February 2016 Newsletter

“Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth… I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”

-Franklin Roosevelt

Recently, I was reading a study on children living in poverty when a gentleman sitting next to politely look at me and said, “That’s and uplifting topic.” I acknowledge the weight of the subject matter, and he asked me what I did for living. We spent the next few minutes talking about poverty and its impacts on kids and families. In my opinion poverty has always been the ghost that haunts student achievement.  Poverty is often masked by behavior issues, excessive absences, and apathy. After reading the book; Teaching through Poverty in Mind, I decided to better understand what the poverty landscape looks like in this country and the effects on public schools.

I begin my education with the United States Census Bureau. Here are some of the facts I found, 46.7 million Americans are living in poverty, there has been a 2.3% increase in the national poverty level since 2007, and two groups have seen an increase in their poverty rates those with a bachelor’s degree and married couples. As I read articles and stories on poverty they helped to better understand poverty in America. I found a report completed by The Condition of Education in 2015. The reports states that in 2013 approximately 10.9 million school age students between 5-17 years old were in families living in poverty; poverty rates ranged from 9% in New Hampshire to 33% in Mississippi; 39% of African American students lived in poverty; 45% of children living in mother only households were in poverty, and single father households account for 29% children living in poverty. USA Today released an article on the number of poor children rising and the impact on learning. In the article they site other studies which state the following; nearly half of all U.S. public school students live in poverty, poverty-not race, ethnicity or where you attend school is the best predictor of college attendance and completion. Educational Leadership in March of 2013 had a section dedicated to help support teachers who are in classrooms with students of poverty. The article is located on my webpage.

Sasha Abramsky in her book; The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, address the impacts of the recent recession, the economic free fall brought on by the collapse of the housing market, and the finical meltdown that followed. In her book she capture the stories of people who once were in solid financial shape, they owned houses, had decent employment, and were on the ‘lower rungs’ of the middle class ladder. As I read their stories it became apparent how fragile their financial situations were.  A few months out of work due to their company downsizing, variable rate mortgage increases, and little money saved many of these people found themselves homeless. Those who were upwardly mobile found themselves in downward spiral brought on by the fiscal collapse.

The book speaks to diminishing foodbank supplies due to a greater need, neighborhoods with boarded up building because the inhabitants just abandoned homes they could no longer afford to live in. Abramsky examined New Orleans post Katrina and points out how many of the poor left behind in neighborhoods were unable to escape due to lack a of transportation, and how many of those neighborhoods were over looked when the plan to revitalize went into action. I felt the author did a good job describing the growing job market in a way that makes you understand how low wage jobs with limited benefits have created a class of  ‘working poor’ who make just enough in wages not earn government benefits, but not enough to survive on. The ability for people to access government benefits has been made more difficult to navigate which often scares people away from applying, and physical and mental health issues of the poor are going un-serviced.

As I read this book I begin to realize that the American poor have lost a voice in our country, the working middle class is struggling, and more young children today are living with the stressors of poverty in their young lives.

It was President Franklin Roosevelt who led this country after a devastating depression. He stood in front of a nation and noted that a third of the nation was ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished. Today we are facing poverty rates much like those of the great depression, who will be the voice to address the facts? Can our current political structure produce a leader who will step forward, like President Roosevelt did, and develop the blue print for a ‘New Deal II.”

At the end of most evening I glances at the news feeds on Yahoo News as way to catch-up on the day’s events. To my surprise I read that Warren Buffet believes the economy is doing just fine. He feels the upper middle class is living today much better today in his neighborhood than John D Rockerfeller Jr did even with his wealth and power. According to Buffet, our upper middle class can purchase and take for granted such things like transportation, entertainment, communication, and medical services all of which Rockerfeller Jr. couldn’t. He spoke of a population growth of .08% per year, and 2% GDP growth which equates to 1.2% per capita growth and while that doesn’t sound impressive, he went on to say, in a single generation of 25 years that will lead to a real 34.4% GDP growth per capita. To be honest I’m not sure how all the numbers add up, but I don’t claim to be an economist.

I am an urban school superintendent, I see with my own eyes the rate of homelessness expanding in our city. I see and hear more about students and their families struggling to make ends meet. I see the expansion of food pantries opening in church halls and other meeting locations to help offset hunger. I am aware of our younger staff working several jobs to help support themselves. I am aware of more young adults in their twenties living at home with parents in part due to the high cost of rental properties, and student loans. I am aware that hard work over many years has provided me with solid employment, but also recognize how fragile the balance is. I’m not an economist, but from what see, what I read, and what I believe for many living in this country poverty is an everyday way of life.

