Area school superintendents Darryll McCall, Maureen Binienda, and Nadine Ekstrom

Summer Institute Takes the Pulse of Public K-12 Education

June 1, 2016
By: Worcester State University News

Taking a break from their focus on higher education issues, the Worcester State faculty present at the Summer Institute’s morning panel discussion on May 18 gained some insight into what’s going on in three area public K-12 school districts.

They learned that urban, small regional, and large regional school districts require unique approaches to education and their most significant challenges range from poverty to shrinking operating budgets.

The panel, coordinated by the Summer Institute’s planning committee with assistance from Associate Dean of Education Raynold Lewis, featured Worcester Public Schools’ newly appointed superintendent, Maureen Binienda; Darryll McCall, who heads the Wachusett Regional School District; and Nadine Ekstrom, the superintendent of the Berlin-Boylston Regional School District.

While Binienda recently took the helm as Worcester’s new school superintendent, she was still the principal of South High Community School when she sat on the panel. From that vantage point, she noted that poverty and student attendance are two of the school’s biggest challenges.

But Binienda and her staff have devised a number of ways to tackle each of them. Part of the multi-tiered approach to dealing with the poverty issue is running a food pantry in the school and requiring students to take at least one advanced placement class and its AP exam.

“I love that we can dispel the myth that poverty means you can’t” go on to accomplish great things, she said.

“We made AP drive our school,” Binienda added. “This year we gave 636 exams. That’s a large number of exams. We could never send a student to college without taking an AP exam because otherwise they wouldn’t be ready for the rigor of college classes.”

As a result of its focus on college readiness, South High students were able to submit a record 1,100 applications on College Application Celebration Day in November 2015 with the help of employees from Unum Group and school staff.

The prevalence of immigrant students is nothing new for South High, but it is an emerging issue for both the Wachusett and Berlin-Boylston districts. “There are over 70 languages spoken in Worcester’s public schools,” Binienda said. At South High, “no matter what we sent home, it has to be in seven languages. You have to be very thoughtful in how you explain things.”

While the student population of the Wachusett district—the largest regional school district in the state and comprised of children from Holden, Paxton, Princeton, Rutland, and Sterling—is 88 percent white, its number of Hispanic students is growing, McCall said.

“I liken it to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) coming out,” he said. “It’s all about educating educators” about the new things that must be done.

The Berlin-Boylston district is “seeing increased support in ELL (English Language Learner) parents,” Ekstrom said. “We’ve had to meet with some of our parents in their homes [and] delis.”

However, the number-one challenge for the Wachusett district is funding, McCall said. “We’re in a situation where the towns have to pick up more of the funds. It’s more challenging for them to pick up those costs.”

This hampers the district’s ability to support “the kinds of programs our kids need to be successful,” he said. For instance, “we’ve had to cut back on the number of AP classes we offer because of our budget issues.”

On top of sharing the Wachusett district’s budget situation, the Berlin-Boylston district needs “to provide the same services” in spite of being much smaller. “We often try to talk with surrounding school districts or colleges to see if we can share resources or offer hands-on learning experiences under supervision,” Ekstrom said.

If an administrator is out of the office, Ekstrom will fill that role as needed. “If someone needs a sub, I can be called to do that, too,” she said.

As Berlin-Boylston’s ninth superintendent in 13 years, Ekstrom has been working with elementary teachers on the curriculum “to better prepare kids for middle and high school.” Meanwhile, the AP and science programming has been increased at the high school, and middle school students can take math classes at the high school because the two schools share a building.

She also meets with every senior before they graduate. “This year, I have 2 seniors struggling to graduate, and I’m meeting with them every two weeks,” she said.

During the Q-and-A that followed, Professor of Philosophy Henry Theriault asked how Worcester State faculty can support the superintendents’ efforts.

“Keep the focus on the students” and their learning rather than focusing too much on content, Binienda said.

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