Monday, November 12, 2012

But It's Sunny Outside

On Monday, October 29, I sent all faculty, staff, and administrators home at 3:00, or immediately after their students departed - whichever came first.  Like the rest of the Northeast, I was keeping an eye on Hurricane Sandy and her path up the eastern seaboard.  I was unsure of our status for the following day and was planning to make a decision in the early morning hours, much like a snow day. 

As I've referenced in an earlier post, there are a substantial number of events that present themselves to Superintendents that aren't covered in "Superintendent School."  School closings due to weather is on the top of that list.  To that end, I reached out to a colleague during the day on October 29, and she had already connected with a former superintendent to ask his advice on the impending storm.

Typically, school closings are the kinds of calls that rarely make everyone happy - but must be made with students safety foremost in our minds.  We cannot educate our students if they are not safe in our classrooms, thus we must make these types of decisions carefully.

My plan to make a decision regarding Montpelier Public Schools in the early morning hours of October 30 was still intact as I left the office on Monday.  Before I arrived home, several schools in Chittenden County had made the decision to close, including the Supervisory Union where my own children go to school.

I was still confident that waiting was the right decision - until I looked at the growing list of schools all over the state of Vermont that were closing before 5:00, the night before!  Some doubt started to creep in and I was very unsure of what to do.

Living in Vermont has a substantial number of benefits, not the least of which is it feels more like a small town than a state.  The meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association work from the Burlington International Airport.  They kept us updated on this storm, sending us alerts as early as October 21 letting us know about the possibilities associated with this storm.  This information is invaluable to making a decision regarding school closing. 

I went back and re-read all the e-mail messages, reviewed the storm's current track, and still was not sure what to do.  There was a chance the storm could miss us - there was a chance it would be a repeat of Hurricane Irene, barely one year earlier, that devastated portions of Vermont. 

It was then that the voice of reason spoke to me: My Wife.  She encouraged me to reach out to colleagues and find out what they were doing - share my information, listen to theirs, and make a decision together.  That is just what I did. 

My anxiousness began to diminish, as I reached out to Laurie Gossens (Washington South Supervisory Union), Bill Kimball (Washington Central Supervisory Union), and Nancy Thomas (Washington Northeast Supervisory Union).  We connected electronically and by putting student safety first, sharing the information that we each had, along with the best weather forecasting we could access, we together decided to close our schools. 

I was flooded with a feeling of gratitude for the collegiality that my fellow Superintendents and I displayed as we each navigated this tricky decision, based on what is in the best interests of our students.  We have committed to staying in touch throughout the winter, and as best we can, making our decisions collectively, with our students first and foremost in our minds.  To each of them, I say a heartfelt, thank you. 

And of course, I must credit My Wife for refocusing me on collective leadership.  YTD!

Much of Vermont was spared the wrath of Sandy - we know that parts of New York and New Jersey are still continuing to rebuild.  Our thoughts and good wishes are with the people who are still, and will still be, impacted by this storm.  If you are interested in participating in the relief efforts, the American Red Cross has set up a website:

While playing a game of wiffle ball on our lawn on Tuesday, October 30, my oldest son Patrick asked why there was no school for him or for me.  I told him, it was because of the storm.  He responded, "But Daddy, it's sunny outside."  And while I couldn't quite articulate the answer at the time, I know now, that I closed Montpelier Public Schools on that day thanks to my excellent colleagues in Washington County. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

September Celebrations

In my remarks for the Opening Day in Montpelier Public Schools, I mentioned to the assembled Faculty, Staff, and Administration that we get to do something amazing on a daily basis in education - we get to touch the lives of children every day.  Further, because of my role as Superintendent, I get to see many, but not all, of these wonderful moments.  By visiting our schools as often as I do, I witness first hand the "a-ha" moments, the moments of joy, the moments of challenge, the moments of celebration.  

And I wanted more.  I wanted those that serve with me in this District to shed their humility briefly and brag about themselves.  I challenged everyone on that first day to reflect from time to time on what they do that is worthy of celebration.  

Here are the highlights from September:

Cathy Butterfield (Social Studies, MHS): I am excited to have a SMART Board and to meet my professional goal to integrate more technology into my lessons.  The SMART Board has increased my organization and effectiveness - plus, I finally feel like I have entered the 21st century!  This technology is dynamic and interactive and while I don't have a full grasp of what it can do, I am encouraged by the possibilities.  The experience has also allowed me to forge a new partnership with the Technology Department.  They are extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  Ultimately, it has been a gratifying - albeit, time-consuming, start to the new year.  

Cathy Clements (Math Coach, K - 8): I am happy to note that I have some students coming in early on for a math club.  We just began so it's developing but they are coming in wanting to do problem solving, the harder the better.

Sylvia Fagin & Patti Magoon (ELL & Literacy Coach, MSMS): We have a student that up until recently couldn't read or write in English.  We teamed up to provide intensive support - Patti, 1:1 reading instruction; me, in-class ELL support.  This student now has taken to reading and is really beginning to flourish.  And did I mention this student is requesting books from the library and READING?

