School Committee Candidates
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Who are you and why are you running?
Hi! I am Catherine Brunell. I’m running for School Committee because of our community and students. Last Spring, I co-founded Protect Natick’s Future (PNF) because Covid-19 exacerbated a financial crisis for our schools and town. PNF worked to be informed, to share the information with citizens and to fight the proposed cuts - cuts that would have increased elementary class sizes in a Johnson closure, cancelled sports & theatre and cut our middle school world language program. Since launching my campaign, I have stepped away from Protect Natick’s Future. You will see the same energy that I brought to PNF, however, if I am elected to the School Committee. My priorities are to:
A: Align our school budget with our community priorities.
B: Back district decisions with clear data.
C: Create policy with meaningful community input.
What do you think the role of a School Committee member is and how do you plan to improve Natick in this capacity?
The School Committee is charged with 3 basic oversight roles: the evaluation of the Superintendent, creating & revising district wide policies and funding those policies through the budget. When acting in these capacities, I will reach out to understand a diverse range of perspectives and I will request data to consider best practices. Here are some concrete examples of how I plan to lead:
> Request that we survey our community about priorities each year as part of the budget process
> Work to revitalize the policy and budget subcommittees as they are currently underutilized
> Seek out training as a School Committee Member - for example, I am attending the National School Board Association’s Equity Symposium in February.
Fun fact: What is your favorite book?
My top three: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, and Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life. I love reading the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary to my kids and my favorite picture book is The Quilt Maker’s Gift by Jeff Brumbeau.
What is your explanation/understanding of inclusion and what do you think NPS can do to increase inclusive practices?
My understanding around inclusion is that a district’s educational practices are best when inclusion occurs throughout the school district. Students with learning differences should be incorporated into the learning and social experiences that their typically developing peers are having as much as the individual child’s circumstances will allow the child to benefit in an inclusive setting. This is both best practice and a federally mandated law (IDEA). Students learn the best when they are with their peers, at their home school as much as the needs of that child allow them to thrive in the home environment. In addition, inclusion is a huge benefit to the school community at large. When all children are supported by daily practices that build authentic relationships within a classroom, skills like including others, listening, empathy, resilience, and kindness, we give all of our students the opportunity to practice life long skills that will benefit everyone.
As far as how NPS can increase their inclusive practices, that is the role of the administration, special educators and general education teachers to decide. They are the experts that have been hired with your tax dollars. My role on the school committee will be to hold them accountable to what they have decided is best and to ensure it aligns with the community’s priorities. I will ask questions and request data to discover if we are in fact doing what we say we are doing:
What is the district’s vision of and the policies to support inclusion?
How are those policies funded? Is the money being used most efficiently based on industry standards and outcomes for our students? Have we hit our mark or do we need more?
Knowing that inclusion for our students first necessitates relationships among our staff, do we track how often our special ed teachers and general ed teachers meet? How much time do they have to plan together? What do those numbers look like historically? Do we have policies in place to support the high level of communication that is needed between the adults assisting the child?
What is the experience of our students in inclusive settings? Does it change when one looks at age, gender, race or ethnicity? What is the experience of our families overall?
What do our special educators and general ed teachers indicate as needs and are we meeting those?
What % of our students are in sub separate classrooms? And how often do those students interact with their peers and in what capacities? Have we seen any of that data change in the last decade and what is our thinking around any historical trends that we might see?
To what extent are we seeing participation of students with disabilities in sports, theatre, and after school clubs?
When a student leaves our district for an out of district placement, how often does the child return?
As a school committee member, I will make learning about our special education program a priority in both my own skill building as well as in the way in which I approach any budget and policy making decisions.
Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC)
If a parent approached you with a concern about special education in Natick and claimed it was a systemic problem, what would you do?
First, I would listen and thank the parent for reaching out. Then as I worked to learn more about the themes in the experience that the family described, I would ensure that the parent also knew how to utilize the communication procedures in place for our district - I’d like to know more about those procedures as well and learn how we communicate them to parents on a regular basis. I’d also like to know about the efficacy of our communication - for example, if it is through email - do the emails get opened? While I work at a systematic level to understand the parent’s concern, I would be sure that the parent knew his/her/their rights and how to contact their child’s teachers, principal and if need be the district's central administration. Because communication is a key area of our strategic plan, I will work to ensure that we are holding our district accountable to operating with the most transparent and open procedures possible.
On a systematic level, I will look for patterns and if they exist - consistent experiences that are problematic or those that are particularly celebratory - I will act upon them at the school committee level through policy development or budgetary decisions.
Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC)
Please cite one specific concern about special education in Natick that you are aware of and how you would advance it if elected.
With your permission, I’d like to share two - first, a budget concern and then observations around our RTI (Response to Intervention) program.
Budget: As someone who got involved in the School Committee meetings because of the cuts proposed to the budget last spring, I have spent hours trying to best understand our budget. With all of the Natick Public Schools accounts, and especially with special education, I would like to see a more clear picture presented by both the Administration and the School Committee. As I fought against the budget cuts last spring, I observed that one of the major reasons the fight was so protracted was that the district's presentation of the budget was not thorough in places or clear in others. Best practices include:
Budget sub committee meetings and minutes posted regularly
At a minimum, quarterly updates on spending (after the budget has been passed) with enough details where the public can be assured about spending
Yearly re-evaluations of our priorities and how we are funding them.
These are not major asks and I’m hopeful that any movement towards aligning our budgets to our priorities with clear communication about all of it will improve the experience of all of our students.
Response to Intervention: This program is not within the scope of special education, per se, but it is related. Through RTI, the district is providing specific skill development to support students who are not making progress with the content taught as is. The hope, as I have heard principals describe, is that with focused attention on one specific area, the specialist or teacher working with the student can begin to discern if the student was able to master the skill and move along with his or her peers or if the student needs more support. Sometimes this support could be with an additional 6 weeks RTI session, sometimes this could mean an evaluation for a disability. The district is not mandated to communicate about RTI in the same ways that they are around special education, but as a best practice, the communication - why a student enters RTI, what the support looks like, why they might leave the program or circle back through - could be better.
Again, how this happens is not up to me, but I would ask probing questions to understand if the resources that we are putting towards RTI are being well used:
How many of our students move through RTI each year?
What are the breakdowns at each school in age, gender, race and ethnicity?
How long does each student on average remain in the program?
What funding are we giving for the implementation of the RTI program as part of our general education program?
How many students move from the RTI program eventually to an IEP or a 504? How long does that take on average?
What is the teacher and family experience of the program? Are the programs doing what the district needs them to do based on student outcome data?
What communication methods do we use within RTI and how effective are they?
Do the teachers have the support they need to support the students?
Do the principals have the staff needed to run these programs?
Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC)
What are your thoughts on using ClearGov for budgeting and reporting fiscal and educational performance?
ClearGov.com is a business that runs a cloud-based digital platform for local governments. While some school districts use it, from what I can tell, it was not designed with school data specifically in mind. I do like the visuals it provides and the ability to compare years within a budget, but it doesn’t matter to me what platform we use as long as we are using something to clearly communicate our budgeting, expenditures and outcomes.The schools could benefit by being more clear and by using a variety of tools available to communicate in the most simple format about what is done with the money the School Committee is charged to budget and oversee.
Knowing that there will be compromises, what do you consider the highest priority new positions and programs outlined in the preliminary FY22 budget?
Before we can talk about new positions or even talk about overall priorities, we need to talk data and ground ourselves in one question: What will our students need in the 2021-22 school year (the FY22 fiscal year)? I will ask about what tools we are using to assess that data and what that data tells us. I also wonder if we currently do enough to systematically solicit the perspective of families. Do we have data that demonstrates that we have asked and now understand where families, including their students, are from a place of social-emotional health and well-being?
In addition to what students are bringing into the 2021-22 school year with SEL needs, I also want to see what the needs are with learning loss. To date, we received some promising data from the fall that the two months of remote learning in the spring did little to negatively impact students. I have yet to see a scatter plot of that data, which segregates by sub-groups (low-income, EL, low proficiency students, etc.). In the elementary and middle school levels, we now have - with Renaissance testing having just concluded - a fall to winter comparison. I am eager to see the same data.
With the family SEL data, the student SEL data and the learning loss (nuanced by sub-group), I would like to see a triangulation of the data done by the schools to present what trend-lines exist across these data points. Then and only then can we begin the process of identifying priorities and budget for a robust Covid recovery plan.
From all of that data, I would be mindful of equity. Equity doesn’t mean that all students get the same thing; equity means that students get what they need. If specific students need specific resources, then we need to support the district in funding those resources. The response to this crisis, however, is not going to be general, overarching strategies: it is about living out our goal in the Strategic Plan of a personalized education - now, with COVID, more than ever.
