Mentorship played a key role in keeping first-year Old Rochester Regional School Superintendent Mike Nelson and his Central Office staff on an even keel through the tumultuous 2020-21 academic year that saw ORR District students begin the year mainly in a hybrid learning format and eventually return to school on a full-time, in-person basis.
In reporting to the ORR Joint School Committee / Superintendency Union #55 on July 6, Nelson gave a detailed presentation to address the Superintendent’s Mid-Cycle Review at the one-year point of the two-year cycle.
While alluding to his ongoing work with retired Superintendent Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner who acted as his coach, Nelson thanked Gilbert-Whitner for her availability at all hours, including weekends, and the hours she spent with him prior to the July 6 meeting looking at the 2021-22 academic year.
Nelson also told the JSC that his Central Office team, including Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Jannell Pearson-Campbell, Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Howie Barber, and Director of Student Services Craig Davidson were also mentored during the 2020-21 school year.
The Superintendent’s Goals Subcommittee, made up of Carole Clifford (Mattapoisett SC), Sharon Hartley (Rochester SC), Nichole Daniel (Marion SC), Anne Fernandes (Rochester SC), Cary Humphrey (ORR SC), and Michelle Smith (Marion and ORR SC), assisted through development and feedback meetings with the end game of making a recommendation to the JSC, which approved the superintendent’s goals in a November 19, 2020, public meeting.
While some of the appointees have since moved on from the school committee and have been replaced on the subcommittee, Nelson felt as though the above listed names best represent with whom he worked throughout the 2020-21 school year.
In summarizing his 2020-22 goals, Nelson presented those goals in the context of Year 3 (just completed) of ORR’s Vision 2023 Strategic Plan. From there, the Superintendent Entry Plan for 2020-21 progresses to the Superintendent Finding Report for 2020-21. The Entry Plan, he noted, was reviewed and approved by the JSC in November 2020. The Finding Report, Nelson explained, has been submitted to the committee but remains subject to updates.
The five-year Vision 2023 implementation of ORR’s mission “to inspire all students to think, to learn, and to care” is founded in three parts: 21st Century (project-based) Learning “that creates meaningful opportunities for students and staff to engage in real-life work that helps to solve real-life problems); Social and Emotional Learning (students learn best when they feel safe); and Global Citizenship (respecting all cultures and tied to civic responsibility and empathy).
Nelson, who became superintendent on July 1, 2020, presented four goals that had been reviewed and approved by the JSC: 1. Effective Entry & Direction Setting; 2. Maintaining Momentum During the Transition; 3. New Superintendent Induction Program Engagement (professional development offered by DESE); and 4. Meeting Leadership.
On July 6, Nelson charted his course in three categories: Key Actions, Benchmarks, and Resources. He told the JSC that all updates have been accompanied by supporting evidence. Key actions began with November 2020 for plan layouts addressing the progress of the school year that began in a hybrid attendance format.
Nelson told the committee that his meeting leadership goal was driven by a need to allow teams to better focus on instructional improvement; 75 percent of meetings were to be focused for at least 45 minutes on academics.
Identifying a “hot topic” of race and ethnicity at ORR, Nelson highlighted the progress “in making sure our schools are safe and welcoming to all.”
He considers ORR fortunate from a budgetary standpoint to have maintained level services into the 2021-22 academic year. His report addressed building management as well and his work with Facilities Director Gene Jones.
Nelson’s report was lauded by committee members Anne Fernandes and Michelle Smith, and others quickly followed suit.
“I was impressed all along how Mike was able to meet or exceed or at least work towards many if not all of the goals,” said JSC member Nichole Daniel. “With this year being such a crazy year with this pandemic, it was hard for anybody in education to meet a lot of those goals that you set for yourself at the beginning, so it was definitely impressive to watch it kind of unfold.
“It was nice to be a part of it,” Daniel continued. “One thing that Mr. Nelson didn’t mention (on July 6) that he did mention in our meetings was that he not only had his mentor, but he also hooked up all of our new Central Office staff with their own mentors as well as mentoring them himself, which to me was really nice to see.”
JSC member Sharon Hartley echoed the sentiments of her colleagues. “This in particular, this report that Mike put together, is a wonderful example of someone who set specific and comprehensive goals, wrote a comprehensive entry plan, which is not a requirement but something that is valuable to all professionals as we enter a new path. Every step along the way, he created for us a beautiful portrait of his leadership and his path for us at Old Rochester.”
“As we met with him, he didn’t just tell us the stuff he was doing … he really listened to the team…. A great leader listens and then acts based on what he or she has heard, and that we also see happening here. This process, this year, despite all the distractions and many ups and downs in the year, as I look at the process from today back to Mike’s time beginning with us as our superintendent, he has been professional, thoughtful, energetic, and we have seen progress in a crazy year.”
Hartley made sure to redirect the conversation back to the evaluation process yet to be completed.
“It’s our job right now to make sure we have said and have the conversations with Superintendent Nelson around what our expectations are, what our wishes are, what our advice is…. If you have a thought, this is the time,” she said.
JSC member Carly Lavin asked if Nelson plans to bring the same structure to the building aspects of his plan for 2021-22. Nelson said it is the same cycle but that schools need to take into account their own plans. “It all should work off one another, and that’s my plan,” he said.
JSC member Jim Muse recalled giving Nelson advice upon his March 2020 hire not to rest on his laurels and noted that all of Nelson’s activities in the past year prove he has not. JSC member Michelle Smith read a note from former Chair Cary Humphrey, who also served on the Superintendent Review Committee, enthusiastically supporting Nelson.
Union Chair Shannon Finning said the committee would be going into executive session for further discussion with Nelson.
A review of the superintendent’s timeline and potential modifications to Nelson’s plan based on feedback will be presented in a September public meeting, followed by two meetings in April 2022, the first at the beginning of April to present committee members evaluation materials and explanation on the process, and the second meeting at the end of April for the superintendent to provide committee members with evidence-supporting materials.
By May 19, 2022, committee members will have submitted evaluations to the subcommittee, and by May 26, 2022, the superintendent, committee chairs (region and union sides), and subcommittee members will review materials and prepare a final evaluation.
On June 2, 2022, the committee chairs will finalize the work done with the superintendent, and at the June JSC public meeting present the superintendent’s evaluation.
Unrelated to his Mid-Cycle Review, Nelson reported on a successful result of the one-time raise voted to attract a better pool of substitute teachers. The rate increase has expired, but Nelson said the situation will be monitored and, if necessary, brought back before the committee. ORR’s FY22 substitute teacher rates will match the rates prior to that one-time increase.
In policy review, Nelson said changes are the result of questions asked by the Policy Subcommittee and the effort to adhere to the ideology that the current federal administration has put in place. Both the Region and Union sides voted unanimously to approve the policy changes for the 2021-22 academic year.
ORR Joint School Committee / Superintendency Union #55
By Mick Colageo