Essex Town

Essex Town

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Once in a While You Get Shown the Light in the Strangest of Places if You Look at it Right

I had the opportunity to visit Hilton Head Island last month, 2 days after South Carolina’s Governor allowed islanders to return to their homes and businesses following the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew.

To state it mildly, I was overwhelmed initially by seeing the destruction left in the wake of this storm and the heartbreak it caused so many people whose property and/or livelihood was affected by powerful winds that snapped century old trees as if they were toothpicks.

This gestalt type of experience allowed me to see past the noticeable debris left by the storm and the obvious disruption it caused the majority of island residents and instead, watch the amazing way people came together to help each other overcome one of nature’s greatest wraths.

Flying home to Vermont with this recent experience of “life after a hurricane” in mind, the thoughts of merging with CCSU in a short 7 months suddenly reappeared. Truthfully, these thoughts were never too far away. I mused over the analogy that came to mind- that solutions to complex problems are possible when you can see past the obvious hurdles and look for solutions that involve the ideas and help from others and,  “success is the only option” mindset is embraced by everyone.

There has been a great deal of progress made over the last few months- moving us closer to being a unified school district on July 1, 2017. School Board policies are being approved, the candidate pool for the next Superintendent is promising (interviews begin this week), and a new Human Resource/Finance System is slowly coming on line.  On top of all that, contract negotiations with educators have begun and other staff contingents will follow. Last but not least, community groups, funded by the Nellie Mae Foundation and facilitated by Everyday Democracy, have been engaged this fall in a variety of topics including:

District Mission/Vision
Student Centered Learning
Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements
Multiple Pathways and Personalized Learning
And yes, School Bus Transportation!

There’s so much to be excited about with the pending merger. There will be roadblocks, detours and the occasional stormy day. But when we roll up our sleeves, believe in ourselves and each other and keep our compass set to true north- we will have kept our promise to our students, community, and to each other. This merger will be successful- in more ways than one!

With the future in mind,
Mark

Friday, September 9, 2016

Set Out Runnin' But I Take My Time

Although school ended on June 10th last year, the work toward a successful merger barely slowed down. Busy at the helm were school board members and school leaders from both Essex Town and Chittenden Central, who are staying focused on a multitude of tasks that are considered mission critical, or practically speaking, need to be completed before July 1, 2017.

That said, the different task teams responsible for leading the way have kept one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the brake for the last 7 months recognizing that final decisions must be well-informed through a collaborative process and focused on what’s best for students and our three communities.

Multi-tasking is great skill-set to have in the kitchen when you’re trying to time the  flounder sizzling under the broiler to be ready at the same time as the Swiss chard steaming in the pot and the quinoa that you just put the lid on. But what I’ve experienced in my career as a school leader is to never assume it’s a great way to manage a workday or a multifaceted project.

Have you ever heard people comment about what great multi-taskers they are? You might even have heard the stereotype that members of millennial generation are natural multi-taskers, having lived their whole lives constantly switching their attention from texting to Facebooking, to downloading, to watching TV— all supposedly without missing a beat. Those people are out there, regardless of when they were born, and I’m so impressed when the 15 things they’re working on all come to fruition perfectly. Personally I think they’re super human more than they are super multitaskers!

Learning how to multitask has become a favorite marketing tool among companies who want to get as much output from their employees as possible. Workshops, webinars and books are readily available on the subject- implying in many cases that asking someone to focus on a single task through to completion has now become passé.

We do have a reality with the merger work ahead of us, much work has to be completed, and I would argue that the scarcity of time is a good reason  to concentrate on one thing at a time. And you’ve heard the adage, so pay heed, “when I’m interrupted while performing just one task it takes 50% more time to complete it and I make 50% more errors!”

We have become a generation that is capable of doing many things at once- no doubt. The 15 + things we are attempting to accomplish over the next 10 months all need to be completed through a collaborative and thoughtful process that includes the voices of many people. We can’t be satisfied with batting 500. We have to keep the big picture in mind while shepherding specific tasks to completion before cluttering our plates with tasks that can remain on the back-burner for the time being.


And maybe, if we remain focused and strategic, running fast but going slow, we’ll even enjoy this amazing journey ahead!

