Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Season of Thanks

ABRHS Ambassadors visiting 9th Grade Advisory Students

As I reflect on the challenging fall we've had at the high school this year, I also feel many reasons to be deeply grateful. 

This morning, our Ambassadors visited 9th grade Advisories to build connections and community and to facilitate conversations about their experiences at A-B. The 9th grade class has been especially on my heart these past few weeks. While their feedback during our Advisory "check in" activity tended to be less about the experience of our student deaths and more about understanding the high school (Why can't we play wall ball outside during lunch? Why don't 9th graders have free periods?), I am sensitive to their possible wonders about what their high school experience will be like going forward. We continue to look for ways both formally and informally to connect with them and help them to feel at home in our school community.  

Tomorrow marks the first "official" senior activity of the year: Senior Dress Up Day. Staff volunteers decorate the upper gym, put together a breakfast for seniors, and judge the annual costume contest. I had one senior ask me recently, "Is it okay that we are having a fun event after what happened this fall?" The answer from me, and from the clinicians with whom we have consulted along the way, is yes. Our seniors do need to be able to have happy moments together and to feel a sense of unity as a class. We hope for a spirited, uplifting event, and we are grateful for the leaders in the senior class who have helped in large and small ways to bring the class together.

We did take some time last week to connect back with students during Advisory and answer some of the frequently asked questions as a result of our check-in activity. Particularly for 12th and 11th graders, there remained questions and comments about workload, why we didn't hold assemblies, and how decisions are made during a crisis. We also shared with students ways in which their voices can be heard regarding school-wide policies, practices, and events, and we hope they will take advantage of those ways to positively contribute to our larger school culture.

Our last few weeks also brought some wonderful events to our community, including a truly magical production of Mary Poppins, another remarkable Cabaret performance, and a successful fall athletic season.  We are grateful to ABRHS teachers, coaches, parents, and students who collaborate to make our fall events successful and bring us together.

I wish for all of you a relaxing, healthy, and happy holiday week with those you love. Thank you to the many community members who continue to show your support and care for our staff, students, and families. Looking forward to seeing those of you who will be at the game Thursday morning. Go Colonials!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A-B Students Honor Our Veterans and Your Role in Expanding our Notion of Success

A-B Students Honor Our Veterans

It was a privilege to see approximately 160 of our A-B students honoring area veterans on Friday at the annual Veteran's Day Breakfast at the Boxborough Holiday Inn. Students not only served breakfast, sang, and performed music, but most importantly, they talked with veterans about their lives and experiences. This has become one of our most meaningful traditions at A-B, with diverse groups of students coming together for a memorable morning.

We are grateful to Social Studies teacher and National Honor Society co-advisor Mary Price Maddox, who leads the event each year. It is a rich experience of learning, caring, and honoring for all involved.

Your Role in Expanding our Notion of Success
Recently, there has been a considerable amount of discussion in the community about stress and academic pressure at A-B. Last week, we had an opportunity to come together for a community learning experience about the roles we all play in helping our students to have healthier, more balanced lives. 

Dr. Denise Pope, Challenge Success

Dr. Denise Pope from Stanford University's Challenge Success met with our entire PK-12 staff on November 8th. She shared current research and school reform efforts geared toward helping high-achieving schools and districts to have healthier schedules, homework and assessment practices, and learning environments. Our district is currently focusing on three areas: school day schedule (including start time), homework and assessment practices, and family education and engagement.

Dr. Pope affirmed the work we have been doing at ABRHS for four years now in the areas of mental health, wellness, and learning. Following two years of cross-departmental work led by Associate Principal Larry Dorey, we plan to review alternative schedule models with our staff in the spring of 2017 with a projected high school schedule change for the fall of 2018. A schedule change at the high school will include professional learning for staff and community education for families. Dr. Brand is currently leading the district's efforts in the area of school start times.

