Superintendent Sills Takes Stock of Leadership Transition


By Kim Siebert MacPhail

“I believe deeply that our mission should drive everything that we do,” Superintendent Jon Sills said to the School Committee on Tuesday night as he presented the highlights of his transition into the job as Superintendent that have provided him with “a broad and deep understanding of the system.”

During his assessment, Sills identified six key categories of needs and challenges:

Instructional Core

The Bedford Schools’ mission statement exhorts the system to develop “skillful, lifelong learners who think critically and creatively, and who are informed, responsible, and productive global citizens.”

“You know that I’ve talked from the beginning of my new [role] here as Superintendent about coherence and clarity—about how teaching and learning are organized, K-12 to help all students achieve what our mission aspires to have them achieve,” Sills said. The district and its leaders focus their energies to this end, Sills went on to say, but he has found that many staff members find initiatives be “disconnected and too numerous.”

To address this perception—and to achieve the goal of greater coherence—Sills said that Assistant Superintendent Claire Jackson has become the point person who is “knitting the pieces together,” aligning curriculum, strategies and staff to the achieve the mission.

Sills said that there are eight important areas of growth for the system that will help the instructional core become more coherent and aligned:

  • Developing a common definition of rigor and the role of standards-based instruction relative to its attainment;
  • Developing complex learning tasks for all levels;
  • Improving the articulation of elementary curriculum, grade to grade, class to class, school to school;
  • Agreeing on common learning outcomes, K-5;
  • Planning backward—known as “Understanding by Design,” with a primary eye toward the desired end result—must be emphasized at Davis and Lane schools, where the faculty have not been trained in the approach;
  • Fully integrating “minds-on Instruction” so that “thinking skills are taught using content, and content is learned by thinking about it;”
  • Utilizing “Just in Time” assessment more fully to check for understanding in an optimum timeframe;
  • Providing fiscal resources needed to grow technology instruction at the middle school and elementary schools.

Educating the whole child

Another part of the Schools’ mission states that “[T]he school community will provide a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment in which the unique intellectual, social, ethical, and emotional growth of each learner will be realized.”

Sills spoke about the addition of adjustment counselors to the guidance department staff, which began about 10 years ago. He noted that since then the student population in Bedford has become even more complex, as have social and emotional problems.

Some of the challenges facing the schools in this area include increased academic pressure coupled with a lack of time at the kindergarten level; competing demands on teacher common meeting time and professional development time; the need to address accelerating levels of student stress, particularly at the high school; and what is called “executive function” or organizational/time management challenges as well as motivational issues.

Educating all students

Bedford has embraced “the belief that all kids can and should master our educational programs, [and is committed to] “equal and equitable access to educational opportunities and success,” Sills observed in a written assessment accompanying the presentation.

Many programs and support systems have been layered in as the student population’s diversity has grown, such as the unique challenges faced by Hanscom students, an increase in the number of English Language Learners (ELLs), and the retention within the system of Special Education students who would otherwise be placed in outside programs.

Sills identified the following key equity issues:

  • Ensuring that all students can read and are numerically fluent by the time they enter third grade;
  • Further decreasing the challenge gap between level 4 and level 5 classes at the high school;
  • Addressing the impact of the math pull-out program on class heterogeneity at the middle school;
  • Increasing the number of African-American, Latino and low socio-economic students in honors and AP classes at the high school;
  • Hiring more African-American and Latino teachers and administrators;
  • Dealing with concerns over budget allocation imbalances between regular education and special education.

Organization and school culture

“[T]he school culture itself is a powerful force for promoting the kind of teaching and learning that the district’s mission calls for,” Sill wrote. “The tone [that is] set by school[s]. . . . [should] champion kids and respect teachers and eschew petty politics or personal agendas. . . . Across all four schools, teachers demonstrate uncompromising professionalism, collaboration and commitment. They are tough on themselves and consistently seek ways to improve their craft.”

However, Sills also pointed to challenges in these areas as well:

  • The IT (Information Technology) Department, having lost its long-term network administrator, must be reconfigured and find a way to move forward with a system that has been customized in a “nontraditional” manner. Infrastructure must be upgraded and a reasonable pathway found for digital learning at the elementary and middle school levels.
  • The middle school schedule must be reimagined so that the constraints it currently creates are alleviated;
  • The 90-minute-literacy block and the What-I-Need block have been hard for staff to adjust to and utilize to best effect.
  • A legacy of mistrust and disunity at two of the schools—tied to inconsistent or unresponsive leadership—has been problematic.
  •  The timing and unfolding of the Town’s unilateral move to the state’s group health plan has caused an unfortunate level of wariness that is likely to impact the next round of contract negotiations.
  • Better coordination of teacher collaboration time on early-release Wednesdays is needed for best results.

Buildings and maintenance

Regular building maintenance has been well planned, and visitors often remark on how lovely and well-kept the facilities are, Sills said. Population increases and changing needs are being met by space reconfigurations rather than building additions, at least for the time being.

External opportunities and threats

Bedford, like all other communities, is subject to state and federal mandates in a rapidly changing educational and societal landscape. Additionally, as an early adopter of Race to the Top and Common Core standards, Bedford is a pioneer in coming to terms with changes to curriculum, assessment models, and teacher evaluation requirements. Sills expressed concern that, while these initiatives are greatly important and potentially valuable, they also threaten to adversely impact both time and attention that could otherwise be spent on top priorities that have been identified by the system itself.

In summary

Sills said that Bedford is “a high-performing school district that strives to ensure that all students engage in deep learning, develop higher order thinking skills, and the ability to apply or transfer what they learn to new problems or in new settings.”

The internal and external challenges listed above all compete for time and attention and, cumulatively, affect morale. This, in itself, poses a challenge and will require attention from Sills and other district leaders to maintain a healthy and productive balance.

Note: The full text of Superintendent Sills’ assessment will be posted on the district website in the coming days:

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