Nolin lays out plan for Newton schools

Newton’s new Superintendent Anna Nolin laid out a bold agenda for the city’s school district at the Nov. 20 School Committee meeting.

Every new superintendent in the city produces an entry plan, and Nolin’s was based on three months of learning and listening meetings she had with teachers, students, parents, community, teacher union and business leaders, city officials and other stakeholders, as well as data analysis and her own professional experience.

While Nolin had strong praise for the leadership and staff, she made it clear in a comprehensive assessment of the city’s school system that significant improvements are needed.

Nolin’s extensive series of recommendations ranged from concerns about absenteeism of both teachers and students, enhanced professional development, and long-term strategic planning to budgetary issues, transportation, teaching recruitment challenges and an aging workforce.

She called for a “new approach to collaboration” between the administration and the teachers’ union, pointing out that the relationship is “fraught with conflict instead of a unified desire to improve the profession and the educational experience.”

Nolin cast some of the blame on previous school committees, saying in prior decades they “failed to respect timelines of contracts and allowed them to expire before reaching agreement with the union.”

Union contacts, she said, should be renegotiated before they expire ‘as a gesture of respect for the workforce.”

In preparing the report, Nolin toured every public school in Newton with custodial staff and administrators, met with cooks in the dining rooms and had lunch with students, checked out the playgrounds, and held open office hours for staff and teachers.

“Without exception, in every one of our 22 school buildings, engagement of students and strong relations between students, principals and staff are the norm,” she wrote in the report she presented to the School Committee.

“Classrooms in Newton are safe, structured and characterized by strong instruction, routines and traditions. Staff are the district’s greatest asset,” Nolin said. “They set the tone for the district’s culture and excellence,”

The report – Writing a New Chapter for the Newton Public Schools — is the first step in a multi-stage process. Nolin said she’ll review her initial findings and test her hypotheses and analysis with key stakeholders in the coming months.

In January, she will launch “an extensive planning process” that will culminate with the presentation of a new strategic plan to the School Committee next June.

Nolin acknowledged that some of her recommendations may not resonate with everyone, as she brings “a new style, maybe a new language and new perspective.

“I have learned that my strategies and perspectives are quite different than what had been happening before in terms of superintendent leadership,” Nolin said.

School bus parked in front of Newton South High School. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

School Committee members strongly supported Nolin’s report.

Christopher Brezki called it “a very honest assessment of what the needs of this district are and how we can move forward. There’s no BS or political spin. This is just straight up what we need to do to improve” the city’s schools.

Paul Levy called it a “tour de force.” The report “confirms what many parents have said about our schools. Our aims are noble, but we do not yet have the accountability in place.”

Among the key observations Nolin made in the report she presented to the School Committee:

  • Community members express a strong desire for improvements in academic areas, emphasizing the importance of reintroducing or enhancing homework assignments, particularly in science, math, and allowing for more experiences in the arts.
  • Teachers and principals feel vulnerable to community outrage and criticism when certain topics are taught, making it harder for teachers to focus on creativity and innovation and creating a principal need to support staff and intervene with parents.
  • Class size in high school math and science classes are too high, ranging from 27 to 30 students, making it difficult for teachers to provide necessary support and intervention. Class size in other courses are appropriate.
  • Combating antisemitism has emerged as a consistent theme from all school constituencies.
  • Creating community partnerships as a way to bring more financial resources to the school system.
  • Community, staff, and students expressed concerns about teacher absences and substitute teacher shortages. Teacher absences, especially at the two high schools, lead to frequent class cancellations. Addressing staff absenteeism across the district is paramount.
  • Nearly half of the staff in the schools are over 50 years of age, potentially leading to a wave of early retirements, impacting staffing and health care costs, and necessitating succession planning.
  • Build community partnerships and public trust are needed to support school spending and plans.
  • The ability to attract new and younger staff is hindered by perceived district instability due to budget concerns.
  • Morale among less-experienced staff is low, primarily due to fears of possible cuts and concern about financial stability in the profession. Collaboration between the Administration and the teachers’ union is limited and fraught with conflict instead of a unified desire to improve the profession and educational experience. A new collaborative approach is needed.
  • The district requires a more transparent and collaborative budgeting process that focuses on long-term strategic planning and prioritizes program improvements.
  • The Teaching and Learning Department is underfunded, impacting curriculum development, data collection.
  • There is a lack of systematic data collection on student academic performance in math, writing, literary analysis and research skills.
  • The quality of school lunches is a major concern for parents.
  • As part of the study, community members were asked to give their views on the issues of most importance to them. Among the key requests, in order of importance, included:
  • Introduce homework in elementary schools.
  • Emphasize science, math and arts education, while also incorporating more advanced courses for above-grade-level learners.
  • Improve the school lunch program by offering healthier and tastier options.
  • Address the achievement gaps between students of difference races without lowering standards.
  • Provide professional development for staff on restorative justice and valuing their positions of power.
  • Improve communication between parents and teachers, including providing more feedback on student performance.