What’s New at the Schools?

By Becky Herberger | Published August 22, 2014 | The Bolton Independent

The Florence Sawyer School administrative team made a number of changes over the summer.  In a conversation with FSS Principal Joel Bates, he highlighted improvements in safety, scheduling, curriculum, programming, and technology, as well as other items to anticipate as students return to school next week.

Physical changes were made to the facility to improve school safety.  New hardware and locks with a safety deadbolt were installed on every classroom door in both wings.  Instead of messing around with keys and locks on their doors, teachers can flip a switch on the inside of their doors and a classroom is instantly locked down.

Within the next couple of months or so, card readers will be installed at all access points so that the building is locked down 100 percent of the time.  Bates explained, “To get in, you are either authorized to have a badge, or you have to buzz in.” Cards will also be given to authorized individuals for approved after-school recreational activities so they can access their designated areas.

The three administrators, Bates, Alana Cyr and Steven Grant, have new schedules this year so that they can spend more time in the classrooms.  On most days, one administrator will spend the day moving around campus from classroom to classroom, while the other two administrators have office hours.  Bates explained that this change in schedule is critical to the new statewide educator evaluation system that was implemented at FSS last year.  Bates explained, “Feedback for teachers has to be based on multiple conversations, interactions and observations.  What we’ve tried to do is make sure…that it’s based on a long set of data points.  This is just a system that we think will add to that.”

This new schedule also frees up administrative space to serve as a functional, comfortable place for FSS staff to meet and get work done.  Bates’ desk, for example, has been replaced with a conference table.  He pointed to his laptop and said, “Really, this is the only desk we need.”

This year expectations for writing will expand across the curriculum to other subjects such as social studies and science.  Bates explained that the same writing expectations held in English/language arts classes will be held in other subject areas to the degree that it’s possible. Social studies and science teachers will be concerned about writing content, but the goal is to also give students feedback on grammar and mechanics.

Teachers will also focus on a districtwide initiative to review their curriculum.  Using a backwards-design process, they will look at each standard and determine what formative experiences are necessary for students to meet it, followed by a deeper look at the lessons, materials, group work and areas of enrichment.  Also new to curriculum, the FSS Safety Committee, led by school nurse Darlene Perkins, is going to place emphasis on substance abuse awareness, particularly in the middle school grades.  This new element will allow for student understanding in risk areas that go beyond what has previously constituted the health program.

The administration worked with the district’s Director of Special Education, Tracy Conte, to implement a new special education model for grades three, four and five.  Bates explained that these transition years between primary and middle school are particularly challenging for students with disabilities.  Now there will be one special education teacher designated for each of those grade levels.  Patti Darling is assigned to third grade, new-hire Trinity Jennison to fourth, and Jane Maguire (now Jane Barwick) to fifth.

The Extended Day Program, coordinated by Laura Dwyer, now has morning hours and will also accommodate students beyond fifth grade.  This new morning program will have things for students to do and full supervision without pulling away from the administrative staff.

In terms of technology, many of the desktop computers were removed from the classrooms because they were very old, not worth trying to upgrade, and there are now more sophisticated options for students.  This year there are three to five IPads in all kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms, Smart Boards in all third-grade through eighth-grade classrooms, and about 50 to 75 percent more Chrome Books throughout the school.  A full class set off Chrome Books is provided to each third- and fourth-grade classroom in the Emerson wing and students in grades five through eight can check out any of the 120 Chrome Books housed at the library whenever they please.

With the goal of continuing to strengthen communication with parents, the school is making some changes online.  Each teacher will build a Google website, and all sites will have the same look and feel with consistent navigation.  The newsletter, which goes out monthly, will be formatted differently.  Based on feedback from parent surveys, it will be streamlined and will have links to community-interest pieces versus a 30-page-long document.  For more up-to-the-minute items, Bates will continue putting out “FSS Happenings” and Twitter feeds.

This year FSS said goodbye to math specialist Heather Haines, who was hired as the Curriculum Director for Mathematics districtwide in Acton-Boxborough, and part-time art teacher Katie McEwan, who was hired full-time elsewhere.  The process to fill the two positions is ongoing.  Bates said, “Other than that, we’re fully staffed and we seem to get new students every day.”

Students return to school this Wednesday, Aug. 27. Parents can mark their calendars for FSS Open House nights held on Thursday, Sept. 11, for grades five through eight, and on Thursday, Sept. 18, for kindergarten through fourth grade.