Monday, July 18, 2022

What It Means to Be A Hero

This post is adapted from my graduation remarks to the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2022.

It feels like a perfect night to recognize the Class of ’22 for your hard work and perseverance that enabled you to meet the requirements to earn a Shrewsbury High School diploma. The challenges you have experienced over your high school years were substantial, and we are all very proud of what you have achieved despite them. As many of you know, in addition to being your superintendent, I am also a very proud parent of a graduate, and I think I can speak for all of the parents and caretakers here this evening that when you all were younger, and we as parents were thinking ahead to your high school experience, none of us imagined that you would be coping with the impact of a global pandemic. I think we’re all quite familiar with all the ways in which COVID-19 negatively affected your experience, and this is not a topic to dwell upon this evening as you step into the future. However, there are positives that emerged from the ways in which people responded to the pandemic, and there is one that I would like to highlight this evening: the understanding of what it means to be a hero.

I’m not talking about mythical heroes here, but rather, as Merriam Webster defines the term, those who are “admired for achievements or noble qualities” and “who show great courage.” Over the course of the past two-plus years, we have witnessed so many making sacrifices for the good of others under incredibly trying circumstances. This especially includes the contributions made by those on the front lines of healthcare and public health. It most certainly includes the ways in which our teachers, education professionals, support staff, and school leaders rose to the myriad challenges of providing education and support for you. And there is no question that it also includes the many ways in which your families supported you during a time of fear and uncertainty, as well as everything you did as friends to support one another. At this time, I ask that our graduates stand and applaud all of those people for what they have done to help you get to this milestone today.

The acts of heroism you just applauded, large and small, did not require extraordinary powers. The late actor, Christopher Reeve, said that “...a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Those of you who are my age know that Reeve was famous for playing the part of Superman in the movies, but this quote was not about the fictional comic book hero. Rather, it was his reflection upon his real-life circumstances after he became paralyzed in an accident. He was speaking of a special kind of strength of character that so many of you have already shown at a young age – a strength our society needs you to keep demonstrating as you move into adulthood.

As the mythical hero Superman, Reeves delivered the famous line that his mission was to “fight for truth, justice, and the American way.” We are living in a time when all three of these aspirations are in jeopardy. We need you to seek the truth by thoughtfully and critically examining the messages you receive, while considering the motivation and intent of the sources behind them, and to speak the truth in opposition to lies designed to manipulate your emotions and beliefs. We need you to promote justice so that our society becomes a more equitable one for all of its members – especially those who have the greatest needs – and so that getting a fair shake isn’t based on who you are or where you’re from. We need you to align our nation’s actions with the noble values articulated at its founding, so that we can indeed form a more perfect union, one that secures the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by protecting the integrity of elections and engaging in the democratic process. We need you to have the strength to fight for these things, because I believe that the fate of our country depends on it.

On the first day of this school year, we opened the new Beal School. When entering this beautiful building for the first time, a first grader looked around with wonder and exclaimed, “This looks like a place where we can all be heroes.” I think he was right, because your strong education has provided you with the foundation to act heroically when circumstances require it. I am confident that you all have the ability to honor truth, promote justice, and advance our nation’s values. But this is not easy work. We need you to demonstrate the everyday heroism of persevering when you face the many difficult challenges that lie ahead. And when you do, you will indeed be the best kind of hero, one who makes a significant, positive impact on the lives of others. I believe that you have what it takes to make a difference in our community, our nation, and our world, and so I’ll conclude by paraphrasing that first grader:

“This looks like a class where you can all be heroes.”

Congratulations, Class of 2022!

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Seeking Truth to Sustain Our Democracy

This post was originally published at the Superintendent's Corner column in the Winter 2022 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal

The point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth. – Garry Kasparov

This quote from former world chess champion and Russian pro-democracy leader Garry Kasparov sums up the disturbing reality that citizens face in today’s world, and it underscores why it is so very important that we not only teach our students to be literate in the traditional academic disciplines, but also to be literate regarding the information they consume. Our school district’s mission statement compels us to provide our students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st century, and to be an educated person this must include the ability to filter the torrent of information flooding smartphones, tablets, laptops, and televisions in order to discern the truth.

Media literacy is defined on as “the ability or skills to critically analyze for accuracy, credibility, or evidence of bias the content created and consumed in various media, including radio and television, the internet, and social media.” Our schools begin teaching information literacy concepts, along with other aspects of digital citizenship, starting in kindergarten and throughout subsequent grade levels through our library media centers’ curriculum. Using resources curated by Common Sense Media, our students, in a manner appropriate for their age level, learn ways to analyze media messages by considering the credibility of the source, the author’s motivation, the intended purpose, the quality of the information, and who might benefit economically or politically from the message. These higher-level analysis skills are key for our students to become critical thinkers in a media environment saturated with misinformation.

