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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Time is Right to Do What Is Right



June 3, 2020

Dear Shrewsbury Families, Colleagues, & Community Members,

I write to you because I feel it is important that I share my perspective, as your superintendent, regarding the crisis our nation is experiencing and how I believe our school community should respond.

Like you, I am deeply disturbed by the killing of George Floyd, and I am angered by the tragedies and injustices that have been suffered – in recent weeks and historically – by so many Black Americans and their families because of racism. 

I greatly respect those who have been exercising their constitutional right to peacefully assemble to protest George Floyd’s killing and racism in our country, and I am angered by those who have compromised their message through looting and violence.  I greatly respect the law enforcement officers who honorably serve and safeguard our communities, and I am angered by those who have abused their power and authority in ways that have harmed – and even unjustifiably killed – those whom they were sworn to protect.  It is my hope that we, as a society, will have the wisdom to protect the rights of all who act within the law and support the officers who respectfully enforce the law, while ensuring that all those who violate the law are fairly brought to justice. 
   
I am disappointed and disillusioned that the virus of racism continues to infect our country in insidious ways.  Any progress our nation has made to address racism over the past decades feels very fragile at this moment, and it is critical that we take collective action toward eradicating this disease that contaminates America’s soul.

As a young boy growing up in Massachusetts, I saw on the news the terrible convulsions Boston underwent during the busing era.  As an American history major in college, I learned about the tragic saga of African Americans throughout our republic’s history.   As a new teacher in Houston, Texas, I worked with veteran Black faculty members who had grown up going to segregated schools, which made the Jim Crow era much more tangible than what I had learned from books or films; and I taught many Black students and learned much more about their real lives, and the challenges they and their families faced, than I did from the media or popular culture.  Like so many of you, as a baseball fan and a history buff, I have been inspired by Jackie Robinson’s heroism.  Like so many of you, as a U2 fan, I have sung along with Bono about Martin Luther King’s pride in the name of love.

But none of those things mean that I truly understand what it is like to be Black in America.  And none of those things mean that I am doing enough, as a citizen and in my role as an educational leader, to address the problem of racism and prejudice in America that affects African Americans, as well as Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and other minority groups.  I need to do more and I need to do better.

There are many things that we already do in our schools to teach our students about racism.  In addition to what is taught in the classroom, there are also ongoing efforts, such as the annual Black History Month initiative at Shrewsbury High School, that address this difficult and complex topic.  But, if as a school community we want to truly live up to our stated core values of respect and equity, and prepare our students so that they can move our society to a better place, we need to do more and we need to do better. 

As educators, we need to do the work to become better informed about issues of race so that we can better model for and teach all of our students, and so that our school communities are not only inclusive but are actively anti-racist. As your superintendent, this starts with me, and I will be sharing my efforts as I seek to become better equipped to do this work.   

It is my hope that in our schools our students will not only learn about the history of racism and understand its impact on our society, but that they will also develop the character and will to do what is right, both now and when they become adults.  It is my hope that whatever their future roles may be – business people, doctors, construction workers, lawyers, counselors, accountants, soldiers, politicians, computer programmers, social workers, firefighters, nurses, teachers, police officers, and, most importantly, parents – they act in ways that create a more equitable society for everyone, one that lives up to our American aspirations for liberty and justice for all.

I’m sure that there will be many disagreements and much discomfort as we do this work, but that is no excuse to avoid it.  I am certain that some will feel we are not doing enough and some will feel that we shouldn’t do this work at all.  I am not going to worry about whether we will be judged for not being sufficiently “politically correct” – or criticized for being too much so.  What I am going to worry about is how we can improve in order to do what is right for our students and our community.  In order to do this I will need to find ways to listen to all of the diverse voices of our students, families, staff, and community, and to help us all collectively hear each other.

As I write this, when I look up I see a piece of artwork hung on my office wall, a photo of which is at the top of this message.  It is a graphic design by Layla Nayfeh, SHS Class of 2019, that was the winning entry in the SHS Black History Month art competition a few years ago.  It is an image of Ruby Bridges from the iconic Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With, walking into her newly integrated school, silhouetted over the text of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, with another MLK quote layered over in script: “The time is always right to do what is right.”  

The time is right.  I hope that, together, we will find the wisdom – and the will – to do what is right.

