Warren school committee candidates talk mission, district goals

In second of three-part series, candidates talk of district's mission

By Ted Hayes
Posted 10/20/20

Four Warren residents are running for two open seats on the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee. Continuing this week and running through the last week before the Tuesday, Nov. 3 general …

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Warren school committee candidates talk mission, district goals

In second of three-part series, candidates talk of district's mission

Posted

Four Warren residents are running for two open seats on the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee. Continuing this week and running through the last week before the Tuesday, Nov. 3 general election, we will ask the candidates — Daryl Gould, Dave Matheson, Nicky Piper and Tara Thibaudeau — a policy question as a service to readers. This week's question:
With all the demands placed on public schools in 2020, does the Bristol Warren district have a clear mission, and is it succeeding?

David Matheson
think the superintendent's "Top Five in Five" is a mission which has solid, measurable goals. It's succinct, and has a defined endpoint. I think we're at the start of year two of five with Dr. Brice's plan.

By measurable I mean it has publically-available data with which to evaluate whether we have accomplished what we set out to do. That's what I want to focus on, a data-driven set of metrics that we can use to test and learn what's working well and what's not. To drive us towards this goal, I agree with the strategic planning that focuses, number one, on on the overall culture in the schools. In the tech sector, there's a heightened focus on culture, which unlocks free thinking and innovation, and I think that in schools, having a culture where students are comfortable and show up ready to learn, is an important priority. Next in the strategic planning is making sure teachers have the opportunity to skill up and excel, a key factor in making sure our kids improve in the measured areas.

The district is also focusing on CTEs (Career/Technical education) and that is well-placed. There's a good mix of STEM and vocational training, making sure we are giving kids an education that will suit them whether they're focused on four-year or two-year higher education or other kinds of vocational training. The availability of these programs is another key indicator in measuring our district's quality. I think taking the Top Five in Five as our north star, we have a clear way of determining our progress. Are we succeeding? From what I understand we'll get some additional data, certain by the middle or the end of the school year. Last year the pandemic impacted the ability to gather and aggregate that information. We have to look after year one, then year two. In my industry, we define our metrics, gather our data, measure our progress after a short iteration, and pivot if we're not trending in the right direction. After we see our district's data, if we're not meeting the goals, we're going to have to pivot. I think it's really important to do a progress check at the end of the year if we're not progressing toward that Top Five. And it will be important to ask, 'Hey, is this the pandemic, or should we be changing our focus?'

I'm optimistic, and I think the administration seems optimistic. And I think they have a well-defined goal, and I think it's great how they surrounded it with measurable data points, so we can check in with our progress. There is certainly room for improvement, if there are metrics that were in place where we don't have to wait until the end of the year to see feedback, I would like to see that. Rapid iteration, test and learn, these are key tenets in software development. Overall, I like the strategic mission that they've laid out, and the priorities that they're focusing on is great. I totally agree with the approach.

Nicky Piper
Yes, the District does have a mission. Of course; which is to educate students and to help them realize their full potential by providing them with an environment in which they're challenged, excellence is expected and differences valued. I know (Superintendent Dr. Jonathan) Brice has a vision, which is different than a mission, I would say, that Bristol Warren will be a top five district in five years.

Are they meeting it successfully? It's hard to say right now given that all of the focus of our schools and really our community shifted in the Spring to respond to the pandemic. Everything suddenly was, 'How can we shift all students to distance learning,' and it's shifted now to, 'How can we safely bring them back?'

Layered on top of this must also be how can we continue to push for rigor, and focus on the expectation of excellence. A seemingly impossible task, and I think the district has struggled in ways to keep all of these balls up in the air at the same time. Priorities are constantly shifting with the guidelines, and now with infections going up, it will become harder.

We're at a very critical time. The infrastructure is in place, and our district has great potential. But with that great potential for success is also potential for struggle. The choices that are going to be made by the voters in this election cycle will decide what happens next, and how we move on from here.

I believe that to succeed in any part of our mission, we need to keep our kids safe. The new members of the school committee must be people with a focus on safety, and advocates for Covid-safe learning efforts in our schools. I think anyone in the district should be willing to be held up as an example in this regard.

