaton was and why the school was named after him. Copies of her book will be distributed to the school and the public library. Laura continues to work to find a publisher for “mass market” copies of her book so as to get a classroom set and copies for the general public.
Laura’s Project Advisor for this work was RMHS Social Studies Teacher Kara Gleason who worked diligently with her to provide guidance and historical information so that she could pursue her dream of publishing this book. Kara is here this evening. Thank you Kara for having an impact on Laura’s journey.
Alyson, Anson, Ottavio, the students in the Compass Program, Nakeya, Victoria, Ali, and Laura are just a few of the 4,431 students that we have here in the Reading Public Schools. Each of our students have meaningful stories to tell and each of our students have caring adults, teachers, administrators, and other staff, who have made a difference at some point in their educational journey. Over the last few years, our schools have focused our efforts on those structures and supports so that each student will have at least one adult in the school that they can go to when they are in need. Our goal is to provide a strong and robust curriculum that all students can access and a support system above and beyond what all students receive to help those students that are struggling. By developing this system of supports, it will make all of our schools strong and benefit all students, just like the student stories you heard this evening.
I would be remiss, if I did not also honor four teachers who were beloved in our school community, but passed away in the last several months. Retired Coolidge teacher John McCarthy, Retired Birch Meadow Teacher Irene Bourne, Retired Teacher, Sally Mucica, Joshua Eaton Teacher Jody Carregal, and Birch Meadow Teacher Jolene Tewksbury each had an impact on hundreds of students during their time as teachers in our district. They connected and cared about children, challenged them, supported them when they struggled, and never gave up on their students. Although they will be missed, the impact that each of them had on students will carry on for generations to come.
We do have work yet to do. For our staff (especially in recent years) the challenges are big . . . but so are their aspirations and goals . . . for our schools, our community and for our children. And too often perhaps, especially as we navigate through the challenges of smaller budgets . . . or the details of an improvement plan, we can forget to pause and give gratitude to the staff in our town and schools who never stop giving their all—regardless of the challenge. I wanted to make sure we did not let that happen this year. The never-ending sense of community, teamwork, and perseverance that our dedicated staff members show each and every day provide the lifeblood of our school system—and often provide as well the role modeling and inspiration for the children they serve. Thank you, to all of them. As I have stated before many times at this Town Meeting, and as you have heard first hand this evening, I am proud of the work that our teachers, support staff and administrators do every day to improve teaching and learning in our district, and I am excited by the enthusiasm and respectfulness of our students who arrive to school every day eager to learn. This is a testament to the support of our parents and members of our community who value the importance of education and the role that it needs to play in a community. Moving forward, I encourage you to attend school events—and if you wish, to visit our schools. Contact me, and we can make that happen. Recently, I also began holding Superintendent Office hours to give our parents and the community an opportunity to discuss their questions or concerns about our school district. Please don’t hesitate to access these and other ways to connect with our schools, as our goal is to enhance communication with all of our stakeholders.
As I always say, I believe a major indicator of the quality of life for everyone in a community can be measured by the quality of its schools and by a community’s commitment to its children. In this way, the quality of a school district affects every single person. As we move toward the future, I am optimistic as well, our community will find solutions on how best to always maintain strong town and school services that affect the quality of life in our entire community.
Thank you for your time this evening. In my 33rd year as an educator, my 29th year now in Reading, and a parent of two children who attended and graduated from the Reading Public Schools and are now in college, I must say that I am so very proud to be a part of this community. I thank you for the privilege . . . and I look forward to working with you, as together, we continue to make Reading a place where all students are supported, a place where we develop the innovative leaders of tomorrow, and a place where our schools continue to provide the strong foundation for the future of this great community.