By DAN TOMASELLO
LYNNFIELD — Balancing Summer Street School’s reputation of being a high performing elementary school and the stress associated with it is a juggling act, Principal Jen DiBiase told the School Committee April 14.
DiBiase appeared before the school board to discuss the results from her entry plan. She decided to develop a plan to make a smooth transition from teacher to principal. She began the process last year while Superintendent of Schools Jane Tremblay was still Summer Street’s principal.
Part of that process had DiBiase meeting with different constituency groups including students, parents, faculty, staff, School Committee members and the administrative leadership team to learn about Summer Street’s “successes and challenges.” She also reviewed different documents as part of the entry plan.
After DiBiase met with different interest groups, she compiled the data she collected into five categories: Culture, successes, challenges, motivation and expectations of the principal.
“Going through this process has helped me tremendously, both personally and professionally,” said DiBiase. “I now have a very clear understanding of what is valued, some of the challenges we face as a school and what is expected of me as the leader of Summer Street School.”
DiBiase said the majority of the people she interviewed believe Summer Street has a “nurturing, professional and well respected” school culture.
According to the report, DiBiase said respondents reported, “The best interest of the students are always at the forefront” when decisions are made. She also said teachers believe it’s their responsibility for maintaining Summer Street’s reputation of being a high performing elementary school.
While DiBiase said Summer Street is committed to being a high performing elementary school, she said the elementary school’s reputation has caused stress among faculty members. She said a “major stressor” for the elementary school is “the pressure to be able to maintain and improve upon the high level of excellence for all students.” She said in the report “there is a great deal of pressure to be the best all the time and if not, there is a chance for failure.”
School Committee Vice Chairman Tim Doyle asked DiBiase if the faculty and staff, “feels there is too much pressure to consistently perform at a high level.” He also inquired if Summer Street’s high expectations have to be relaxed because they are unrealistic.
DiBiase said it’s impossible for her to “sugarcoat” the stress the faculty feels because it was a “common theme” in the report.
“If I said anything different, I would be lying,” said DiBiase. “When you are number one in the state in English language arts, people say you can only go down. That becomes a stressor.”
DiBiase noted a lot of faculty members are “hard on themselves” because there is a great deal of pressure for Summer Street to be “number one.”
“It’s all about the kids, it’s not about the staff looking good,” said DiBiase. “They want to make sure the kids are successful.”
DiBiase said she doesn’t believe Summer Street needs to lower its high expectations but she said it’s important to balance the high expectations and the stress faculty members are feeling.
“It’s something I am well aware of and it’s something we are going to work on,” said DiBiase. “When you work with kids, you want to raise that bar because you know they can reach it.”
Tremblay said she dealt with the same issue when she served as Summer Street’s principal. Since she became superintendent, Tremblay realized the issue is “not just unique to Summer Street.”
“It’s a fine juggling act because you never want to lower expectations but you have to tell people to breathe,” said Tremblay. “We attract people who are dedicated, who are determined, who have grit and who care desperately about the kids who they are privileged to serve. And with that also comes pressure. The people who don’t have that don’t stay here because they can’t keep up with the other professionals who have that (quality).”
Tremblay continued, “We are a high performing district and the faculty and the administrators know the people in this town take education very seriously. Nobody wants to let anybody down, especially the kids.”
Doyle said he believes, “Pressure is not always necessarily bad.” He said it’s important for DiBiase to manage the town’s high expectations and the stress educators are feeling.
“I know it’s a juggling act but I think the town expects it and I know this board expects it,” said Doyle. “The expectations are still going to come from us and still come from the town.”
DiBiase agreed with Doyle that pressure can be a good thing. She noted school officials have consistently told faculty members the programs Summer Street has put in place will help students succeed.
School Committee member Dorothy Presser agreed with Doyle but she said the revelations were informative. She also felt the report featured “a strong teacher voice” and “not necessarily a balance between teacher and parent voices.”
School Committee Chairwoman Susie Cleary said she “felt the same way” as Presser after reading the report.
DiBiase said she tried incorporating different points of view into the report. She also noted the conversations she engaged in with different interest groups varied, including teachers.
DiBiase highlighted several of Summer Street’s successes in the report.
According to the report, DiBiase said respondents were pleased Summer Street has earned a “great reputation” the past several years. She said many students she interviewed “want to come to school” and are happy when they come into Summer Street.
DiBiase also said Summer Street “has always been a high performing school” and Lynnfield is a “community that people purposefully move to so their children can attend our schools.” A majority of parents reported there is a “high degree of parent trust” and many parents said they trust their child’s teacher when making educational decisions. DiBiase said that was a “really common” theme from parents.
DiBiase also highlighted several challenges at Summer Street School.
According to DiBiase, Summer Street’s student population is becoming “more and more diverse” and students have “more complex” social-emotional issues than in previous years. She said it’s been a challenge meeting students’ social-emotional needs.
In response to a question from Doyle about Summer Street’s students becoming more diverse, DiBiase said meeting students’ social-emotional needs is becoming more challenging because of external factors.
Special Services Director Kara Mauro noted the school system is working toward developing new strategies to meet students’ social-emotional needs.
DiBiase also said staff members reported it has been a balancing act to consistently meet the needs of high performing students, students struggling and “everyone in between” simultaneously.
According to DiBiase, it’s been difficult “getting more families involved in family events in the school and beyond the school day.” She also said it’s been challenging “maximizing the specialists and incorporating them into Summer Street’s “day-to-day curriculum.”
DiBiase said students are both administrators and teachers’ “primary motivating factor” for helping students succeed. She also said many teachers want to make a “positive, lasting impact” on children.
DiBiase said the majority of respondents expect Summer Street’s principal to be someone who is “fair, realistic, consistent and supportive.” She also said students, parents and teachers want DiBiase to be “easily approachable.”
Additionally, DiBiase said in her report respondents want her to “listen to what people have to say.” Teachers also want the Summer Street principal to help develop teachers and their professional practice “so they can continue to grow.”
DiBiase said communication is paramount at Summer Street. She said she has been communicating regularly with parents via the school newsletter and Twitter.
DiBiase has developed four focus areas for the 2015-2016 school year.
According to the report, DiBiase will be working to provide “greater clarity” in the roles and responsibilities of staff members. She also wants to faculty members at different grade levels to collaborate more frequently, which she said would improve teaching and learning.
DiBiase also wants to foster teacher leadership roles. She will be looking to improve the “quality and quantity” of instructional practice discussions in order to help students improve academically and social-emotionally.
The Summer Street principal said it will “take a period of time” to accomplish the four goals and noted they “won’t be done in one year.”
“I think if these four areas are addressed, it will make a big difference,” said DiBiase.