Toward the end of a lengthy Zoom meeting with the Old Rochester Regional Joint School Committee / Superintendency Union #55 on June 10, Superintendent Doug White gave his final address. The bodies were apart, participating via remote access, but the emotion was evident.
“I feel very proud that the voices were heard this evening from the leadership and not so much from me because I think they’re ready to take on the challenges that are ahead of all of you, and they’re the ones we’re going to lean on as well as the school committee for their support for the work that’s going to be done,” said White, reading a prepared statement. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve in this role… Although it has not always been easy, we have all worked to make decisions and take actions that will ensure that all the children receive the best education we could possibly provide them.”
White estimated to have participated in over 400 school committee meetings and witnessed many advances in facilities and methods.
“I want to thank the parents and the guardians in the Tri-Town for sharing their children with us every day. I’ve worked in multiple school districts, and I can say the families in the Tri-Town are the best. Family engagement is the highest I’ve ever seen… No matter the cause, there is always support. I hope that will always be the case.”
In looking back at his decade in ORR’s Central Office, White focused on successes of two strategic plans aimed at making improvements in the areas of a rigorous curriculum, 21st-century learning, technology, social-emotional learning, global awareness, multi-culturalism, relationships with towns, and the organizational restructuring.
White thanked the educators and support staff and noted that ORR’s graduation rate is among the top districts in Massachusetts. He noted the low number of special education students going outside of the district as a tribute to the ORR staff.
He alluded to Gene Jones’ efforts to make sure all district buildings are in good shape, and that under his guidance ORR schools have seen upgrades with HVAC systems, lighting, alternative revenue sources, wind turbines, and rebates. “As a result of his efforts… our buildings, despite aging, are in very good shape,” he said.
He praised the work of food-service director Jill Hennessy regarding in-house training and the serving of 30,000 breakfasts and lunches for students. The school lunch program’s finances are sound and the program has received accolades from the state Department of Nutrition.
“The number of technology learning platforms has increased tenfold,” said White, referencing the vision of an electronic-communications device for every student. “I know we still need to find the right balance for how much technology is the right amount in a student’s day.”
Most teachers now have interactive whiteboards in the classroom, allowing for expansion in 21st century learning across multiple platforms. The district will benefit from immeasurable levels including security from a new phone system.
“I personally want to thank Diana Russo for keeping me on track every day. Mike (Nelson), she is a key to a superintendent’s success,” said White, passing public advice to his impending successor.
White estimated having worked with between 45 and 55 school committee members over his decade in the Central Office, noting that three have matched his tenure start to finish: Sharon Hartley, Robin Rounseville, and Tina Rood. Citing two out of three of the Tri-Town communities with new town administrators, White asserted that the timing for the transition to Nelson’s leadership is perfect.
“I feel that Mike has the skills and the institutional knowledge to keep the strategic plan a focal point,” he said. “As the district transitions back to school, I recommend you keep your focus on 21st-century learning, technology, multi-culturalism, and global awareness and, most importantly, our students are going to need social-emotional learning support.
“The hiring of a Central Office administration is going to be key. I still believe there is a lack of middle management, which at some point will need to be addressed to meet the challenges of education. I think you are going to need to watch Chapter 70 funding and the impact it might have on future budgets. And, lastly, I think remote learning is here to stay, so you’re going to need to look for ways to improve how we train staff and teach students in that environment.”
White emotionally thanked his family and said it is time for him to give them the 100 percent that he had been giving his career as an educator. “I can’t wait to get to know my grandchildren better and share their lives like I have the many students that I’ve served for the last 35 years,” he said.
Union-side Chairperson Shannon Finning urged the applauding members to unmute their microphones so White could hear the response. Region-side Chairperson Cary Humphrey added his congratulations. All of this came toward the conclusion of a meeting lasting two hours and 26 minutes.
Several reports were given and discussions had, the last, from Finning being the need to arrive open-minded for Monday night’s remote access meeting with Barbara Sullivan from Tri-Town Against Racism (see meeting coverage in this edition).
Earlier in the meeting, Nelson summarized a series of events that during the school year were geared toward raising awareness and educating the faculty about racism. While it was repeatedly stressed that the work of effectively communicating and practicing inclusion will never be finished, Humphrey articulated a regret where it concerns community awareness.
“As a committee… in hindsight, I wish we made this more public. I don’t think the general public understands the time and energy put into this,” he said. “We want to keep pushing forward so we can improve this so everybody understands we… want to move in the right direction.”
To that end, White advised the committee to review policies and practices. While ORR believes inclusion is embedded in its curriculum, there was widespread sentiment among the members to be more explicit moving forward, especially as students are confronted with racism locally and nationally. Finning said the transition is an opportunity for ORR’s Central Office.
Hartley reported to the committee that she had taken the proposal to reexamine policy and curriculum and proposed a third element: individual introspection and commitment. One purpose of the committee, she said, is to maintain the policies. “When I looked for an anti-racism policy, I couldn’t find one,” she said. “I found two across the nation, one that I thought was very good.”
Hartley proposed that the committee put anti-racism on the meeting agenda and consider putting in a policy. One element of the policy that impressed her expounded that each school in its district should make a statement that reflects that policy and how they do things. “That felt like Old Rochester,” she said.
Answering member Suzanne Tseki’s question, ORR Principal Mike Devoll said, “We’re only as good as our handbook… I haven’t heard anything I wouldn’t support right now… I’m on board.”
Member Heather Burke suggested elementary school representation. “That way we can make sure we have buy-in on all levels,” she said.
In other business, the committee voted to approve the proposed, four-meeting schedule and the proposed Professional Development Plan for the 2020-21 academic year.
Outgoing member Stefan Gabriel was also thanked for his service to the Joint School Committee.
ORR Joint School Committee / Superintendency Union #55
By Mick Colageo