A particular challenge is that today’s young people typically use social media for news and information. Unfortunately, they are awash in messaging, mostly through images and short videos, that often contain inaccurate information or outright falsehoods and are designed to manipulate emotions. Further, they hear professional media organizations derided as “fake news” for political purposes, breeding distrust in sources that actually practice journalistic norms and ethics in reporting the news. As a Connecticut history teacher recently wrote in an article in Education Week, “None of this is good for truth or democracy, which requires a certain factual civic consensus in order to work.”

The ways in which citizens can be duped and manipulated by dishonest, state-sponsored media in an undemocratic society is painfully evident in Russia today. The facts of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine are being twisted or hidden from its own people, with the flow of accurate information from sources other than the autocratic government being restricted or labeled as “fake.” It is painful to see this Orwellian nightmare take place in Russia, while the Ukrainian people and their president use their access to information technology to share the terrible truth of what is happening to their country. Even this information still must be examined critically – as the Connecticut history teacher explains, when sharing with his class that the popular video of the so-called “Ghost of Kyiv” fighter pilot was actually computer-generated footage from a video game, his students expressed that they still wanted to believe it was true.

Our school district’s mission includes developing “an appreciation of our democratic tradition.” Unfortunately, democracy is not only at risk when an autocratic nation makes war to control another. It is also at risk right here in our country when information technology is used, either by a foreign or domestic source, to manipulate emotions and deny reality. It is critical that our schools succeed in our efforts to implement our longstanding policy of “encouraging students to search after truth and think for themselves.” Our democracy depends on it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Emphasizing a Culture of Belonging

This post was originally published as the Superintendent's Corner column in the Fall 2021 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal

As I write this, we have completed a little more than the first quarter of the school year, during which our students, families, and staff have experienced both triumphs and challenges. We began the year celebrating the return of full-time, in-person learning for all of our students and the opening of the extraordinary new Major Howard W. Beal School, while also contemplating how the continuation of the pandemic and the disruptions of the prior two school years would affect our students. Over the past two and a half months, we have seen many of our students thriving in academics, in the arts, in athletics, and in co-curricular activities as the experience of school has returned closer to “normal.” At the same time, we have seen many students struggling with learning, motivation, mental health, and behavior to a much more significant degree than before the pandemic. Sometimes, these are the same students who are thriving in some ways and struggling in others.

It would have been naive to think that things would simply get back to “normal'' given the upheaval so many of our children, families, and staff members experienced since March of 2020. As I expressed to our staff in my opening day remarks, it is important that we not fall into the trap of overfocusing on potential “learning loss” or to approach this year as a race to “catch up” on what students missed. This kind of approach can unintentionally send the message to our students that the pandemic caused them to be damaged goods who somehow need to be “fixed,” and that it is academic performance that is the be-all and end-all goal of their school experience. While learning is, of course, the central purpose of our schools, we must attend to our children’s overall well-being in order to create the conditions where effective learning can take place. More importantly, we must do this because our primary responsibility is to meet our duty to care for our children’s health, safety, and well-being.

Attending to our students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs is critically important, and we have taken various steps to increase our capacity to do so, from adding programming aimed at fostering social and emotional competencies for all students, to adding additional counseling staff to provide support for students who need additional assistance. In addition to targeted approaches, we are intentionally emphasizing creating a culture of belonging, where all members of our school community feel accepted unconditionally, regardless of whatever human differences are part of who they are.

While our schools’ core purpose is to advance student learning, we know that this is best achieved in a culture of caring and positive relationships. As we continue to make our way through the many challenges posed by our current circumstances, we will strive to create an environment of unconditional belonging that creates fertile ground for our students to learn and grow.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Extraordinary Efforts During an Extraordinary Time

This post is adapted from my graduation remarks to the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2021

Usually, you seniors are begging for snow days because you don’t have to make them up at the end of the year, but as you know, this was a very different kind of year.  Little did you know back in early March 2020 that I would be calling a “no school day” because of concerns about a virus, followed by not returning to school for the rest of your junior year and then attending school in-person on alternating days or entirely from home for most or all of your senior year. As was mentioned at last night’s Commemoration, this year part of “senioritis” was actually wanting to come to school more often, and thank goodness that became possible.

