Principal Torres to Leave Beecher Road School

Everyone year around one hundred students move on from Beecher Road School in Woodbridge, CT. Most of them continue on at Amity Middle School. Some move with their families to other towns, and a few are adult students who are moving on with their careers.

It is an important perspective and a sign of a successful educational system where a lifelong love of learning is taught and when everyone is viewed as a student. So, it is with mixed feelings that Beecher Road School prepares to say good bye to one of its star students, Principal Mary Lou Torres.

Woodbridge Superintendent, Outgoing Principal and incoming Interim Principal

Principal Torres has been at Beecher Road School for five years and has accepted a new position that furthers her career. Tuesday evening, the Woodbridge Board of Education regretfully accepted her resignation and shared many words of praise for Principal Torres. The board then moved on to appoint Dr. Len Tomasello as Interim Principal. Dr. Tomasello and Principal Torres made a brief appearance at the Board of Education meeting and additional commendations for Principal Torres were shared as well as some of the hopes that Superintendent Stella, Dr. Tomasello and the board all share for the transition period.

The Board of Education then continued on with its special meeting to address goals for the board of education over the coming year. There is an important need to address the aging infrastructure of the school building. The board hopes to further explore the quality of education at Beecher Road and the departure of Principal Torres provides a great opportunity for the Board of Education to reconsider the structure of the administration.

The next regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting on September 20th will address many of these issues and parents are encouraged to attend.

(Cross posted at the Woodbridge Citizen.)

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Beating The Heat with the BRSPTO Ice Cream Social

Wednesday evening, the Beecher Road School Parent Teacher Organization held its annual back to school Ice Cream Social. As with other years, it was a well attended event. Sen. Joe Crisco and State Rep. Themis Klarides were both on hand to help PTO members, Superintendent Guy Stella, and members of the staff serve ice cream to students, parents and community members.

Parents sat in lawn chairs and compared notes of summer vacations and hopes for the coming school year as children ran around with their friends or danced to the music of a DJ.

Wednesday was a particularly hot day and many enjoyed the cold ice cream. Others talked about the effect of the heat on education. The Horace Porter School in Columbia, CT closed early because of the heat on Wednesday and the Laurel School in Bloomfield, CT is closing early today because of the heat. While there are currently no plans to close Beecher Road School early because of the heat, such a move would create complications with bus routes.

Indoor air quality is an important issue at schools that is too often overlooked. The EPA has an IAQ Tools for Schools Program and Connecticut has An Act Concerning Indoor Air Quality in Schools.

Beecher Road School appears to be adequately handling the current heat wave. While there have been scattered reports of students heading to the nurse's office because of the heat, it has not been at such a level that the administration has needed to take action, and so far, there is only one report of a class having to be moved because of excessive heat.

Indoor air quality has a significant impact on education which needs to be carefully considered at Beecher Road School. Events like the BRSPTO Ice Cream Social provide an important opportunity for members of the community to gather for a fun social event, as well as to share concerns about what is best for long term education in our town.

(Cross posted in the Woodbridge Citizen.)

Social Media and Schools

A few years ago, Avery Doninger posted a message on her personal Livejournal account from home one evening criticizing the administration of the high school she was attending. As a result, she was barred from serving as class secretary in her senior year of high school. This raised many important issues about freedom of speech in the age of the internet which are being explored in a case proceeding through the Federal Courts.

Last night, the Windsor Locks Board of Education met to discuss a personnel matter. The agenda included an executive session to discuss the Superintendent’s position/contract. All of this comes in the wake of comments that Superintendent David Telesca posted on Facebook. According to the Hartford Courant, Superintendent Telesca commented online that “my first day on site involved counseling an administrator to retire or face termination”.

The Courant article goes on to say,

A spokesman for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education said Tuesday that he could not recall any instances in the state when social media usage was a problem for a school district.

Apparently, the spokesman is not aware of the Doninger case.

