The School Committee presented its strategic plan working group presentations at the Wednesday, Aug. 18 meeting.
Public comment was sought in advance of the meeting and was not scheduled for the meeting itself, out of fairness to the large number of people who submitted comment in advance.
“We’ve received as much public comment as I’ve ever seen, being part of a School Committee, in advance of this meeting,” Chairman Christopher Howard said.
A number of meetings were held throughout the summer, working with the district’s leadership team and administration, to review the district’s strategic plan to identify what their priorities, as a group, should be.
“I can tell you they were here bright and early on the day after a holiday,” Howard said of the group with which he worked. “I can tell you they were here several other times, and I know other groups were here several other times. … This is a volunteer effort.”
Howard described the presentations as “point in time” shares of information, as the work is far from being completed.
Each of the three groups — one-to-one laptop initiative, K-8 related arts curriculum and early childhood education — were given about 15 minutes in which to make their presentation, with time allotted for a brief question and answer time after each one. He also encouraged the public to send written thoughts, comments and questions about the presentations.
Howard explained that a lot of what the other two working groups were looking at depend on the district’s technology capabilities.
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro’s team — which included Steve Bois, Mike Jones and Beth Stafford — kicked things off with their presentation on a one-to-one laptop initiative. The group had two formal meetings and several subsequent meetings with the group, district IT or administrative teams, as information was gathered.
“We might be a little bit different than the other two groups, because we are actually going to enact this initiative for the start of this school year,” Ferro said. “Where we left off last year with COVID and so many Chromebooks out [with families], we had to find out if this was doable.”
They had to inventory the devices and make sure they could provide equipment to students and teachers.
Stafford said that, while COVID was a terrible thing, the pandemic showed what was needed for today’s education, who had it and who didn’t and how it could be provided for students who lacked access to technology.
Those students were loaned Chromebooks and internet access during last school year.
“What it has led to is that we’re able this year to provide for grades three to 12, a one-on-one Chromebook for each child to go home and to be responsible for to bring to school for the coming year,” she said. Kindergarten to grade two classess will have access to half sets of devices in the classroom.
Ferro said students in grades three to 12 will receive a loan agreement form and will, when parents return the signed form, receive a charger and a Chromebook, including care instruction for students and how to use it in instruction for teachers.
Bois said a grant will also allow the retirement or repurposing of some devices.
Ferro said the at-home learning funding is from a non-competitive federal grant must be awarded, and is administered by the FCC.
“If you have aging devices, or you have students with no connectivity, or you have students with not enough devices in the home … they can be provided with a Chromebook for at-home use,” Ferro said. The district’s aging software made them eligible for the devices they sought. Almost half the district’s more than 3,500 devices age out next year, with the goal to replace 1/6 of the stock each year.
They are working within the district and through federal funds to start a cycle of funding the estimated $270,000 per year that renewal goal with require.
“This is the new curriculum textbook in a very closed way,” Ferro said.
Heather Kniffen presented a review of the K-8 related arts curriculum group’s work. She, Christopher Sciriven, Superintendent Jeff Szymaniak and Michelle Bourgelas served on the group.
“We’re talking about long-term implementation, Kniffen said. “This is not something that we, like the tech group, would be able to work on this year. This is definitely a multi-year project.”
The goal is to engage students and make them look forward to going to school — something that now declines in middle school years — through choices of subject and equity between middle schools in each town.
“The sooner that children are exposed to different cultures and different languages, the more empathetic they become and better human beings, because they understand people,” Kniffen said of the curriculum’s benefits. She added that music and art have behavioral benefits.
A Life Skills class option, described as a Home Economics 2.0 class, is also being discussed, Szymaniak said.
“You might be learning Home Ec. Stuff, you might be learning CPR, you might learn how to change a tire, what a checkbook is — all the types of things that parents talk about ‘I wish my kid knew,’ give them an opportunity to experience some of that in middle school, so as they matriculate to the high school, they have some idea of some of those life skills” he said.
Technical skills, including robotics, are also included.
Challenges to incorporating the program include hiring qualified teachers, intricacies of a middle school schedule, available instructional time and not viewing it as a Band-Aid approach.
Some immediate action steps being taken include determining student interest.
“I’m psyched about this endeavor,” Scriven said. “Particularly in getting kids to want to come to school.”
Szymaniak acknowledged that the scheduling issue is a hurdle, but added the district has time to do that work.
“The key piece here is foreign language should be an academic course,” he said.
Dawn Byers reviewed the work she, Fred Small and David Forth did regarding early childhood education.
Their recommendations are to implement access to high-quality, no-tuition full-day kindergarten in the 2022-23 school year and — in the long-term, to form an Early Childhood Education Committee to focus on and support the short-term goal as well as expansion of universal early childhood education to 3- and 4-year-olds. Questions for administration were regarding: building/classroom space; staffing; transportation; engagement with town leadership, community and families; and financial costs.
She introduced the presentation with a trailer for the film “No Small Matter” about the challenges low-income parents, especially, are having providing their children with the best start on education with children’s earliest years.
Forth reviewed the districts current offerings of half and full-day tuition-based preschool and kindergarten. Preschool tuition costs between about $1,3000 and $6,500 with enrollment limited to 80 students. Kindergarten tuition is $3,200 for the full-day program with 238 pupils. There is no charge for half-day kindergarten.
The state average for full-day kindergarten is 98 percent, with 62 percent of Whitman kindergarten pupils attending full-day classes.
Six of seven surrounding communities offer no-tuition full-day kindergarten. Hanover charges $3,750.
Small lauded Byers’ leadership of the group before discussing its goals.
“Ms Byers did a yeoman’s share of the work here,” he said.
The goal is to share the benefits of, and create a pathway for, high-quality early childhood education for Whitman and Hanson’s 3- to-to-5-year-old pupils with a long-term vision of universal high-quality, no-tuition preschool and pre-kindergarten.
Byers said there are educational, equity and economic benefits of high-quality early childhood education. That includes a greater contribution to society as adults.
Asked about the cost, Szymaniak said his charge to the group was to come up with the reasons to support such a program.
“I didn’t want the folks to get bogged down with the dollars and cents,” he said. “This is a ‘Why?’ Why to we need to do this? You’ve given me the why, I can give you the ‘How?’”
“And the how much?” Howard said.
Howard also welcomed Whitman’s recently-appointed member Beth Stafford. The former Whitman Middle School teacher was appointed by the town’s Selectmen to fill a vacancy when Dan Cullity resigned for family matters.
“If we’re starting our children young, and we’re putting everyone on the same playing field, we’re investing in prevention, not in remediation,” Small said. “When that student’s in third grade, we don’t have to have those reading specialists.”
Teachers won’t have to be spending time in first grade trying to catch the 38 percent of half-day kindergarteners with those who attended full-day K.
“That’s a cost-savings, and that’s a direct benefit,” he said.