If I could ask Mr. Buffet one question it would, “In the population increase of .08%, how many are born into poverty vs. upper middle class?”

Thank you for choosing Malden to work in.


December Newsletter 2015

Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. Christopher Robin to Pooh (by A. A. Milne)

Hard to believe I am sending out a December Newsletter – it seems like we were singing on opening day with Lorretta Lacroche a few short weeks ago. After all these years in education I am still amazed how fast the year move by. As 2015 comes to end, I would like to thank our out-going School Committee members: Maria Doucette, Kevin Cassucci, Peter Ciciolini, and Adam Weldai for their years of support and advocacy for the Malden Public Schools. These members have been important people in my development as superintendent. With their departure we have the opportunity to welcome four new members to the School Committee, so please join me in welcoming Emmanuel Marsh, Tara Murphy Beardsley, Catherine Bordonaro, and Mike Drummey to the committee. I have had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with these new members, and I looking forward to working with them in the future.

As we depart from 2015 we also find ourselves leaving No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as a framework for our educational policy. Moving forward we will look to the reauthorizing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) to guide educational policy in the future. Other educational changes include the PARCC exam, which will be with us one more year as we prepare for the new, more rigorous, next generation of MCAS. We have witnessed a more relaxed Department of Education focus with regards to linking evaluation to certification, a new stance on allowing DDM flexibility, and the extension of the ‘hold harmless’ status for two more years. In my opinion, it seems the focus on mandates and compliance issues is beginning to shift. 2016 will be an interesting year for education as both federal and state influences seem to be loosening their hold on educational policy.

While many federal and state educational factors seem to be trending on a positive track for educators, there are other factors that will impact our schools and classrooms in a different way. Poverty continues to grow in our country at a steady rate. Each year we are seeing higher trends in families needing more economic support as they struggle to just to meet their basic needs. Cities like Malden feel the impact of tough economic times first hand, and many of our families are working hard to make ends meet at the end of the month. With these tough economic times also comes a higher rate of homelessness for our families. There has been an increase in our students and families finding themselves moving into shelter sites, hotel rooms, and ‘doubling up’ with friends and family due to a loss of housing. Before the holiday break Central Office witnessed an increase in the number of homeless families entering our district. Many of these families are in need of supports that reach well beyond the academics we provide. 2015 brought to the forefront a state struggling with an opiate addiction which has reached an epidemic level. With the rise in addiction numbers also comes an acknowledgement of the damage it is doing to individuals and families, not only in the state, but also in our individual communities. Addiction knows no boundaries, it touches all aspects of society, and no one subgroup has sole rights on addiction. Drug addiction transcends economic status, race, educational level, and zip-codes. While addictions come in many forms, there is one constant factor of all addictions – they take a toll on the individual and all those they touch.

As we move into 2016 as educators we find ourselves in the middle of social issues, which we have no control over, but must deal with on a daily basis. On a daily basis we are dealing with the real issues plaguing families and children which many of our politicians gloss over. We see the impacts of poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, and economic instability every day. We see families in crisis, an increase in social emotional issues in younger children, and the impacts of tight fiscal budgets making our jobs more difficult each year. As we move forward in 2016, public education must be a priority to city, state, and federal leaders. We can’t do this alone.

Public education has been the great equalizer in our society from its onset. Historically, in these public schools, administrators and teachers have played the role of ‘significant others’ for many students, and provided support for multiple families. As educators, we walk a fine line between supporting students and not enabling them. We must guide students to the right choices, but resist the urge to lead them there. We should have empathy for their situations, but not allow sympathy to lower our expectations for our students. We need to meet our students where they are as they enter our classrooms, and recognize that the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ approach may not work for all them. When you think about what is being asked of us it’s daunting. To summarize, our job is not an easy one, but it is an important one. We teach the mind, develop the heart, and mentor the soul. We are consistency in chaos, we are support when none is nearby, we are encouragement when life is overwhelming, and this is what makes us educators. Long after the content we teach our students is gone, they will remember the acts of kindness, the words of encouragement, and the relationships we developed with them. We influence and shape lives, and there is no greater or important job.

I wish you all a Happy and Healthy New Year.