-Mark

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

EWSD Opening August 26, 2016



When Vermont communities are preparing for major change in their local school system, it’s imperative that they continue to keep focus on what they value and believe in concerning a high quality education. In our case, the communities of Westford, Essex and Essex Junction know that the educational system is like an orchestra made up of many players- students, educators, support staff, school and community leaders, parents, business owners and ordinary citizens. And that we must work together in harmony to play the best music we can.

They know that education is a public good that creates a high quality of life for everyone. The future of their community depends on how well we prepare our students to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

They know that the world is changing and so must our educational system. We don’t have to start over; there’s much to celebrate and build on in our 2 districts and 10 schools. But just as an historic VT home needs updated plumbing and electrical systems, so too, our educational system needs to be remodeled to effectively prepare our students and our communities for the future.

Lastly, the citizens of Essex, Westford and the Junction know that education has been a vital part of their democratic way of life. And Quality of life starts with embracing the concept “we the people.”
Our communities believe that all students regardless of their skin color, nation of origin, gender, academic prowess, sexual identity, religion or neighborhood they live in, have great gifts and potential beyond belief. And that all kids can succeed through our unconditional support, guidance and delivery of high quality instruction.

Going forward, we must stand tall with our communities, as one unified school system, doing what’s right for our kids rather than simply doing the right thing.






In terms of the upcoming merger between ETSD and CCSU, an analogy comes to my mind- We know that traveling down a dirt road in Vermont, whether it be veiled in morning fog, covered with ice, marred with pot holes, gooey with mud or newly grated, can be a challenge.  But as Vermonters, we’re confident that we’ll make it down that road and if we don’t, that someone will lend a hand if we need it. It’s a VT mind-set; it’s believing that we will be triumphant. And when we believe it we often see it even though we may have popped a strut 2 miles back.

The journey ahead will undoubtedly challenge us with bumps, tight turns and slippery spots but with a highly effective school board at the wheel and engaged community members and school personnel acting as guideposts, Judy and I both know that the newly formed Essex Westford School District will have a positive impact on students, families and our three communities.

Our Two Roads, that have run parallel to each other for over 4 decades, have now converged- and I’m very excited that road work has begun.

Navigational Maps are being created, without Google’s help, pavement projects are underway, traffic is moving at a reasonable pace, people are driving safely, the views are beautiful and the final destination although not fully in sight yet  is becoming clearer with each passing day.

Change, can be a double edged sword, it has a relentless presence in education as we know – making us run faster and faster each day. Yet when things are unsettled, public school employees seem to find new ways to move ahead.  And it’s often the case that in CCSU and ETSD- when the going gets tough- we create breakthroughs not commonly observed in other school systems.

If you ask people to share what comes to mind when you mention the word change, they come up with a mixture of negative and positive terms. On one side of the page – fear, anxiety, loss, danger and PANIC. On the other side of the page, excitement, energizing, risk-taking, personal/professional growth!

For better or for worse, even the word change, arouses emotions and when emotions intensify, leadership becomes key.

My brief talk this morning however is not about me, about Judy, or other leaders in our respective organizations. This talk is about how each of us in this rink today can help in the merger transition by embracing this amazing opportunity by staying engaged in the process no matter how distant it may seem to you at this point in time and remain focused on opportunities rather than centering on things that are beyond our sphere of influence.

There are a handful of effective drivers that bear a great influence on the ability of schools to transform their systems so that deeper learning is experienced by all kids and all staff. And the greatest driver of all, I believe, is the need to foster a collaborative culture among all stakeholder groups where each student, every day, is at the center of our decision making.

For decades, the terms climate and ethos have been used to capture this pervasive, yet elusive, thing we call "culture." Although hard to define and difficult to put a finger on, culture is extremely powerful. This transitory, taken-for-granted aspect of schools, too often over-looked or ignored, is actually one of the most significant features of any educational enterprise.

Culture influences everything that goes on in schools: how staff dress, what they talk about, their willingness to change, the practice of instruction, and the emphasis given student and faculty learning. Defining what culture is - is not simple – it’s not necessarily something we can put our finger on when we walk in the school house or district offices.  In fact, it’s a massive iceberg under the water’s surface made up of norms, values, beliefs, human relationships, traditions, and rituals that have built up over time as people work together, solve problems, and confront challenges. This set of informal expectations and values shapes how people think, feel, and act in schools. This highly enduring web of influence binds the school together and makes it special.