There are many interesting aspects to this. Policy and law often lag technology, and few, if any school boards seem to have policies on the use of social media. On the other hand, an underlying question is whether or not online communications are substantially different than other forms of communications. Online communications are often more persistent, easier to search, and may reach a broader audience, but is this a difference of magnitude or something more substantial? One board of education member observed that boards do not have policies on ballpoint pen usage.

It may even be that the difference of magnitude is fading. As ‘trackers’ become more common in the political sphere, what people say when they are talking to a politician in a coffee shop may become as persistent, searchable and broad reaching as anything else. The line between the personal and the public continues to blur.

In would be wrong for the Windsor Locks Board of Education to terminate their superintendent because he made his remarks on Facebook. If, however, the content of the remarks are deemed to have violated Board policy, for example, saying too much about personnel cases, that would be a different issue. I do not know what different school board polices are about a superintendent talking about the hiring or firing process without mentioning individuals involved. It would seem as if there is benefit to these sorts of discussions, such as letting it be widely known that a school is searching for certain types of employees or discouraging certain types of behaviors.

This is not to say that schools should not be paying close attention to social media. If anything, they are currently failing by not focusing enough on it. Social media is the new place for kids to hang out. Teachers and administrators need to understand what is going on in the lives of their students. They should be providing skills to help students make the best possible use of tools in the twenty first century, which includes social media.

Indeed, some of the best teachers and administrators I know are the ones that make ample and wise use of social media. Students are encouraged to share their work with the public online, in ways that protect the students’ privacy. Administrators are using social media to communicate with teachers, parents, tax payers and other stakeholders about what is going on in the school districts.

Social media, like any other tool, can be used wisely or stupidly. It can be used for good or for ill. Some people will have backlashes against any new tool since the tool could be misused or used for ill. It is better to understand new tools and help people learn to use them in the best possible ways.

(Cross posted at deliberateCT.)

Embracing the Untaskforce, Social Media and Civic Involvement - #swct

Local Governments, when faced with specific problems, often convene special task forces. These task forces have a typical format. They are focused on a specific problem. These problems are broken into their component issues. Stakeholders are identified and politically well connected people that have time, interest and some basic level of expertise are recruited and a timeline is established for the taskforce to meet specific outcomes.

Social media has the potential to turn all of this on its head. Political connections are supplemented with connections that have been strengthened through the use of online tools. Experts in specific areas can be found and connected to online. In New Haven, a growing group of people have worked together to promote New Haven as a location for Google to roll out its high speed Internet testbed and to organize Social Web Week, referred to by the hashtag #swct. Now, they seek to continue their discussions in City Hall about the possibility of a Social Web Task Force.

The initial reaction was similar to what any local government would do. The interested parties gathered in City Hall with the goal of identifying the key objectives, stakeholders and outcomes. Yet something interesting and different emerged. Instead of establishing a list of objectives like: use social media to help the residents of New Haven better understand what is happening in the public schools or the aldermanic chambers, a single objective emerged. While a specific phrase was not used, the idea is something like establishing a framework or platform to enable connections between New Haven stakeholders to improve the quality of life in New Haven.

This, of course, begs the question, who are the stakeholders in New Haven? The answer was immediately clear. Everyone. With such broad goals, how do you proceed? How do you measure outcomes? Based on some of the ideas from the GoogleHaven effort, it was quickly agreed that we need to connect 100 people with ideas about how to improve the quality of life in New Haven to people that can help make those ideas happen.

Some people immediately thought about a platform in terms of the technology. Perhaps some thought of something like SeeClickFix on steroids. Yet a platform or framework for accomplishing this task may be more about the people and their connections than the underlying technology. It may be that technological tools already exist and what is really needed is getting more people thinking about and aware of how they can use such existing tools to help make connections that will strengthen New Haven.

In many ways, this leads back to Open Space Technology, the underlying ideas behind unconferences such as barcamps and the upcoming Podcamp in Connecticut. With thousands of stakeholders, any of which may have great ideas that need to be heard, it would be presumptuous for the couple dozen people in a conference room in City Hall to come up with the list of issues to be addressed. Instead, a process to facilitate anyone in New Haven finding others to work with them on ideas to improve New Haven should be established. Done right, this will help people get better services from their government and bring better ideas to their government. It will use social media to reduce bureaucracy. It will help make local government much more of a government, of, by and for the people.