We continue to review our homework practices at the high school (begun in 2013-2014) and as an extension, we are also focusing on assessment, which students consistently share with us as being stressful for them. Homework and assessment are linked, and a change in one area necessitates a change in the other. We are currently examining the purpose, frequency, form, and relevancy of our assessments in all subject areas. One result of our work so far is that we will pilot an assessment calendar during the two weeks prior to midyear week, a result of feedback we received about how challenging that period was for many students last year. Challenge Success assists schools with alternative assessment practices, and we will benefit from their expertise in enacting this kind of instructional evolution in a large school such as A-B.

Dr. Pope then presented to about 200 parents/guardians on the evening of November 8th. She again shared current research and included recommendations for parents to be partners in the work of helping our adolescents to live healthier and more balanced lives. Dr. Pope has specific recommendations for parents regarding technology use, sleep, choosing students' courses and overall course loads, the problem of students being over-scheduled in general, approach to the college entrance process, and suggestions for having conversations with your adolescent about academic integrity. 

For those who were unable to attend Dr. Pope's presentation, we are fortunate that Danny's Place Youth Services has generously purchased the link to her presentation "The Well-Balanced Student." I strongly recommend that you take the time to watch her presentation to gain an understanding of the expectations we will have for community partnership in our efforts. You received instructions to access Dr. Pope's presentation via email on Wednesday, November 9th. Here is what you will learn in viewing the presentation:

The Well-Balanced Student
Today’s high-pressure, fast-paced culture can interfere with healthy child development. When we are too focused on test scores, performance, and grades, we may deny kids the time and energy they need to effectively tackle the demanding work of growing up. This workshop examines the tensions that can occur between students, parents, and educators over issues such as homework, grades, and the culture of competition. We’ll offer parents research-based strategies to create healthier home and school environments. 

In this presentation, you will learn:
  • How students today are coping- or not- with the academic pressure they face
  • Ways you can reduce academic stress without sacrificing achievement or engagement in school
  • Strategies to increase resilience, creativity, and well-being for your child

The video link will be active for six weeks and expires on Tuesday, December 20th.  Once you apply the promo code and start the video, you have ONE WEEK to finish viewing the workshop.  

Meaningful and lasting change for our students at A-B will require an open, supportive partnership between our schools and our community. I'd like to see our community unify around this work on behalf of our students. Please take some time to view Dr. Pope's presentation and stay informed about the work we are doing at the high school, including as embedded in our School Improvement Plan, to challenge and expand our notion of success.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Sweet Surprise and Community Learning

Our students continue to inspire us as we make our way forward together as a school community. Yesterday morning, our school day started with a "pop up" surprise treat for staff and students. Our Peer Leaders and their faculty advisors, Susan Bohmiller and Erica Cohen, provided hot chocolate and donuts as students came into school. It was lovely to see and experience some lightness and fun as students mingled before class. We are grateful to all who helped to make it possible.

On Tuesday during Advisory, we asked our students to check in with us and to share how they are feeling, what questions and/or concerns they may have, and what they might need at this time. As expected, we received a range of questions and responses as students experience the grieving process in a variety of ways, including those who feel comfortable and supported and those who continue to have questions or need more support. We'll be responding to students' questions during our next Advisory, and their feedback will continue to be helpful as we work to support them in the coming weeks.

Two Community Learning Opportunities
A reminder that Dr. Rob Evans will be with us this evening for a parent/guardian presentation titled Mental Health: Keeping Our Kids Safe. We hope that many of you will be able to join us at RJ Grey Junior High School at 7pm.

The ABRSD would also like to share the November "Expanding Our Notion of Success" Newsletter. The district's monthly communication presents an opportunity for our community to learn how to best partner in our PK-12 Challenge Success work. This month's message focuses on homework and includes the following:

In the spring of 2016, our district entered into a partnership with Challenge Success, out of Stanford University.  Challenge Success aims to "provide schools and families with the information and strategies they need to create a more balanced and academically fulfilling life for their kids."  The team at Challenge Success collaborates with educators, parents, and students to implement best practices and policies in areas such as assessment, homework, and schedule.

Our district is currently engaged in a number of important conversations about homework. We are focused on expanding the conversation from quantity and achievement to quality and engagement. Please take a moment to read our November Expanding Our Notion of Success family newsletter, which focuses on homework.