Of course, forecasting the weather doesn’t compare to the frustrations we all felt with not being able to forecast the evolution of a pandemic that has affected all of us deeply – and too many tragically due to the loss of loved ones.  I truly wish that your high school experience wasn’t interrupted and impacted in so many difficult ways that were beyond your control.  As a result of the circumstances, many important decisions needed to be made about how we would educate you and all of our students from preschool through high school during this long-duration health emergency.  I am quite sure that there were times when my decisions were imperfect and caused you frustration and difficulties, and for that I am sorry.  I think it is important to commend you for persevering through it all, to commend your families for supporting you, and to commend all of the Shrewsbury educators and support staff who worked incredibly hard to adapt in order to meet your needs to the best of their abilities.  I will be forever grateful for everything that all of you – students, families, and school staff – did to navigate through these challenges, and I ask that you all take a moment to cheer and applaud one another for your extraordinary efforts during what has been an extraordinary time.

This past year has indeed been extraordinary, and your experiences have become a part of the person you are now and will influence the person you will become.  I have no doubt that you are better equipped to adapt to challenges, and that you are better able to respond to the reality that things can change quickly and drastically.   As the pandemic is (hopefully) coming to a close, there are still an abundance of challenges to take on, and our society needs thoughtful and motivated young people like you to use what you have learned from your families, from your friends, from school, and from these extraordinary experiences of the past year to make a positive difference. 

So, here is my final forecast for the Class of 2021.  I’m predicting you will live lives that model respect and kindness; that use the knowledge and skills you have learned to make significant contributions to the well-being of others and your community; and that make a positive difference for those who are fortunate to receive your friendship and love.  I wish you the brightest of skies ahead, and I am confident that after this year that you have what it takes to weather the inevitable storms.  Godspeed, and congratulations Class of 2021!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Exhausted. Worried. Proud. Hopeful.

This post was originally published as the Superintendent's Corner column in the Winter 2021 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal

As I write this in mid-March, just after the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that our school communities are characterized by a mix of exhaustion, worry, pride, and hope.

Exhaustion, because our students, parents, educators, and support staff have expended tremendous time and energy to adapt to constantly changing circumstances over the past year.

Worry, because of very real concerns regarding the negative effects of this pandemic on too many students’ mental health and well-being, and/or their academic progress.

Pride, because of the innovative ways that educational experiences have been redesigned to meet students’ needs despite many obstacles; the myriad ways in which educators and support staff have gone so far above and beyond the call of duty; and the numerous ways in which families have been flexible and supportive of so much of their children’s learning happening in their homes.

Hope, because of the recent reduction in COVID-19 case counts, the significant increase in vaccinations, and the imminent reopening of our schools to full, five-day per week instruction.

As your superintendent, as I reflect on this past year, I am humbled by what I have witnessed. From my vantage point, I have the benefit of seeing the ways in which so many have risen to the occasion to make things work, including:

  • The incredible efforts staff members have made to support students’ well-being, and the innovative solutions they’ve devised to teach them well.

  • The deep dedication of support staff who have efficiently and effectively managed our offices and operations, maintained our technology, fed our students, cleaned our buildings, and transported our students.

  • The significant sacrifices made and the support given by parents to help their children adapt to a new educational model that required learning remotely from home.

  • The amazing academic, artistic, musical, and athletic achievements of our students, which they have accomplished through alternative, non-traditional approaches made possible by their educators and families.

  • The intensive and skillful efforts that our district’s leaders have tirelessly given to manage the enormous volume of complicated work necessary to navigate the unprecedented demands placed upon our schools.

  • The supportive contributions of our partners in other town departments that keep our students and staff safe, our buildings clean and well-maintained, and our operations functioning.

  • The strong support and advocacy provided by the School Committee on behalf of our students and staff.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who has made a difference for our schools during these difficult times. While imperfect, I believe that these efforts have provided our students with an educational experience that has been as safe, stable, and effective as possible.

Our students, staff, and families are understandably exhausted by what has been required of them, and they are justifiably worried by the realities we face in recovering from the effects of the pandemic. At the same time, they should rightfully be proud of what they have accomplished under extremely challenging circumstances, and have good reason to be hopeful as we all look with anticipation to better days ahead.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Striving to Adapt to Our Greatest Challenge

This post was originally published as the Superintendent's Corner column in the Fall 2020 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal

As I write this in mid-November, we are all continuing to experience a momentous time in history, as our nation grapples with several crises simultaneously: the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic; ongoing calls for racial justice and equity; an economy that has created difficulties for many and uncertainty for all; and a great political division exacerbated by the national election and its aftermath. All of these crises are affecting our public schools in the U.S., Massachusetts, and right here in Shrewsbury.

While public education has always been a crucial component of society, it hasn’t typically received the attention or support it deserves. The pandemic has reminded us all that schools are critically important not only for the academic development of our youth, but also for their social, emotional, and physical well-being. The forced closure of schools last spring also made clear the importance of schools to the functioning of families and communities, including the ability of parents to work.

