In colloquy with Jon Sills

March 23, 2016
Sills Seal
Jon Sills, Superintendent of the Bedford Public Schools – Courtesy image (c) all rights reserved

By Mitch Evans

As readers of The Citizen know, Bedford’s Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills was recently sought out by a recruitment firm and urged to apply for a similar position in the Brookline School District. To the relief of many, Superintendent Sills IS remaining at the helm of Bedford schools. Now seemed to be a good time to catch up with him to discuss future plans.

So, a busy year so far. Where would you like to start our conversation?

I think that the starting point is that we have seen really significant enrollment growth in the last three years primarily at the kindergarten level and we anticipated that this may have an impact on our space needs. We therefore commissioned an enrollment study by NESDEC (New England School District Enrollment Council) and the projection is that certainly for the next 10 years, and possibly more, our enrollment will increase and then plateau. But plateau at a level that is much higher than we are presently experiencing.

But before we started investing the town’s resources in new building additions, and particularly as the town of Bedford has been so generous in the last 20 years in renovating or adding new space for all four schools, we felt that we needed to verify as well as we could these enrollment projections. We therefore created a Space Needs Task Force, and I have to say that the community members who participated in that were so thoughtful and expert in many ways that the end report was very impressive. During this process we really deepened our understanding of what is going on in Bedford. While you cannot be certain when you are talking about future predictions and kids that haven’t even been born yet, we are confident we will indeed see increased enrollment.  In fact if we have erred in any direction, it’s that we have underestimated the numbers.

It’s clear that the quality of the schools and the excellent town services are the reason why we are seeing this population growth. This town is very unique in so many ways; its diversity, its school configuration (grades K-2 and separate 3-5) and I think our schools have really made their mark, I’m very proud of them.

This increase in enrollment numbers will obviously move through all four schools and so we submitted statements of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority in the hope that they would agree to support our efforts and offset the costs for the town. Since the Bedford High School building project was our last experience of working with the MSBA, that they have changed their procedures significantly and become very prescriptive. So much so, that you are not allowed to start creating a committee to support a building project until the MSBA has entered you into their application process. This puts towns in a very difficult position to try to get the information they need without jeopardizing the Authority’s support. We also discovered that the MSBA will only support one project at a time (to completion) before they will consider another project within a district. Plus, the whole process is very competitive;this year they only supported 17 out of 95 projects. Because we have already invested in modular classrooms at Davis School, we felt it made more sense to seek support for Davis School via MSBA and to go it alone for the Lane School project. This would also make for a speedier time frame, and hopefully avoid the need for costly modular classrooms at Lane School as well.

This Task Force then morphed into a Feasibility Study Oversight Group and we put out a request for quotations. TBA Architects, an architectural firm based in Concord with experience in school building projects and space planning, was chosen. Among the options they provided, the school committee endorsed the option that will be the best programmatically and the most responsible fiscally, and now they are turning the approved option into a schematic design which will produce a final construction figure. This figure will then be presented to the Capital Expenditure Committee (March 23), the Finance Committee (March 24) and then at Town Meeting on Monday, March 28 While the project was originally estimated to cost approximately $2 million, the feasibility study uncovered several new code-driven requirements(such as stairway expansion, additional bathrooms and cafeteria enlargement) that will be triggered by the increased population with a resulting cost of  $3.5 – 4.1 million if recommended changes to parking lot layout and office space expansion are also included.

Now for news on the search for a new High School Principal. Henry Turner joined Bedford in July 2012 and has recently accepted a position as Principal at Newton North High School.

First of all let me say that Henry has been a tremendous addition to our faculty and staff, he’s had a great impact on the High School; his departure will be a loss for Bedford but I do wish him well for the future.

We are currently setting up focus groups for parents from JGMS and BHS, teachers, administrators, school committee members and students and assembling an interview committee that will also reflect these groups. Mary Lou Sallee (Assistant Superintendent) will be heading up the interview committee. We are in the process right now of reviewing resumes.
A High School Principal is a public partner so hearing from people outside the school community can be a helpful process. I therefore invite any members of the general public to send me their thoughts via email or telephone. We have some very strong candidates, and I am confident that a thorough and inclusive process will yield us an excellent school leader.

This leads me onto one of your most recent announcements, which is that you were approached by Brookline Schools District for the position of Superintendent of Schools but that you would now be remaining in Bedford. Has their interest in you given you ‘itchy feet’?

Coming to Bedford was one of the best decisions I have ever made and as a community and district it has come to feel like home. I had absolutely anticipated finishing out my career here and continuing to partner with an amazing facility and leadership team, and a remarkable school committee, not to mention a community of parents and town department heads who really support education. It’s really been a place where I have been able to try and make a difference and it’s given back to me in so many ways. So no, I was not looking to leave when I was approached by Brookline. I didn’t even want to think about it at first, but it became compelling for a number of reasons. First, I am a resident of Brookline and I have worked there previously; my youngest daughter went to school there and I still have many friends amongst the faculty. But perhaps most compelling, the district is facing a number of very significant challenges. Racial divisions, extraordinary overcrowding and low teacher moral. I became excited about taking on those challenges. I entered education to try to make a difference in the lives of children, particularly around issues of equity and deepening learning for all students.