It’s up to district leaders—principals, teachers, support staff, students and parents —to help identify, shape, and maintain strong, positive, student-focused cultures. Without these supportive cultures, a successful merger will be jeopardized, and student learning will be impacted.

Based on our own personal experiences and the results of many well-known national studies over the last 20 years concerning the effect culture has on positive student outcomes, we know that culture crushes best intentions and promising practices.

Unfortunately, some schools in our country have, over time, become unproductive and toxic. These are schools where staffs are extremely fragmented, where the purpose of serving students has been eclipsed by negative values and perpetual accounts of self-defeat. Schools with fragile cultures are places where negativity dominates conversations, interactions, and planning; where the only stories recounted are of failure, the only heroes are anti-heroes.

No one wants to live and work in these kinds of schools or districts.  Happily, most schools are not this far gone and in our case, we are proud of our respective school cultures in ETSD and CCSU.
I have firsthand knowledge that the cultures in our schools in EWSD are not decaying but thriving.



  •        Where district and building staff have a shared sense of purpose
  •          Where we hold high expectations for ourselves and students.
  •          Where the underlying norms of collegiality, improvement, and hard work are observed every day.
  •       Where rituals and traditions highlight student accomplishments, teacher innovation, and parental commitment.
  •       Where Principals and teachers work together to build a place that values its students, encourages professional growth and supports parent involvement in all aspects of their child’s education.
  •       Where our culture encourages student involvement in the global and local community and teacher commitment to real time and relevant learning activities for students.
  •         Where personalized and student centered learning is  becoming the way we do business         
  •     Where the culture of collaboration in our 10 schools and across the 2 districts has grown steadily over the last several years, requiring an “all hands on deck” way of thinking and doing.




Now that our two roads have converged, each of us needs to play a leadership role or supporting role in helping to reshape a unified union district culture that honors the past while looking forward to the future - where it’s our responsibility, collectively, to see that all kids from Westford, Essex Junction and Essex Town have a successful PK-12 journey.

In thinking about this amazing opportunity to stand before you and with you today, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass before we end this program this morning, without sharing a strongly held personal belief of mine that Richard Carlson framed so eloquently 2 decades ago, and I quote,   “that the measure of our peace of mind is determined by how much we are able to live in the present moment.” Carlson goes on to say,  “that irrespective of what happened yesterday or last year, and what may or may not happen tomorrow, the present moment is where you are-   always.

Without question, many of us have mastered the neurotic art of spending much of our lives worrying about a variety of things - all at once. We allow past problems and future concerns to dominate our present moments, so much so that we end up anxious, frustrated, depressed, and hopeless.
On the flip side, we also postpone our gratification, our stated priorities, and our happiness, often convincing ourselves that "someday" will be better than today.

Unfortunately, the same mental dynamics that tell us to look toward the future will only repeat themselves so that "someday" never actually arrives.

John Lennon once said, "Life is what's happening while we're busy making other plans.” When we're busy making "other plans" our children are busy growing up, the people we love are moving away, our bodies are getting out of shape, and our dreams are slipping away. In short, we miss out on life.
 Many people live as if life were a dress rehearsal for some later date. It isn't. In fact, no one has a guarantee that he or she will be here tomorrow. Now is the only time we have, and the only time that we have any control over.

When our attention is in the present moment, we push fear from our minds. Fear is the concern over events that might happen in the future.

To combat fear, the best strategy is to learn to bring your attention back to the present. Mark Twain said, "I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."
I don't think I could have said it any better.

So practice keeping your attention on the here and now. Your efforts will pay great dividends.
This merger will be a success – because of you, because of us, because of the students, families and citizens of these three great communities, because we are Essex-Westford Strong - Better Together!


Thanks to all of you.


Mark


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

I Cut My Deck to the Queen of Spades but the Cards Were All the Same

Over the last 2 months, I’ve been facilitating a steering committee meeting that includes members from both ETSD and CCSU Leadership Teams.

The charge of this committee is to frame the work both teams will be engaged in over the next 12 months starting with getting to know each other through early fall school visits.

These steering committee meetings have been collaborative, instructive, and future oriented; it’s not about who has better ideas, better stuff, more talent or who’s getting greater results. The merger process isn’t a win-lose-draw process. No one has a higher card in their hand!

Our colleagues at CCSU- administrators, teachers, and support staff alike- care about one thing- the success of each and every child in the new unified union school district.

