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Superintendent Boone Sets the Record Straight

Monday, July 09, 2012

 

Superintendent of Worcester Public Schools, Dr. Melinda Boone, has had her share of struggles since coming to the city three years ago. Budget issues, http://www.golocalworcester.com/news/battle-lines-drawn-in-claremont-academy-dispute/" target="_blank">protests, and hiring concerns have surrounded her position in the last year.

While she has received criticism from teachers, parents, and school committee members, Boone stands by her decisions.

Poor Test Scores

Worcester Public Schools have had low MCAS test scores, something for which Dr. Boone has received much criticism.

Dr. Boone said that MCAS testing is a driver of how we teach in Massachusetts, but when asked about the area’s low test scores and Worcester’s ranking of second to last in the state in this category, Boone said that MCAS scores merely represent a snapshot in a child’s learning and what’s more important is the long term improvement on an individual basis.

“It’s a snapshot in time on a particular day. It doesn’t capture all of what’s happening,” she said. Student percentiles, Boone says, better show this relative to other factors. “This gives us a deeper grasp that shows growth.”

Boone says that by this standard, 51% of students in the district overall are showing improvement, yet some schools, like Burncoat Elementary – a poverty-stricken, Title I school – recorded 60% improvement. This method, she said, gives a better picture of which students are performing better throughout their education.

Graduation rates and Advanced Placement class participation are also good indicators, she said, but Boone also added that she would be the first to admit that graduation rates aren’t great.

Challenges in Worcester

Boone says that while Worcester has come with its own unique set of challenges, she has seen many of the same issues elsewhere during her years working in education.

She came to the area from Norfolk, Virginia, an area that faces the same poverty and resource constraints seen here and in other urban school districts.  "If you look at other schools," Boone said," you will see the same issues."

“One of the biggest difficulties here, is the level of language diversity,” Boone said. “There were some issues of language diversity in the area I was in prior, but in Worcester, we have over 80 languages spoken. But the impacts of poverty are still the same.”

Boone said that her previous experience showed her that poverty is an issue across the board in urban districts, and also in poor rural areas. Unfortunately, since she left her previous district, the superintendent who succeeded her did not sustain the progress Boone had brought to the area. 

Claremont Protests

Protests and hiring concerns surrounded Claremont Academy in the last year, and Dr. Boone saw negative responses from, teachers, parents, and students.

“The principal at Claremont expressed the desire to do something different and look at her role differently,” Boone said. “Nothing was promised her. She applied for the McGrath position in the same hiring process as anyone else. Shareholders, including teachers and students, had their input, and the final interviews came to me for a final decision.”

Boone said they worked with the union and that 75 percent of the teachers are returning to Claremont Academy after being asked to reapply for their positions. Twenty-five percent of the teachers found positions at other schools in the district.

When asked whether all teachers at Claremont were licensed, Boone said that the school was no different than the rest of Worcester schools, which have an overall rate of being 95-97 percent licensed.

Evaluation Issues

During the superintendent’s evaluation, she received criticism from multiple committee members for not allowing them proper time to reflect on certain issues. While she says they will be working to make this problem better, the issue is a complex one.

“The comments from the evaluation primarily focused on executive session. Open meeting laws allow session issues to be private,” Boone said. Issues pertaining to personnel material or legal matters, she said are kept private. The issue, she said, is understanding what information you can put out in advance to committee members. Sensitive issues – even pertaining to healthcare information and workers compensation cases – cannot be given in advance.

“We will be working with the mayor to discuss how to improve some issues where limited information was provided,” she said.

Costly Cell Phones

Recently, the school committee was scrutinized for spending --- on buying new iPhones for employees, something Boone stood up for on the grounds of the 2012-2013 budget and safety concerns.

“I would not call this past year a particularly difficult budget year,” she said. Boone cited their work with a new zero base budget system, new revenue from increased enrollment, they had extra room. She says she stands to challenge anyone about the budget.

She discussed their reevaluation of bus contracts, electricity rates, and said that in context, spending half of a percent of the budget on the phone plan was justified.

“We realized we needed a new normal,” she said. “We are showing we can absorb positions. We are one of the largest districts in Massachusetts and serve 44 schools with 25,000 students. In a $330 million budget, spending less than half a percent is not the problem.”

“Cell phones are not new to the district,” she said. The district plans to use the new smart phones for coordination and safety. Boone said that during the ice storm of ’08, communication was key. With telephone lines knocked out, she said there was difficultly figuring out which schools were safe to reopen.

“We need to keep the district connected. That storm showed us that cell phones were a mainstay. Electricity went out. School phones went out,” she said. “For some, it may seem excessive.”

Dr. Boone cited it as a part of their communication plan and said they had shopped around for the best plan with a volume discount.

“It’s going to cost $56 a year for these plans,” she said. “I would love than plan.”

 

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