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Judy Paolucci's Multimedia Blog

 Blog: Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Favorite Teachers

As National Teachers Week comes to a close, I want to take the time to reflect on the teachers that have made a difference in my life. These individuals didn't simply teach a certain subject; they shaped my interests and the direction I would later take in my career.

I went to Classical High School, in Providence, RI. The school continues to have a great reputation. Although teaching quality varied from classroom to classroom, students had to pass a test to enroll at Classical and were generally attentive students. In many ways, the students made the school what it was. I had some good teachers and not-so-good teachers. I sometimes learned quite a bit in classrooms of teachers that I didn't like so much but I both learned quite a bit and was inspired by teachers I thought were great. Of all those great teachers, Mr. Paradis stood apart.

Mr. Paradis taught math and, yes, I did like math but what made his class heads above the rest was his attention to learning. When students weren't getting it, Mr. Paradis tried something new. He didn't simply plow through content. He could have done that and many teachers did. Classical students knew that if they didn't succeed, they would be sent to another city high school and most didn't want to do that so they taught themselves, if need be. There weren't consequences for teachers when significant numbers of students failed because they actually expected failure. "Look to your left and look to your right," the principal said at the opening assembly, "one of those two people will leave Classical at some point before graduation."

Mr. Paridis made us explain our thinking as we worked through problems, not because it was expected on the state test (there weren't any state tests) but because in doing so we deepened our understanding and provided feedback that he used to decide what to challenge us with next. He identified math as one of my strengths and his acknowledgement of that strength gave me confidence to take more difficult math classes, both in high school and college.

I went on to Rhode Island College and majored in chemistry, due in no small part to three great teachers I had there: Dr. Charles Marzacco, Dr. Jim Magyar, and Dr. Elaine Magyar. I had gone to RI College initially hoping to become a special education teacher, specializing in teaching the deaf and even learned sign language. When I took college chemistry, I was hooked (unfortunately high school chemistry had not had the same effect as my teacher was the antithesis to Mr Paradis). All three of these professors loved their subject, planned instruction, used formative assessments as feedback to adjust the pace of the course, and made personal connections to students. While I had inspiring and smart teachers at Brown in graduate school, none could compare to these three educator-scientists.

As an administrator, my primary responsibility is to create conditions, including environment, resources, and training, to help each and every teacher become for each and every student what Mr. Paradis, Dr. Marzacco, Dr. Magyar, and Dr. Magyar were to me. Anything less is simply not good enough.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 3:13 PM | 0 comments

Blog: Monday, April 17, 2017

Budgeting Philsophy

I know that I join many Leicester residents who are holding their breath as a decision is being made in Shrewsbury about a new town manager. Kevin Mizikar, who now serves as Leicester's town administrator, is a finalist there and, while we all wish him the best in his career, we also don't want to see him go. Kevin brought to the town an easy style and transparency that had long been missing from town finances.

There are two polarizing strategies for town and school budgeting. Both strategies can be employed by equally good and well-intentioned leaders; it's not about the person; it's about the strategy or philosophy. On one side of the spectrum, each side vies for the limited resources available, hiding from one another fiscal resources and detailed expenditure plans. The theory is that if the town can underestimate what is available for the schools, then more of these resources can be squirreled away for town needs through allocations from over-inflated free cash in the fall. In turn, if the schools can hold on to revolving account funds without a detailed spending plan for those funds, needs might be inflated, putting pressure on the town to provide more resources. While both sides may be well-intentioned, hoping to "win the battle" for the area they value, there are no winners in war.

When I started in Leicester, this latter strategy was coupled with a generally sour relationship between the town and schools. "It's like that everywhere" was the response to my general surprise. Since I had worked as an administrator in two different towns in two different states and hadn't experienced anything but positive relationships, I knew this not to be true. Regardless of what the town planned to do for budgeting, my goal was to share detailed expenditure plans, including plans for the use of monies from revolving funds.

It was a breath of fresh air to start working with Kevin, who shared a more transparent philosophy. He estimated town revenues and provided his assumptions. He gave the school department a fair estimate of a budget amount, supported by the Select Board, which could be provided by the town without an override. Budgeting for FY18 is the third year it has been done this way. Occasionally, Kevin must come back with a lowered figure and we need to "give back" or cut back on the school budget. This is most often due to updated state aid, health insurance costs, or increased vocational tuitions (vocational tuitions used to be part of the school budget but are now teased out in a separate warrant article).

I heard criticisms from people who do not understand why the school department is “giving back” money when so many needs exist. I argue that in the old paradigm we wouldn’t see any of these funds in the first place. It’s better to be honest up front and have to cut back later than to have the town departments fight over minimal, underestimated revenues, only to see a large figure of free cash in the fall. Without cooperation from the schools, the town would find the less transparent philosophy to be more advantageous. Additionally, more often than not, the funds given back are used for vocational tuitions, which used to be part of the school budget anyway.