Respectfully,

Joe Sawyer
Superintendent of Schools

Friday, March 27, 2020

Rising to an Unprecedented Challenge

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

This Superintendent’s Corner would have been on a much different topic, but the COVID-19 pandemic became an emergency just prior to the time this edition of the School Journal would have gone to print. So, instead, I will share with the larger community some of what I have been communicating with our families and staff now that all of our schools are closed by order of Governor Baker until at least April 7, and all town buildings are closed to the public with business being conducted via phone and electronic communication. Please see our website at schools.shrewsburyma.gov for up-to-date information on our school district’s response to the pandemic.

I hope all of you reading this continue to be well. When I write this, there are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Shrewsbury, but with expanded testing beginning to happen I assume it is a matter of time until we have the first confirmed case within our community. I ask that you help protect our older family and friends, those with health conditions, first responders, and medical professionals by practicing social distancing.

Closing schools is a major interruption to our educational program that creates difficulties for our students, who rely on our schools not only for education but also for many aspects of their well-being, including social and emotional support and meals. This decision also places a significant burden on many families with regard to childcare. However, I believe that this has been the right thing to do with regard to the health and safety of our community.

I shared three key messages with the school community regarding how we are responding to this unprecedented and rapidly evolving crisis:

The health & well-being of students, families, & staff is priority #1.

This is an extraordinary time in history, and everyone in our community has a collective responsibility to respond to this challenge.

Even though our schools are closed, we will continue to support our students, families, and staff from a distance and empower our students with opportunities for learning.

With our schools closed for an extended period of time, we immediately began providing grab-and-go meals to needy families since school breakfasts and lunches are not available, and we are also partnering with St. Anne’s Human Services to ensure our students and their families have access to the food they need. To address students’ educational needs, our curriculum leaders and educators continue to work on determining ways to best provide learning opportunities while students are at home. I am grateful to our parents for helping their children stay engaged with learning activities at home, and I am grateful to our educators for connecting with students and families through technology and providing various learning options. This process will continue to evolve, and I appreciate everyone's patience as we work to do this effectively during a time when many students' families and staff's families are undergoing a significant amount of upheaval.

This crisis is creating health and financial difficulties for so many, and the unpredictability and fear regarding what might happen naturally can create stress, anxiety, and emotional and physical exhaustion. These are trying times, so it is important for us all to show empathy, patience, kindness, and goodwill toward one another, and to model these things for our children. If we do, courage, fortitude, and perseverance will follow.

This is an unprecedented and extraordinary time for all of us. I have always been proud to be a member of the Shrewsbury community, and I am confident that our collective response to this very challenging situation will be characterized by respect and support for one another. We will rise to this challenge, together.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Important Work

This post was originally published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column in the Fall 2019 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal.

The work of our schools has never been more important. 

Many of our students are anxious and worried about lots of things.  Some are problems we face as a society, like mass shootings, climate change, and a toxic political environment.  Others are normal parts of growing up, such as feeling accepted, fitting in, and dealing with peer pressure toward risky behavior –  but new dynamics such as the omnipresence and distortions of social media, the rise of vaping, and legalization of marijuana have made things more complicated.   

Some of our students face discrimination and rejection because of how they look, where they are from, or whom they are attracted to.  Some face the challenges of poverty, while others have financial means but are impoverished emotionally. Many perceive that their self-worth is tied to meeting expectations that they believe their families, their school, and society hold for them – i.e., getting good grades, performing well on the field or on the stage, getting into a “good” college, etc. – and live in fear of rejection if they don’t measure up.  Others perceive that they are less worthy because a learning or physical disability hinders success as it is traditionally defined. Still others have experienced significant trauma, sometimes known to us and often unknown.

If we are to successfully educate all of our students, including those with challenges both visible and invisible, we certainly must attend to our duty of implementing the most effective technical elements of teaching.  However, while strong curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices are necessary, they are not sufficient to truly meet our kids’ needs and fulfill our mission. All of our students first need to be:

accepted, unconditionally, for who they are;
respected by being treated with dignity and empathy;
included in the learning in our classrooms and the life of our schools; and
empowered through our belief in their abilities.

Accepted.  Respected. Included.  Empowered. We adults want to feel these things.  So do our students. When they do, the impact of our schools is profound.  

