School Committee Candidates Answer Some Questions for Acton Forum: Part 1, John Petersen


On behalf of Acton Forum, I asked each candidate for the upcoming election for School Committee three questions based on current topics that concern many voters.

1. Explain your approach and plan to addressing the #1 topic referenced in Superintendent's Report of Entry Findings: tension between parents specific to the balance between wellness and achievement.

People are different. Students’ interests, abilities and resilience vary widely with age and across our student population. The weakness in the community discussion of this issue is the search for a unitary solution – one homework policy that will produce a good result for all students. Anyone who watched 450 students walk across the stage at graduation last June and, knew the students and their families, saw 450 very different individuals. For the students and families who looked back happily on their years at AB and looked forward to whatever was coming next, the community should take satisfaction in having provided what was needed. For the students and families who were relieved to be done with AB and unsure where to go next, the community should feel sadness that we did not meet their needs.

The balance between wellness and achievement is not found in the average, it is found in each of our over 5000 individual students. Students who are not well cannot learn well. For those students we need to provide nurturing which will develop a sense of wellness. For those students who are well but unmotivated, we need to increase motivation to strive for excellence but in a way that is respectful of student’s priorities and ability. For students who are not challenged, we need to find more difficult material.

The work for the Superintendent and our school staff is to develop programs and budgets that will allow our schools to provide enough wellness resources, enough academic resources and enough extracurricular resources, to provide the mix that leads to student success. Equity can only be found in the outcome –student success aligned with their interests and ability. Equity will never be found in the inputs – individual students need different things to be successful. The role of the School Committee is to review the programs and budgets of the Supt and staff and make sure that they provide a balanced set of resources that can meet the aggregated student needs.

Student’s sense of self starts with families. I hope that the message that each student receives at home is that we would like you to learn to be your best self. As a community we want to be able to watch every student at graduation and, for those that are living as their best selves be happy whatever their priorities – athletics, academics, extracurricular activities – have been. This desire to celebrate each student for who they have chosen to be is hard. Adult members of our community need to learn to celebrate the different lives students will live. Only then will the students, themselves, be comfortable with the diversity they represent.

2. Do you believe all renovation alternatives have been adequately assessed by School Building Project Committee and explain if you think new construction or renovation will be the best value for the citizens of Acton and Boxborough?

I think that the MA School Building Authority process forces school districts to thoughtfully examine alternatives: renovate or replace, pick an appropriate site, design an appropriate building. I do think the process to date has been good. The challenge for the School Building Project Committee is to show the community (including community members with widely different levels of engagement and community members without children in the schools) that alternatives have been examined and that the process has been a good one. The Building Committee should continue to make various detailed documents available on the AB web site. The Building Committee should provide public forums and overview documents to help increase citizen understanding of the project. The role of the School Committee is to demonstrate that the proposal that ultimately is presented to Town Meeting is good – it meets our educational needs and respects our financial resources. The School Committee should work hard over the next six months to provide the framework for a robust Town Meeting discussion of funding the new building in the fall.

3. Please explain your opinion (disagreement or justification) on how state or federal programs, guidelines and mandates affect local school committee decisions specific to a). traditional approaches to education with less technology and b). how much flexibility should principals have on a school's methods or pedagogy. Please provide examples.

I deplore teach to the test, the guideline, the mandate regardless of whether this is the result of a state or federal regulation. Particularly for those attributes that are measurable, the result is an excessive focus on the things that are measured and some neglect for those things that have not (or cannot) be measured. Empathy, ethics, respect are difficult to measure but if they are not taught in our community, our children will be groundless in the future. On the other hand, I am not a supporter of anarchy. So I would encourage the superintendent to instruct staff to acknowledge that we need to spend some time to be compliant but we will remain focused on a “good” education that finds a balance between what is measured and what is not.

As someone who grew up with a slide rule I appreciate both a “hands-on” approach to learning and the utility of my laptop. I’m glad that I have hammers and wrenches as well as a keyboard. A good education should provide opportunities to build things in the real world as well as the cyber world. The school system should have the flexibility to provide some of both types of experiences.

I have always supported elementary school choice in Acton and support it today in the AB elementary system. I am glad that there are schools with looping, and that we have schools centered on project-based learning as well as schools with a more traditional approach. Choice allows each elementary school to pursue educational models that they feel represent the best they can offer. Over time it allows the AB system to identify, test and disseminate best practices. Choice allows each family to choose a school community that they feel will best support their children. Family choices will reflect many factors – school philosophy, proximity to school, and representation of friends and neighbors. In the end, both the educational leadership in the school and the families make a free choice and that commitment to an educational program and to a school community results in better outcomes. (Rather than me providing one leading reference, please search on “freedom of choice and impact on work performance” and peruse the results). The school district and SC must monitor the performance of students entering Jr HS to make sure that the schools are providing comparable (not identical) preparation for secondary education. In my review of the available information, I have found no evidence (signal greater than noise) that the elementary school programs are not providing comparable preparation.

At the secondary level, teachers should have flexibility to try different approaches to subject matter. Peers, departments and administrators should periodically evaluate these approaches to make sure that good practices are shared and weak practices are eliminated.

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