One set of ideas is likely to be ways of further refining the process of using social media to facilitate people connecting to share ideas with others in New Haven. So, while there are initial goals of connecting one hundred people with one hundred ideas in one hundred days, the process will be iterative. It will change and even better methods will emerge. From a technology perspective, it will be similar to Rapid Application Development. It seems like Open Space Technology and Rapid Application Development logically go hand in hand.

Perhaps a good way of looking at this is in terms of an ‘untaskforce’. An untaskforce is to task forces what an unconference is to conferences. Will New Haven succeed in setting examples of new forms of local government interaction based on untaskforces? Folks at City Hall appear receptive and the people behind GoogleHaven and #swct appear eager to build upon their earlier successes.

Join New Haven in exploring an untaskforce. Share your ideas about how we can help people use new tools to better connect and share ideas about improving New Haven. What do you think the framework or platform should be like? There will be a meeting next Tuesday at City Hall at 9:30 in the morning. I will be there. Between now and then, I’ll mostly be on vacation, so I may not be responding to messages as quickly as normal, but let me know your ideas, or simply show up next Tuesday.

Woodbridge Students Discuss National Educational Reform

What started off as the End of the Year Celebration for the Multi Age Group Program at Beecher Road School in Woodbridge, CT ended up becoming a forum on national educational reform.

The Multi Age Group, or M.A.G. program at Beecher Road School is a special educational opportunity where students in grades one through four participate in learning events together. While the name focuses on the age grouping, there is much more to the program. Key highlights include an integrated curriculum where a topic is explored throughout the year in all disciplines. For example, this year, the students focused on bluebirds and invasive species. Last year, the focus was on water. The integrated curriculum also provides many opportunities for hands on learning.

Other aspects include a strong focus on respecting all people. Instead of the dichotomy between teachers and students, education is focused on learners helping other learners, whether they be adult learners, fourth year learners or first year learners. To facilitate this, there is a strong effort to make the learning environment as democratic as possible. Students hold meetings to discuss important issues that they face.

The End of Year Celebration started off like so many other end of year ceremonies. The students filed in as friends and family sat in the auditorium. They sang a few song; songs that the students chose. This was followed by individual performances. In introducing the first performance, Elizabeth said that she learned how to express herself in MAG. She then did an interpretive dance to the music of Alice and Wonderland. She received a hug from a classmate after her performance. The opening comment, the dance and the hug provide a good insight into the MAG program.

Abby recited a poem by Shel Silverstein which brought forth another aspect of MAG:

No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What's right for you--just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.

Other students expressed sadness about leaving MAG. Yet the penultimate individual performance tied it altogether into the discussion of national educational reform. Daniela read a piece about MAG, Twenty Years Later. The twentieth reunion takes place as a pot luck dinner in the Beecher Road Cafeteria. It reflected a sense of sharing that both pot luck dinners and MAG exemplify.

The MAG program has grown in such popularity that they have their own building. The students have gone on to great things as ball players, dancers, veterinarians, artists, and teachers. The underlying theme is that all of them are using their skills to make the world a better place. They have worked hard to help children with a Children’s Imagination Center. They have seen great success in addressing environmental issues. One of the students has gone on to become the first woman president of the United States. In that role she has worked to make sure that programs like MAG are available to students in every school in the nation.

The students in MAG have been brought up in a trying time. They were born under the shadow of 9/11. Their country has been involved in wars during their whole life. There has been a crippling recession and an ecological disaster. Yet through all of it, Daniela’s words reflect a common belief of many MAG students summarized in a quote on the back of the program. “It will be what we make it.”

The MAG program is a phenomenal success. It has helped students learn to express themselves, to dream, to work towards fulfilling their dreams, to help things become what they can be, if they make it. Will the dream of national educational reform based on ideas from MAG become a reality? If these students are any indication and hold fast to their dreams, it will.

(Cross posted at the WOodbridge Citizen.)

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