Mitchell Elementary Hits Turning Point

March 21, 2024
• Following others in the district, it was Mitchell Elementary School’s turn to share its annual school improvement plan with the School Committee last Tuesday.

Starting school in September, the Mitchell community had their work cut out for them. The prior school year at Mitchell was a “really very difficult” one, Principal Greg Bayse said. The school faced challenges with staffing, academics, culture and morale, which motivated school leaders to hone in on specific goals for this year.

Things have changed considerably since then. Bayse shared the school is nearly completely staffed, which is reminiscent of pre-COVID staffing. More special education and counseling staff means students can receive more individualized care, Bayse said, and they’ve provided further social and emotional learning opportunities, which was another core initiative.

Reflecting back on the last few months, Bayse said the school community is in a much better place.

“All of that combined has given us at Mitchell a really renewed sense of our purpose and vision,” Bayse said. “It’s been a phenomenal year, a year that really feels positive, a year… where we’re back to the original task of education.”

To address staff burnout, Bayse said he broke up faculty members into smaller discussion groups, where they shared their thoughts about school practices and suggested changes. That became a turning point for the school, he said, and they gained valuable insight.

In line with the Portrait of a Needham Graduate, Bayse extrapolated on two of the school’s goals: “foster student agency, voice and choice” and “provide learning access and opportunity.”

To encourage student engagement and expression in the classroom, Bayse said they’ve used concepts modeled in the Universal Design for Learning framework. Bayse said they also strive to spark curiosity and push students to contribute.

The district’s WIN block, or the What I Need period of the day, serves as an intervention block that targets students’ specific learning needs. Recently, Bayse said they’ve incorporated data to better do just that, further emphasizing their mission to close opportunity gaps.

The WIN block challenges students while also exposing them to other students in different classrooms, said Gabrielle Oliveira, a Mitchell parent and school council parent representative.

“It also gives the students an opportunity to learn from other teachers and be with other students that they may not have learned alongside,” Oliveira said. “I think this is a type of opportunity that makes me really excited, instead of your traditional methods of teaching — so, [it] fosters independence.”

Oliveira also highlighted recent outside enrichment activities, including the first graders’ trip to see “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” at the Wheelock Family Theatre and fourth graders’ visit to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Mitchell also held its first Battle of the Books event, where third through fifth graders read a series of books across a few months, Oliveira said.

Next month, Mitchell will launch a pilot program with Securly, a software that monitors students’ activity on school devices and reports internet searches deemed inappropriate or worrisome, Bayse said. He sees the system as a way “we can use technology to ensure safety for our children rather than just view technology as a tool that is potentially unsafe.”

It’s important school community members also “feel a sense of belonging,” Bayse said. During the meeting, fifth grader Leo shared his positive experience learning at Mitchell, both academically and socially.

“I also learned at Mitchell it’s O.K. to be unique, and I don’t really want to fit in,” Leo said. “I really like octopuses, space and the environment, and I hope I find other kids in sixth grade who have the same interests. And also, how can I be me if I’m trying to be like someone else?”

As a member of the student council, Leo said he’s helped organize Fun Fridays, and on the school’s safety patrol, he and other older students help their younger classmates out of the car during drop-off and pick-up.

On the MCAS, Mitchell students met or exceeded their growth targets for all subjects except science, which they’ll look to address, Bayse said.

The school aims to improve aspects of its program while also contending with its aging facilities. Space proves to be a challenge — physical education teachers, for instance, are reliant on good weather and occasionally other available rooms due to the size of the gym, Bayse said. The building’s steam pipe also routinely causes leaks, and room heaters break down, he added. Bayse said he himself experienced a steam leak in his office on Monday, but students and staff have adjusted.

Mitchell is a “high-performing school” that’s cultivated a committed community, Bayse said, and families often remark how much they love the atmosphere of the school. Apart from setting ambitious goals, Bayse said they also should ensure that feeling isn’t lost down the road.

“We do look forward to the day when we have more space,” he said. “I think it’ll be important in that design phase to preserve that warmth and community feel.”

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