Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Welcome Back Staff Letter 2016

Dear Colleagues:

It is my pleasure to welcome you back to the Somerville Public Schools for the 2016-2017 school year.  It is my hope that you were able to find time to rest and relax this summer.  You certainly deserve the break with all of the dedication, diligence, and hard work that you provide during the school year.  Teaching children is the most important profession and the sacrifices that you make in the Ville are very much appreciated.

This past spring, I had the opportunity to serve as a keynote speaker for the American Reading Company Summit where I used the opportunity to boast about the tremendous talents of the Ville staff and community.  The title of the presentation was Don’t Focus on the Falls.  Too often society focuses on the falls rather than the steps.  I gave the comparison (wonderfully provided to me by Dave Gustavsen) of a child taking his/her first steps.  We do not admonish the child for the falls, but rather praise them for the steps.  We don’t say, “When is my kid going to get this right?” or “I am tired of my child falling!” We praise our children for the steps similar to the way each of you praise our children for their successes.  We focus on promoting the steps in the Ville!

It is this optimism that guides our organization; a sense of hope.  I am reminded of a quote from Emily Dickinson.  “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the human soul.”  Your precious gifts of knowledge, love of our students, belief in our students’ abilities, and hope to make this world a better place give the Ville its strength.  It is this optimism that must captain our ship during turbulent times.  Regardless of societal impact or ignorance of the profession, educators and employees that interact with our children are the bedrock of society.  I need your help to ensure that the viral negativity does not unearth the very underpinnings of the foundation we have toiled to create.  Trevor Blake, author of Three Simple Steps says, “If you are pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone be negative, than you’re more likely to behave that way as well.”  My challenge to you, dear friends and colleagues, is to get involved.  If you see something that you would like to change, ask to be part of the change process.  Tom Ziglar says, “Change starts with you, but it doesn’t start until you do.”  As our building leaders forge new pathways for our new school year, ask to get involved.  We offer employee involvement on many levels: staff incentives, Personnel Committee, District At-A-Glance Calendar Committee, Trauma Sensitive Task Force, Mosaic Mentoring Program, and many more.  Whatever your interest, please make it known to your building leaders.  Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter) is quoted as saying, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” Let’s be united, with a purpose; to make the Ville a great place to live, learn, and grow!

We will continue to recognize these efforts and the support of our community stakeholders through our #allin4theVille stakeholder awards, BOE meetings, podcasts, blogposts, and Twitter.  Nominations for #allin4theVille stakeholder awards are accepted via the district homepage.  I encourage you to recommend a colleague or community member for the award and to share the incredible work that you are doing with our community by tweeting with the hashtag #allin4theVille.  Dr. McDonald, Ms. McEntee, and Mrs. Sung will continue the monthly district Ville(age), Innovation, and Best Practice Awards.  These awards are announced via email and posted on Twitter!  We continually value your contributions to our school community and applaud your efforts.

Last year the district passed the QSAC monitoring process.  Officials from the County Office were extremely impressed with the level of engagement and instructional practices observed during the site visitation.  Our successes have reached, not only national recognition with the National District of Distinction Award, but have garnered international attention with a visit from a Denmark official during the 2015-2016 school year.  The Digital Data Wall program (Assess Analyze Achieve), under the direction of Mr. Teehan, is designed to compile student performance data so that it is readily accessible as a tool to identify student needs and provide a direction for individualized instruction differentiated to meet identified student needs.  The shared electronic student data collections continue to evolve based on teacher and principal feedback.  All of this data provides teachers with valuable information that can be used to improve student performance outcomes, which will produce well-prepared Somerville students who are ready for college and careers.

The New Jersey Department of Education has been busy working on the state guidelines for the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015.  The Act will be promulgated for the 2017-2018 school year.  ESSA provides more flexibility to state departments in contrast to its 2002 predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Prior to this significant signing, districts were left to implement an outdated NCLB (earmarked for revision in 2007).  Many of these changes have addressed the resounding concerns from educators and parents nationwide.  My hope is that the NJDOE will restore local control on the effectiveness measures and reduce the weight and burden of standardized tests on teacher evaluation.

