Superintendent Stresses Digesting His Entry Plan Findings with an Open Mind

April 1, 2024

Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang’s entry plan findings are replete with information, prioritization, and evaluation that will evoke varying responses and opinions.

As he presented a summary of findings to the School Committee last week, Chuang said he hopes stakeholders respect and consider different points of view as they digest the report.

Indeed, accompanying the entry plan findings is a rendition of the song “Both Sides Now,” featuring violinist Chuang, Lane School music teacher Natan Wythe, and Bedford High School student- musicians Hayden McAllister and Yoana Dimitrova. The song was written in 1968 by Joni Mitchell and a commercial success for Judy Collins. Mitchell performed the song at the recent Grammy award presentations.

The reason, Chuang told the School Committee, is “one of the themes that came through the process is that there are strong feelings about many topics from two sides or more. My hope is that we are able to hold the tension, avoid false binaries and false dichotomies, looking at things from different directions.”

“As we move forward, we want to make sure we are looking from multiple angles and hearing from multiple voices,” he said. “We are well-positioned as a district to make decisions with input from multiple stakeholders.”

Answering a question from Shreyes Shivappa, the student representative on the committee, Chuang said that when work begins on the next district improvement plan in the fall, “there are going to be issues that generate a lot of discussion that can benefit from a fresh look, that actually meet the interests of both sides when appropriate.”

The new superintendent’s entry plan is a project of the three-year New Superintendent Induction Program, a collaboration between the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. The intent is for “engaging stakeholders and gathering the information needed to develop a widely-understood and focused strategy to accelerate student learning.”

Chuang’s plan, which he posted in mid-March, follows six months of ground-level research when “I was able to take things in without preconceived notions, with fresh eyes. All of my inquiries were open ended to the maximum extent possible.”

The superintendent gleaned information from surveys, responses, and personal contact. 

“I’ve been in a lot of places in town,” he told the committee. “I focused on issues with broad district applicability raised by a spectrum of people. In order to be a finding, it had to be coming from multiple places.

“I feel strongly there are ways to meet the majority of interests on both sides,” the superintendent stated. “I am going to continue that theme as we start to tackle specific issues.” 

He cited school start times as an example: “I’m hoping people can really look at the pros and cons of the whole and what will benefit the most stakeholders.”

Chuang delineated 10 “programmatic findings,” presenting first positives and then areas that need improvement:

  1. The district’s educators are “great,” and work well together, he said, adding that he has been “very pleased with the tone and tenor of conversations with our teachers’ union.” He cited “remarkable absence of broad-based criticism.”
  2. “Bedford is deeply committed to a strong public school system,” Chuang said, citing strong support at last week’s Annual Town Meeting. He also noted that as a town, Bedford falls short of the “relative district wealth” of some of its neighbors, yet is in a “very heathy financial position.”
  3. “Bedford does an amazing job with the array of extracurriculars we offer, with no charges to families.” The superintendent said there is “a commitment to including as many students as possible regardless of their skill.” He added, “I heard again and again about the ability of our students to try new things.”
  4. “Stakeholders are grappling with a false trilemma between rigorous academics, supporting mental health, and diversity and inclusion,” Chuang said. “These are mutually reinforcing and are not at odds with each other.”
  5. The quality of special education, Chuang said, “is one of the areas that attracts people to this community.” He noted the relationship between the school administration and the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, “very collaborative and instructive even when there are disagreements. The superintendent added, “Concerns have been raised about staffing levels to sufficiently support the programs.”
  6. Although cited as an attractive feature, Chuang said, a “close-knit community culture” fostered by Bedford’s structure of single school buildings for grade levels, can be a challenge. Concerns are raised “about how hard it can be to break into a tight new community,” the superintendent said. METCO or Hanscom Air Force Base students, or other newcomers, “have to find [their] spot when social networks have been calcified.”
  7. “We continue to be challenged with persistent achievement and opportunity gaps for many of our subgroups,” the superintendent said. “We have to check systems to see if they make it more difficult for some students to progress,” as well as “structures and systems that need to be enhanced.” He stressed that there are concerns about “kids in the middle.”
  8. “The district faces lots of challenges related to supporting student well-being. School start times, Chuang said, “are prominent in survey results and comments.” He also acknowledged concerns about safety, the quality of food, time provided for eating, and “our post-secondary process.” He added, “I’m optimistic we are addressing some of the things that were highlighted.”
  9. Chuang cited “three key opportunity areas for additional strategic involvement:” ongoing mental health needs, more experiential learning, and diversifying the workforce.
  10. “Stakeholders identified potential threats to the progress: educator compensation and support and increased politization in the classroom.” These issues, Chuang said, “come from all along the spectrum.”

The superintendent said that “at this time, I have no intention of making any organizational changes.”

Chuang noted that he asked about “magic wands,” things that could be changed if there were “no limits.” The responses ranged from air conditioning in schools and smaller class sizes to a longer classroom day and more diverse staffing.

Chuang said he is proposing several focus areas: implementation of the new literacy curriculum in Davis and Lane schools; new approaches to delivering middle-school math; “developing support structures to significantly enhance differentiation and extension opportunities; school start times; establishing ‘clear and consistent approach to student discipline;’ diversifying the workforce in schools; and ‘building on the existing tradition of experiential learning,’ with a potential anchor experience for each grade level.”

He released a survey late last week to gauge how people feel about these areas, “which I will amplify through school newsletters and my updates.”

Ultimately, Chuang said, the process will engender “a proposed framework for collaborative strategic planning, to begin and grow a model public school system that “promotes well-being and resilience for learners from every background.” 

Addressing an issue raised by committee member Sarah McGinley, Chuang said the number of students in the elementary grades interested in academic challenge outweighs “our ability to meet it.” This is an outcome of a more rigorous curriculum, he said, and “it’s a nice problem to have.” 

There’s going to be more discussion of grade-level academic acceleration, Chuang commented, “Even in a school system available to everyone, you want to meet everyone where they are at. We are looking at ways students access instructional opportunities.”

“The collaborative nature of the way you want to do this is going to lead us in the right direction,” said committee member Angel Pettitt. He urged Chuang to “also find ways to tap into the talents of community residents. If we want this to be as strong as we would like, as many people as possible need to participate as the second part of this process.”

Committee member Sheila Mehta-Green said, “We have an amazing special education team, and I applaud your acknowledgement of that in the context of staffing levels.” She also addressed the issue of “social isolation,” saying, “If you don’t have a social group by the time you exit Lane, you have a problem. As these students progress through JGMS and BHS, the opportunities to help them lessen. It’s an issue we as an educational community need to continue to think about.”

Her colleague Sarah Scoville amplified the need to support “the ‘middle’ kids who are not the superstars.”

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Ann Kiessling
April 7, 2024 10:54 pm

Bedford is actually decades behind in bringing high school start times into compliance with neighboring districts as well as strong recommendations from professional medical groups. In 2014, the American Medical Association stated a strong advocacy position that adolescents should NOT start school before 8:30 am. This recommendation is based on an understanding of the circadian rhythms in effect during puberty that affect sleep cycles for a few years. In 2020, the Board of Health wrote a letter to the School Committee recommending the COVID19 upset to school schedules could be an ideal time to implement school start changes, and in 2022, Board of Health member Maureen Richichi presented a thorough slide presentation on the multiple advantages to adolescents in moving start times to coincide with their circadian rhythms. It is now a law in several states, including California, that high school start times must be later than 8:30 am. Many MA communities have implemented schedules in keeping with the AMA guidance and reported improved academic performance of their high schoolers. Bedford schools need to join this success in 2024.

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