Firkins Reed is running for one of two seats on the Natick School Committee against David Margil and Timothy Kelley. Reed is a longtime educator and volunteer in town. For more information on the candidate, visit FirkinsReed.com.
What motivates you to want to serve on the Natick School Committee?
I am running for School Committee because I am passionate about schools and young people and because I love Natick. A strong school system benefits our children and helps all residents by making Natick a stronger and more vibrant community.
My desire to serve is a natural extension of more than 25 years in education. I taught high school for many years while also holding administrative positions, including college counseling, program development, and fundraising. Education is at the heart of who I am.
I have a demonstrated commitment to Natick. I served on School Council at Johnson and Wilson and was a member of the town-wide Anti-Bullying Task Force. I worked on several town-wide campaigns – including the one for the new high school. I was a member of the Board of Directors at Natick Service Council and worked there on development. I first came to Natick in 1987 to teach at Walnut Hill School and have lived here since 2000 with my husband and two daughters.
As part of doing my homework for this campaign, I’ve gone on a “Listening Tour” over the past month – visiting principals, school administrators, teachers, current and former School Committee members, members of the town’s Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen, parents, and others. I set up a candidates’ forum at the Senior Center for March 9th. I am trying to learn as much as I can about our schools and listening to a wide range of perspectives.
Last but not least, I am running for School Committee because our schools are at a critical juncture. Enrollment is rising during a time of financial belt-tightening and economic uncertainty. If elected, I will do my homework, collaborating with others to ensure students receive an excellent education for the best value. My goal is to serve all Natick students and residents. I will push for more effective and timely communication and increased collaboration with other town committees.
What experiences do you feel have best prepared you to be a member?
My experiences as a professional educator and my demonstrated commitment to Natick best prepare me to be a School Committee member.
As mentioned in Question #1, I have devoted almost my entire work life to schools and young people, serving in a range of educational settings, including Natick’s Walnut Hill School, an academic enrichment program serving high achieving students in the Boston Public Schools, a drop-out prevention program at Framingham High School, and a Dorchester middle school. I worked full-time until I had children of my own. In my twenties, I led a group of high school teens on a six-week service-learning project to Thailand.
My demonstrated commitment to Natick also prepares me. I have been involved in schools, town issues, and non-profits like Natick Service Council and Walnut Hill. I care about communicating and collaborating with as wide a cross-section of Natick residents as possible. Over and over, I have learned from the good people of Natick that even if we disagree, when we treat each other with respect, we can learn from one another, remain on good terms, and strengthen our community. We have more in common than not.
My experiences in education and in town will help me ask necessary questions, collaborate with the school administration and other town committees, think strategically about the future, work with others to make the best decisions possible, and communicate openly and clearly to parents and other residents.
What are the most important issues to you regarding Natick's schools at this time?
-Rising enrollment during a time of financial belt-tightening and economic uncertainty is the single most important issue facing the Natick schools. Since 2006, district enrollment has increased by nearly 500 students (from 4,372 to 4,858). The Superintendent predicts 5,000 students by year’s end. Fundamental educational needs are outpacing available revenues, straining the system in many ways. Difficult choices are being made regarding the budget that will only get more difficult. For more on this important issue, please see question #4.
-Improving communication and collaboration between the school administration, School Committee, other town committees and residents is essential. Even great initiatives can fail when timely and effective communication is lacking. More than one school initiative has met resistance due in part to poor communication between the administration, school committee, key town boards (e.g. Finance Committee, Board of Selectmen), parents, and other residents. This area demands continued improvement.
-Educating effectively for the 21st century. Natick has made bold moves towards meeting this important challenge – implementing important curricular changes, strengthening professional development through Professional Learning Communities, and improving pedagogy and learning with the well-researched introduction of the 1:1 laptop program in grades 8-12. But the Administration must constantly examine what learning for the 21st century means. Educators speak about the “4 C’s” – critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. How do we best foster these? What languages should be taught? at what level? Is more interdisciplinary learning important? How do we ensure that technology remains a tool to assist teaching and not an end in itself? The answers to these and other questions may change, even rapidly, but key educational goals with specific objectives must be clearly articulated. The goal is to graduate students fully prepared for a rapidly changing world.
