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Question of the Week: Schools Candidates Answer One Question

Anne, Matt and Pascha get a chance to speak on one subject from this campaign.

During your campaign for school committee, you have talked with many people about their hopes and concerns for Belmont's schools. What one question or comment stood out and how did you answer that question or comment?

Anne Lougee

The most common themes expressed this campaign season was the hope that the Belmont Public Schools not lose more ground, that there will be a way to stem the tide of rising class sizes (at all grade levels), of increased fees for services within the buildings and on the playing fields, and that many of the course offerings eliminated in recent years be restored. Families want to be assured that their children are truly known by their teachers, that they will have access to vital and enriching extra-curricular activities, and that they will have courses available that will help to prepare them for life beyond high school.

In otherwords, people want to be reassured that their children will receive the best education possible. Although there is no clear, comprehensive, or even comforting response to these hopes and concerns, I can say that there are many smart and dedicated people working to find solutions to them.

Yesterday, I attended “A Day on the Hill,” a program sponsored by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees for its members. We heard from legislators and experts on issues of reporting requirements for school systems, the new educator evaluation system, and the future of the Massachusetts economy. We learned that there are currently 108 reporting requirements for schools and educators, and the typical educator spends upwards of 160 hours per year fulfilling them.

For me, the presentation on the economy was particularly relevant, and sobering, for Belmont. Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association and Belmont’s Town Moderator, explained why the recovery from the 2008 recession will not be as strong as previous recoveries; specifically that Massachusetts, and the vast majority of states, will not be able to restore the cuts of the past several years.

For Belmont, that means we are living in the “new normal” as far as school and town services go.The School Committee, the administration and the leaders of the Belmont Public Schools are continuing to work hard to find efficiencies that translate into economic savings, continuing to seek new revenue sources, and continuing to improve the services being delivered.

Several years back, then-superintendent Peter Holland informed the Belmont community that it could no longer afford its school system. With the cost of doing business outpacing the revenues available, there has been observable erosion to the system in this past decade. Guided by research that shows small class size at the elementary level translates into less need for academic support as the students age through the system, the Belmont Public Schools has done its best to preserve those levels, but at the expense of other services. It is perhaps more evident today because, with so few adjustments left to be made and with the pressure of student fees being acutely felt, it is difficult to make all the puzzle pieces continue fit together. 

“We are relying on you (the School Committee) to keep Belmont’s property values high.” As a community, we want someone to assure us that there will be a good return on all of our investments in Belmont. As a community, I think we need to realistically come to terms with the economic realities in which we live, and, as a community align our priorities and determine what we will have to do to achieve them.

As a member of a six-person committee, I will do my best to ensure that the children in Belmont receive a quality education that will help them to be mature, empathic and active members of society; to have opportunities to achieve authentic success; and to teach them many of the skills needed to compete for jobs in the 21st century.

Matt Sullivan

During my campaign for School Committee I have talked to numerous residents of Belmont. All citizens have raised issues important to them. Class size is extremely important to parents of young school aged children. User fees is important to parents of school aged children in the middle and high school.  

Belmont offers a great education to all students. We rate among the highest schools in the state. I want to see this continue, but we need to be cognizant of the fact that for many students, sports and extra curricular activities are what keep them in school. For many families the user fees can be a burden. If elected, I would like to be involved with the Task Force on Athletics and Extra Curricular Activities.

Pascha Griffiths

During this campaign for School Committee, I have had many wonderful conversations with Belmont residents from all walks of life, and I have learned so much from each and every person. Because I have focused my School Committee conversations around the topic of innovation, the most common question I have been asked was about my experience with innovation.  

I am the founder of an innovative educational organization called the Possibilities Factory a 501(c)3 non-profit. I created this organization to build upon and proliferate what I had discovered through a challenge I gave my leadership students.  

For the 1998-1999 school year, I taught four classes of 8th grade Science, and one class of 8th grade Leadership. In my Leadership class, I gave my students weekly team building challenges, which were effective tools to accelerate interpersonal, intrapersonal, and strategic learning. The debriefing sessions proved to me that youth are insightful people, capable of incredible empathy, willing to creatively conquer a problem to help others.  

One week, a family in our school lost their house to a fire. That Friday, my challenge was, “Travis M.’s house burned down.  No one was hurt, but they lost everything. You have two weeks to do something about it! Ready? Set? Go!”  

Two weeks later, my students hosted a dance in Travis’s honor, complete with the coolest KMEL DJ, police detail, chaperons, raffle with prizes donated by local businesses, pizza and soda for sale, and a needed supplies collection. They raised just under $3000 dollars for the family and the media came to interview them. The media attention not only affirmed them as heroic citizens, but also inspired students I did not know to approach me, asking how to help.  

That was my “aha” moment: if we put media attention on youth making worthy contributions to the world, then other youth will emulate their excellence, especially if all students have access to leadership training. It was this realization that led me to apply to graduate school in 1999 to build The Possibilities Factory. I earned my Masters in Television Production, produced the show pilot, and developed my non-profit. Turning my “aha” moment into a non-profit organization with a curriculum book, pilot video, and track record of facilitating 20 transformational youth programs in multiple states is, to date, my most significant professional achievement.  

My discussions about the Possibilities Factory with my Belmont neighbors have been truly inspiring. If my experience with a single “aha” moment can create this kind of interdisciplinary, team-oriented, life-changing learning, what other innovations can our teachers discover and spread through the Belmont system? I am very excited by the possibilities that could emerge from our Professional Learning Teams (PLTs). We are only in the second year of our system-wide implementation of PLTs, and already we are finding many benefits in student outcomes. I am eager to cultivate and support this kind of innovation from within.  

But innovation isn’t just a tool for improving classroom teaching – innovation can also improve the town’s relationship to the schools. We have a history of annual budget crises, friction between neighbors, and students feeling that their futures are at risk. Budgets are tight, yet our standards our high and innovation can help us find the answers. We will need to collaborate, think creatively and take action as a town to address the significant issues we face.

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