Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Welcome Back Staff Letter

Dear Colleagues:

It is my pleasure to welcome you back to the Somerville Public Schools for the 2014-15 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.

Last year we experienced quite a bit of turbulent waters due to the plethora of initiatives from the Department of Education.  In my opinion, these initiatives have catapulted change to an extent that we have not experienced in education since the aftermath of Sputnik.  I strongly believe that we should not float through these rough waters of change.  Radical change, without local district buy-in, will result in catastrophic failure.  Rather than wait for the Titanic to sink, I met with our local assembly representatives regarding delaying the changes.  To this end (and certainly not due to my sole efforts), our legislators have deferred the implementation effects of TEACHNJ and have modified the formula for measuring the effectiveness of educators.  This is a small victory, but still one that should be celebrated.

Unfortunately, these changes have resulted in the early retirement of outstanding veteran teachers statewide.  The Ville has not been an exception to this consequence.  My hope is that these sudden, drastic changes are an anomaly to the profession and that we will experience calmer waters in the years ahead (wishful thinking).  Regardless, we will continue to make every attempt to shield you from the viral negativity that has been surrounding these initiatives so that you can do what you do best in the classroom!

Simon Sinek believes that successful organizations “start with why” and “stay true” to their purpose or beliefs.  The Board of Education spent considerable time this summer devising “the why” through the formation of district core values/beliefs and revision of the district mission statement.  Data from the community survey (over 450 respondents) provided the Board with insight into the most important values possessed by the various stakeholders in our community.  Board President, Linda Olson, will share these recently adopted core values/beliefs and our recently revised mission statement at our opening staff meeting on Tuesday, September 2nd.

With the core values/beliefs as a framework, I will be completing a needs assessment this year to use in the formation of a new strategic plan for the 2015-2016 school year.  As part of this needs assessment, I will be spending extensive time in each of our school buildings collecting data.  I plan to meet with every staff member and also solicit the input of students, parents, community members and organizations. 

Students will have an opportunity to meet with me monthly to discuss district initiatives and happenings through my newly instituted Executive Student Council.  The Council will be comprised of students from each school building.  In addition, the Board will continue to seat two high school student representatives (one from Branchburg and one from Somerville) on the Board of Education.

Do you have a desire to mentor an at-risk child this year?  We need your help!  Under the direction of Mrs. Susan Haynes, the district will launch a new mentoring program entitled the Mosaic Project.  Please contact Mrs. Haynes if you are interested in mentoring a child for the school year or would like additional information.

We are committed to the future of education with a continued commitment to our Leadership Institute and acceptance of student teachers.  Members of Cohort I of the Leadership Institute will begin their second year of classes and we are exploring the formation of a second cohort.  In addition to student teachers from Fairleigh Dickinson University, we will also honor the request of any former students that attended the Ville.

The Ville has experienced many administrative changes for the coming year.  We are launching our new administrative model at Van Derveer School with two principals: Mrs. Haynes will be the principal for preschool though grade 2 and Mr. Reavey will be the principal for grades 3 through 5.  Mrs. Perruso (Assistant Principal) and Ms. Atkins (Curriculum Supervisor) have joined the middle school staff.  Mr. Foley was officially appointed as Somerville High School Principal and has reorganized the high school administration with Mr. Hade as Assistant Principal, Mr. Mulligan as the Director of Guidance, and Ms. Ditre as the Supervisor of Student Affairs and Instruction.  We are still working out the details of the Athletic Director position and hope to have secured a candidate by this fall.

Dr. Tanya McDonald has been appointed to the position of Director of Special Services. Her expertise and child advocacy will be a tremendous asset to the department.  Dr. McDonald will discuss our new high school adaptive life skills course and newly implemented at-risk programs (Young Science Achievers Program and our Workforce Skill Development and Employability Program) with you on opening day.  The Young Science Achievers Program provides mentors from AT&T and exposes our at-risk students to STEM by working with real scientists from their community.  The Workforce Skill Development and Employability Program (partnership with RVCC) provides opportunities for non-college bound students to four career tracks including retail, hospitality, public service (law enforcement), and childcare.  The program provides for certification in CPR, ServeSafe Food Handlers, and ServeSafe Essentials.

I am pleased to announce the arrival of our new Director of 21st Century Education Melissa McEntee.  Ms. McEntee was hired as a result of a stakeholder committee of students, teachers, and administrators.  She will use the coming school year to assess our technology needs and provide a vision for technology integration.  She will speak about a new web-based help desk and a few other exciting initiatives at our opening day session.  Please be sure to download the new Somerville Public Schools app (if you have not already done so).  New features will include the ability to enter work requests and access the new online help desk.  We continue to receive visitation requests from other districts to observe our successful middle school Chromebook program.  This year we are adding Chromebooks at the high school.

