Reflecting on My Entry Plan
My first blog post described the entry plan process I employed at the start of my tenure in Smithfield. The purpose of this process was to get to know the community, its schools, and the people here in Smithfield before making any decisions of consequence (see https://judypaolucci.edublogs.org/2017/07/24/entry_plan/). This last blog post is a reflection on those findings and subsequent work done in the district. This is work done by all of the dedicated administrators, educators, and staff who work in our schools, rather than my accomplishments.
After completing the entry plan steps, I reported back to the School Committee (see https://bit.ly/3Nm6yoF) and wrote out my findings in an entry plan report. There, I listed a number of action steps I would take to address my findings. In addition to continuing to support the strengths of the district, the following actions were identified and each completed:
- Streamline district procedures, eliminate redundancy and reduce paper use to leverage administrator time for more important tasks.
- Identify new sources of funding for initiatives.
- Better utilize the webpage as well as social media, press releases, and blog posts to improve communications and promote the district.
- Systematically review and revise School Committee policies and post policies on a searchable website.
- Automate purchase orders through the use of an upgraded financial software program that additionally allows for better monitoring of budget lines.
- Put more control of the budget in the hands of school leaders.
- Consider the addition of workshop sessions to allow for topics that develop School Committee understanding of educational issues and policies.
Many of the papers our administrators and I signed each day did not require our attention (for example, routine personal day requests) so the processes were subsequently streamlined to eliminate both the steps administrators were taking and the paper passing that followed. We eliminated redundancy with paper and online processes. Not only did this simplify things but it also eliminated errors. The purchase order process was also streamlined, eliminating the need for signing paper POs and utilizing an upgraded financial software program that could be accessed by administrators for better monitoring of budget lines and putting more control of the budget in the hands of school leaders. The implementation of the iVisions software program was a huge undertaking but well worth the time and effort.
All districts are awarded federal entitlement grants each year but securing additional funds from competitive grants varies widely from district to district. For each competitive grant awarded, several others are not awarded, multiplying the effort applied. Nevertheless, the effort was well worth it, since the amount of grant funding from these competitive grants over the past 5 years exceeded three quarters of a million dollars. Of particular note, a COPS grant provided funding for new Sallyport entrances at SHS and GMS, along with key fob entry and a districtwide safety audit. A subsequent Farm-to-School grant continues to provide funding for the use of local produce in our cafeterias and programming encouraging healthy eating.
New webpages, hosted by Apptegy, are regularly updated. The Apptegy platform also allows for mass emailing and telephoning, along with simultaneous posting on the websites and on social media platforms. The online information about our budget alone is impressive. Additionally, over 200 school committee policies were updated or added to a searchable policy webpage (https://policies.smithfield-ps.org/), making Smithfield’s policy book one of the most up-to-date set of policies in the state.
Rather than workshop sessions, a showcase was added to each school committee meeting to allow for School Committee understanding of a variety of programming in our schools and to acknowledge the work of our teachers and students. For example, the most recent meetings included a showcase of the GMS drama program and the acknowledgement of our support professional of the year.
- Beginning with the Future Search, work to develop a common vision for Smithfield Schools and a new strategic plan, and align school improvement planning to the district vision.
- Further develop the process for evaluating all staff, engendering value for reflection, evaluation, and accountability for continual improvement.
- Increase access to professional development for all members of the school community, paying particular attention to continual development of leadership skills for administrators, teacher leaders, and students.
- Visit classrooms on a regular basis and create formal structures for principals to visit each other’s schools to develop shared understandings and strengthen leadership skills.
- Revise district curriculum, for both core academic subjects and social-emotional learning, and make the curriculum mapping process more transparent to parents and community members in order to articulate expectations across grade levels.
- Consider additional programming, including elementary and expanded middle school world languages, computer science, and additional career pathways.
- Use technology in instruction in deeper ways.
- Develop a facilities master plan and capital improvement plan that are informed by evaluations of the current conditions of our buildings and the needs of our educational community.
Significant progress was made on the list of foundational changes recommended in the entry plan report. A Future Search that involved over 100 stakeholders was organized to develop a common vision for Smithfield Schools and a new strategic plan was developed.
