Elections will be held at the May general meeting (May 15) for the executive board positions with PAC: president, VP, treasurer, and secretary. If you are interested in taking on a leadership role next year and in partnering with the QMS administrators and teachers to make our middle school a better place, not only for your child but for all the children who attend QMS, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you miss the Parent Forums with Superintendent Brenda Hodges and the building principals in January and February? The PAC and MESA boards have compiled a summary from these two sessions. Please take the time to read through these notes and become more informed about what is happening in our schools and with your child’s education.
Q: The proposed budget requests positions and lists them as needed under new mandates. Is the government mandating all those positions?
A: Staffing is a big part of needs/budget this year. The state is not mandating specific positions; however the district must meet the goals of the mandates. In order to do so, we will need to provide more support and services, which will require staff positions to be restored from prior years and for certain initiatives to be supported through the budget.
Q: What do these new mandates involve?
A: The mandates cover many different and broad areas, including school accountability, teacher evaluation, student assessment and standardized tests, attendance, and school safety and security.
Q: Is funding coming in from the state to help with mandates?
A: Some funding is starting to come to the district, but most of these mandates are unfunded and left to the local community to fund. In terms of local funds, Mansfield has a high per capita level of spending on education (per person in town), but a low per pupil level of spending. We have a higher percentage of school-age children to support than other communities with similar populations, and the demographics of our school population are changing. The demands on the system have increased in terms of services needed by students; at the same time, the bar has been raised by the state in terms of school accountability, putting further pressure on the budget.
Q: Every year it feels like the budget process is just a few weeks of panic and already too late for changes.
A: This year people are working together, and the new members on the Finance Committee have invested time in learning about our community’s needs overall, the short-term goals of our School Improvement Plans (MHS, QMS, J-J and Robinson) and the long-term goals of the 5-Year Joint Strategic Plan. This hopefully will result in a better overall budget process for the community. The town leadership is looking at finding ways to increase revenue through economic development, and downtown and industrial park zoning needs to be addressed to help this effort. Parents and community members need to attend Town Meeting (May 7) to address these issues.
Q: The school needs are well presented in the recommended budget. What can parents do now to ensure these requests are considered? It seems like every year the cuts are made, and town residents are not really part of the process.
A: Attend Board of Selectmen meetings, School Committee meetings, and Finance Committee meetings. There is just one budget for the community. Parents should keep in mind that pressure is increasing on the municipal side also in terms of need for services and meeting the requirements of mandates. Write/email to committee members now and let them know your concerns about the overall budget for the community, in terms of both school and municipal needs. Attend the upcoming Parent Q&A with Fin Com (Wednesday, March 13, 7:30 at QMS) and the public budget forum this spring (date TBA) to ask questions about the budget priorities and the budget process. Asking about budget issues at Town Meeting is too late – by then the budget cannot be changed without serious disruption and negative publicity.
Q: What is most needed to make our schools better?
A: Highest priority needs are for support and for the classroom. Each school principal has prioritized budget requests in order to meet the mandated requirements and to support the goals of their respective School Improvement Plans (put together by teachers, administrators, and parent and community representatives on each School Council). Budget constraints make it hard for principals to focus on anything more beyond the core academic areas, and with the new mandates hitting, it is difficult for the principals to make improvements to our schools with level-services funding. We do not have the staff we need to run the schools as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Q: What types of positions are needed to improve our schools?
A: The positions listed in the School Improvement Plans and thus in the budget request include special education teachers, adjustment and guidance counselors (adjustment counselors are licensed social workers who assist students struggling with emotional, social and behavioral issues), reading and math intervention teachers to help students who are not performing at grade level, and funding for academic support services during the school day and for before- and after-school and summer tutors. We have also requested additional staff to reduce class sizes at J-J and to increase the elective course offerings at the high school to better accommodate student needs.
Q: Why are these support positions needed?
A: Students’ social and emotional well-being is tied to their academic success and their ability to learn. We are seeing an increase in the number of children who are struggling with academic, social, emotional and behavioral concerns, which impact learning and the classroom environment for all students. The sooner we can provide intervention and support services for the students who need them, the better for all of our students and the more cost-effective for the community.