October Newsletter 2015

“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” ― L.R. Knost

I sat down several times to begin to write the October newsletter, but I kept finding myself distracted by the normal interruptions of being a superintendent. In all honesty, October was frustrating month for me in general. I found myself getting ‘bogged’ down in the distractions I spoke about at the start of the year. These distractions began to invade my thought process: the frustration of attempting to create ‘technical’ fixes for things I thought were fixed, the constant bombardment of minute to minute issues about the smallest of things, and a sense of communication breakdown between myself and the district which I haven’t felt for some time. I questioned the belief system at the core of district; I questioned our commitment to the overall mission; and I questioned myself as the leader. As a district we seemed a little ‘off’ our game. As I said, October was frustrating and confusing month.

On Sunday Nov 8th I opened the Sunday Globe and began to read an article written by Sarah Schweitzer called The Life and Times of Strider Wolf. The story was troubling to read as it was about a young boy, and it depicted a life of poverty, abuse, homelessness, and abandonment. Strider’s story was tough to read over breakfast, but his story finally provided me with the focus I need to move beyond the distractions I was struggling with. This young boy was almost beaten to death at the tender age of 11 months by his mother’s boyfriend. After a night locked outside in a shed in the woods of Maine, his mother brought him to a Portland emergency room, and doctors would later testify that the boy sustained injuries they have witnessed in high-speed auto accidents. The abuse case made news beyond Maine.

Strider recovered from the physical wounds, but the reality is he may never recover from the emotional wounds inflicted over his young life. Strider ended up in the care of his grandparents who were also challenged by the constraints of poverty and many social/emotional/physical issues of their own. In the years that followed, Strider and his brother Gallagher were constantly on the move. Strider, Gallagher and his grandparents lived in camp grounds, trailer parks, and at times their twenty-four foot trailer came to rest in local parking lots. The author did good job demonstrating how difficult it was for the grandparents to manage the maze of social services agencies and their inability to provide financially for the basic necessities of a stable life. The author painted the pair as tired, limited, frustrated adults attempting to do the right thing by two boys they never asked to raise. After 30 years in urban education, the story and the characters in it began to take on the faces of families and students from my past.

The article addressed how research is beginning to support the idea that trauma could alter the body’s chemistry of developing brains. The research seems to point to a disruption in the development of the brain’s ability to deal with stress resulting in a heightened state of high alert. This chemical change could impact a child’s adult life also, creating anxiety issues, depression, heart attacks, and strokes. Researchers are now questioning if these traits can be passed down genetically. The remedy for such trauma in a young brain, according to the article, is consistency, security, and a persistence of love. All of which was difficult for Strider to possess. There was one thing constant in Strider’s life: school. Strider enjoyed school, he liked learning, and he interacted with his teachers in a positive manner. It didn’t surprise me that Strider like school. There was consistency in school, he knew the routines, his social/emotional and physical needs were being met, and school held the most stable adults in Strider’s life, his teachers.

As I read the article my thoughts kept going back to my hopes that with all his residential moves, he didn’t have to change schools. School was Strider’s safe zone, but at times he did struggle when his past would invade his thoughts. Something like not having a $1.00, because his grandparents couldn’t afford it, for simple school event would cause him great distress, and he would retreat to his own thoughts, cutting himself off from others. As I read on, the distractions that controlled my thoughts for several weeks seemed to be insignificant. One by one they seemed superficial, non-important when related to my true mission as a district leader, and by the end of the article I felt a little embarrassed. The reality is, my life when compared to this little boy’s is a “cake walk.” I grew-up in a stable home, my address never changed, my parents did the best they could with what they had, I was never cold, never hungry, and had significant adults who loved and cared for me. We weren’t rich growing up in East Boston, but compared to Strider’s life, I was living large. By the end of the article I realized how quickly we become distracted, to lose sight of what is important, how easy it is to allow our own egos, insecurities, and fears to drive us from the real work that must be done. Strider’s story cleared my head, it brought me back to the realities of my job as superintendent, and it allowed me to complete this newsletter.

Also, in this Sunday’s Globe was an article on veterans and the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome disorder. I thought about the struggle these adults face returning from war, and I thought of Strider. His entire life has been a ‘war zone,’ and based on his article, I don’t see any ‘Rest-n-Relaxation’ on the horizon for Strider. There is no ‘post’ trauma for Strider because he is still living with the trauma of poverty, and the impact it has on the social/emotional and physical well-being of all those it touches. To date we have ambulanced over 20 students out of our school buildings for social/emotional issues. It is an alarming trend. I believe the simplest way to confront this epidemic is through human kindness and understanding. Empathy and support are the strongest weapons we can use, and they are also the most cost effective. It costs us nothing to be kind and supportive of our students, families and each other, yet there are moments we struggle to provide these simple things.

