Sunday, November 12, 2017

Two Words: Thank You

This past week I was able to reconnect with a professor I had when I was a student at the College of the Holy Cross.  I had written him an e-mail earlier in the week to thank him.  His courses inspired me to work for social justice and it is through education that I have kept that commitment.

We were able to briefly chat on the phone and I thanked him for the tremendous impact he had on my life.  We had not spoken since I graduated in May of 1996.  I chose to volunteer when I graduated and joined a program called Inner-City Teaching Corp where I learned how to be a teacher.  In the summer of 1999, a Providence College graduate joined the staff of the school where I was assigned, also a volunteer with Inner-City Teaching Corps.  She was from Vermont and taught right next door to me.  In the fall of 2000, we had our last first date ever, we got married in 2004, and moved to Vermont in 2007.

I thanked my professor for inspiring me to pursue social justice because it led me to meet My Wife, with similar passions for equity, and that gift of marriage has led to two beautiful children and a wonderful life in Vermont.  For me, in a very real way, Professor James Nickoloff put me on a path to where I am right now.

Teaching makes a difference in the lives of teachers and our students.

In our final year in Chicago, I was teaching in a high school.  One of my students was accepted to Holy Cross and I could not have been more delighted and proud.  When she told me, I insisted that she find another mentor of mine while I was there.  Kim McElaney was the Director of the Office of the College Chaplains and was a part of the Mexico Immersion Program that I was privileged to be a part of - another key moment in my social justice journey.  That student, like the rest of the Class of 2007 graduated, and at the end of that school year My Family and I moved to Vermont.

Sadly, Kim passed away 2010 and because she was incredibly important to me, I went to her funeral.  While reconnecting with many dear friends whom I had not seen since my own graduation, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard the words, "Mr. Ricca?"  I could not imagine who that would be.  No one called me that while I was at Holy Cross.

I turned to find my former student from Chicago, the Class of 2007, with tears in her eyes.  When I asked her what she was doing here, she responded, "Mr. Ricca, you told me that when I went to Holy Cross that I had to find Kim McElaney.  Well... I did."

Teaching makes a difference in the lives of teachers and our students.

Based on the nature of education, we rarely if ever see the fruits of our efforts.  One of the goals in the MPS Action Plan is for all students to take "an active role in shaping their learning experiences and developing who they are as learners."  That cannot happen in a vacuum - it happens with the faculty, staff, and leadership in our district.  It happens in the classrooms, on our athletic fiends, in the hallways, on stage, in rehearsals, and on field trips.  It happens in real conversations.  It happens because of relationships.

This week, it was a thank you to a professor that was twenty-one years in the making.  Not twenty-one years late.  I had no idea how my life would turn out when I graduated from Holy Cross in 1996 and when I look back I can see who those people who shaped my learning experiences were; those people who helped develop me as a learner left an indelible imprint in my heart.  Thank you.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Do you Brush & Floss Everyday?

This past Wednesday, the MPS Leadership Team took part in the second day of training in the We All Belong Series with CQ Strategies, as we grow our own cultural competency.  One of the goals in the MPS Action Plan is "To implement an articulated multi-tiered system of support to provide equitable learning opportunities for students in safe and inclusive learning environments."  A substantial part of that commitment is working to address our own shortcomings and actively grow as leaders in MPS for this work.

During one of the morning discussions, one of the participants asked our facilitators if there is a way to fully overcome unconscious bias.  The facilitator paused before answering and the answer was stunning in its simplicity.  "Well, do you brush and floss everyday?  While doing that is never going to fully prevent dental decay and larger problems in your mouth we still know that is just good dental hygiene."

We all do something everyday that is not guaranteed to make a difference but is considered just good practice.

I have unconscious biases, simply by growing up and breathing in the ethos in the United States of America.  We all have unconscious biases that impact us as we go about living in the world.  Anyone who says otherwise is simply not being fully honest.  Once we have admitted that we have biases, we must take the next step to ensure that we are working to keep them in check and do what we can to minimize their impact on our day-to-day relationships.

