Needham Public Schools to ‘Advance Equity’ with Professional Development Grant

October 20, 2023
• Needham Public Schools are moving one step closer to a more equitable learning environment, thanks to a $156,580 grant from the Needham Education Foundation.

The grant, largely funded through individual donations, will guide teachers and administrators through coaching, workshops and hands-on sessions to “advance equity,” according to a press release. Representatives from the NEF’s Collaborative Initiative shared the funding announcement at the School Committee’s Tuesday meeting.

Three programs will be funded through the grant:

  • A graduate-level leadership academy with William James College, which started this fall and includes 60 NPS leaders. ($69,480)
  • Direct work sessions with author and educator Cornelius Minor, who will encourage teachers and elementary school principals to use their personal classroom data to reexamine practices. ($24,000)
  • Training for leaders and staff at Pollard Middle School and Needham High School, as well as Pollard parents, to build community, trust and belonging for students. ($63,100)

The district will engage in a collective 160 hours of that professional development over this school year.

Diversity, equity and inclusion were identified as a priority for the district a couple years back, McGrath said, and by hearing from various stakeholders — including students themselves — the organization and the district are hoping to actualize that goal.

“It’s all professional learning, it’s all DEI focused and it’s system-wide,” she said in an interview.

From left, Needham Education Foundation’s Collaborative Initiative Co-Chairs Katie McGrath and Gabi Oliveira share news of the organization’s $156K grant, which will go toward trainings for teachers and administrators around equity in Needham classrooms, at the Needham School Committee meeting Oct. 17, 2023.

The William James College program is a training curriculum specifically designed for NPS, McGrath said. The group of 60 will be divided into two 30-person cohorts that will problem solve real scenarios and engage in hands-on learning, she added.

Minor, who wrote an education guide titled “We Got This.: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be,” previously delivered two keynote speeches in the district and worked with middle and high school teachers last year. His work this year will involve helping teachers “ritualize culturally responsive teaching,” McGrath said.

Training on restorative practices, an approach which is already present in Needham schools, will aim “to foster healthy dialogue and mutual understanding and empathy” between teachers and students, according to documents shared with the School Committee.

NEF Collaborative Initiative Co-Chair Gabi Oliveira said she’s glad that it’s not just teachers but also administrators participating in the training, as it’s important they “have our backs and they can help us.”

“I think equity is a much more productive (thing) to think about than equality, because equality would assume everybody gets the same thing and then you assume you’re all going to succeed,” Oliveria said in an interview. “But equity goes a little bit deeper and thinks about where each person is and what is it that they need.”

Equity is about looking at the “whole student,” taking into account their unique, intersecting identities, McGrath said. She considers it “a humane approach,” looking at students as people.

Later in the School Committee meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Innovation Carmen Williams presented Needham’s results and data from the spring MCAS exams, pointing to low-income and high needs students as vulnerable subgroups underperforming their peers.

The upcoming programming will work to do just that, Oliveria said — it’s important to acknowledge gaps in outcomes but also find new solutions to close them.

“As both parents and members of the board, it’s exciting to see the work that they’re doing to really help and support the students that need the most,” she said, “but also continue to support all students in the Needham Public Schools.”

During the meeting, Vice Chair Elizabeth Lee thanked Oliveria and McGrath, along with their district collaborators, for the funding.

“In my work, I’ve often thought that educational equity can’t really be achieved unless you have the buy-in support and attention of the broader community,” Lee said. “And to have the NEF support these goals, which are so central to our vision for excellent, equitable schools, is exactly — it’s not the only way, of course, that communities can support schools, but it certainly is incredibly powerful.”

The planned trainings will act as springboards from which they will advance, member Connie Barr said. The size of the grant, she said she believes, will wield good results.

Member Matthew Spengler echoed the board’s sentiments.

“I think where a school district and community invest time and resources says everything about the values that are important,” Spengler said at the meeting. “This is an incredibly resonant beacon for what we all hold really, really important in the community.”

This initiative will instill “leadership, instructional excellence and positive school culture” in NPS, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst said. Williams added it will work to drive “systemic change.”

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