I am writing this blog post before the Shrewsbury decision is made because, while I value the job Kevin has done here in Leicester, I want to focus our attention not on the person, but on the deployment of a transparent, cooperative budgeting strategy. It’s something every Leicester resident should demand, regardless of who are employed in leadership positions here. It’s so easy to slip back into old habits. Whether Kevin stays or goes, let’s continue on the path we have journeyed upon these past 3 years.

Posted by Judy Paolucci | 0 comments

Blog: Thursday, March 23, 2017

Why Curriculum Matters

Running a district requires quite a bit of work that often doesn’t involve education at all. Negotiating contracts, monitoring budget lines, advocating for legislative action, working through a facility project with the MSBA, and developing policy are all interesting unto themselves but as the instructional leader of a district, it’s important to step back now and again to read educational literature and reflect on the practices in our classrooms. I’m using this blog post to reflect on the importance of curriculum for equity.

I’m reading the book, Why Knowledge Matters, by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., which critically reviews many current educational practices that have minimized knowledge acquisition in favor of skill development. The author posits, in order to understand what you read you need to know the majority of words encountered in the passage or to have the background knowledge to infer the meaning of those words. There’s plenty of research to back that claim but, more importantly, it simply makes sense.

During our years in school we should amass quite a bit of knowledge in a variety of subjects from ancient history to current events, from chemistry to astronomy, from number theory to differential equations, and from poetry to the classics. We also learn through less structured means by reading, traveling, and experiencing life. All other things being equal, less advantaged students amass quite a bit less vocabulary and background knowledge outside of school, making their experiences inside of school all the more important for ensuring equity and a higher quality of life as adults.

A well-developed and common curriculum provides a foundation upon which students gain knowledge necessary for strong reading comprehension. Strong reading comprehension, in turn, enables students’ access to even greater knowledge and vocabulary. There are certainly strategies good readers employ to figure out meaning from unfamiliar texts and teaching those strategies can be beneficial to students who haven’t yet acquired them on their own. Somehow, though, we have lost our way by putting so much of the emphasis of education on skill development at the expense of knowledge building. While I’m not 100% sold on Hirsh’s strong stance, but clearly, the pendulum needs to return to center.

We can think about this in the same way with mathematics as well as reading. As a child, I learned math the old fashioned way by following algorithms blindly. Somehow, I also built up some math sense. Probably, this occurred after practice, practice, and more practice.

If I can’t find the ¼ cup measure in the drawer, I just fill the 1/3 cup measure ¾ full, not because I multiply ½ by ¾, cross out the 3’s, leaving ¼, but because I know that you would need 4 of the 1/4 cups to make a cup but only 3 of the 1/3 cup measures to make a cup; hence you’d need ¾ of a 1/3-cup measure to make a ¼ cup. Parents sometimes get frustrated with the “new math,” which provides exercises to students to build their math sense, rather than simply teach them the algorithms. I, along with many others (but not everyone) can utilize math sense much quicker than doing the algorithm, even though the steps look longer when written out on paper. The ultimate goal, of course, is for all students to build up math sense, rather than for a fraction of time (no pun intended) to build math sense intuitively. On the other hand, when students learn algorithms, apply them, then move on to higher math, they gain experiences naturally that can build their mathematical sense in less direct ways. We need to ensure that our students have the breadth of math learning as well as experiences that build math sense.

Some believe that in our every-changing world we can access all sorts of information if we just know how to search the Internet, apply comprehension strategies, and utilize number sense. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. If you had to stop every time you encountered an unknown word to Google its meaning, reading would be quite a chore. Yes, I can find the exact dates of World War I on the Internet so not knowing them as I read a novel set during World War I isn’t important, but because I have studied World War I some time in my past, I know that it occurred before the roaring 20’s and can better visualize the context of the novel than if I had no idea at all and, let’s face it, who would interrupt reading a novel to Google World War I dates and facts?

For pleasure, I’m reading The Secret Wife by Gill Paul, which is set during World War I. Unfortunately, it’s been a while since I studied World War I, so certain passages of the book take me a bit more time to read and comprehend. Some knowledge of the geography of early 20th Century Asia, the Bolsheviks, the reign of Nicholas II and the fall of the Russian Empire, and the mystery surrounding the murders of Nicholas II and his family helps to comprehend the fictional text. The novel may be out of reach for those not having any background knowledge. Stumbling though passages without an understanding of the historical context would be quite frustrating. Encountering words like Bolsheviks, socialist, monarchy, and imperial, without knowing enough context to figure them out would put a damper on the captivating story of romance and mystery. I know my high school friend, Stephen, would finish the book in a day. His knowledge of history is astounding and he amasses more and more knowledge each year with the books he reads.

In Leicester, our vision is to write curriculum documents that don’t simply sit on a shelf but instead are used to define the knowledge, understanding and skills to be learned from grade to grade and subject to subject to ensure a strong foundation and equity for all our students. When they leave us as seniors their learning journey will not have ended but the foundation built during grades K and 12 will either help them to set about to acquire more knowledge or stunt their growth as learners. When they pick up a novel for pleasure that happens to be set during World War I, I hope they will fondly remember a lesson in history class and when they read an article in the newspaper about a desalinization plant that produces drinking water, I hope the knowledge they have tucked away from elementary science can help them make meaning from the article. I am interested in how well they do on state tests but I’m more interested in equity and quality of life they experience as adults.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 12:00 PM | 0 comments

Blog: Sunday, February 19, 2017

Leveling the Playing Field

Anyone thinking that all students come to school on a level playing field should consider both the life experiences of the students outside of school as well as the facilities and programs of the school they attend.