I am proud that our schools are focused on finding ways for all students to be meaningfully included in order to succeed in the classroom and beyond.  One shining example is that our Shrewsbury High School Unified Sports program recently earned national recognition from the Special Olympics for its success, where “athletes with and without intellectual disabilities train alongside each other as teammates to promote inclusion, acceptance, and respect.”

I am also proud that our schools are focusing on ways to address all of our students’ needs by strengthening our approach to social and emotional learning. The research is clear that students whose social and emotional needs are met not only are happier, they also learn better, behave better, manage stress better, and make better decisions.  We are becoming more intentional and comprehensive about teaching the skills and competencies of social emotional learning, and this will pay off for our students.   

While we are making progress, we have much work to do in order to ensure that every student in our schools is accepted, respected, included, and empowered.  In the coming months, we will be undergoing an “equity audit” to examine how our current practices and opportunities for students match our aspirations.  It is our responsibility to determine areas of improvement, seek evidence-based best practices that match our needs, and implement them so that our students benefit.  

This work is difficult.  But, I am optimistic because I know our educators’ skill and dedication has and will continue to make a positive difference, and because they are working together to use best practices and increased supports to serve all of our students.  To do this work well is indeed challenging, but it is surely gratifying, because it changes our students’ lives for the better and makes our community a better place.  

And it has never been more important. 

Friday, June 14, 2019

In the Arena


These were my remarks at the graduation ceremony for the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2019.

Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2019 – it is an honor and a privilege to address you this evening.

You are making SHS history tonight, as the first class to hold its graduation ceremony here, in the DCU Center arena.  I was personally excited when this decision was made, as now I will be able to say that I, too, was onstage here, just like the following partial list of superstars:

Frank Sinatra (who gave the first performance in this arena, originally called the Worcester Centrum, when it opened in September 1982), Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Madonna, Prince, Elton John, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Journey, U2, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Kiss, Foo Fighters, Kenny Chesney, Snoop Dogg, Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, Guns N’ Roses, Garth Brooks – and, in case you students haven’t heard of any of those people, also: Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Carrie Underwood, and, Panic! At the Disco

That’s a pretty talented group to be part of, and Graduates, after tonight, you, too, will be able to count yourselves among the greats who have graced the stage at the DCU Center!  So, at least we’ve got that going for us...

Having grown up locally in my hometown of Clinton, I actually attended my first ever concert right here: Phil Collins during his “No Jacket Required” tour on May 12, 1985, 34 years ago when I was a junior in high school.   Of course, now that I’ve publicly revealed that fact, I guess I should no longer use it for one of the security questions to protect my online accounts – such as the snow day announcement codes.  I also can’t say that my fondness for Phil Collins’s music has entirely stood the test of time, nor do I still listen much to the two other bands I saw here during that period of my life: Foreigner and Van Halen (and that was the Sammy Hagar version, in case the people my age are wondering).  

Over time, the kinds of concerts that I have attended here have evolved. For example, a decade or so ago I was able to score tickets to see...The Wiggles! I saw them with my oldest daughter, who’s now a junior and who is here tonight somewhere – and I bet some of you were here at that concert with your parents, too (I can say there was a bit of a different vibe in the Wiggles crowd than with Van Halen).  Because I married a Texan who loves country music, I’ve seen the Dixie Chicks and Sugarland here.  And, in a little more than a week, I’ll be back here to see Pentatonix, as my daughters and wife love a cappella singing. Not a musical evolution that I would have predicted for myself during my high school years, for sure.  Of course, I also never thought I would actually be “on stage” here, but here I am – and, given my lack of musical aptitude, it is a good thing for all that I’m not singing.

But, as Shakespeare reminds us, “All the world’s a stage,” and all of you will someday be “on stage,” in all types of actual or metaphorical arenas:
  • performing an artistic part – or surgery;
  • carrying out a military mission – or a business plan;
  • making a political speech – or a critical repair;
  • writing a book – or computer code;
  • creating art – or a meal;
  • teaching a class – or a lesson to your own children.  

It does not matter how small or large your arena may be, but it will matter whether you choose to take the risk to be vulnerable and get onto your stage so that you may share your talents.  You need to be vulnerable to do this, because there is always the risk of failure. But there is more risk if you don’t take those chances.  The researcher and author BrenĂ© Brown asserts, “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.”  

