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!