Chris Guros (Special Educator, MSMS): One of my groups is making outstanding progress with multiplication, finishing a full unit of our math program in about four weeks.  Pre- and post-testing supports that every student in the group made significant progress.  I would also like to celebrate that one of my students, who hates to write, wrote a paragraph for homework and emailed it to me to ask if it was acceptable.  This student rarely does any homework, so another teacher and I were very excited.  I am also proud of the continuing work we are doing at Main Street with Michael Giangreco around defining inclusion so that all students get the attention and education they deserve.  This is important work that is in its' early stages, but is, nonetheless, exciting and necessary.  

Kristine Kane (Art, UES): I wanted to share the UES artwork is on display at the Kellogg Hubbard Library!  Sunflower studies by Linda Beaupre's second grade class are on exhibit for the month of October.  Our theme for second grade Art this year is "Art Explorers."  In this project we were inspired to explore the Elements of Art color and line through sunflower still lives.  We are thrilled with this opportunity to share our artwork with the Montpelier community and hope to do more of this in the future!

Dave Rapacz (Head Custodian, MSMS): We have, with the whole school's help, been able to reduce our use of plastic garbage bags by 50%!  We instituted a "1 can per room rule."  Many rooms had multiple trashcans, and our trash bag usage was much too high.  This was truly a school-wide effort, as many teachers and students had to be willing to give up the convenience of multiple trashcans.  Thanks to our school trash audit, we can verify that our plastic bag usage has been cut in half, eliminating 18 - 19 pounds of plastic going into the landfill each month!  We also installed a water cooler with bottle filler on the first floor.  After just one week in service, the bottle savings counter indicates we have saved 534 bottles from being used, and going into the trash/recycle.  Our plan is to have one on each floor and possibly one in the cafeteria.  The Custodial Staff looks forward to continued work with our "Green Team" at MSMS to establish even more environmentally progressive plans.  

Emily Wrigley (Kindergarten Teacher, UES): The Kindergarten Team (all five classes) learned the words to and dance for a song called "First Comes the Egg" about the life cycle of the butterfly, and in September performed a whole class sing-along in the big gym for one another, teachers, and other special adults in the MPS Community.  Learning made fun!

These are just some of the wonderful things that are happening in our schools.  Please come and join in our celebrations by visiting classrooms and witnessing first hand the tremendous work that all our Faculty, Staff, and Administration do on a daily basis.  Perhaps you would even be inspired to share a celebration that you witness or that involves your child(ren).

I will close this post by honoring the two UVM Teachers of the Year from Montpelier Public Schools.  Each was nominated by their peers and selected by the Administrative Team.  The were both honored on Wednesday, October 17 at the Ira Allen Chapel on the campus of the University of Vermont.

Colleen Purcell started working at Montpelier High School in 2011 after a very successful time working at Colchester High School.  The opportunity to work in the same community she lives in was a primary factor in her decision.  Having come to teaching Spanish following a less traditional pathway, her inspiration for teaching came after immersing herself in the language, culture, people, and geography of Central America.  As a result, her classroom for students is an immersion in the world of Spanish speaking people from around the world.  A typical class is a rigorous and relevant mix of history, culture, geography, agriculture, foods, music, and poetry, with the common thread being learning to speak, understand, and converse in Spanish.

For the past forty years, Mary Mello has enthusiastically and creatively fostered a safe, fun, and powerful learning environment for kindergarten and first grade children in Montpelier.  Her masterful teaching appears to be effortless, but in fact comes from countless hours of preparation and professional development outside of the school day.  Mary is an expert in designing primary level learning experiences that ensure student engagement and success.  She adapts lessons to suit students' needs, and challenges herself to find more effective ways to help every child achieve excellence.  Mary assiduously seeks our opportunities to broaden her professional knowledge and share her new learning with colleagues.  She is always the first to volunteer for committee work, particularly work that supports her colleagues.  She has dedicated years of service to to the district's Local Standards Board, curriculum design initiatives, mentoring new teachers, and leading her grade-level team in the work of a professional learning community.  Mary is highly respected for her dedication to her profession and the families she serves, but also for her generous grace, humility, quick wit, and love of children.  Mary is the educator we all aspire to be.

We have much to celebrate in Montpelier Public Schools!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Upon Further Review

One of the things they don't teach you at Superintendent School, is what to do in the face of a threat and/or a crisis.  There's a red handbook that sits on my shelf, that I reach for once I am made aware of a situation.  That handbook has an index that allows me to flip to the right page, and a checklist that I can review with the building principal as well as emergency responders once they arrive on the scene.  The checklists almost always conclude with the Communication Coordinator - after the determination has been made that there is no longer a threat to students, faculty, and staff.

Yet we live in a world of constant information and instant news.  During our most recent incident at Montpelier High School on September 12, due to the nature of the threat, there was a perimeter set up by the local police department.  One of the local news teams happened to be driving by, took a picture of the police officer blocking the driveway to the high school, and posted it on Facebook.