The steering committee will be recommending to Judy, me, and their administrative colleagues, that we meet this summer to exchange ideas on what a unified leadership model should look like with a particular focus on: roles and responsibilities among school and district leaders, decision making processes, leadership team structures, and internal communications among/between a 20 plus member team.

Judy and I are also keenly aware that we must not create a leadership model that is untested and has the potential of hampering the vision and expertise of the next Superintendent. However, we must come to agreement as a newly formed unified leadership team on what the research says about the role of educational leaders in the change process and how we can apply road-tested theories and standards of practice during the transition process over the next 12 months.

Getting to know each other and learning together is a proven first step we must take together given what we need to accomplish this coming school year.

With the future in mind,

Mark

Monday, May 16, 2016

Such a Long Long Time to be Gone and a Short Time to be There

Essex Town School District has been operating for nearly four decades as a PK-8 school district while high school students residing in Essex Town continue to attend Essex High School. Before the ETSD’s inception, we were a member of the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union. I’m not sure what the conventional wisdom was at the time that influenced the creation of the ETSD- that was a long time ago- Now we’ve reunited our communities under one unified school district and we have a precious amount of time to accomplish a number of important tasks.

The EWSD School Board recognizes the complexities of accomplishing many of the tasks associated with the merger and the importance of ensuring that EVERY decision made must be guided by a set of principles that reflect what effective board governance and leadership is all about. On May 3rd, the board adopted the following principles that will help frame all future board and superintendent deliberations concerning the merger process and expected outcomes.

Essex Westford Educational Community Unified Union School Board Guiding Principles for Effective Decision Making
  • Does the decision deliver on the community expectations and values identified in the Articles of Agreement for the Unified Union?
  • Is the decision based on substantive evidence and can the results be measured?
  • Does the decision promote organizational stability, student centered learning, and a focus on transferable skills including creativity, innovation and citizenship?
  • Does the decision help to maintain safe learning environments for students, staff and school visitors?
  • Is the decision clearly articulated and the result of a transparent process?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Every Silver Lining’s Got a Touch of Grey



Mindset rules - If you believe it- it will happen! I can’t see the full picture yet but I know great things are in the future for kids when Essex Town and Chittenden Central become one.

The work underway is not quite breakneck but, the work associated with merging with Chittenden Central has directed much of my energy to ensure that the unification process is seamless and focused on what’s best for students PK-12.

The UU School Board is hard at work. Their work plan is taking shape with a focus on several key bodies of work:
  • FY 18 Budget Development 
  • Policy Development 
  • Superintendent Search Process 
  • Contract Negotiations 
  • Community Engagement 
That’s board work, but what about the stuff going on inside? Merging Finance Systems, Payroll Systems, Student Information Systems, Staff Professional Growth Systems, Curriculum Alignment, Local Assessment Plans, Building and Grounds, School Bus Transportation, IT Infrastructure and the list goes on!

The internal work facilitated by Judy and I, can be dropped into three buckets: What has to happen by 7/1/17, what would be great if it did happen by 7/1/17, and what is a good idea but not mission critical. Clearly, number 1, is getting a new Finance and HR system on-line and an IT infrastructure in place that supports it. A team of Essex Town and Chittenden Central staff are hard at work with that end in mind, comparing existing systems and considering alternatives as well.

Essex Town and Chittenden Central District and School based Leaders are in the beginning stages of exploring how best to approach redefining common purpose and how we can effectively re-shape and merge our two leadership structures. Although our current structures are different, our definition of student success is clearly aligned. And we all agree, without effective leadership, traction is slippery at best!

The following link provides access to the UU Board’s Blog: www.ewsd.org. Although in its infancy, this site provides useful information concerning the work underway at the board level.

With the future in mind,

Mark

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Wake now, discover that you are the song that the morning brings



A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is one of the most famous Chinese proverbs, used by leaders of organizations embarking on major initiatives. You may plan and dream all you want about a long journey, but you have to begin somewhere. We may have a grandiose vision or plan for change, but the first step is crucial – getting started!

The EWSD School Board has begun their journey toward a successful merger with our sister district and the level of activity is increasing exponentially. After two board retreats and their first official board meeting on April 5th, the work over the next 15 months has begun to take form. The headliners include: Public Engagement, Policy Development, 2017 – 2018 Budget Development, Board Professional Growth, Labor Agreements and Superintendent Recruitment.

