South Administrators Make Important Return-to-Learn Changes Amidst District-Level Failure


Test scores, graduation rates, college acceptances — such metrics have, year after year, upheld the Newton Public Schools’ (NPS) reputation of educational excellence, attracting talented teachers and go-getting families to the Newton community. Over the past six months, however, such community members have felt blindsighted while NPS delivered letdowns instead of leadership. For many, any sentiment of the gold standard of a Newton education has dwindled into nostalgia, if not been altogether annihilated. 

We are in a crisis that calls for steadfast leadership, yet the superintendent and his team have delivered only broken promises, an example that any student would be remiss to follow. NPS students are taught as early as elementary school to turn in thoughtfully completed work, to manage their time effectively, to listen to their peers; yet district administrators seem to have forgotten these most basic of lessons.

On Aug. 25, Superintendent David Fleishman announced that he was switching his recommended school reopening plan from a K-12 split-hybrid model to a distanced start for middle and high schoolers, citing staffing concerns. The superintendent based his reasoning for this change on the results of a teacher survey, effectively faulting teachers for not being able to return to school in sustainable numbers, instead of accepting responsibility for the abrupt reversal. 

The mid-August survey was not the first time teachers were asked about their ability to work in-person for the fall: they had previously been surveyed in July, which is when NPS administrators should have realized the challenges of staffing a hybrid model and incorporated such data into their proposal. Although the district released the results of family surveys conducted in July and August, as well as those of the August teacher survey, the July teacher survey remains a glaring omission.

District-level communication has proved to be insufficient and inadequate. For instance, the most recently “updated” Frequently Asked Questions document about school reopening still lists questions about the now-obsolete high school Distance Learning Academy and split-hybrid models, rendering it an incredibly confusing document for families that have not listened to dozens of hours of Newton School Committee meetings or kept up to date with every modification to the reopening plans. 

And while the superintendent has repeatedly claimed that these plans were created with input from a multitude of reopening teams, not all stakeholders had a fair say in the conversation. While teachers contributed to planning for content delivery this year, they were unable to influence scheduling decisions, even though the two are intertwined. Furthermore, the lack of attention to traditionally marginalized groups, such as METCO students and students with disabilities, was deplorable in the district’s original plans.

Dissonance reigns amidst the mess of NPS reopening, as many Newton community members choose to fall into one of two camps, based on preferences for in-person versus remote learning. These groups continue to banter back and forth, posting in Facebook groups, responding to public forums and protesting at City Hall, at great risk to the fabric of the Newton community. Picking sides and sowing discontent will only hurt the population whose needs must be paramount in any school reopening plan: students.

But every cloud has a silver lining, even in the coronavirus’s stormy sky. Despite a lack of effective leadership at the district level, the South administration has taken admirable steps to address key, pre-existing problems with school culture.

This summer, the South faculty committed to 10 days of professional development — in a typical year, there would only be two — with the vast majority of time spent learning how to deliver a more empathetic and inclusive education. The trainings focused on anti-racist teaching, social-emotional learning, trauma-enforced instruction and culturally responsive pedagogy.

Another long-awaited change is the later high school start time. Notably, this comes after a task force met for two years, recommended a later start time and yet was unable to translate ideas into actions. Along with the expanded professional development curriculum, it is a shame that neither change was made sooner. Moreover, the efficacy of such measures has yet to be determined.

Nonetheless, South’s new path is a welcome one, as new definitions of educational excellence emerge. Just last year, after all, this was a school where A minuses were unsatisfactory, where teachers balked at missing one precious class period for the Friday pep rally, where students competed in the exhaustion olympics (gold medals awarded for chugging coffee and pulling all nighters), where whispers of “What’d you get?” filled classrooms as soon as a teacher passed back the very first test, where the prospect of not teaching new content until Oct. 2 would have been laughable.

Current initiatives should give students reason to approach this school year with a degree of optimism. And down the road, there’s hope that South’s new innovative spirit can be channeled into traditional academic years and ingrained in student culture. Here’s to sunnier days ahead.