Q: Many of the budget requests are covering basic needs and requirements of the mandates, particularly for students who are struggling. What about students who aren’t struggling? What would you like to see in the district beyond that?
A: Through the budget cuts over the past several years, we have worked to protect the core academic program, but have had to whittle away each year at areas outside of the core. We’d like to maintain and expand our AP and honors offerings at the high school, and would like to see more foreign language, perhaps another language added at the high school and to restore foreign language to all grades at QMS. We would like to offer more elective courses at the high school to better meet the needs of that middle group of students (not the top students and not the special needs students). We have been able to add a new reading curriculum (Reading Street) and math curriculum in the elementary schools and are seeing the results of those programs; science is another area we would like to focus on more in the elementary schools. Technology, or more specifically, further integrating technology into the curriculum, district-wide, would be another focus; however we are limited in terms of staffing and infrastructure (wireless).
Q: What steps have been taken regarding school security?
A: We continue to review and improve security and safety issues at each school. The district administration and principals met with the Mansfield Police Department to review emergency procedures. Compared to many local communities, our police department is very well trained and equipped to handle incidents in the schools. The police hold a training drill each year at the high school, when school is not in session. The school principals are reviewing security measures in each school and meeting with staff to review procedures. All the schools will be holding lock-down drills this year. We will have some type of forum later this year where parent input could be given about security concerns.
Q: Should recess be withheld as punishment? The American Academy of Pediatrics report issued in December 2012 says kids need recess each day.
A: Our priority is to ensure teaching of academics and student achievement, but of course we recognize the importance of recess and the needs of students. Parents with individual questions/concerns are welcome to make an appointment to speak with the administrators at their school.
Q: Many parents want to volunteer. How can we give more time?
A: We appreciate all offers of help, however given the amount of staff the administrators are already supervising, it can be hard for administrators to coordinate many volunteers performing larger roles. Time is needed to organize those volunteer efforts, and we need to balance that against other priorities and time requirements. There are also significant issues with accountability, training, liability, and student privacy and confidentiality when using volunteers in the schools.
Q: Other communities have programs where parents come in and read to at-risk children. Can we help in ways like that?
A: We can look at ways to utilize volunteers for this and to see where a program like that would be beneficial.
Q: No grant writer? Or HR? Can volunteers help?
A: The Joint 5-Year Plan prioritized sharing resources. There is no HR person right now for either the town or the schools; the town manager and superintendent, along with the principals, handle HR matters for the town and schools, respectively. Key positions mentioned in the strategic plan include a shared HR position and a grant writer, which also is needed for both the town and the schools. Currently, we do have a teacher who helps with Title 1 grants, and the superintendent writes grants also. In the past, we have had volunteers who said they would write grants, but who did not follow through once they saw the amount of work involved.
Q: What are the new school accountability mandates?
A- Massachusetts set some of the highest standards in the nation with MCAS. But as a result, schools in Massachusetts were not making adequate yearly progress (AYP) on the federal “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) school accountability requirements, and the state requested a NCLB waiver. The “old” accountability system based on AYP has been replaced with a new system for calculating accountability and rating schools, called Progress and Performance Index (PPI), which combines state and federal accountability requirements. PPI focuses on high achievement for all students and on reducing achievement gaps, which means our district must be adequately staffed and resourced to provide the necessary support and services to increase the achievement level for students who are struggling, and at the same time, to increase achievement levels of students who already are at Proficient and Advanced levels on MCAS.
Q: How are schools rated under PPI?
A: Schools and districts are rated by the state on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the highest performing schools and 5 the lowest. School levels are based on MCAS data reported in two categories: one for “all students” and one for several “high-needs” student subgroups (low income, special needs, racial/ethnic, English-language learners). A district’s rating is tied to the lowest-performing school, and each school rating is tied to the lowest-performing subgroup of students in that school.
Q: What are our school ratings under PPI?
A: Mansfield Public Schools is rated Level 2; QMS, J-J and MHS individually are rated Level 2. 80% of the schools in the state are Level 1 and 2. Dropping into levels 3 – 5 (the lowest performing 20% of schools in the state) could lead to intervention by the state in our schools – the state could come in and tell us what to do and how to do it, and the community would have to pay for it. Being rated as one of the lowest performing districts in the state most likely would impact the community negatively in terms of property values. Level 3 – 5 districts in the surrounding area include Brockton (3), Fall River (4), Freetown-Lakeville (3), New Bedford (4), and Taunton (3).