I will do my best to keep the focus on what is important and hope that you will, too.

September Newsletter 2015

“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” – Lloyd Shearer

As we exit September and move into October, I am proud to say that we opened well. September was a month of new experiences for many in our schools. New teachers met their colleagues and students for the first time, students transitioned to new grades, new buildings, and new teachers, and new families moved to the city of Malden. In the midst of all this ‘newness,’ our schools created a calm sense of consistency for all those who entered them. For that, I thank you all!

When you are a superintendent, things become somewhat predictable at the start of a school. You anticipate calls from parents who are not happy with the placement of a child and transportation issues. You prepare yourself for the last minute hiring that happens, vacancies that still need to be filled, and the general chaos of opening a school district. It becomes routine to you and you plan accordingly. This year was a little different because before the month ended I was confronted with a situation that was ‘new’ to me.

On September 28th I entered my office at 6:45 a.m. to find water pouring out of the ceiling. Shortly after, I received a call that the special education offices on the second floor were flooded out. By 6:55 a.m. I knew we were in trouble at City Hall as water was flowing, ceiling tiles were falling, and light units were filling with water. Great way to start a work week. A brief summary of the events of that morning starts with a valve attached to a boiler being worked on located on the roof opened over the weekend, flooding the building on one side. As work crews entered the building they closed one valve only to find another valve let go somewhere else in the building. Long story short, special education and central offices were a total loss. We had to move. I was “office-less.”

Why do I share this story? Well, I never thought I would be office-less, but I found myself and many others without a place to go. Needing a central office to work from so that we could continue to serve the children and parents of Malden, I needed to make quick decisions that resulted in a domino effect where numerous staff members were displaced on very short notice. I watched adults struggle with having to make quick decisions, I saw the confusion in people as they lost the comfort of familiar surroundings and had to pack only the most essential items… I witnessed the resistance to accepting their current situation, and a reluctance to accept that things needed to change. In the middle of figuring out how to move three major school offices in less than 72 hours, Kelly and I questioned how do families who find themselves homeless deal with that reality? Here we had adults who had home stability, yet found it incredibly difficult to accept unpleasant but necessary change. So what happens to our district’s children when they have their lives turned upside down by homelessness?

At this time we have 116 homeless Malden children in our classrooms which is an increase from 72 last year. The families of these children are homeless for many reasons: financial reasons, a lack of affordable housing, and eviction notices, just to highlight a few. These children may have once had a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a back yard, but much like a flood at city hall, it all changed for them in a blink of an eye. I can only imagine the range of emotions a child must feel being homeless – the anxiety, the fear, and reality of being displaced. They must struggle having to grab what they can, take only what they need, and leave many things behind. I saw these same emotions in many of the people I worked with as we were dealing with this flood situation.

I found myself trying to calm the anxiety of professionals who may not be able to have everything they need at their fingertips. Early on in the process my focus turned from the technical issues of moving to helping people to understand the urgency of situation and the need to ‘act fast’ and ‘make do’ for now while we build a plan the future. I did my best to be strategic, understanding, and emotionally detached, but to be honest, there were moments in which I lost my ability to be calm and said, “Just do it.” To anyone I may have offended, I apologize. I can only imagine the frustrations a homeless parent must be dealing with as they wake up every day to the insecurity of situation, not knowing if support will be there, and the constant questioning from a child, “When are we going home?” The week of September 29th was a true test for me, and in all honesty, I struggled. It wore me down, it frustrated me, it angered me, but it allowed me to appreciate on a small level what homeless parents must feel.

Well, we survived the flood and moved three offices in 72 hours. We opened special education and business offices at the high school (which is why you never skipped a beat on your paychecks for the week) and central office is now on the second floor at City Hall where the business office used to be. It was an amazing feat which required the coordinated effort of many. I am fortunate to have a strong support staff around me. People I could depend on in a crisis situation. Without them this would have never happened. This experience has left me with many questions as I reflect on it. How many of our homeless families have the support systems to carry them through their crisis? How many homeless children have the social/emotional support they need while being homeless? Who is meeting the social/emotional and physical well-being of those families? I hope on some level we are!!

Did I ever expect to be ‘office-less’ as a superintendent? No, but like the quote states, “Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” Add office-less to the list. I appreciate the efforts of all involved in this move. It wasn’t easy, and it’s not perfect, but at least it’s just our offices.