And for those of us in education, the expectations are much higher.  We must be vigilant not only for the biases in our own life; we must be just as vigilant for evidence of biases in our students, in our schools, and our community.  As educators, our responsibilities include educating the whole child, not just the head but the heart as well.  We must ensure that our students are practicing habits that will prevent further development of biases, as they move in relationships not only during the school day but during the rest of their lives as well.  We state in MPS that one of our goals is to have our students be in "safe and inclusive learning environments."  We have a responsibility to our students, as well as to our fellow human beings to be aware of our unconscious biases.

During the Rowland Foundation (@RowFn) Annual Conference in late October, Professor Ruha Benjamin (ruha9) inspired and challenged us around issues of race in the state of Vermont.  A tweet from MHS Principal Mike McRaith (@mikemcraith) summed up her message insightfully:

There are real issues of equity and privilege in our state.  They extend beyond that of just race and include class, gender, gender identify, and ability to name just a few.  Anyone who feels marginalized in 2017, who is not a position of privilege, is working harder and harder everyday to overcome the injustice AND then engage in the process of learning.

I am not whole, because I am overserved and have privilege.  I promise to brush and floss everyday to try to keep my unconscious biases in check but will need help with my blind spots.  Will you help me?  I promise to help you with yours, so that we can honor all our students to make schools truly safe and inclusive for all of them.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Who We Hire Matters

In seven years serving in Montpelier Public Schools, I am fortunate to have hired many, many people to serve with us.  I consider hiring to be my most substantive, practical contribution to the work of education in our district.  Whether a teacher, a member of the Leadership Team or a staff member, we all work together to make the mission a reality for all our students and their families.  People make the difference in the human endeavor of education. 

This past week, I had a first.  I had the privilege of hiring a student who graduated during the time that I've been serving as Superintendent of Schools.  This is not something that I will ever forget.  In all my time in education, I have never hired someone who has graduated from the place where I served, while I was there. 

The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the name was, "Wow, I'm getting old."  This often happens to me when I come across students from my past years in education.  Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, I am able to reconnect with students from as far away as Chicago.  In my mind, they are still in the same classrooms and grade cohorts when I last saw them.  It's mind boggling to me when I see they have real jobs, when they have gotten married, and in some cases they now have children of their own.  It truly is the only thing that makes me feel old; when I see where my former students are now, based on where and when I knew them. 

My second thought when I saw the name of the candidate being recommended to me was sheer pride and a deep, deep sense of gratitude for all the adults that shaped this young person during their time in MPS.  I can think of no greater compliment to our district than when a student graduates and then chooses to apply to work professionally with us again.  And to be clear, I take no credit for this.  This young person graduated in 2013, and I was only in MPS for two years when they walked across the stage and we shook hands. 

In the interview, it was clear that this young person deliberately and thoughtfully applied to MPS.  This was not someone who simply put in an application anywhere the professional skill set was a match.  In my experience, rarely do those applicants get to my desk for an interview.  No, this individual wanted to return to the community that was responsible for a K - 12 education that still was in the forefront of his mind.  Naming people who made a difference in that journey for him was easy, and the reasons for those people's mention had substance and meaning. 

The other reason why this was a special hire to me, besides the reality of it being my first, is that I knew this young person.  He made a point of introducing himself and having many conversations with me during my first two years.  We have stayed in touch since graduation, as I've written letters of recommendation on his behalf.  This individual has stopped by Central Office when home on breaks and has made a point of being present in MPS.  It was clear to me that there was a sense of community that mattered to this young person and so it was no surprise that he applied for a job, so that he could continue to engender the sense of community he felt. 

To all the individuals that shaped the education of Alex Clark, MHS Class of 2013, I thank you for making his experience one that left an indelible place in his heart and made him want to serve with us professionally.  Please help me welcome him home to the MPS Community!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Students Shaping a Better Narrative

This past week, three Union Elementary School students found a $100 bill on their way to school.  Without being prompted by an adult, they chose to turn in the money to Anne Fraser, a staff member they knew.

