In September, CNS met with Superintendent Dan Gutekanst to review and reflect on the extended learning initiatives that were implemented in the schools last fall. Superintendent Gutekanst shared how these changes have impacted teachers, students, and families in Needham. Below are some excerpts from that conversation.
CNS: Last year was the first year of the extended learning initiatives approved by Needham voters in the April 2014 override. Now that Needham has had a chance to settle into the new schedule, we thought this was a good time to reflect on the changes. Overall, how have the extended learning initiatives benefitted Needham's schools?
DG: There is no question that Needham had been behind our peers with time on learning for our children. We are still behind with respect to Kindergarten because of the half-day Kindergarten program. But the fact that we've supplemented our programs with additional time on learning is huge. It allows our kids to interact with teachers on content that will help them grow to be creative learners, and creates a good, strong foundation that will help them really flourish in middle and high school-and beyond.
It will take a while to measure what that success looks like. We can't point to test scores yet. But we have provided more time for our teachers and all of them are in a better place. They can have more rigorous conversations about how we can work together to improve learning. They know that time is carved out for them to work with and follow up with their colleagues, and that that time is consistent. Teachers can say "I know the Literacy Coach will have time to come back later to talk to me about this issue." This allows for greater confidence and competence in teaching. For teachers to be together and collaborate in new ways is empowering.
My focus for Needham this year is really about learning-learning for students and learning for staff. We will continue to learn how to be more productive with the time we have together. Overall, these initiatives have added good, solid programming and created an environment where teachers and students can interact with each other in a creative way-that is time well spent. Needham's core values of scholarship, citizenship, community, and personal growth are the foundation for all of this. We will continue to support them and work toward achieving them.
CNS: What has the reaction to the new programming been from teachers? Students? Parents?
DG: Overall, the reaction has been very positive and quite powerful. We've found that teachers, students and parents are pretty enthusiastic about the new programming. This is particularly true about the new STEAM and Spanish curricula at the elementary level. Students are very jazzed up about STEAM, especially around the design process-bringing a problem to reality, and using engineering concepts to make something happen is very exciting. It makes things come alive for the students. Students are learning to imagine, practice, and innovate, and we are seeing these skills spill over into their regular classes. Teachers are infusing these lessons into their classroom work in a way they haven't been able to do before. And it's exciting to see kids talking about imagining something and then designing it.
Many parents have shared they are pleased to have Spanish, and they feel having Spanish at the elementary level is the right thing to do to acquire language skills in today's global world. The kids are totally immersed in the language because teachers are speaking in Spanish all the time. This really primes the pump for future learning. It is so cool to see the little guys in this environment because it really sticks with them in a way that is different from the way kids learn at upper levels. This sets the stage for learning in middle and high school. And the children are reacting to the curriculum with enthusiasm.
CNS: Can you tell us a little more about how STEAM and Spanish programming have been implemented at the elementary level?
DG: In practice, STEAM is a lot of different things. David Neves, Needham's Director of Fine and Performing Arts, has been working closely with principals and Terry Duggan, Director of Program Development, to bring it to life. One of the challenges has been finding space for it in the different schools. Because there are more teachers involved-art teachers, science teachers-there are some physical constraints at some of the schools. For example, Newman has a little more space to spread out than Hillside does. So, while there's been a learning curve to implementing STEAM at each school, all the schools are following the same design concept and curriculum and we are working to provide teachers with the flexibility they need to work with the changes.
Now that we are in year two of the program, we are finding that students are building on the skills they acquired last year. This year's students are coming into Spanish classes with more background in basic vocabulary and language skills. So we're ramping up the curriculum to meet that demand.
CNS: One of the key features of the ELT changes was expanding time for teacher collaboration. Can you tell us a little about what this has looked like in practice in the schools?
DG: The intent was to expand programming but at the same time provide collaboration time for teachers at every level. I have had the opportunity to observe teachers collaborating-third grade teachers getting together to talk about writing in an unharried way, for example. This is powerful, and it is enriching the classroom and empowering teachers. While we have been successful at implementing this new structure, there were some bumps in the first year as we learned how to provide that time in a thoughtful way that works for teachers. Schedules at every school are very tight and the changes have required principals to rethink them, especially at smaller schools like Hillside and Mitchell.
People are pleased to have more time. They have been clear with me about what they need, and we are focused on ensuring a more consistent practice between and among the schools. Last spring we spent a lot of time working on school schedules and setting clear expectations about how to use collaboration time. In some cases, folks needed some more direction, in others more autonomy. Principals have focused on each grade level, letting go where appropriate, and providing more support when it was needed.
CNS: What has the impact of the changes been at the High School level? What has the reaction been from teachers there?
DG: At the High School, teachers now meet on Friday mornings for collaborative time. By having this time every week, teachers have been able to dig deep and focus on issues in a consistent way over time. This allows them to keep the threads from week to week. Since High School folks are signed on to many different initiatives (interdisciplinary learning, or personalized learning, for example) they now have time to meet in small groups and really get into programming, write curriculum, and review data to strengthen programs that currently exist and develop new ones. They didn't have that kind of opportunity before. They now have the consistent ability to consider what is working, and how changes will impact what happens in the classroom. Work is happening in a way that teachers feel proud of.
Finding consistent useful work spaces for collaboration is a challenge at the High School. What the additional time in the schedule has done is allow an hour each week with no students in the building for teachers to get some things done which they are not able to do during the day. For example, English teachers can get together to do collaborative work in a way that would not be possible at any other time. But, in a very crowded school, space continues to be a challenge. Teachers are often bounced around every 50 minutes or so, so students can't find them when they need them and it's difficult to get work done. We should be able to do better than that.
CNS: Have there been any unforeseen challenges or surprises about the program?
DG: A few things related to just putting the changes into effect. Early on getting the busses from place to place was a challenge with the new schedule. That was a little surprising! Students needed to adjust to longer days, which took a little getting used to. And, there was the challenge of making sure that we can achieve the new schedule in a small space like Hillside. Now we know what to anticipate, and are in a very good place.