On the Move, Intellectually: WPS in 2017-18
William S. McKersie, Ph.D., Superintendent
May 10, 2018
Using one’s mind well—ideally to solve challenging problems with compassion—is what we in Weston strive to inculcate in our students. The path our students take to good intellectual work may twist and turn, rise and fall, take surprising tangents, inspire and at times depress, but it is a persistent effort. (“A Mind’s Path,” McKersie, December 4, 2017.)
Using One’s Mind Well
At the midpoint of the school year, I observed that our students use their minds well. I drew on Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project (2017, W.W. Norton), which tells the story of the invention of the field of behavioral economics by the Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. I tied central elements from the text to moments I had witnessed of minds used well in our four schools (http://www.westonps.org/page.cfm?p=5949).
Now, as the school year winds down, Weston students are thriving in a vibrant intellectual environment shaped by our teachers and administrators. It cannot be overstated how essential it is for our students—regardless of their capacities or gifts—to have educators working tirelessly to establish the conditions for optimal opportunities for learning. Minds used well beget minds used well—the work of Weston educators has a direct payoff for Weston students.
A new source text documents exactly what our teachers and administrators have done this year to create the conditions for student intellectual growth. My new source is the WPS Annual Instructional Update, 2017-18, which was released to the Board of Education and Weston community on May 9, 2018.
Written by Dr. Kenneth Craw, the principals and the Curriculum Instructional Leaders (CILs), the WPS Annual Instructional Update, 2017-18 provides a thorough review of accomplishments, challenges and needs relative to the 2017-18 Goals in each academic discipline. It closes with a listing of goals for 2018-19, signifying Weston’s penchant for continuous improvement. Stated simply, it conveys the myriad ways Weston educators use their minds well to keep our students on the move, intellectually.
Two Major Takeaways – Constant Movement & CILs Matter
My big takeaway from the report is, in a phrase, constant forward movement. Our teachers and administrators are tireless in their work to perfect the content and instruction provided students. Reading the report, I was exhilarated and thankful. Even in a coherent district, the extent and depth of work by students and teachers is hard to visualize and comprehend. Ken Craw, the principals and the CILs have captured in one place the range of intellectual endeavor and our systematic commitment to improvement: we set real goals for the year; we identify measures of progress; we use data and information to analyze progress; we make adjustments and at times big changes guided by analysis; we search out and offer professional development to refine expertise and practices; we share accomplishments and challenges; and, we set new goals for the succeeding year. In plain English, we are dynamic, not static and sitting satisfied.
A second takeaway is that our CILs are essential. CILs are released half-time from their teaching duties to guide curriculum development, professional learning and instructional coaching. While focused on specific disciplines, the CILs work as a team to bolster content and instruction in their expertise areas, finding many cross-curricular and interdisciplinary lessons. Last year’s independent review by Noe Medina (April 2017) underscored the CILs’ contributions to academic excellence—they are the lynchpin to Weston’s rigorous, relevant and ever-improving academic program. Medina cited a couple of areas for improvement, most prominently enhancing the training of CILs in instructional coaching. Signifying their dedication to evaluation, the CILs also are working with Ken Craw to develop a system for gauging their impact as curriculum developers and instructional coaches.
Five Developments – Science, Writing, Special Education, the Arts and Curriculum Renewal
The WPS Annual Instructional Update, 2017-18 highlights accomplishments and challenges in each of the disciplines and subject areas. While all deserve close attention, let me raise up five developments—science, writing, special education inclusion, the arts, and ongoing curriculum renewal—that cut across either the curriculum or all schools.
Science has been an area of notable activity this year. The science curriculum is in the second year of renewal to align with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). CILs worked closely with the faculty this year to support significant modifications to curriculum and instruction. Ongoing attention is required for curriculum development, professional learning and the piloting of digital resources for the new units of study. A challenge will be finding ample instructional time at the K-5 level to meet the increased expectations NGSS poses for teaching science. The key will be supporting principals and teachers to develop units of study and lessons that weave together the expectations for science with literacy and numeracy instruction. This would be a cutting edge move, but one that Weston surely can master with the talents of the CILs, principals and teachers.
