Sunday, March 18, 2018

These Kids Today

They are continuing to impress and inspire me more and more.

This week my fifth grade son came home on Tuesday and shared that he volunteered to be a part of a conversation at his school about safety issues. I was awed.

I remember fifth grade at Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon, NY where I grew up. I remember Mrs. Helen DelVecchio, my fifth grade teacher. I remember some of my classmates in the 1984-1985 school year. I don't remember volunteering to be a part of a conversation about school safety.

Granted, at that time, school safety was limited to fire drills. We had a set of loud bells that would ring twice, with regularity until we all exited the building entirely. I remember being so "inspired" by fire safety that I actually made my entire family practice a fire drill from our home.

What is happening today is nothing short of transformative.

Our students are continuing to teach us. They are teaching us about civic responsibility. They are teaching us about courage. They are teaching us about democracy. They are teaching us to stand up for what you believe. They are teaching us about respect. They are teaching us about discomfort. They are teaching us about growth mindset.

Yes, they are too attached to their phones and devices. But so are we as adults.

Yes, they are over scheduled and stretched too thin at times. But so are we as adults.

Yes, they are overwhelmed and struggling with how to make their way in the world. But so are we as adults.

And they are leading us by their example.

These kids today are to be lauded. These kids today are to be recognized. These kids today are to be commended.

These kids today need to know we love them. These kids today need to know we are proud of them. These kids today need to know we have their backs.

Damn kids...

Sunday, March 11, 2018

On Greatness

This past Friday afternoon was pretty special in Montpelier High School. MHS Alum and Olympic Women's Hockey Champion Amanda Pelkey returned home from what can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime journey. The 2011 graduate was treated to a parade that began at MHS and culminated at City Hall, where she was presented with the flag that flew during her time in South Korea.

While at MHS, she was greeted in the auditorium with a long ovation from the students, faculty and staff and made some brief remarks. The first thing she said was in reference to the MHS Boys Basketball team, playing that evening in the playoffs. She spoke about her time on the Olympic Team and what it has been like since returning to the United States.

This is the closest I'll ever be to an Olympic Gold Medal

What I found most meaningful was one of the last things she said, before exiting the assembly to begin her car ride downtown. She thanked all her teachers for being patient with her, as she acknowledged that she missed a lot of school for her hockey commitments. It may have seemed like a small thing but when I connected with a couple of her teachers afterward it meant a lot.

I remember feeling upset when I got a notice letting me know that students needed to leave my class early, regardless of the reason. Part of that is accepting that so much of teaching in personal - we pour so much of ourselves into our lessons, that it feels in a way like our students are leaving us early when they miss a segment of what we are teaching. And logically, we know that is not true, but it is how we feel.

It would have been very easy for Amanda Pelkey to encourage our Boys Basketball team to victory that night, to share her journey earning an Olympic Gold Medal, tell us all about Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Ellen DeGeneres and walk out of the auditorium to her hometown parade. And she chose to be thankful to the teachers who walked with her on her educational journey. And she chose to acknowledge the fact that she missed a lot of school, given her commitment to hockey.

We will have many, many students who will miss parts or entire classes of ours, in pursuit of their passions and honestly, only a rare few will win even participate in the Olympics, let alone win a Gold Medal. I know each and every one of them has the potential to be as great as Amanda Pelkey, in their own way.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Learning From Our Students

This past Sunday, I retrieved my copy of the Burlington Free Press and was delighted to see the following cover:

Emma Harter & Nadia Scoppettone speak at the State House

The story ran in Sunday's print edition and can be viewed by clicking here.

Nationwide, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are making headlines as they call for stricter laws regarding guns, in the wake of the tragedy they experienced. In Burlington, students in the Social Justice Union earned the approval of their School Board and their high school is flying a Black Lives Matter flag on campus. Here in Montpelier, our students have started the Race Against Racism, raised a Black Lives Matter flag on campus, and are speaking out about the reality of their educational experience in a post-Columbine world. It is an honor to be learning from our students, as we navigate an incredibly dynamic and polarizing time in our country.

After a recent presentation at our local Rotary, I had a conversation with Joelyn Mensah, one of the leaders of the Racial Justice Alliance at Montpelier High School. "Dr. Ricca, can I ask you a question?" "Of course," I responded. "What changed your mind about the flag?" "You did," I told her. "What do you mean?" she asked me. "You changed my mind. Your conversations, your conviction, your rationale. That's what changed my mind."

It is a gift to be working in education in 2018. It is even more of a gift to be working with students who are thoughtful, have a sense of democracy, and are leading us. Their commitment and passion are inspiring. It is a privilege to be learning from them. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018


I was a baby teacher in 1999, in the inner-city of Chicago, when the first school shooting took place. A number of my friends called me and worried about me. Given where I was living, they thought my school on the Near West Side of Chicago was more at risk. The thought of a school shooting never crossed my mind. Perhaps I was naive or perhaps because every single student in that school lived at or below the poverty line, this never entered into my thinking.

On the same day that Our Son Patrick Michael Ricca was born, August 24, 2006, another school shooting happened in Essex, VT. Even though school was not in session, lives were lost. I was not living in Vermont at the time, but it registered for me since I was married to a native Vermonter.

On December 14, 2012, the tragedy of Sandy Hook occurred and twenty-six people lost their lives. That was my second year in Montpelier Public Schools as Superintendent and was off campus that day, driving with My Family. As the news reports started, my phone began to ring. I was overwhelmed with what was happening. Our Sons were 4 and 6 at the time, and I looked over my shoulder to see them comfortably strapped into their car seats in our mini-van, blissfully unaware of what was happening in Connecticut.