Judy DeNova and I are facilitating several bodies of work which reflect outcomes we must achieve by 7/1/17 including school board organization and development, implementing a new Student Information System, Human Resource and Financial Planning/Monitoring System, Merging Technology Infrastructure, Public Engagement through the Nellie Mae Grant, and forging a new leadership structure and culture between district and school based administrators.

Dan French, Project Manager, has met with Judy and me on two recent occasions to begin framing the multitude of projects we’re engaged in with a goal of ensuring system coherence and a laser focus on student achievement and organizational efficiencies.

Thinking about the journey ahead and what our first steps should be, I’m reassured knowing that we are on this journey together. Initially, it’s not the “how” we do our work that’s most important - rather- it’s understanding “why” the creation of a unified PK-12 system makes sense for kids.

With the future in mind,

Mark

Monday, March 21, 2016

What it Means to Serve Your Community

In my opinion, school board membership is among the highest forms of public service. It requires a commitment of time and energy, thoughtful planning and strategic engagement with a variety of stakeholder groups.
School board members serve their communities for many reasons. The common thread that unifies board members in service is the commitment to providing an equitable and excellent education to all students at a cost that is reasonable to taxpayers. This is the case for the new Unified Union (UU) Board who has begun their work transitioning 5 individual boards into one governance structure.
The UU board, (I haven’t settled on a proper/shorter title yet) consists of 10 members; 4 from Essex Town, 4 from Essex Junction and 2 from Westford.
The board held their second retreat on Monday evening, March 14th. The retreat had two purposes: First, the board wanted to continue to develop and refine a set of dependable and constant ideals to guide their decision making in all aspects of their work now and in the future. These ideals will be further developed when the board engages teachers, students, parents and community members in the ensuing months.
The second purpose of the retreat was to conduct several pieces of official business including when the board will meet, how agendas will be developed and how the board plans on monitoring transition activities.
Lastly, under official business, the board approved contracting with an external Project Manager whose primary responsibilities will be oversight of the multitude of activities related to the merger transition. Having a Project Manager in place will ensure that all the puzzle pieces touch! Dr. Daniel French is currently a practicing Superintendent in Southern VT. He has made the decision to resign in June after serving as a VT Superintendent for 12 years. He will begin writing the next chapter of his career as the Coordinator of the School Leadership Program at Saint Michael’s College beginning 7/1/16. Dan has been contracted for 20 days for the remainder of the 15-16 school year. The AOE transition grant will cover all costs associated with his service.
Look forward to meeting Dan, in passing, when he joins me on a tour of ETSD in the afternoon of March 30th.
With the future in mind,

Mark

Friday, March 11, 2016

Towards Successful Unification: Focusing Direction, Cultivating Collaborative Cultures, Securing Accountability and Deepening Learning

Imagine you met a remarkable person who could look at the sun or stars at any time of the day and state the exact time. This person would be considered an amazing time teller, and we’d probably revere that person for the ability to tell time. But wouldn’t that person be even more amazing if, instead of telling the time, he or she built a clock that could tell the time forever, even after he or she was dead and gone? (Adapted from the book, Built to Last, Collins)

As we move forward with designing and implementing a plan to join together with schools in Essex Junction and Westford, I will remain resolute in viewing the merger transition in its totality rather than as separate bodies of work.  Knocking off one item at a time without thoroughly making sense of how it relates to the bigger picture is “time telling.” Designing a new modern PK-12 school system that will continue to prosper way beyond one single leader’s tenure is “clock building.”

Two Roads Converge is a blog that’s been created in an effort to keep ETSD staff in the loop concerning transition activities and milestones reached over the next 15 or so months. As the primary blogger, I’m committed to posting information, without too much commentary, that illustrates the work underway and in some cases sharing the interesting complexities in merging two separate school organizations.

I’m approaching the unification with CCSU as an opportunity to transform our educational system in Essex Vermont by designing an exceptional and well-articulated plan that places students at the center of all decisions while at the same time engaging the public and respective faculties throughout the process.

Although some weeks will be short on content, I’ll try my best to post useful information on a regular basis based on activity at the board, central office and community level.

The new Unified Union (UU) Board will be attending part II of their retreat on Monday evening, March 14th. Until a new UU Website has been designed, agendas and minutes of board meetings will be located on both the ETSD and CCSU websites.

With the future in mind,

Mark