Jul 26, 2014

The Juggling Act

Dr. Colleen Palmer, new Superintendent of Weston Schools, sat down with Patch to talk about her goals for the district and its students.

The Juggling Act

During Dr. Colleen Palmer’s brief tenure in Weston Public Schools, , a potentially disruptive wetlands remediation, teacher salary negotiations and have conspired to make her entrance into the demanding and achievement-oriented district as challenging as possible.

In addition to these distractions, Palmer must do more with less, the mandate from Weston residents who is able to understand the financial needs of a community affected by the Great Recession.

Noting that the economy “creates challenges for all organizations,” Palmer said that the district has already “been very aggressive with cost measures.

“We have picked the low-hanging fruit off the savings tree,” she said.

Palmer was unable to comment on the status of the salary negotiations, although she noted that binding arbitration is the ultimate result if the two sides are unable to reach an agreement. In binding arbitration, a state-appointed panel decides between each side’s best and final offers, with no hope for additional negotiation.

“The contract will be a huge [expense] driver,” Palmer said, noting that she doesn’t believe salary is the only factor that’s important to teachers.

“Salary is only part of the equation,” she said. “People are attracted to working environments where they are respected as professionals [and] immersed in a culture of highly dedicated people working for the common good.”

This year, the district is implementing an overhaul of the teacher evaluation system, which is designed to provide “thoughtful, constructive feedback,” Palmer said.

The new system will “support the professional growth of our teachers,” she said. “If at some point there is a teacher who isn’t meeting our standards, we’re going to try to reach out to help.

“In our profession, we haven’t provided enough feedback to our professionals,” Dr. Palmer added. “This plan requires us to do business differently. It’s a very aggressive goal.”

The ongoing salary negotiation and the new evaluation systems aren’t the only issues on Dr. Palmer’s plate. , implemented in part last year by Assistant Superintendent Thomas Scarice and others, will expand this year into the second, fifth and eighth grades.

“We need to make sure that our students are collaborators and creative problem solvers who understand what it’s like in the global community,” she said. “ revealed some areas of strength and some areas of growth.”

Columbia University, who is Weston’s partner in the AIM project, is evaluating transcripts from student interviews that took place following the assessment.

“Anecdotally, the students felt that it didn’t feel like a test,” she said. “It was an engaging experience."

Dr. Palmer noted that some responses indicated that the test’s timing — which took place after final exams — may have affected not only the quality of the results but also the students’ responses to it.

Despite these challenges, Dr. Palmer was very complimentary of the staff, the facilities and the community at large.

“We have a very supportive parent community and committed PTOs with robust memberships,” Dr. Palmer said. “We have adequate resources and not a lot of distractors that occur when a system is suffering.

“Our teachers are able to come to work and focus on the teaching of children,” she added.

Among Weston’s distractions is the disruption of the school calendar caused by Tropical Storm Irene. The district quickly responded by putting together an online survey and a calendar committee. The committee put forth a recommendation to the Board of Education, .

Two professional development days in October and November were returned to the student calendar.

Although many of the decisions the district makes are unilateral in nature, Dr. Palmer believes that “understanding what the parents think is part of understanding the community’s values and goals. 

“We must be aligned with the community,” she said. “Stay involved and read the publications that the schools send out. Stay active and be an active participant in the budget process. Ask the tough questions."

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