Brown uses the metaphor of the “arena” because she was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, known as The Man in the Arena, in which he declared that it is not those who sit on the sidelines and criticize others – but only those who take the risks and make the efforts to use their talents for important reasons – who are true successes.  Roosevelt famously said:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;

but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

So, tonight in this arena, as you not only cross this physical stage, but also into a new stage of your lives, I ask that you consider Brown’s and Roosevelt’s challenge:  that you dare to live lives where you strive to be your best selves in your own arenas, whatever they may be – and to share your talents, however imperfectly, in service to a greater good.

On behalf of everyone in the Shrewsbury Public Schools, congratulations and best wishes.  Thank you.



We Have Work to Do


This post was originally published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column in the Winter 2019 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal.

At the start of each calendar year, I provide my perspective regarding the strengths our schools possess and the challenges that we face in my “State of the District” report, from which this column is adapted.  This year’s overarching theme: While we have much to celebrate, we have work to do to achieve our collective aspirations for our students.

The work ahead will build on a sturdy foundation, as the current state of our schools is very strong.   Our students continue to demonstrate very high levels of success in traditional measures of academics, including strong performance on state and national assessments, including our district again being named to the national AP Honor Roll for increasing access to rigorous coursework while maintaining very strong outcomes. Student creations and performances in the visual and performing arts continue to earn accolades, while academic competition teams and athletic teams continue to achieve impressive results. Further, we have educators, support staff, and administrators who continue to do extraordinary work every day, and our School Committee provides leadership that creates the conditions for students and educators to thrive. Our parent community provides outstanding support, as does the entire community-at-large, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive vote to build a new K-4 elementary school (for which we are extremely grateful!)  

We should continue to celebrate the continued excellence of our schools, and utilize these strengths as we take the necessary steps to provide an even better education for our students, one that will adapt to the changing needs and demands that today’s world places upon our students and us.  As with any successful organization, we have work to do in order to improve our ability to achieve our mission, and so we must focus our time and resources on our strategic priorities.  

Under our strategic priority of “Learning environments where everyone’s success matters,” we have work to do if we are to become a district where we can truly say that “all means all” when it comes to ensuring that all students are getting what they need to succeed.  This means being intentional about applying best practices to educate diverse learners, and to ensure that our approach is inclusive where it comes to our students’ and families’ cultural backgrounds, so that all students and families feel welcome and unconditionally accepted as members of our school communities.

To achieve our strategic priority of “Enhanced well-being of all,” we have work to do to address the social, emotional, and behavioral health issues that have become more prevalent in recent times in our society – and in our community.  This is especially true where it comes to the specific topics of depression and suicide, substance abuse and addiction (including new challenges related to the legalization of marijuana and an epidemic of vaping, in addition to the opioid crisis), and the societal phenomena of smartphones and screen time changing the social dynamic.  To address these issues, we will need to focus time, attention, and resources on developing a comprehensive approach to social and emotional learning for all, as well as expanded counseling and clinical supports for students with significant needs. 

To move forward with our strategic priority of “Connected learning for a complex world,” we have work to do if we are to become a district where we can truly say that all of our students are learning the skills they will need to be successful citizens.  There are many innovative ways in which our students are learning the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, and it becomes more clear each year why building these competencies is crucial for our students’ future success.  What we see in society and the media today also makes it apparent that our students must become savvy consumers of news and information who can also see the moral and ethical dimensions of issues, so that they become informed, empathetic citizens who serve the community and seek the common good.

The approval of building a new Beal School significantly advanced our strategic priority of “Space and resources to support effective learning,” and we not only have work to do to successfully complete this critical project, but as our district continues to grow we also will need to address other physical space needs, ensure adequate staffing, and provide appropriate learning materials and technology, all in order to achieve what the community has made it clear that it expects of us.  

We are fortunate in our district, as we have substantial resources, both capital and human, to do the important work of educating our students.  These resources continue to be modest when viewed in the context of other school districts across the state, and the value that our community receives regarding the return on its investment is superb.    

Our students and educators have and will continue to learn much and learn well, but we have work to do so that we may reach the ambitious goals that have been set for improving the lives of the children in our care.  I am confident that, with the support of the community, we will continue to seek and find innovative ways to teach our students both the academic and life skills they will need to lead successful lives.