To celebrate and honor these fine young people, the Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos and our School Resource Officer Corporal Matt Knisley came to a school-wide celebration this week.  

Not only did each student receive a certificate from the Police Department honoring their integrity, they also received the $100 bill back.  During the explanation, Chief Facos explained that normally the police will hold on to lost and found items but because the department was so impressed by the character these young people showed, the department chipped in to cover the $100.  

Another young person from Union Elementary School was highlighted this week, for her generosity.  Maggie McGibney a kindergarten student, donated her birthday gifts to The Good Samaritan Haven in Barre.  Her story was in the Times Argus this week, click here to read it.  

Given what is in the news regularly, it would be easy to understand if we failed to see stories like these.  In and of itself, that is reason enough to share and highlight what wonderful things are happening in our world.  

It is a gift - truly a gift - to be in education these days.  Young people by their nature are curious, kind, and have a bright outlook on the future.  You need look no further than our schools to see just that.  I feel very fortunate that when I get frustrated by the polarization that I see in the world and on the news, I need look no further than where I serve to be more inspired and more hopeful.  

It is easy and understandable to find current events in 2017 overwhelming and at times downright sad.  I assure you that there are plenty of wonderful stories, happening right inside our very own public schools.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

It's A Small World

My Family and I were out to dinner while on vacation on the Outer Banks, in North Carolina.  It's one of our favorite places, called Food Dudes.  It's located basically in a strip mall and it is fantastic food, with a wonderful staff!

After we were seated at one of the tables by the front, we ordered and I noticed a minivan in the parking lot.  It had a green license plate, and it wasn't Colorado.  What are the odds that someone from Vermont was here in North Carolina?  I looked further at the plate and saw it had the red and white "header" delineating a first responder.  After squinting a little I was able to read it.  The lettering said, "Assistant Fire Chief Montpelier Vermont." It was the car belonging to the Quinn family, Shelley and Jim, and their children Aidan and Natalie - a family from Montpelier Public Schools.

Well, I thought, they're probably going into another store in this plaza.  And then Shelley walked into Food Dudes and put their name in for a table.

Well, I thought, they're probably going to be seated somewhere on the other side of the restaurant.  I'll stop over and say hi when we're getting ready to leave.  And then the table right next to us got up to leave.

The Quinns were sitting right next to us, and even so I didn't want to say anything right away.  But just when they were getting ready to place their order, I heard Natalie whisper to her mom: "Mommy, that guy over there looks like Dr. Ricca, and he sounds like Dr. Ricca, but it can't be Dr. Ricca because he's not wearing a tie!"

I introduced My Family to the Quinns and introduced the Quinns to My Family.  We chatted for a little while and then we each enjoyed our meals.  On our way out, the Quinns told us it was their first time in the Outer Banks, so we shared some of our favorite places, besides Food Dudes, and said good-bye.

It is a gift that I serve a single board in Montpelier Public Schools.  Because of that, I am able to spend a great deal of quality time in classrooms, offices and buildings in our district.  I'm proud that students know who I am and recognize me, even when I'm not wearing a tie!  One of the only things that makes me feel old these days, besides my eyesight, is hearing the grades that students are in.  Students that were in first grade when I began serving in MPS are now in seventh, and students that were in sixth grade when I began, are now seniors in high school!

I'm grateful to see smiling student faces when I'm not on campus, and I'm proud that Natalie, Aidan, Shelley, and Jim knew who I was when we bumped into each other more than 750 miles away from Montpelier!  Education is a human endeavor and is built on how we treat each other.  The trust between children and adults is critical to our success, no matter how far away from home we are.

Monday, October 9, 2017

I Buried My Mail App

This past August when My Family and I went on vacation, I wanted to be sure I disconnected from my work life.  I'm very good about protecting vacation and family time and while I'm always reachable by phone and text, I decided to do something to preserve my disconnection even further.  I turned off the notifications for my mail app and took the app off my dock, and hid it in one of my app folders on my iPhone.

