WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington Apple is asking School Committee candidates David Ragsdale, MJ Byrnes, and Jesse Fennelly questions each week leading up to the April 28 Town Election.
This week’s questions ask the candidates to interview three areas of improvements in the district and what they’ll do about it as School Committee members. Below are the candidates’ responses, in their own words:
One area where Wilmington schools can improve is in our approach to technology. A lot of thought was put into the deployment of the 1-to-1 Chromebook program that has been rolling out year by year. This measured expansion has helped sustain the program and move us toward the goal of being a 1-to-1 district in grades 6–12. However, we have to have an equally thoughtful plan for how we’re going to use this technology. Technology is just a tool and unless we use it wisely and intelligently, we won’t see any benefits. A Chromebook isn’t a magical device that causes 21st century learning to occur — it’s just a laptop computer. Teachers need training and professional development to be able to incorporate technology into the classroom successfully, and curriculum resources need to be developed with technology in mind. It’s also important to have district leadership overseeing this work, which requires a Director of Technology, a position that has seen much recent turnover in Wilmington, and is currently vacant.
A second area for Wilmington to focus on is special education. We have a growing population of special education students and need to make sure that our resources and programming are adequate and up to date. Wilmington recently underwent its Coordinated Program Review, an onsite visit from the Department of Education that occurs every six years, and it’s clear that there will be several areas where the district’s practices will have to be improved to bring us into full compliance with the law. In December, Wilmington (in partnership with the SEEM collaborative and its other member districts) received a $100,000 grant to study resource allocation, and special education is one of the main areas on which we should focus this analysis.
A third area for Wilmington to focus on is recruiting, retaining, and developing excellent teachers. Wilmington teachers are the primary reason our schools provide such a strong education. We need to do everything in our power so that great teachers want to come to Wilmington, want to stay in Wilmington, and are able to continue to improve their practice and develop their craft while they’re here. This means paying competitive salaries and benefits, mentoring new teachers, and giving our educators real opportunities for professional development, growth, and collaboration with colleagues. It also means listening to them and making sure they have a voice in district decisions. Teachers are on the front line of education and we should be seeking out and considering their opinions, and benefitting from their experience at the district level and on the school committee.
As a member of the school committee, I would advocate for these improvements by working to place them on the meeting agendas and engaging the superintendent in the subsequent discussions. I would also look closely at the professional development and training budget when reviewing the annual school department budget to ensure that it is adequately funded. Lastly, It takes more than one member on a seven-person committee to make anything happen, so I would work to convince my colleagues on the committee of the importance of these issues and try to build support (and ideally consensus) about the need to address them.
This is a difficult question for me because I believe our schools are and continue to be in a state of constant improvement. It’s necessary that we continue to find ways to strengthen our programs and initiatives in order to deliver the best possible education and outcomes for our students. In saying this, I’d like to state that my perspective and response to this question is not a “Top 3” or my primary focus, but instead a snapshot out of the many improvements that I am committed in supporting.
One area that I would like to continue to see improvement in is our District’s ability to attract and retain high quality staff and leaders. As a Board member, I will continue to support financial stability within our budget to ensure Wilmington offers competitive salary & compensation for staff. Through collaboration with the Superintendent and Central Office Administration, I will continue to lend my strong voice to ensure our school environment embodies and promotes learning and professional development opportunities for staff, and create pathways for growth to create leaders within our District. I would like to also see and encourage the creation of after school support programs and initiatives for staff, that would support a healthy work and life balance. I see this as potentially being offered through our own Wilmington University, which is our in house professional development program where teachers teach teachers.
It is my belief that we need to continue to improve upon the development and creation of curriculum. We need to ensure that it continues to be rigorous and challenging, yet can be modified to meet the needs of the differentiated learners within our district. I’d like to see more pathways created for our higher achieving students, so they will remain to be challenged. As a School Committee member, I strongly support the need in finding time within the school day for staff to collaborate with one another in order to improve student outcomes and to target this issue directly, as well as, providing professional development and opportunities for our staff to explore and try new methods of teaching, that might support this area of improvement.
I strongly support and will continue to advocate for the creation of programming and initiatives that will capture struggling students early in their academic careers, as well as, along the way. We need to continue to work towards minimizing the achievement gap between our typical students and those with disabilities. I believe more can be done within our District to ensure the success of each child by utilizing our District Curriculum Accommodation Plan policy, building upon and modifying classroom supports and executing these supports consistently within the learning environment. We need to continue to invest and strengthen our special education programming and services, with hope to diversify and expand upon them. As one of our largest budgetary line items, we need to find new and creative financial solutions to deliver highly specialized services to these particular students without taking away from other areas of our budget. One example of how this might look is (re)establishing a “Buddy mentoring program” within each school, where typical students could pair up with special needs students, and be role models for any student who may find it difficult to navigate within their school community. The additional benefit to this thought is that it would also foster a more positive and inclusive school culture within our District.
As residents of this great town, we are incredibly fortunate to have a school department that continues to work hard every day preparing our children to be engaged, informed, caring, compassionate members of our community. While I believe we have a lot to be proud of, we must always challenge ourselves to improve. In answering this week’s question, below are three areas (in no particular order) that, if elected, I will focus on helping the school district improve upon.
The first area I would work to improve on is the recruitment and retention of top talent in the district. Wilmington is very fortunate to have a great number of talented, intelligent, dedicated, compassionate teachers, administrators and staff. That said, we are losing a lot of great folks to other districts. From our assistant superintendent down the line, we need to do all we can to ensure we hire the right folks, and keep them here for the long term. To that end, I would work with my colleagues on the school committee to direct the administration to undertake a full review of the recruiting practices, benefits, and incentives offered to teachers and staff in the district to make sure we are competitive with other districts in the area.
The second area I would focus on would be the continued implementation of technology in our classrooms. I commend the school department on the adoption of the 1:1 chromebook program and look forward to seeing it continue to have a positive impact. Properly preparing our students for a 21st century workforce is imperative and this infusion of technology into the classroom will certainly help with that. We must be mindful, however, that our classes continue to utilize teacher-led instruction as appropriate. As a member of the school committee I will work with the administration and my colleagues on the committee continue to evaluate and implement curriculum that incorporates technology into the classroom while maintaining a suitable amount of traditional learning.
Lastly, I want to ensure that the special education needs of any and all students in this district are met. I am cognizant of the incredible amount or work, preparation, and effort that goes into providing special education services to our children. All students have the right to receive an education that will allow them to reach their full potential. To that end, as a member of the school committee I will work to make sure that our school department has the proper staffing, funding and resources to provide this crucial service to everyone in our community who needs it.
In closing, while these are areas I feel the school department can work on improving, I want to know what the other parents in the district think. I’m running to advocate for you, so please feel free to reach out to me and let me know what I missed or what you think the school committee should focus on. You can reach me through my campaign page at www.Facebook.com/JesseFennellyforWilmingtonSchoolCommittee.
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