Together with the town, we took facilities master planning to a higher level, developing a 20-year facilities capital improvement plan. and establishing a school facilities capital fund. We have already accomplished many of the projects first identified as deficiencies in the 2017 Jacobs Report. Most notably, our elementary schools have all been renovated and expanded and a new project involving HVAC/energy improvements to SHS and GMS and the renovation of the Boyle Athletic Complex is underway.
Our administrators are committed to conducting evaluations that focus on reflection and continual improvement. Professional development activities are regularly offered to all district staff and administrative team meetings regularly include professional development. Recently, teacher leaders at the middle school level were added to help facilitate the improvement work of GMS and to further develop the leadership skills of our teachers.
Not only are classrooms visited by administrators on a regular basis but our partnership with professional organizations, including Instruction Partners, BridgeRI and NE Basecamp, enables us to focus on many aspects of instruction despite a small administrative team. The district curriculum for a variety of subject areas, now available on our website, have been revised and pacing guides and common assessments enable us to ensure that students have an equitable experience.
Perhaps, in the area of technology, we have grown more than we could have imagined back in 2018. The pandemic caused us to innovate in a variety of ways and our technology director to pivot at a moment’s notice. While in-person instruction is preferable over virtual instruction, some tools that we used for virtual instruction; such as SeeSaw, Google Classroom, and Google Meet for parent and other meetings, continue to be used today. The technology proficiency of our staff has grown – leaps and bounds.
Elementary and expanded middle school world language programming was not established in the district. Unfortunately, funding for other initiatives took precedent. CTE programming was continually developed, though not specifically expanded.
What Comes Next?
A new superintendent will surely see the district through a new set of eyes and have her own ideas about improvements. Writing this blog post about possible next steps are merely a means of documenting my thoughts about some additional areas for improvement and enhancement. Ideas for management changes will be discussed with each department and many of these are in process.
A policy book is never complete. Policies should be reviewed each year and a list of policies needing updates generated so that there can be continued work to keep these policies up-to-date. Also, there is always the possibility of new School Committee members at each election. Any new members should be oriented to state requirements, local practices, ways to effectively handle complaints, current policies, and Roberts Rules of Order, among other topics. The School Committee should consider subcommittees in the areas of budget and policies to more easily engage in this work.
Last year, we created a budget document that meets the high standards of the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO). The next step will be to submit our budget to ASBO for review to see if we can be awarded the Meritorious Budget Award. We should work on creating a variety of financial reports for the community – how we spend money, what cost savings were realized by an energy project, our annual maintenance expenses, etc. – and posting these reports on the website or sharing them with members of the community through a variety of other means. Financial transparency is something I value highly but school budgets can be complicated so how we share the information should be focused and clear. Last, writing competitive grants can be difficult and time consuming, even when the grant proposal is denied. While I often speak about the COPS grant awarded to Smithfield, there was another COPS grant that was not approved by the DOJ. The chance of being awarded funding from these grants to make our schools safer, make our school lunch more nutritious, and make instruction more effective makes all the time it takes to prepare them well worth the time.
I also recommend that Smithfield continue to build the capacity of the administrative team to manage the finances of their individual school or department so that they are better able to target funds for identified improvements. Students, as well, should have greater control and decision-making for student activities funds. These funds are held by the school department for various clubs and grade levels but do not belong to the school department; they belong to the students.
The finance department would benefit from additional staff time. Our HR coordinator also administers benefits, leaving little time for the development of programs for our personnel, streamlining hiring processes, or recruiting new talent.
Last, I believe that the town’s budget board engage early in the process for developing the school budget so that they can gain a better understanding and the process can be more efficient. There’s been great strides with relationships between the school department and town and this would be yet one more step in the right direction.
