By GAIL LOWE
WAKEFIELD — On the heels of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech came a similar address from the leaders of Wakefield’s School Department — Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen K. Zrike and his Assistant Dr. Kim Smith.
The two went before approximately 100 people gathered at the Galvin Middle School last night to talk about the town’s educational strategy and emerging priorities.
Zrike said that the district “had a lot to celebrate” but that there is still a lot of work to be done on his and Smith’s strategic plan, which was launched last fall.
In a Power Point presentation, he addressed three main categories in the district’s plan, including:
• Quality, meaningful feedback
• Redesign of professional development
• High-leverage teaching practice.
“We need to engage family, staff and the community and look for ways they can support the district’s core needs,” said Zrike. “We’re not there yet.”
Zrike mentioned that a good deal of the focus has been on school facilities and now the focus is shifting to “right sizing resources in an appropriate way.”
“Are we running a sound operation?” he asked rhetorically.
“If we have a need for high accountability, we need to have supports in place,” he said. Until we get it right, we can’t expect accountability — we’re still evolving.”
Zrike then spoke about innovative programs the district has developed and the need to be on the cutting edge, though this comes with risk. He mentioned the partnership the district now has with Lesley University and said teachers have become engaged with learning about new programs.
Consistency across all grades and all schools is another of Zrike’s values plus the need to invest in teachers where professional development is concerned.
“We want Wakefield to be a place where educators can grow,” he said, adding that there is an effort underway that includes providing quality feedback and coaching, role playing and video taping what happens in classrooms. He stressed the need for bite-sized changes rather than major changes taking place all at once.
Smith is on board with Zrike and his approach to small changes. “All of us have improved as a result of bite-sized changes,” she said.
Since the redesign of professional development, Zrike said a task force has been formed and state standards for professional development have been reviewed. Teachers have also been given options for training.
Other commitments to improving learning have been the addition of classroom literacy coaches and curriculum coordinators in English Language Arts and math.
Though many gains have been made this year, Zrike said he is aware that there are still holes in some models and pointed to math in kindergarten through grade 4 as being one, as well as foreign languages and social studies.
Smith said that watching students engage in rigorous Common Core learning has been “exciting” and that students have risen to the challenge of conquering more difficult learning tasks and that teachers have “gone beyond the call of duty” where Common Core is concerned.
“Common Core learning calls for deep understanding,” she said.
Zrike suggested that parents keep an eye on the school district’s website, since tips for parents on how best to help their children with homework under the Common Core standards is in the process of being uploaded.
Other areas under review are curriculum and technology.
“We’ve had our ups and downs with technology this year,” said Zrike, adding that parent Scott Hartman has been particularly helpful where technology is concerned.
“Technology should be part of learning,” said Zrike, “and integrated into the classroom.”
He mentioned that parents have been asking about how to use Chromebook, and at Parent University scheduled for Saturday, March 21, a workshop will be held to assist parents.
Smith spoke about PLC (Professional Learning Community) and explained that every teacher is part of a team and it is the team’s objective to look at student growth achievement.
The need to embed the team approach into the school day has largely been accomplished except for pre-kindergarten through Grade 4. This, said Smith, should happen during academic year 2015-2016.
Both Zrike and Smith spoke about their desire to be a “data rich” district and the need to know how the district is doing in comparison to other districts. Zrike commented about the successful opening of the Early Childhood Center at the Doyle School and the “tremendous amount of work needed in Special Education.”
Though he acknowledged that some Special Education students need intensive learning, Zrike said that, “We’re way too exclusionary as a district — we don’t have enough students learning in their core classrooms. We also have a responsibility to English Language Learners. By law, we must give them two hours per day of instruction.” (Currently, there are 30 ELL students enrolled in Wakefield’s school district.)
Zrike offered a final comment about STEM learning (science, technology, engineering and math) and said that there is a move underway to add an “A” to STEM, making the acronym read “STEAM.” The “A” would refer to Arts.
Before his closing remarks, Zrike briefly mentioned that budget season is now underway and provided dates in the process: Feb. 24 (budget presented to school board members), February-March (school-based budget information sessions), March 10 (public budget hearing), March 24 (budget voted by school board members), April (budget presented to Board of Selectmen/Finance Committee members) and May (Town Meeting, date to be determined).
He commented that “next investments” in education include the need for funds for additional professional development, math coaching (kindergarten through Grade 4), classroom furniture, additional curriculum coordinators and increasing the daily substitute teacher rate.
Other investments include updating curriculum materials, building a technology infrastructure, addressing the high school Massachusetts Core requirement, funding for texts in the Learning Common and classrooms and additional classroom supplies.
In terms of individualized student learning, investments include the expansion of early childhood learning (full-day kindergarten), enhancing social/emotional supports, additional nursing, creating time for PLCs at the elementary level, expansion of STEM and hiring additional interventionists.
At the close of Zrike’s and Smith’s presentation, six break-out sessions were held in various classrooms.
Parents and others attending were asked to discuss what resonated with them about the presentation, whether anything should be underscored and whether anything was overlooked.
They were then each given a copy of the district’s strategy and instructed to review objectives concerning quality teaching, rigorous curriculum and individualized student learning and prioritize what was most important.
In addition to Zrike and Smith, school principals and assistant principals and other department heads were at the meeting along with school board members Gregory Liakos, Kate Morgan, Christopher Callanan, Janine Cook and Thomas Markham III.