I have visited schools throughout the Commonwealth, both schools with construction costs as high as $200 million and schools that can best be described as “dismal.” The most impressive facilities include indoor pools, career resource centers, artificial turf playing fields, and well-equipped weight rooms. Admittedly, such extras are not necessary for a high quality education but, when these same schools are funded 20% or more above net school spending and provide programs including a strong, integrated library; elementary world languages; visual and performing arts; and strong school-to-career connections; the gap between the beautiful, well-equipped schools and others widens considerably.

Even before students reach the schoolhouse door, there are gaps between more affluent students and their less affluent peers. Every life experience - visits to other countries, trips to the art museum and aquarium, books read, music and performing arts experienced - contributes to one’s vocabulary which, in turn, improves one’s reading skills which, in turn, increases one’s school performance.

There are several ways that the federal, state, and local governments work to level the playing field for children. In our own community, we are improving our library facility, which will provide both a beautiful place to enjoy books as well as a place to hear speakers and borrow museum passes. Through the federal education law, ESSA (formerly NCLB), Title I funds trickle down to schools in amounts proportional to their lower income population, to provide additional programming to increase student achievement. On the state level, Chapter 70 funding, although utilizing a flawed formula, provides state aid to schools to enable a minimal level (with the stress on “minimal”).

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) funds school facility projects through a dedicated revenue stream of one penny of the state’s 6.25-percent sales tax. Since the town's share of the total cost of the school is smaller for less affluent towns, this work levels the playing field, to some degree. This past week, Leicester Middle School was invited to the first stage of the MSBA process: the eligibility period.

During the 270-day eligibility period, the town is expected to establish a building committee, complete an enrollment projection, and secure town commitment to funding a feasibility study. Following this initial period, the MSBA board votes to move the project forward to the feasibility study period. If the town does not meet these initial expectations, the SOI (Statement of Interest) must be withdrawn and a new SOI submitted if the town is to be considered for a future project.

The building process is a long road. The feasibility study can take up to 18 months following the eligibility period, and construction may take up to 2 years after securing town voter support for the associated costs. Since Leicester has three failing buildings, we cannot afford to wait to begin our first project.

Over the next two months, members of our facilities capital committee will be holding meetings and visiting town groups to discuss the need for this project and to explain the options being considered. A dedicated page on our website (under facilities tab) will include information as well. While this is not the only step our town and its schools take to level the playing field for our students, it is a very important step and one we hope will gain the support of our entire community.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 8:59 AM | 0 comments

Blog: Monday, January 30, 2017

Respectful Discourse

At a statewide meeting attended by both retired and sitting superintendents, a retired superintendent commented, "I am so glad I retired before the onslaught of social media." There were many heads nodding in agreement; social media has provided both a challenge and a resource.

Social media itself is not an issue. Instead, how some use this resource has become problematic. Discourse, whether it be online or in person, should be respectful. Educators go to great lengths spreading this message to students but they also learn from the adults around them and the examples they are exposed to through their own networks.

The recent decision of the President to detain visitors coming from certain, Muslim populated countries has stirred strong emotions in both supporters and non-supporters alike. In response, some have attended rallies and others have written letters to members of Congress. Postings on Facebook and Twitter on this one topic has dominated our feeds and, while most are respectful and on target to a particular message, others have crossed the line for respectful discourse. I hope you will join me in pledging to keep the discourse respectful --- not just for this topic but for everything that we tweet, retweet, or post.

I provided the following message to principals to use as they see fit for issues that may arise due to the recent political upheaval. The message is repeated here so that all members of our educational community can understand what we do to help our students navigate disruptive times.

Dear Students,

Some of you may be concerned about friends or family that may be affected by the recent executive orders of our President to apply travel restrictions for those from parts of the world that practice the Islamic religion. Others may be confused about the conflicting opinions of their families and friends on this matter. It is important for our school community to be a safe and respectful place for every student, especially during difficult times.

Your teachers and counselors are always there for you to talk through the feelings you may be having on this, or any issue. Although none of us profess to be experts on such matters and we, ourselves, may not be of the same mind about the steps our country is taking, we will do our best to help you to feel safe to express your position on the matter.

Each of us has different perspectives, beliefs, and political affiliations. What makes our country great is that we can live side by side without fear of hostility when our opinions differ. It is human nature to want to help others understand our position and to sway others to share our perspective. Rallies, letters sent to political leaders, writings (blogs), Tweets, and other means help us to do just that. What I hope you will remember, though, is that when we feel frustration by friends and family who do not come around to our views, we must take care not to move to anger, even when we see adults that we respect do just that.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 11:13 AM | 0 comments


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