In the Ville, our Core Beliefs (developed out of our VISION2020 strategic plan) remain at the center of our mission to provide the highest quality education through an environment that promotes individual excellence.  
We believe that children learn best in a challenging, motivating, safe, secure, nurturing, encouraging, and respectful environment that fosters a love of lifelong learning.
We believe in providing learning opportunities to meet the diverse needs of each individual child.
We believe that the mosaic of every child includes the fine arts, STEAM, and extracurricular activities.
We believe that professional development is essential to the fabric of the teaching profession allowing teachers to build on current practices and constantly improve instruction.
We believe in a collaborative approach to learning and engagement that includes students, district employees, parents, community members, and community partnerships.

The VISION2020 strategic themes, Building Cultural Competence, Preparing for College and Career, and Growing Professional Development Opportunities continue for the 2nd year of our Strategic Plan.  Updates on progress towards each of these strategic themes and the school Wildly Important Goals (WIGs) can be found on the district website or district app and are updated periodically throughout the year.  As a reminder, the strategic themes were developed by the Board of Education after a community-wide Needs Assessment (previously available in both Spanish and English) and my Context Map input sessions with all staff and community members during the 2014-2015 school year.

In an effort to build Cultural Competence, a team of staff members attended training session with Susan Craig and Janis Bozowski.  A Trauma Sensitive Task Force (representing staff members from each school, administration, and a BOE member/parent) analyzed and identified trends and patterns in our district data.  The Task Force presented their findings with recommendations for the 2016-2017 school year at the June 14, 2016 Board of Education meeting.  The district will implement these recommendations for the 2016-2017 school year.

The district launched a new non-traditional high school last year under the direction of Mr. Hade and Dr. McDonald.  The extremely successful M.A.P.S. program served as the impetus of the Preparing for College and Career goal.  This year, the district will examine trends and patterns in post-Somerville data to determine career and college preparation levels.  Data collected from this study will be made available to the community through the district website.

Last year, under the direction of Ms. McEntee, the district expanded video resources for Growing Professional Development Opportunities to educators through the three dimensional professional development (3DPD) best practice repository.  The private video channel provides resources to district educators and staff with over 135 uploaded videos that highlight district best practices, model lessons, strategies, and tips to improve instruction and student learning.  The homegrown repository provides teachers with on-demand opportunities to select personalized learning paths based on their individual needs.  This year, the district will concentrate efforts on professional development opportunities for parents regarding the social and emotional development of children.

The VISION2020 strategic plan also drives the annual budget goals.  Under the direction of Mr. Boyce, our budget planning process involves careful attention to improving student achievement and ensuring curriculum and instruction is designed and delivered to meet our students' needs. We want to provide you with the support and resources so that you can provide the optimal learning experience for our children.  Student performance data is studied and programs and services evaluated on an ongoing basis so that the budget reflects updated instructional priorities.  All of the staff additions, professional development opportunities and technology availability noted in this letter are a result of our deliberate budget process.  Last year, my Executive Student Council (comprised of students from each school building) introduced our budget priorities at the Annual Budget Public Hearing.  What a way to center our decisions on our students!  The Board will also continue to have two student representatives (i.e. one from Branchburg and one from Somerville).

The district thought partners (vendors) and community partnerships serve as the backbone and strength of our district.  We recognized these partners at our 5th Annual Supers Bowl event as they provide resources and experiences that enrich the learning experiences for our children.  This year, we are launching a new SHS partnership with LaRue PR.  We are entering the second year of our Robert Wood Johnson/Somerville Medical Sciences Academy, third year of RVCC’s Workforce Skills and Employability Program (non-college bound students exposed to retail, hospitality, public service, and childcare), third year of AT&T’s Young Science Achievers Program, and fourth year of our RVCC’s Academy of Liberal Arts.  Upon completion of this year, we will have 11 students receive their Associates Degree in May, prior to their high school diploma.  This spring, we will host our 4th Annual Student Achievement and Data Summit and 7th Annual Kindergarten Summit, which provide free learning opportunities and best practice sharing of instructional strategies with statewide professionals and local area providers.