Q: Why do the subgroups matter so much?
A: We have big schools in Mansfield, and we have a lot of subgroups. Because of the sizes/enrollments of our schools, Mansfield reaches the minimum number of students to constitute a subgroup more quickly than do schools with fewer students in one building. The lowest performing subgroup of students in any of our schools will determine the district rating. No matter how well our students and schools perform overall, these high need subgroups must reach the achievement targets set by the state in order for our schools and district to be rated as performing well. Due to the complexity of the formulas used by the state, this past year’s rating was initially negatively impacted by the performance of just one student, in one subgroup, which placed Mansfield at a Level 3 rating; the superintendent successfully appealed that rating.
Q: How is our student population changing?
A: Student enrollment is decreasing in the lower elementary grades (K-2), but the enrollment “bubble” remains in the system from grades 4-12. New students continue to move in after the start of the school year. The demographics in the student population are shifting. The percentage of low-income students in Mansfield has nearly doubled in the past 6 years, with 12.3% of the 2012-13 student population now falling into this category. The percentage of English-language learners is also increasing. Students in these subgroups tend to need more support and services from the schools, putting additional pressure on the school budget.
Q: What about class sizes, particularly in the elementary schools?
A: Class sizes were identified as an area of concern by residents when developing the Joint 5-year Strategic Plan last year. The initial FY14 budget proposal includes requests for additional teachers at J-J. The fifth grade, with 2 additional teachers, would bring class sizes down from 26-28 to 23-24, in line with class size projections for the 3rd and 4th grades. The number of class sections in Robinson has decreased over the past two years in response to the lowering enrollment (in FY12, KG had 14 sections, Grade 1 had 13 and Grade 2 14; in FY14, KG and Grade 1 will have 12 sections, and Grade 2 will have 13). Robinson class sizes are averaging about 22 students. QMS will maintain 4 academic teams per grade level. Average class sizes in the middle school and high school will vary because they are dependent on scheduling.
Q: How are teachers evaluated?
A: The district will implement a new teacher evaluation system next year, in response to new regulations from the state. This new evaluation process will require significant classroom observation and individual professional development goals and will use standardized test scores and other assessments to rate teacher performance. The changes will lead to an improved teacher evaluation system but also will require additional training and professional development for the administration and teachers in order to implement it, and more frequent classroom observations and evaluating of those results by principals and other administrators, further taxing the schedules of administrators and teachers.
Q: Can a “bad” teacher be dismissed?
A: Teaching is in part subjective; we will hear from parents that a teacher was the worst teacher their child had, and from other parents that the same teacher was the best teacher their child had. That being said, in addition to the changes to teacher evaluation methods, the new state standards expedite the process by which a district can dismiss an underperforming teacher. This process does not necessarily result in immediate dismissal. A teacher who receives a poor evaluation is placed on an improvement plan, observed more frequently and given additional support. If the teacher then fails to meet the standards outlined in the improvement plan, he or she can be dismissed.
Q: What is the state of technology in our schools?
A: Technology was identified as a priority for the schools in the Joint 5-year Strategic Plan developed by the community last year. Overall, the district is well equipped with basic technology (SMART boards, document cameras, computer pods), but current infrastructure and staffing levels do not allow for newer technology. There are currently three technology staff positions to serve the needs of the entire district, resulting in lengthy delays for installing, repairing and trouble-shooting. Estimated costs to install wireless access are $50,000-$60,000/building. The PARCC assessments, which will replace MCAS in 2014/15, will require computerized (online) testing and an investment in infrastructure; increased bandwidth to prepare for PARCC is part of the FY14 budget request.
Q: What about teachers who don’t utilize technology in their classrooms?
A: While there may be teachers who are not as quick to embrace technology, this does not mean that they are not effective teachers. However, many of our teachers have realized that it is to their benefit to learn how to utilize technology for teaching and for classroom management (grades, recordkeeping, etc.) The district needs to provide more professional development and training opportunities in order for teachers to learn how to use the technology and how to integrate it into their lesson plans and the curriculum.