My reasons were simple: I did not want that little red number to let me know what was waiting for me when I got back from my vacation.  Not only did I not want to see the number (which was way larger than 11) I did not want to even see the icon.  I planned to put it right back where it belonged when I got back from vacation.

There would be plenty of time to return the mail that accumulated when I was back in the office.  I wanted to ensure that I was being present to my family when I was on vacation.  I read recently that one of people's biggest regrets when the are nearing the end of their lives is that they worked too hard.  Trust me, I am all for hard work - and I am firm in my belief that family vacation is as critical, if not more.

When I returned to the office, I didn't move the app back to the dock where it has always been on my phone.  And I didn't turn the notifications back on.  Then adults returned for their first day, and the app was still hidden, without notifications.  Then students returned, and the app was still hidden.  This Tuesday will be the 27th day of school in MPS and the mail app is still hidden and the notifications are still turned off.

And I have been more present - in my office, in schools when visiting classrooms, in meetings, and with my family.  I have focused more on the human beings in front of me than those who are electronically connecting with me.  I have been present.

Instead of reaching for my phone to see how many messages have come through since I put it in my pocket, I'm using my phone to take pictures.  Instead of reaching for my phone to stay on top of my e-mail, I'm having better face-to-face conversations, letting the messages stay in my inbox.  Instead of looking at my phone, I'm looking at the people right in front of me.

The latest upgrade to iOS 11 includes a do not disturb app that automatically detects when you're driving and does not allow notifications to come through.  I appreciate that nothing comes through on my phone when I'm driving except phone calls, which I can answer hands-free.

Now, please know that I still do check my phone, I know where to find my mail app, and I still respond to mail on the go from time to time.  But I'm proud that I buried my mail app along with the notifications, it will not ever come of out of the folder it's hidden in and the notifications will permanently stay off.  Perhaps someday I'll have the courage to delete it completely.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Snow Day?

This past week, all Montpelier Public Schools' families, along with faculty & staff were treated to an unexpected message from me: No School - Snow Day!  Let me explain...

Last Monday, I was participating in a webinar to learn about the new features of the messaging system that we use in MPS.  The company has recently upgraded to a 2.0 version and among the new features is an app for use with iPhones.  As part of the webinar, I was learning how to utilize the app and send messages from my phone.  I mistakenly thought the process would be similar to the web based program.

When using the web, I would compose my e-mail message and then the shorter text message.  Once I clicked "Next" the following screen would have a pop-up window that has the 800 number to call and a PIN to enter before recording my own voice message.  The app is much more efficient.

When I composed a very brief e-mail and text message, I started to click "Next," thinking I would see a pop-up window on my phone, with the 800 number and a PIN.  Instead, I saw only one thing, a screen that said "Message Sent."

Frantically, I tried to cancel the message but it was too late.  I scrambled to compose a quick follow-up message sharing my mistake.  I then went around to each building to apologize to the teachers, but mostly to the women in our main offices who fielded many, many calls from parents unsure of what my text and e-mail messages meant.  Finally, I used the web based version to write a longer follow-up e-mail, a broader text message, and recorded a message explaining what happened.

When I stopped in to share with people what had actually happened, almost everyone laughed with me when I explained how this came to pass.  It was a very humanizing moment - I had no idea I would send out a fake message on one of the hottest days of the year.  And when I saw the words "Message Sent," I was as surprised and shockec as every single person who received my message last Monday.

The wonderful part of this mistake is that I got to embrace it during the week, since both Main Street Middle School and Union Elementary School had their Open Houses.  Several parents asked if there would be another snow day and every single one did it with a smile on their faces.  Yes, some were understandably concerned when the message first went out, and most knew that it had to be an accident.  As more than one parent told me in so many words, "No offense, but your messages to us are almost never that short."

What started out as an innocent practice exercise, turned into one of the biggest mistakes I've made since being appointed Superintendent of Schools in Montpelier Public Schools.  Let me tell you all about it!