Here is what has happened:  I actually withdrew my name from the selection process a few days ago, after the chair of the Brookline school committee contacted me and informed me that the latest announcement had just been a straw vote and that I should keep my name in the running. I encouraged her to make an announcement to the public to clarify this fact and for some reason that did not happen.In the end I didn’t feel that I could stay in the proceedings and I didn’t want to put Bedford through any further uncertainty.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to continue working in such a great district and I certainly have no intention of looking for any other positions. This is where I belong!

What’s on the horizon for our schools?

The Bedford school system is an excellent system that is always striving to get better; tryingto deepen and broaden the learning for all kids and close any gaps wherever they exist. One of the very exciting things on the horizon is the development of a grade K-12 computer coding or programming sequence to really enrich students’ thinking around planning and executing ideas and providing real skill development which can translate into future jobs and careers.

I think another major focus for our schools this year has been the continuation of our work around diversity and equity education. Last Friday’s district-wide professional day, which was a day off for the students, was devoted to that topic across all four schools. We started with a wonderful keynote speaker, Allyson Livingstone (Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work, Salem State University), who talked about identity formation for our kids around issues of privilege, dominance, and oppression. Livingstone had some very interesting ideas about intersecting social identities; the fact that everybody has a range of identities within them and as educators we have to understand these identities in order to really support our kids.

Then each school continued its work, with subject teams creating lesson plans around some of the great books that have now been introduced as a result of this diversity-focused curriculum review. Identifying essential questions, what are the enduring understandings around difference and commonality, and developing engaging activities for students.This continues to be a very important and serious focus for us.

You have been very involved in the writing of the position paper on PARCC and standardized testing that was presented to the Board of Education.   What are your thoughts on the future of these tests in our schools?

There is no question that standardized testing is here to stay. But how schools and state legislators view the purpose of those assessments and how they are implemented is still, I feel, up for debate. Last year I sent a letter to the Commissioner of Massachusetts Public Schools Mitchell Chester, and the executive board of the Massachusetts Superintendents Association. We then wrote a position paper and testified before the state Board of Education.  One of our concerns is how standardized assessment is often used in a coercive way to force school change. I think this can be destructive and it leads to too much time being spent on assessments. On the other hand, assessments can be helpful if they provide information to teachers in a timely manner, about how their students are learning and if they are used in order to improve the way instruction is being delivered. A lot of standardized testing has been about measuring students’ retention and discrete knowledge rather than the development of their thinking skills. Therefore I welcome a new generation of tests that measure kids’ ability to analyze and support arguments with evidence, to apply what they learn, and to problem solve.

MCAS version 2.0 (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) is now the alternative to PARCC and while it will have the same style of questions as PARCC, MCAS 2.0 will allow Massachusetts to determine several things,including  how frequently we test, what the testing window is, and the types of accommodations needed for our Special Needs students. Also whether it will be a timed or untimed test; all questions, which if we were locked into a consortium, we would have no control over. As a district I continue to monitor the development and implementation of MCAS 2.0 and to look for opportunities for input.

The projection is that by 2017 we will have MCAS 2.0 and that this test will be fully online by 2019, which I think is unrealisticFor now, those schools that took PARCC last year will have to take it again this year, which means that Bedford students will take PARCC in the coming weeks but, given the many problems schools experienced with the online version, we will implement only the paper and pencil version of the test.

I personally would like to see us explore the idea of testing students every other grade rather than in every grade. If it’s a check for equity and how well the school as a whole is doing, this makes more sense. I also think that there must be an alignment between the rigor of the test questions and how we are helping teachers to teach in these new ways. To publish results and hold districts accountable, when we are all still in a learning phase, is not helpful.

It is reassuring to know that you are actively influencing these decisions, thank you. Have you always been a teacher or involved in education?

I started teaching as a student at Cornell, at a public alternative Junior High School, and I took my course work at night so I could teach full time. That’s really what launched my career in teaching and I then went on to get my Masters from Harvard School of Education. I worked on curriculum development around global education for several years and taught at the community college level, as Proposition 21/2 made getting a teaching job in urban schools very difficult I then became a machinist at General Electric, making aircraft engines and steam turbines for six years and became very active in the union.  I had a family by that time and had a deep yearning to return to teaching, so I obtained a position in in Boston’s South End, teaching for eight years atan inner city parochial school. I became very involved in educational change and trying to close achievement gaps. What had drawn me to education in the first place was a passion for deepening and strengthening, kids’ thinking and helping them to have the skills to better understand themselves and their world, while addressing the social and educational inequities that schooling perpetuated. The Cathedral High School population was predominantly African American at that time, with a high number of Asian refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, so I learned a great deal.  Years later, I would have the wonderful privilege of hiring several of these students as teachers and working together as colleagues. I was then hired as the history program administrator at Brookline High School primarily to resolve a community-based conflict that had arisen around multicultural education and that had paralyzed the department and eroded teacher morale in the school. The conflict, which ultimately took me to Washington and reverberated nationally during what was referred to as the Nineties’ “culture wars”, we were ultimately able to resolve, and I spent the ensuing years rebuilding the department while teaching US history and African-American studies. I remained at Brookline for nine years and, as I addressed other school-wide educational issues, I became interested in assuming a larger leadership role, so I applied for the position as Principal at Bedford High School in 2000. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Grateful Bedford Parent
March 23, 2016 9:39 pm

You are a gem, and Bedford is so lucky to have you as our leader in education. I believe you have fulfilled the goal you stated: “I entered education to try to make a difference in the lives of children, particularly around issues of equity and deepening learning for all students..” Along the way, you have educated a community. It is great news for us that we get to have you a little longer!

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