We will continue our unfailing commitment to meet the needs of all learners and to foster a safe environment for them to be successful.  Dr. McDonald and her team will continue to promote the collaborative classroom model through professional development and a video series that highlights best practices in this area.  The series will be uploaded onto the district’s 3DPD channel.

We continue to drive 21st Century change in the Ville.  The 1:1 Chromebook initiative successfully launched at SHS last year and enters into phase three with the expansion to all students in grades 3-5 and Instructional Assistants.  All K-2 classrooms will also have sets of 6 MacBooks to utilize in the classroom.  Coding has reached new levels with the third year of our Mobile App Development program and middle and elementary school STEM/Coding classes.  The VDV and SMS libraries are being transformed into maker spaces to support student creativity and innovation.  Additionally, Ms. McEntee and her team have been busy implementing Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) capabilities for all office staff and students enrolled in SHS STEM classes.

Many of our staff members were busy this summer writing curriculum, teaching our enrichment and at-risk programs, attending professional development offerings and presenting at our annual Collaborative Professional Development Academy.  We would like to thank them for providing for our students, sharing their talents and continuing to improve their pedagogy.  We welcome three new members to the curriculum team.  At the Van Derveer School, Mr. Brennen Thompson will support the instructional staff by demonstrating and modeling best practice strategies as an instructional coach.  Mrs. Valentina Carleo will work with the Van Derveer School and Somerville Middle School staff to provide curriculum and instructional support as a curriculum supervisor.  Mrs. Carolyn Ross will join the Somerville High School community as an instructional coach to provide support and demonstrate best instructional practices.  In collaboration with staff, school community, and administration, the curriculum team will provide instructional support to create authentic and meaningful learning experiences for all students!

I would also like to especially welcome our 35 new staff members.  New staff, you have made a wise decision in selecting a school community that values education and diversity.  Be an advocate for your students and create classrooms where it is safe to fail as well as succeed.  I wish you tremendous success in the Ville!  I owe a debt of gratitude to our personnel committee for their countless hours of work selecting our new teachers.  The personnel committee is composed of teaching and support staff members.  They complete all first and second round interviews and recommend 4-8 candidates to our principals for demonstration lessons.  During the demonstration lesson phase, a member of the personnel committee remains on as a liaison to the process.

On September 6th and 7th, you will have an opportunity to meet with your principal to discuss school happenings, initiatives, and building Wildly Important Goals (WIGs).  As in previous years, progress towards WIGs will be measured using the Dashboard community stakeholder “scorecard.”  The Dashboard, posted on the district homepage, also contains links to each WIG rubric of assessment.  Supervisors will continue to track the progress towards WIGs through Purpose Driven Walkthroughs™.  As a reminder, Purpose Driven Walkthroughs™ are walkthroughs with a focus on achieving what is critical to building leaders.  Staff members provided input into their building WIGs through last year’s “whirlwind” exercises.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of Louisiana.  It is hard to believe that it has been four years since the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.  How will you be #allin4theVille this year?  I am ALL IN for our children and the Ville community.  I will continue to maintain an open door policy.  Stakeholders, can access me through Twitter, email, my “Talk with Tim” initiative and monthly brown bag lunch sessions.

Coffee and refreshments will be available in the middle school cafeteria at 8:00 am and the In-Service Day Program will begin at 8:30 am in the middle school auditorium. I thank you for your continued dedication and service to our entire school community.  I look forward to a successful school year and seeing you on September 6th.

My best for the coming year,

Timothy Purnell, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools

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