By John Monfredo, Worcester Public School Committee member
As the school bell rings for the Worcester Public Schools this fall, the staff and the students of our public schools will be greeted by Worcester’s first female school superintendent, Dr. Melinda Boone. Dr. Boone spent one week a month in Worcester since January prior to her official starting date of July 1, 2009. This arrangement was due to her contractual obligations in the Norfolk Virginia Public Schools and to give her youngest daughter the opportunity to finish her senior year in high school – thus demonstrating her commitment to education and family.
Dr. Boone is a woman for whom family is a priority and a source of happiness. A widow for four years, she has two daughters: Regina, a graduate of Hampton University and third year middle school science teacher in Norfolk, Virginia, and Alyssa, who will enter Hampton University in the fall majoring in nursing. Earlier this fall, I was able to sit down with Dr. Boone and ask her about her plans for the Worcester Public Schools.
In her interview for the position last year, Dr. Boone said the educational concerns facing the Worcester School District and the qualities desired in a superintendent very closely match her interests, expertise and the core educational and leadership philosophy. She then went on to say that educational decisions and policy must be developed with the student as the focal point and at the center of deliberations. She strongly feels that all children should have high academic standards and instructional rigor where excellence and equity are the expectation and not the exception.
Again, since taking on the awesome responsibility as superintendent, she restated her philosophy on education: “I believe that ALL children can learn and all have a right to a high quality education. Children will meet whatever bar we set for them. If we set a bar of low expectations, they will meet that. If we set a bar of high expectations, they will rise to the occasion. Our role as adults is to ensure that we provide these high quality opportunities for students and that we support their attempt to be successful.”
Dr. Boone feels one of her greatest strengths is the ability to build and nurture an effective leadership team to deliver results for students and the community: “I have a proven track record in improving overall student achievement as well as closing achievement gaps. I am known for my ability to work very effectively with people within the organization as well as parents, community, and business leaders.”
Dr. Boone went on to say that No Child Left Behind has established the focus on the achievement of all students but there is no silver bullet for closing the achievement gaps. “Urban districts that have been most successful in closing achievement gaps have done so by aligning curriculum with state frameworks/standards, assessing where students are in mastering the curriculum, making adjustments in both teaching and learning – with support in place to help both teachers and students, evaluating progress and initiating the cycle again by addressing progress.”
Thus this will be what Dr. Boone will initiate in our schools – improvement strategies that will focus on the needs of our students in an attempt to close the achievement gap. She also stated that closing the gaps does not occur by lowering the expectations for our highest achievers so that students who are struggling can meet the bar sooner. Therefore, we need to continue to emphasize the importance of high expectations for all.
With that in mind, I asked her about a major concern of mine, her plans for improving MCAS scores in grades three and four, where we have nearly 70% of our students in the “needs improvement” or “failing” category. Dr. Boone agreed that action is needed for us to correct this problem. “The trend in grade three and four on our reading scores is very concerning … . We will be examining all of our practices and approaches to teaching reading in the elementary level. Certainly, we will be evaluating our implementation of the current adopted reading series. However, I caution that we should not jump to any early conclusion as to the cause of these results. Curriculum alignment from preschool to grade three and four must also be a part of our evaluation of progress. We have identified this area as a major focus for improvement in the 2009 – 2010 school year.”
The other area that has been a concern to me is the need to improve students’ ability to write well. Literacy has been the central theme of mine as an educator, and I asked Dr. Boone what her thoughts were on this topic. Dr. Boone reiterated that literacy – reading and writing – are cornerstones for educational attainment. As a school district, we will focus our efforts with literacy and numeracy, with the goal of strengthening the foundation of reading on grade level and mastering mathematics concepts at a level that fosters students being successful in higher level courses all throughout their schooling.
In my visit to the Norfolk School System last fall to see and talk to school personnel regarding the qualities of Dr. Boone, I was impressed with the data that they had on its students and the importance that the school system placed on teacher training. Therefore, I asked Dr. Boone what her plans were for a data-driven school system. Dr. Boone indicated that research shows that the best opportunity for improving student achievement is a quality teacher. Research further demonstrates that successive years of quality teachers are a significant springboard to success – even for marginal students. Conversely, two to three consecutive years of ineffective teachers can spell doom for all students, including high achieving students. “That’s why it is critical to invest in the proven method for addressing student achievement – the teacher. Programs serve as a supplemental resource to assist the teacher in moving students to higher performance. Those programs will not be successful if not implemented well and with fidelity, which leads up right back to teachers,” Dr. Boone stated.