Then there's the "challenging our students" piece of the mission. We need to set equitable expectations of excellence. The new members of the school committee should be prepared to work collaboratively with teachers, staff and the community, and every single person should be held accountable in ensuring all students get what they need to meet their full potential.

The last part of the mission is about valuing our differences. I think it's critical that any school committee member should be very comfortable and willing and ready to create a culture of trust where differences are discussed and celebrated, and all students have a voice in their educational experience.

To be successful in our mission, transparency and clarity in our budget process is critical. We need to work tirelessly to support all of the social and emotional needs of our students and their teachers. And we need to continue to develop those partnerships that will bring real world learning opportunities to the high school. We need to have open lines of communication so that all families, especially those who haven't traditionally felt that they have a voice in the district, can feel they can engage with the schools.

As we talk about mission and the challenges of succeeding in this environment, I would like to think my combination of experience with the nuts and bolts of budgeting and financing, as well as my experience with working with school leaders across the country and locally, puts me in a pretty unique place to help the district succeed in its mission even as it adapts to the needs of our environment.

Tara Thibaudeau
I've spoken to a lot of people about this question ... parents, teachers, students. All but 2 individuals did not feel that the mission was clear right now in our district. Really, it's the school committee's role to set the goals and visions: You talk to the community, you look at what the community needs collectively, and you create a plan.

If you were to ask me right now what the mission is? The mission is survival mode. Talking to people; there is no clear plan. The district is kind of reactive vs. proactive. Lots of band aids and living in the moment. A lot of these things, because of Covid, you can't plan for. We’re all living in the moment, with daily changes. Doing the best, we can. Teachers are walking into the building every morning and they don't know what the day is going to bring. Parents with hybrid students feel the same way.

Prior to Covid, I think there was a plan. I participated in community meetings when the superintendent had the meet and greets, and he did present a plan. But as a result of Covid, the mission has been placed on the shelf, or at least that is the perception. We've resorted to playing catch-up.

Some of what has happened during these months was preventable. We would be able to focus on the academic plan better if better choices had been made by the administration and the school committee in the last 7 months. Just the financial piece alone; money is being spent on band aids and not on what was approved from the JFC meeting, some was unavoidable but other expenses are not so transparent. It's hard to separate whether the mission is not clear because of Covid or lack of planning.

I don't see a vision as a parent. Talking to teachers, they don't see it. Talking to students at the high school, they don’t see it. There's a disconnect somewhere between the vision the superintendent presented to us pre-Covid and what we're seeing on the ground. So, the answer is no, unless the mission is survival.

After the election, the school committee goals will be changing because you're going to have at least three new people on that board. The goals and vision must be clear with the school committee members themselves, and then they are able to be communicated to the superintendent. He then adjusts his mission based on committee & community input. We will get back on track and we be stronger.

Daryl Gould
In regards to the mission during the pandemic, obviously there's a mission in that we're doing the best we can given the circumstances to educate all the students in our district. Are things being done on a strategic and tactical level? I'm not so sure. In some areas yes, in some areas no.

I think there was a lack of planning, and I say that given that over the summer there were moving targets and things were changing on a weekly basis that were hard to plan for. So certainly you have to give the administration some leeway.

But there are certainly some examples: Not planning for having enough teachers, and having the facilities ready for students, are areas where we dropped the ball.

It's certainly a difficult situation. My hope is that with the more significant involvement by parents that we're seeing at school committee meetings, on social media and just talking to people, people are more engaged. Hopefully that will induce a variety of creative solutions where the district hasn't been able to do things for themselves.

As for a larger mission apart from Covid, I think we're falling short. One of the challenges is human nature; people tend to look at things and situations through their own perspective. While some of our students have excelled and are demonstrating that they're top performers, based on academic measures we have we're clearly missing the mark.

The Top Five in Five Years goal, I don't think, is attainable.
One of the challenges, and I've questioned (Superintendent Dr. Jonathan) Brice about this, is when the plan was introduced the district said we wouldn't be using state assessment and measuring tools to determine success, because there are other measures we can use. But if we're not using the same measuring stick as everyone else, I question how we can measure success from a comparative standpoint.

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