The District would benefit from an evaluation of the middle and high school facilities performed by an architectural/engineering firm. This evaluation would allow for the list of deficiencies to be updated so that we can adjust our capital improvement plan accordingly. Some deficiencies are obvious, such as the need for new windows at the middle school or the need to repave parking lots at both schools, but other deficiencies can be either verified or identified and prioritized. This evaluation may also answer the questions, When should we replace either of these buildings? What projects should be done ahead of the replacement and what deficiencies should we put off if the building is planned to be replaced anyway? Together with town leaders, we can prioritize all of the town needs so that we can be responsible stewards of the town’s assets. Additionally, while the elementary renovations and additions were only recently completed, incorporating their future needs into the capital improvement plan is essential for maintaining these buildings. There is no shortage of work for our dedicated facilities director!
Improving Internet access, employing new tools for Internet safety and data privacy, growing the use of media technology, and other advances are addressed continually. Keeping up with new tools for education will continue to be a goal for the district. Using technology to connect school learning with the real world and providing a means for students to use technology to produce, rather than just consume information should be an important objective. At the same time, students shouldn’t go through the entire day with their Chromebooks open. There are many other instructional approaches and, as they say, variety is the spice of life. We want students to learn collaboratively and have hands-on experiences.
Wellness, Behavior, and Safety
An active Wellness Committee and our Farm to School initiative provide a nice foundation for additional attention to student and staff wellness. The District should think carefully about measurable outcomes for wellness so that this work can be focused, effective, and celebrated as key milestones are met.
Common expectations for behavior are necessary for student engagement in learning and for safety. Isolated behavior incidents will happen but with tiered levels of support that include clear expectations, explicitly taught behavior, consistent responses to misbehavior, and behavior intervention plans for students who continue to struggle with meeting expectations, we can have more productive and joyful learning environments. Overall, we are already starting with relatively calm and productive schools, however, we can improve. The MTSS audit done this spring at SHS can provide the district a clear direction for next steps.
The District Emergency Operations Team meets monthly and includes district and school administrators and fire and police representatives. The District would benefit from adding another staff member in Central Office to follow-up with safety plans and conduct random checks for safety practices. This position might also focus on auxiliary services – food services and transportation. Currently, both safety and transportation is led by the superintendent and food services is overseen by an already over-burdened finance staff.
Of course, teaching and learning is at the heart of what we do. Our assistant superintendent has led initiatives that have improved teaching and learning and in order to continue this work, it will be important to provide her with the right supports – financial and other – and limit the distractions that may consume her time. The same can be said for special education programming and our director of special education. Smithfield should be proud of the programs we have in the district to serve students with a variety of needs. In order to evolve as student needs evolve, additional efforts should be made to address mental health issues.
We have talented and dedicated educators and paraprofessionals who deserve high-quality professional learning to continually improve. We also have increased requirements for training from the state, including suicide prevention training, safety training, Right to Read training, etc. Compared with many other districts, there is less professional development time provided. Additional time should be considered when a new contract is negotiated.
Finally, while state testing scores should not be a goal unto itself, they do measure what our students have learned in math, ELA, and science. As such, it is wonderful to have LaPerche recognized as a Blue Ribbon School one year and OCRS recognized by the commissioner as having improved student achievement during the pandemic the following year. Each year, we should celebrate exceptional accomplishments. If a school gets stuck in the middle of the pack, identifying the root cause and making adjustments are necessary.
Equity work should continue. The ADL training for students was a good start but to be most effective, fidelity to the program should be a priority. The equity audit done by ASCD will provide recommendations for further improvements that aim to make Smithfield a wonderful place to live and learn, regardless of the color of your skin, your gender identify, or your ethnicity.
The development of a new strategic plan is necessary this coming year. As the district moves toward more measurable goals, remember that not all things worthwhile are measurable and not all that is measurable is worthwhile. That being said, the value of the current strategic plan was that it was actionable and was never abandoned, however, more care could have been made to articulate goals in a way that communicates our values and provides clarity about what will determine if the goal is met.
Of course, there’s more but I’ve already gone on too long…
All these recommendations are predicated on the belief that students will excel under the tutelage of well-trained and talented educators in inspiring facilities with high-quality instructional materials when they understand expectations and their individual needs are met. Regardless of the path Smithfield takes in its future, I wish for success and happiness.
Special thanks goes to our district and school administrators, school committee, union leadership, town manager and town department heads, staff, educators, custodians, and clerical staff.