On January 16, 2018, Nathan Giffin lost his life on grounds of Montpelier High School. I was in the unified command center with first responders. I held my breath when I heard over the radio "shots fired" and recognized the voice was that of our School Resource Officer, Corporal Matthew Knisley. I didn't realize I was holding my breath until I exhaled when I finally heard his voice again over the radio several long moments later.

This past Wednesday, seventeen students lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I had followed the news all day, sickened again by the loss of innocent life. When putting Patrick to bed that night (Our Son born the same day as the Essex shooting) he said to me, "I know what happened today Daddy." Unsure of what he meant, I responded "What do you mean Love?" His response, "We were at McGillicuddy's watching TV and it wasn't the news. I was just reading the crawl at the bottom of the screen. (long pause) That kinda thing isn't going to happen to us, right?"

Just in this post alone I have noted five school shootings and their impact on my life. That is five too many. None of the facts of these school shootings are in dispute.

Vermont's Governor Phil Scott noted in this article on VT Digger that "it is time for 'an honest and open and fact-based discussion about access to guns by those who shouldn't have them.' " We must take action. We simply must.

There are just too many guns in our country, and essentially unfettered access to them. As someone who is legally obligated to keep Montpelier's children safe, and speaking for my colleague Elaine Pinckney, who is legally obligated to keep my own children safe, I am overwhelmed by the urgency of this.

In Vermont, children are compelled to come to school from the ages of 6 - 16. We must do more to ensure their safety. We must do more, period.

I have had enough. I hope you have too.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

What Are You Reading?

In recent weeks, Montpelier Public Schools have received a substantial amount of media attention regarding flying a Black Lives Matter flag on our campus. It was covered by many media outlets across the political spectrum. Yesterday Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman shared the graphic below:

The entire post and explanation for this graphic is fascinating and I encourage you to read it.

It is interesting to note that MPS was covered by organizations all over this graphic during the past several weeks, leading to different reactions and messages being sent to us. When we spoke to the media, we stayed on message with our talking points and if need be, pivoted back to the reason the Board directed us to fly a Black Lives Matters flag in the first place: honoring the experience of our Black students in Montpelier Public Schools. This is a response to our collective recognition that we need to be a more inclusive community.

In a handful of the conversations that I had either via e-mail or on the phone with people who disagreed with our decision, I was able to explain the rationale for flying a Black Lives Matter flag. In each of those conversations, the individuals expressed some level of disgust at what our Black students were experiencing in our school. While some still maintained that flying the flag was a mistake, none argued that what was happening in our schools was appropriate. In fact, one woman did say to me, "Well that wasn't reported in the article I read..."

It is my firm belief that we will make a difference when we discuss implicit bias and privilege, if we have real conversations with people. Rarely is that going to happen through the media. A story may spark someone to reach out and find out more. And that's where we can have an impact, one relationship at a time.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

And Now... Exhale

It has been quite a couple of weeks in Montpelier Public Schools. I'm incredibly proud to be serving in a community where student leadership is honored by publicly elected officials and in a peaceful assembly, we are able to fly a Black Lives Matter Flag on the campus of Montpelier High School.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote an op-ed piece in the Miami Herald, both CNN and NBC News thought the event was newsworthy, and we even received an endorsement from Vermont's own Ben and Jerry's.

We have had press inquiries from Al Jazeera, the Associated Press, and Newsweek. Our students have been honored for their courage, our leaders have received overwhelmingly supportive messages from around the United States, and our community has been the focus of much of the news cycle for the past several days. And Friday the first day after our assembly, when our first shift custodian arrived at school, the flag was still flying and the building was covered with hearts.

It has been a whirlwind and an emotional roller coaster for sure. Patience has been tested, feelings have run hot, and capacity has been stretched. And we have made it. We are on the other side of the assembly and proud to be taking each day that comes one at a time. Each day renews our commitment to equity. Each day renews our commitment to justice. Each day renews our commitment to our Black students... and all our students.

We are very proud of what we do in Montpelier Public Schools. We were very proud before we raised a Black Lives Matter flag. We are very proud of what we did that day. We will be very proud of the work we will continue to do for all our students in Montpelier Public Schools. In MPS, we consistently work to build relationships as the foundation for making a difference in the lives of our students.

It's time to get back to work!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

On Being Uncomfortable

This past week, Montpelier High School announced that it would fly a Black Lives Matter flag on campus for the month of February. The action comes from a unanimous affirmative vote from our school board and we have received a substantial amount of support through phone calls, e-mail, blog posts, and social media messages. As expected though, we have also been contacted by a number of people who disagree with this decision, and some have expressed that through hate and threats to me personally.

Prior to this week, I had never received a message of hate, my privilege saw to this. I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, Judeo-Christian man. I have a great deal of systemic power, given to me for reasons I have not earned, nor deserved. And yet, this week I was grappling with the reality of hate messages because of how I am choosing to support this student-led initiative. It was, and is, quite uncomfortable. 

In a conversation with My Wife about this, I came to a stark realization. This hate is only temporary for me. When this is behind us and we move on to continuing the work of equity, proficiency, and personalization in Montpelier Public Schools in other ways, hate will not be directed at me.

For our Black students, this is the hate they deal with regularly. They face hate and racism for reasons they have not earned, nor deserved. Our Racial Justice Alliance told us of awful things that other students say about them, that go unaddressed, that are a part of their educational experience in Montpelier Public Schools.

I am proud to be uncomfortable to stand with our Black students. I am proud to be uncomfortable to build on the Vermont legacy of being at the forefront of civil rights. I am proud to be uncomfortable so that we can have the conversations about being a more inclusive community.