We continue to use data to drive instructional decisions.  Mr. Timothy Teehan, Academic Achievement Officer, will continue to implement our Assess, Analyze, and Achieve program.  As part of this program, Mr. Teehan compiles student achievement data using a multitude of data sources for each individual child.  These interpretation sheets are shared with each of the students’ teachers.  This year we will host our 2nd annual Student Achievement and Data Summit; last year’s inaugural Summit had over 180 participants from 41 different districts throughout the state.

Van Derveer School has demonstrated tremendous growth on the school performance report and reading levels school wide.  In an effort to maintain this growth, the building will implement a RTI (Response To Intervention) block to assist in the differentiation of instruction for all students this year.  Qualifying at-risk students will have the opportunity to attend a before school Title I program through The American Reading Company and devices to utilize MyOn software.  MyOn assesses student interest and reading levels and provides students with a recommended reading list that matches their assessed criteria.  The program also has options for teacher controls, Spanish translation and highlights/reads text as needed.   In addition, the Board approved a before school gifted and talented program that will be implemented for the coming year. 

Somerville High School added a new College and Career Counselor (Mr. Jeremy Hudson) who will assist our 8th grade students in Somerville and Branchburg with the development of Individualized Student Learning Plans (ISLPs) through Naviance.  These ISLPs help in providing a smooth transition into high school.  Mr. Hudson will also work to establish stronger relationships with college admissions offices and local businesses assisting our non-college bound students with getting jobs after high school.

The second cohort of students will enter the Somerville High School Academy of Liberal Arts.  The program provides selected students with the opportunity of earning their Associates Degree from Raritan Valley Community College along with their High School Diploma.  Students are afforded the opportunity to enter Rutgers as a junior after completion of high school.  The program is offered at a reduced rate to provide families with this unique opportunity.  We have also added several new courses at the high school for the coming year.  Among the new offerings are Mobile App Development, Marine Biology, Exploring Spanish Culture through Communication, Human Conscience, and AP Physics 1 and 2.  Our Pioneer Studios will continue to expand with the addition of an assistant Pioneer Station advisor. 

This year the district will host our fourth annual Kindergarten Summit.  All surrounding preschool providers (including Somerville preschool educators) visit our district Kindergarten classrooms for a day of articulating, highlighting best practices, and sharing Kindergarten expectations.  The Kindergarten Summit was highlighted as a “Best Practice” at last year’s New Jersey School Boards Association Workshop.

The Somerville Board of Education is committed to providing safe and efficiently operating buildings and to that end was awarded over $1.17 million in state construction grants in 2013-2014 alone representing 45% funding of approved projects.  Over the summer, Somerville High School received upgrades to three sets of student toilet rooms and a main lobby security vestibule.  The vestibule will serve as a physical barrier that will channel visitors into the main office so their identity and purpose for entry can be verified.  Van Derveer School received a new staff parking lot that adds 50 much needed parking spaces for the school.  In addition, a replacement waterline was installed to replace the existing 40+ year old water service into the building.

Many of our staff members were busy this summer teaching our enrichment and at-risk programs, attending professional development offerings and presenting at our annual Collaborative Professional Development Academy.  I would like to thank them for providing for our students, sharing their talents and continuing to improve their pedagogy.

I would like to congratulate the following staff members that recently received or will receive tenure this September: Nicole Battaglia, Melissa Best, Patricia Clark, Eleni Iannella, Michael Skomba, Helena Sroczynski, Brennen Thompson, and Aida Janet Wahba.  I would also like to especially welcome our 38 new staff members.  Newly retired educator and coach, Joe Petrill, gave our new staff members a tour of the borough in a district school bus.  Last year I met with all first year teachers and student teachers to gain input on the quality of our training and transition into the Ville.  We tweaked our new staff orientation session offerings as a result of the feedback.

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. 

Last year, Gian Paul Gonzalez encouraged you to be ALL IN for the Ville!  To continue this district theme, I will be unveiling a staff recognition initiative for the 2014-2015 school year.  We plan to recognize staff for being #allin4theVille.  Are you still ALL IN for our students?  I encourage you to tweet throughout the year with the hashtag #allin4theVille.

In closing, I am committed to being ALL IN for you, our students, and our community!  I look forward to seeing all of you on September 2nd and working alongside you this year. 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.  This year’s opening session will be brief and will not include a keynote speaker.  I thank you for your continued dedication and service to our entire school community.

My best for the coming year,

Timothy Purnell, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
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