What would an interview be if we didn’t ask about the goals that Dr. Boone has for her first year as superintendent of the WPS? She replied that in her early assessment of the system there are three areas that emerged:
• Improving student achievement to a foundational level that will result in the district losing its designation as a Commissioner’s District (due to the number of priority schools)
• Maintaining a well rounded, rigorous academic and comprehensive program of offerings in light of the current economic crisis
• Having parents gain greater confidence in the Worcester Public Schools as their schools of choice.
I am delighted to see parent involvement as one of her goals, for during the past four years, I have brought forth many school committee agenda items on this in hopes of us giving more than just “lip service” for a partnership of parents and schools.
Therefore, I asked Dr. Boone what her thoughts on this subject were. With a warm smile she said, “Parents are an integral part of the success of children and education in general. There is no single magic activity to gain increased parental involvement. A critical first step is to make sure that our schools and buildings are welcoming to parents and families. We must continually seek ways to encourage parents to stay actively involved in supporting their child’s education – whether serving on PTO committees, school site councils, spending time in the evening checking that homework is being done, or making sure that children come to school every day and on time. Involvement looks different for each parent and family. I will work closely with our schools to maintain that inviting and welcoming atmosphere, along with working closely with parents to gain their trust that the Worcester Public Schools are truly a partner with them.
The discussion then turned to budgeting money for education, for we are now in one of the toughest financial situations that this country has ever experienced. That raised the question as to what were her thoughts in these hard times and how can we maintain high standards with very little resources?
She answered: “This situation makes for a very difficult time. Maintaining a certain level of educational programming and opportunity is critical if the Worcester Public Schools is to be considered a viable educational entity. We must keep a robust and rigorous academic program along with foreign language, arts, gifted programs and athletics.” She said the school system will evaluate all programs and initiatives to determine their impact on student achievement. In addition, the system will continue to seek viable grant opportunities to support efforts that have been linked to success. In the long term, Dr. Boone hopes to develop ways to sustain the efforts that grants support initially.
Dr. Boone is highly regarded by professionals, both here in Worcester and in her former school district. Corroborating Dr. Boone’s aptitude and achievements is John Simpson, Education Consultant and a former Superintendent in the Norfolk Public Schools. He affirmed that Dr. Boone brings leadership and a commitment to the table. “She brought much needed balance to what is right and urgent to do for all children with what is politically expedient. She believes and takes action on her strong belief that ALL CHILDEN CAN LEARN at high levels and is entitled to a very high quality education regardless of race or socio – economic condition … . She has truly spent her life in service of children and their education.”
Another strong supporter of Dr. Boone, with whom she worked in Norfolk, is Dr. George Perry, Jr., a senior consultant for the Panasonic Foundation and director of a national consulting firm. He said, “I have met few who have Dr. Boone’s will to bring about positive change for all students, without exception or excuses. She knows how to create schools in which all students achieve high levels of excellence. She has done it.”
Here in Worcester, Dr. Loughlin, our interim superintendant, said Dr. Boone is a fast learner and is committed to moving our system forward and that she will leave her mark on education in this city.
Thus far, in a short period of time, Dr. Boone has lived up to their expectations and to the expectations of our citizens. She has already met with a number of community leaders, higher education officials, parents, unions and a number of social agencies in the Worcester area. Dr. Boone attended the City of Worcester’s fireworks July 4th fireworks celebration and has dined at several of our city restaurants as she gets to know the ins and outs of Worcester. If you wondered what her favorite food is – macaroni and cheese! As for her hobbies: she enjoys reading, traveling, shopping and collecting lighthouses.
Dr. Boone said she loves what she has seen in Worcester and wants to be able to show her family the flavor of our city when they visit. She also feels it is important to become a part of the community. She intends to be visible in the community by attending school related activities, civic and social events. “I have an open communication style that seems to be effective as I meet and talk with people from every aspect of this city,” said Dr. Boone.
In the social and professional appearances that Dr. Boone has made you can see she is a communicator and also a good listener. She looks confident in her ability to lead, is approachable, and deliberates on decisions before she makes them. She is also passionate about her work and treats all individuals with respect. We all look forward to working with Dr. Boone and will be there to support her endeavors, as we take our children into the 21st century of learning.