We live in a world of constant communication and connectivity.  During our most recent incident, the City Manager (as well as other parents in town) were alerted to the situation by their children texting and e-mailing them from their iPhones, BlackBerrys and other devices.

While I was still working with our first responders and our team in the high school, some members of our community already had the information that we were in a lockdown.  I only shared information after the incident was over and I had all the facts clear.

My sole focus during those situations is the safety of the students, faculty, and staff.  Yet, if I ignore the reality of connectivity and communication in our world, I am allowing those elements to dictate a reactive response from the school.

I don't have the right answer - and I don't know the right answer.  I want to engage our community and my Professional Learning Network in the conversation.  When a situation like this occurs, my goal is to communicate  that appropriate and necessary steps are being taken to ensure the safety of our students, faculty, and staff.  In meeting that goal, I don't want to create a situation that redirects our first responders from their primary work in the building and turns them into traffic and/or crowd control.

I know as a Dad that I have people's most precious things in the world in these buildings - that is a responsibility I take very seriously.  My most precious things are in the care of someone else - and I feel confident that those educators take that responsibility seriously as well.

Upon further review, I want to do things better the next time there is a next time.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Three Important Words

Shortly after graduating from Holy Cross, I started teaching at St. Malachy School on Chicago's Near West Side.  Posted in the Teacher's Room was a Top Ten List of Important Words.  According to this list, the three most important words are "I am sorry."

I have never considered how important those words are until earlier this week.

During the Opening District In-Service this year, I wanted to start a new tradition: honoring the nominees and the winners of the University of Vermont Teacher of the Year Award.  Montpelier Public Schools ask colleagues to nominate fellow teachers they believe to be worthy of the award.  Then the Administrative Team reviews the list and selects two.

As part of a larger theme of Celebration, I planned to invite all the nominees to come forward, to be acknowledged by everyone in the District and to receive a certificate.  In preparation for this, I scoured my e-mail inbox to ensure that I had all the names of all the nominees reviewed by the Administrative Team this summer.  Confident that I did, I typed all the names into my Opening Day Remarks.

You can already tell where this is going... I missed one of the nominees.

One of the teachers from Main Street Middle School was nominated by a colleague and it slipped past me.  The individual teacher politely let me know shortly after my Opening Remarks that I failed to recognize this nomination.  Now I needed to repair this.

My plan was to slip quietly into this individual's classroom, present a nomination certificate, and apologize.  I was able to do this - in front of the entire sixth grade.

On Tuesday, September 11, the Sixth Grade at Main Street Middle School was commemorating the events of 2001 when I entered the building.  I listened to the speakers and then I was offered the Talking Stick.  I took that opportunity to share my own reflections of that morning eleven years ago but also to apologize to a worthy nominee of the University of Vermont Teacher of the Year.  With colleagues and students present, this teacher received the recognition that I failed to provide two weeks earlier.

Three Important Words: who needs to hear them from you this week?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Life Happens

Today I rode the bus.

I rode the bus because it is the first day of Kindergarten in Montpelier Public Schools and wanted to greet some of our brand new Kindergarten students for their first bus ride.

About half-way through our ride, we encountered a problem.  We had stopped to pick up students and when the bus driver tried to close the doors, they would not close.

When I rode school buses, they were operated by a handle.  The bus driver would extend the handle toward the doors and the doors would open.  To close the doors, the driver would pull the handle in toward the driver's side and the doors would close.

In 2012, the doors are operated with the push of a button.  The doors would not close.

The driver wisely pulled to the side of the road and tried to fix the doors.  In his defense, he is a bus driver; not an electrician.  He was unable to fix the problem.

After trying for a few minutes to fix the doors, it was clear they were broken.  He used the radio and called in our problem to the bus company.  They responded that another bus was on the way to our location.

The other bus arrived and was driven by one of the mechanics from the bus company.  Our driver exited our bus and continued on his route.  I stayed with the children already on our bus.

Our new driver was able to fix the problem - though I must be honest, I'm not sure how.  At one point, the bus alarm was going off.  And by alarm, I mean the horn was honking consistently and there was a beeping noise inside the bus.

Needless to say it was loud and there were some bewildered children on the bus.  At no point did our mechanic/driver exhibit anything but calm and confidence.  He moved swiftly throughout the bus, trying to both turn off the alarms and to get the doors to work.

He was successful at both.  In what I can only describe as a "reset," the alarms stopped and the doors were operational again.  In about five minutes, we were on our way to Union Elementary School.

As a teacher, I could not help but point out the determination and the poise modeled by our driver to the children.  Some of them were very concerned about being late (we were only late by about 5 minutes) and once I pointed out that they had a great excuse (bus broke down, with the Superintendent on board), they were reassured.

We arrived safely at UES, thanks to a safety conscious bus driver and a determined mechanic.  What a lesson learned today on Bus 24, before we even go to school.