Navigating these challenging times has not been easy for anyone. Families are struggling to balance working and caring for and helping to educate their children who cannot be in school full time, due to limited school capacity because of physical distancing for safety. Educators are performing the most difficult work they have ever done, as our school district is juggling the education of four distinct groups of students simultaneously: two cohorts of students who alternate coming to school in person for part of the week who then must be provided with learning opportunities at home when they aren’t in school; a cohort of students with significant needs who are in school almost all week and require highly specialized programming; and a group of students whose families opted to have them learn entirely remotely from home.

On top of the complexity of the educational program, there continues to be disagreements across countries, states, and communities regarding how schools should be operating during the pandemic. As stated in a recent New York Times article, the decision-making process that school districts have been faced with regarding whether and how to reopen schools “reflects a divisive debate raging in almost every country over the importance of reopening schools while the outbreak grinds on. That fight has sometimes seen parents, teachers, politicians and epidemiologists stake out conflicting positions and has raised difficult questions about the health threats of returning schoolchildren to classrooms — and the educational and economic risks of keeping them out.” Disagreements about what schools should be doing are amplified by the fact that people’s tolerance for risk varies greatly, and have a range of opinions regarding which of the risks concern them the most.

Since the virus emerged last March, our school district has focused on how we can best provide a safe and healthy environment for all of our students and staff while pursuing our mission to promote the well-being of everyone in our school community and enabling high levels of learning. We have sought the best and most recent medical and public health guidance from experts, which naturally continues to evolve. We have empowered our staff – whose dedication and expertise are unsurpassed in my eyes – to essentially reinvent many aspects of how to best educate children given the conditions we face. We have reached out to our families to determine what is working and what is challenging so that we can try to provide the best support possible. And all of this has required extraordinary effort that has challenged all of us like never before.

I am proud of how our schools have adapted to the formidable challenges that we have experienced and continue to face. I am worried that the level of effort required to do this work well is becoming difficult to sustain, and so we must be clear about our priorities and realistic about our limits. I am confident that our students will get the best of which our schools are capable, and I ask everyone in the Shrewsbury community for your continued support as we strive to meet the demands placed upon us during this unprecedented time.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Refusing to Lose

These were my graduation remarks to the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2020, which were recorded on May 20, 2020 and broadcast on June 4, 2020.

Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and friends; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2020 – it is an honor and a privilege to address you this evening.

I truly wish I were looking out at you in person right now. While graduation is always a very special event for me as superintendent, this year it is doubly so. As many of you know, my oldest daughter, Sheila, is a senior, and so I feel twice the pride I typically have for a graduating class. As your superintendent, I am very proud of all that you have accomplished as students. As a Class of 2020 parent who has watched you grow up, my pride and affection for you run very deep. Like my fellow parents, and like you, I have imagined this particular graduation ceremony many times with great anticipation, and it is disappointing that what we assumed we would all experience together cannot be.

But, like many things in life, we cannot choose our circumstances. We can, however, choose our response to those circumstances. Stephen Covey wrote that our ability to choose our response is extremely powerful, as “in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The requirements to stay at home during this pandemic have made us feel an acute loss of one kind of freedom, but it is important to remember that nothing can take away our freedom to choose how we react to the challenges we face.

That’s not to say that choosing is easy, especially when the right choice is a difficult one to make. An author you are more familiar with, J.K. Rowling, once wrote: “Dark times lie ahead of us, and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” Those words, spoken by Headmaster Albus Dumbledore to the students of Hogwarts about a fictional challenge, apply to you as well. We are living in an extremely challenging time, and over the course of your lives there inevitably will be others, some that affect all of society and some that will be personal to you. I am confident and proud that your education in Shrewsbury has equipped you well to make not only smart choices, but wise ones. Smart choices require using your head, but wise ones mostly require your heart.

As a class, I believe that you have shown tremendous heart in how you have achieved, competed, performed, and – most importantly – how you have supported and served others. Your class motto, “Refuse to lose,” represents the choices you have made to persevere, especially now. As I shared with the community recently, I believe that while it is true that you did lose celebrating your graduation in the traditional way because of this terrible pandemic, I hope and believe that you will refuse to allow these circumstances to define your class and yourselves. I urge you to choose to use this experience to become stronger, more resilient people who go through life with a greater appreciation for what so many of us take for granted – family and friends, health, the security of a home and a job, the opportunity to be educated and the many other opportunities that we all have living in this time and place – then you will not have lost, but gained.

Speaking from my heart, with great pride, I wish you all the very best. On behalf of everyone in the Shrewsbury Public Schools, congratulations on your graduation from Shrewsbury High School.