Stephen Beauparlant Answers Our Questions
Information Management, Leadership Stability, Budget Priorities
Question 1 – Salem has 10 schools including the Early Education Center. Information can come from many and varied sources. How will you navigate your way through all of these sources in your decision making process?
The best School Committee is an informed one; they must have a well-rounded knowledge-base for their decisions. Communication in the Salem School system is broken. It is one of the largest problems that the administration currently faces. The previous administration clearly did not see the importance of creating an honest two-way dialog between themselves and the community they should be representing/working with (parents, students and teachers). All communications seemed crisis-driven. It felt like you only saw the Superintendent or School Committee members in the schools when there was bad news to be delivered or mediated. When asked what is the one best mechanism to promote dialog and communication the answer is: ALL OF THEM. There is no one way of promoting communication that universally works with everyone. As a parent of a student in the schools, I recognize speaking that with the PTO as a great litmus test as to how things are going in the school. With their permission I plan to attend at least one PTO meeting per year with each school to build a natural dialog. However, even the PTO only captures a small percentage of very active parents. I would look into developing more conversation-based interactions, similar to those already tried by the district. The District Parental Advisory Committee (DPAC), which I was a member, could have been this mechanism, although there was absolutely no structure and served as a method for the administration to feign parent involvement and outreach. Resurrecting this with proper organization and honest intentions would be great. Additionally, teachers’ voices need to be heard. If teachers can’t make the PTO meetings, perhaps setting up teacher-school committee forums would be a great way to get their read on the day-to-day happenings at the schools.
Capturing this information is very beneficial, but as the question implies, one can’t take it at face value. As a trained scientist, I know how to take in data and digest it. When developing a hypothesis and research plan it is crucial to give equal evaluation to existing data that both confirm and oppose your preconceptions. Even if wrong, something valuable is gained from this evaluation. The School Committee cannot operate on an island. There is a wealth of knowledge in our families and our schools that they should use. In addition to deep, fact-based research, large decisions should involve those most affected. Focus groups and surveys can provide feedback as to whether the School Committee’s plans are understood and on track. I believe at its best, public education is a collaborative effort.
Question 2 – Over the last few years our Superintendents and Principals have been in what can best be described as “state of flux?” What can be done to bring long-term stability to those key administrative positions?
Salem is in deep trouble with principal attrition. Although I have a lot of faith in the current school leaders, every school has lost a principal (some schools multiple) in the last few years and this cannot continue. What is most telling is that some of these principals have left for lateral positions in other public school systems nearby. The first thing to do to prevent this from continuing is to understand why. Based on conversations I’ve had from teachers and current principals, I believe it was at least partially due to a lack of administration support and involvement. I don’t think the administration was there for teacher/school support, but to run the schools and dictate policy. The previous superintendent was consistent with this in that she treated the parents the same way.
I believe the best way to create stability in the district is through choosing the right candidate as our permanent Superintendent. The Superintendent sets the tone and environment, the vibe; they are the leader of the entire district. They should supply a stabilizing force throughout. The most important characteristic for the next Superintendent is a true and honest dedication to working with ALL stakeholders to “right the ship” of Salem Public Schools. I have seen and spoken with a variety of community members (parents, teachers and students) who all desperately want Salem Public Schools to succeed. We need a leader who immediately recognizes and leverages this dedication to quickly turn things around. If people feel included and that their viewpoint mattered, they would take on ownership of the challenges the district faces and be more willing to stick it out through the tough times. We should also be recognizing those teachers/leaders that have already done this and are working so hard for the district. The administration should be mentoring them to become leaders so that when a vacancy occurs, there is already a pool of very qualified in-house candidates that should be considered.
Question 3 – If you were given the option of designating 10% of the Salem Schools budget in any way that you choose. How would you spend that money?
The fiscal year 2020 budget for Salem Public Schools is 63 million dollars. If I had 10% of that, 6.3 million dollars, I would make some much needed infrastructural changes; some physical, some programmatic, some staff. For infrastructural additions, I would overhaul most, if not all, playgrounds at our schools. Most playgrounds are not fully ADA compliant and some may not even be fully wheelchair accessible. Witchcraft Heights’ playground, for example, is up on a rocky hill with a steep path. It is also grossly undersized given its student population. It is more suitable for a daycare than for the largest elementary school in the city. The addition of sensory play activities would also be beneficial for our autism-spectrum children. I believe there also needs to be some investment in the development of a first-class communication system, including further modernization of our website and digitization of our records. Communication is disjointed, and our current records system require parents to submit the same forms every year. Easing and modernizing the paper burden and notification systems would streamline operations. Funding field trips and school supplies is another completely unsupported area that could be funded by this bonus money. School budgets for field trips are tight and many, if not all, field trips are subsidized by funds raised by the PTO and/or money sent in from parents. This should not be necessary. It is also well-known nationally that our public school teachers self-fund a lot of their in-class supplies. They also routinely reach out to parents to help supply the classroom. Every parent is familiar with the classroom supply lists. Finally, I believe that the district needs to invest in its staff for socio-emotional support. As we know, the world is very different from the ones we grew up in. Children have a lot more pressure and distraction in their lives. In many cases they do not have structure and support at home. Further, with better understanding of emotional and mental disorders, they require more personalized attention. In many cases, we need more “boots on the ground” to intervene when necessary.