By BETH COBB
Essex Westford School District Superintendent

The floors are shiny and the classrooms are refreshed, as the District has spent the summer cleaning, preparing and planning for a new school year. Entering our third year as one system consisting of 10 schools, three communities, and 4,000 students, the Essex Westford School District (EWSD) can not wait until the children fill our playgrounds, hallways, and classrooms!

On Monday, August 26, 2019, the District will host an event welcoming back all staff. Being in education can be stressful and emotionally draining, so the morning will focus on wellness. The District wants to share ways staff can take care of themselves and self care is important so that we are ready to take care of others. Dr. Gillian Boudreau, a local psychologist will present “A Secure Base to Teach From; Calm connection and caring for ourselves.” Later that morning, the District will have a number of different activities that staff will participate in. Some of the offerings will be yoga, bike riding, walking, hiking, Zentangle, or to continue to learn from Dr. Boudreau. If you see a group of EWSD staff taking care of themselves on that day, say hello and thank them for taking care of our children.

The EWSD is placing a heavy emphasis on ‘growing hearts’ this year and we have made a strong commitment to social and emotional learning (SEL). National evidence has proven that students gain from intentionally taught social and emotional skills. Some of the gains include improved attitudes about self, others and schools, and positive classroom behaviors. While research has also shown students having less emotional stress, fewer conduct problems, and lowered drug usage.

To help with this, we have hired a number of social and emotional learning coaches for our schools. The coach’s main responsibility will be supporting the implementation of our newly adopted Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) competencies and working with our administrators, teachers, and support staff. The SEL competencies include; self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. We have also expanded the number of District behavior interventionists to support students and staff on an individual basis. Our District work is being led by Dylan McNamara, our Director of Social and Emotional Learning and Wellness.

The EWSD is diving below the surface of equity issues and learning about the challenges of our inequities. This is complicated work and will lead to difficult conversations. We know we have students who do not feel welcomed. We know we carry implicit biases and we are committed to all students having a sense of belonging. To continue to work on our challenges, some staff will take part in two trainings: Beyond Diversity and Courageous Conversations.

This is only a step in the right direction and not everyone will have a chance to participate in the trainings. For the future, we will be working on expanding the trainings District-wide. Each school is also working with staff on being inclusive and welcoming. Erin Maguire, our new Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, is leading this work.

EWSD leaders are committed to improving academic performance for all of our students. In order to achieve this goal, it is imperative that we dedicate time and allow our teachers to work collaboratively within their building as well as District-wide. Releasing students one-hour early on Tuesdays allows teachers, within their workday, to collaboratively work on improving their skills and knowledge, exchange expertise, and have professional dialogue. Our students deserve the very best instruction and learning, and together we can make this happen.

We are happy to report that busing is available in the Village this year. All K-8 students outside walking zones will have school bus routes. The entire Village remains a walking zone for Essex High School students, however, these students have free access to the Green Mountain Transit Blue Line. Essex High School students in the Town who live outside of GMT Silver Line walk-to-stop distances will be assigned to yellow school buses, and ride with K-8 students. Each grade grouping (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12) will have a designated seating area on the bus. For more information on busing please visit our website (www.ewsd.org), call 802-857-7077, or send an email to: transportation@ewsd.org.

In the EWSD, the safety of our students is our top priority. Together we can make our schools stronger and safer. Students, teachers, parents, school administrators, local law enforcement, and community members have a role to play in creating a safe and secure environment for everyone.

Over time, starting with staff at our high school and technical center campus, the EWSD will be rolling out the US Department of Homeland Security’s recommended protocol – Run, Hide, Fight. This work will not replace any of the current safety protocols or regular drills – each of those will remain and be actively reinforced across the District and throughout the school year. What is new, is the building of greater situational awareness around responding to an active threat. This is challenging work and the difficult conversations ahead will help us in our preparations to keep our schools and community even safer.

We have adopted “See Something, Say Something” and encourage students and adults to use our anonymous tip line by calling 802-857-7977 or make an anonymous report through our website or EWSD app. A strong community takes care of one another. If you observe or hear about suspicious activity, say something – it could save a life.

On September 18, 2019 the District will be hosting a School Safety Community Engagement evening at Essex High School. Please come learn and share your thoughts about school safety with us.