-Developing student capacities to act as informed and engaged citizens. In an increasingly interconnected and complex world, students must gain global awareness, learn strategies for civic participation, and develop leadership skills. Even in an era of high stakes testing, we must never lose sight of educating the whole child. Natick is a clear leader in bullying prevention efforts within schools and at the town level. Both NPS’ Peer Leadership Program and the parent led Natick Parents Against Bullying & Cyberbullying are models for other communities. These provide a strong base on which to build initiatives both curricular and extra-curricular.
What do you expect are the greatest challenges Natick's school system will face in the next few years?
As I said in Question #3, rising enrollment during a time of financial belt-tightening and economic uncertainty is the most important issue facing the Natick schools. The ramifications are significant and will impact class size, teacher hiring and retention, building use, and more. Projected enrollment figures, on-line housing estimates, and other factors must be examined carefully and implications explored fully. While a challenge, rising enrollment is a sign of success. Our schools are strong, and people know that Natick is a wonderful town in which to live.
Educationally, the priority must remain on students and the classroom. This means doing everything possible to keep class sizes at manageable levels. It means providing teachers with what they need to teach all students effectively. It means continuing to attract and retain excellent teachers. We must maintain professional development opportunities and teacher support, even as budgets are strained.
We must dig into the budget with an eye to protecting the classroom and meeting student needs. Costs outside the classroom must be especially scrutinized. Last year, for example, the administration put out to bid a contract when it came up for renewal. By doing so, and then going with a new provider, the district saved $200,000 for FY 2012. These savings are enormous and is now freed up for others needs – like classroom teachers. Change can be difficult, of course, and decisions to go with new providers very difficult, but it is the Administration and School Committee’s responsibility to take advantage of such savings whenever possible.
As district enrollment rises, already strained buildings will reach capacity. The administration is looking ahead on this issue, as they should. Communication to residents about these findings should be transparent and timely. Looking further down the road, the School Administration, School Committee, relevant town committees, and other stakeholders will need to collaborate.
Natick Public Schools have made significant gains in the past several years. To maintain and build on these gains as our district grows, we must ask the right questions, think strategically, and make wise choices.
Who or what in your past most inspired your interest in education?
I was fortunate to have not one but several amazing teachers who paid attention to me and helped chart my life’s course. These people, who came at different points in my education, first and foremost cared about me as person. They believed in me, and their belief enabled me to believe in myself. They taught me essential academic skills, absolutely – how to read, do math problems, study for tests. But, just as important, they gave me life skills: the courage to ask questions, the freedom to think both creatively and critically, the confidence to pursue my dreams. These teachers taught me by their lived example that what we do in the world makes a difference.
I went into education because of these people. Miss Tinker from third grade, the first one to stretch my brain so much it hurt. Ms. Cook from sixth, whose love of poetry inspired my own and who listened when I was sad. Ms. Blackburne and Mr. Wandelt at high school who gave me hours of homework, pushed me out of my safety zone, and helped me become more resilient. Later, Bob Weisbuch, then a professor of English, now a university President, sat me down and said my writing just had to improve. Then he spent with me all the time I needed to learn, and he changed my life. They all did.
You’ll hear people say, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Nothing could be further from the truth. An excellent teacher – one who loves his or her subject, is committed to both the art and science of teaching, is passionate about working with young people and, above all, is able to recognize and nurture the unique gifts every child possesses – is the finest and bravest kind of human being. It’s been my life’s privilege to work alongside some of these people and to know them now through my daughters’ experiences in the Natick Schools. These are the people that inspire me still.