“Assume there is goodness to be found and work toward finding it.”
That’s “a baseline assumption” defining his approach to acclimating to his new position as Bedford Superintendent of Schools, Cliff Chuang told the School Committee last week. (He attributes the quote to the songwriter Lindsey Sampson.)
Chuang detailed the “entry plan” he prepared as a participant in the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents’ new-superintendent induction program. “There’s a cohort of about 30 new superintendents broken up into coaching groups,” he reported.
The new superintendent came to Bedford after many years with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, most recently as a senior associate commissioner.
“A benefit of working at the state is I have worked with many superintendents, so there is a number of informal mentors as well,” he said.
Chuang shared “core values that guide my professional work,” which he said he believes align with district values. They include putting learners first; being open to all possibilities; never stop improving; working for equity; “we are in this together;” and “we take good care.
“Part of the entry process is listening and learning from the community,” Chuang told the School Committee, articulated in a recommendation from the induction program: “Go slow to go fast.”
“That basically reminds us that to make forward progress you have to listen, to understand, to get to know the community, and then go faster later. I need to remind myself to be patient. Making dramatic change in the early going doesn’t necessarily sustain the change.”
He said the superintendent should reflect on “whose voices and perspectives are missing? What else do I need to know? Learn the complexities and get as many perspectives as possible, particularly from those who may not be first to speak.”
Chuang said the entry plan is phased, and he already completed the transition segment, developed with his predecessor, Philip Conrad. The next stage, through Thanksgiving, is to “listen, observe, and learn,” building relationships. “I very much value one-to-one conversations,” he said, “listening to and learning from diverse stakeholders.”
Then in December and January, “synthesize and analyze everything I heard, and share it with the community in February. The entry plan culminates beginning in March with “a collaborative process to develop the next three-year district plan. That’s where I would propose structural change and creativity.”
“I’m a lover of feedback,” he added, and would love to hear reactions before the plan becomes final, probably this week.
The superintendent is planning “an open community survey” starting soon, targeting not only students and teachers but also residents. The open-ended questions will be developed “to surface what is on people’s minds, the key things that the community wants to see.” He also hopes to host some virtual forums and set up focus groups among various high school student groups as well as the Hanscom Air Force Base and METCO constituencies.
Chuang said in assessing “instructional and operational” areas, he wants to cover “learning spaces” that include playing fields and stages as well as classrooms. That process won’t be “evaluative,” he said, but will “focus as much on the how as the what, how the district operates as a whole,” ranging from buses to food services to custodial services. “For a district to function, all the pieces have to work together,” he said.
The superintendent is also “reviewing all existing data and policies,” such as partnerships with Hanscom and METCO, preschool programs, academic leveling, social-emotional learning, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. “I have identified some topic areas where I might do a deeper dive,” he said.
“Dreaming big can be aspirational and innovative,” Chuang observed, and “I like to ask: If you had no limitations on resources, politics or time, what would you change?”
Committee Member Sheila Mehta-Green praised Chuang for “being so visible,” and asked about reaching a decision on an issue in which “there may never be true consensus.”
Chuang answered, “I don’t like to give up too easily in terms of finding that third way. But I am also very realistic that as a public school district, there is a common good.”
He acknowledged, “there are going to be times when you have to finalize,” but that should be consistent with the district’s values.
“There are issues that you have to take the time to unpack, that require broader and longer engagement.”
Asked by member Brad Morrison how the committee can help with the entry, Chuang said, “Continue to make the time to meet with me, to really understand individual members’ perspectives and priorities so I can build them into the larger picture.”
Chuang acknowledged that, regardless of the entry plan timetable, there are two “high-level deliverables” for the year. One is to execute the school safety and security plan,” which he hopes will be done by November. And budget preparation will be “very closely linked to partnership with all of our collective bargaining units.”