A major new feature of our science offerings will be the new Science Research Program at the high school. Developed with generous philanthropic help from the Weston Education Foundation (WEF), the Science Research Program will be led by Stacey Greenberg, a veteran biology teacher and Weston’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. We will be implementing a nationally recognized approach to science research developed by Andrew Bramante (Greenwich High School), who through an “Expert-in-Residence” grant from WEF has been helping to design Weston’s program. WEF’s philanthropy also has combined with district resources (roughly a 50:50 split) to obtain the necessary equipment for science research.
The Tri-State Consortium, an organization of high-performing school districts from CT, NY and NJ, sent a visiting team of trained educators to Weston in March 2018 to spend three days reviewing and critiquing our K-12 Writing across the Disciplines Initiative. The preliminary verbal report from Tri-State lauded Weston students for “living writerly lives” through persistent attention in all grades to writing on a daily basis, for varied audiences and purposes, and with clarity and accuracy. Tri-State noted the effectiveness of the WHS Writing Center and the use of writing portfolios in the 8th and 10th grades as an effective means to gauge progress. The reviewers found several areas for improvement, which will inform future goals and work, namely increasing use of data to guide student feedback, and increasing parent outreach on how Weston teaches writing and mechanics (parents need to know we care about the volume, creativity and mechanics of writing—great writers emerge when fostered to “write in haste, edit in leisure;” that is, feel unfettered to compose and create, but know how and when to correct and polish).
Inclusive educational settings are the priority for special education and general education students. Morally and legally we must adhere to the goal of “least restrictive educational environments” for students receiving special education services by including these students in the general education setting as much as possible. For sure, there are situations when educators and families will agree that students need to receive services outside the general education classroom to make meaningful progress and we must make such decisions with great care. We have begun to focus energies this year on increasing collaboration and communication among special education and general education teachers with the aim of optimizing inclusion. Teacher training and support is essential, and was piloted at HES and WIS. We will be looking for ways to increase common planning and professional development opportunities for teams of special education and general education teachers. Newly appointed Assistant Superintendent for PPS, Michael Rizzo, is committed to extending and deepening our work on fostering inclusion for special education students.
The arts—performing and visual—continue to hold a strong place in Weston’s curricular and co-curricular programs. Our approach to the visual arts fosters creativity and authentic art work by students from their earliest grades in school. We guide students to work in multiple mediums as early as possible and to feel proud to share and display their work. While there is decreasing enrollment in the visual arts due to competition from students’ other academic priorities and choices, we are attempting to mitigate the problem by modifying schedules, prerequisites and course duration. The performing arts attracts over 1,000 students from 4th-12th grade to theater, orchestra, band and vocal groups and programs. All students through fifth grade participate in general music. As in past years, the excellence of our performing arts programs is evidenced by the broad involvement in challenging productions and concerts, and the notable success of our students in regional and state competitions.
High quality academic programs require rigorous and relevant curriculum plans and frameworks, which must be regularly renewed through systematic review cycles. Weston has a well-conceived curriculum renewal process with a multi-year schedule identifying which academic disciplines are reviewed when and to what extent. Guided by Ken Craw, the process entails intensive work by the relevant principals, CILs, teachers and administrators. Preliminary findings are shared at several points with the Curriculum Council and the BOE Curriculum Committee, before the final report is presented for review and adoption by the full BOE. A typical full review will run as many as two years.
As noted earlier, we are in the middle of a comprehensive K-12 science curriculum review, with special attention to updating content, teaching and pathways for learning. In addition, Project Challenge, Health and School Counseling completed systematic reviews this year, with final reports adopted by the BOE pointing to several chief changes. For Project Challenge, a specialized program for students identified as Talented and Gifted in grades 3-8, recommendations emphasized changes to the curriculum, scheduling of classes and student identification. Health and school counseling were reviewed concurrently due to interconnected topics, such as bullying and healthy choices. Recommendations emphasized providing teachers with flexibility to address critical topics not always anticipated during curriculum development cycles, such as the emerging national opiates crisis and the increasing incidence of vaping.
The Rest Also Matters—A LotThe WPS Annual Instructional Update, 2017-18
is loaded with rich examples of Weston staff using their minds well. I have raised up just several illustrations. Not to be forgotten is the extensive attention in all disciplines to careful planning, professional learning, parent outreach and support, and, possibly most important, endless concern for making sure that content and pedagogy are fresh and engaging. Weston families and staff should take time to review the full report to discern their own lessons and findings. I am confident a prime take-away will be that the Weston Public Schools are on the move, intellectually. (WPS Annual Instructional Update 2017-2018