Lastly, I’ll give you an example about specific positions that I have seen in the NPS budget process. On page 36 of the FY22 Budget Book in the Transparency Center, there are 5 math tutors requested for the elementary level and 2 high school math workshop tutors. The latter were identified for algebra skills specifically needed because of the Covid closure and yet have been removed from the last budget proposal the public has seen. These are the hard choices that our School Committee has to make and should make with data to inform those choices. Does the current learning loss data - e.g. the January Renaissance testing in the elementary and any data from our current 9th graders - support the elementary math specialist above the high school workshop tutors? Would the data support the need for both and so we’d potentially have to find cuts somewhere else or deprioritize a different initiative? Without seeing that data as described here - data which we have not seen discussed at the school committee level - I don’t know what that answer is. Our priorities should be discussed with professional rationale - grounded in data - so that in the end all of us - the public, the families, the teachers and administration - feel good about the priorities that have been set and the follow through of them.
Research shows that NPS teachers are paid less than those in peer districts. What is your perspective on teacher pay and how will you, as a School Committee Member, advocate for teachers?
I am a former teacher and I will forever be grateful to every teacher in my life. As a school committee member, I will be a partner with our teachers as we advocate together for the students. The best teachers make the most learning possible for the most kids. Some of that is about salary, some of it is about the school environment. Our budget and our policies, especially in application, have to reflect consistently that we value our teachers in real terms: in salary, in job satisfaction, in a professional culture that develops, supports and retains excellence. Collective bargaining, unions, fair market value, steps & lanes, all of these require expert advice and that a deep level of trust is engendered by all parties. All this being said, we should absolutely strive to be competitive in pay with our peer districts. Moreover, we should be innovative - wherever we can - to attract diverse candidates to come to and stay in our schools. Where we have limitations, I am banking on innovations to help.
What is your perspective on the concept of a parent engagement center and what data would you use to evaluate such an investment?
I fully support our district goal #2 of “Teaching and learning while nurturing connections” found in the Natick Public Schools strategic plan. The concept of a parent engagement center is one of 10 action steps for the 2020-2021 school year described under the SMAART objective “enhancing school culture across the district.” under this goal.
As noted, in having 10 different action steps, there are many ways that we can enhance our school culture, especially at the school level, for the most tailored and personal experience. The parent engagement center is described specifically as a way to support our most vulnerable populations, especially ELL families and notes the need for “budgeted parent support staff in budget, dedicated space in district, translation services expanded and real-time.”
This leads us into another priority and budget conversation. As noted previously, a district that implements real equity offers different things to attend to different needs that student populations and individuals have. I have not seen our school committee thoroughly discuss the needs of our ELL population, however. I also have not seen our policy sub-committee, nor the full committee consider a parent engagement center as a policy in our parent outreach efforts or how we would measure the achievement of enhancing school culture across the district with it. Finally, I have not seen a discussion where the parent engagement center falls in the list of priorities that the schools have. The answer to every priority that develops cannot be that we expand the budget. It is no secret that all of Natick is facing a structural deficit. Admitting that we have constraints and doing the best that we can within them will make our schools stronger than the alternative. I believe our leaders will need to build the utmost confidence about any thing that is added to our budgets in the coming years including a parent engagement center.
How will you personally work to address student concerns regarding equity and inclusion at NPS?
I will listen. I will respond with thoughtful questions and I will ask further questions of our administration to understand trends. For example, I will ask for disaggregated data by race, first language and gender. When we break it out, among many other data points, what do our high school AP course enrollments or our middle school club participation rates look like? What is the click rate of the districts “engage emails,” and how does that break down by families at different school levels and different populations? We need to be brave enough to publicly assess our equity initiatives so that we can celebrate what deserves celebrating and improve what is not there yet. My work with Spark Kindness, the Metco program and coaching with Soccer without Borders have all come directly from what I experienced as a classroom teacher in Boston and Chicago. Our race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity are critical factors of who we are. I will be curious about the lived experiences of our students and professionals in Natick because who we are should also impact how we teach.
I will also work hard to bring a diverse set of voices to the policy and budget decisions of our schools. For example, our current committee recently took up a micro-aggression policy through the policy subcommittee on January 25th, 2021. Were I on the school committee I would be sure to include diverse voices and perspectives from the very beginning of that policy development instead of the way it was started with the current committee.
What are the most crucial pieces of data that will inform your vote on whether to send kids back to school full-time, and do you regard this as a decision that is district-wide or can different solutions be considered at the elementary, middle and high school levels?
1. Data by professional and scientific communities - for example, the CDC, the National Institute of Mental health.
2. Data on local districts that have been in school in a different model than NHS - For example, those using 3ft distancing.
3. Understanding what information people need. Fear is a real experience. How can we take the best care of each other by acknowledging it and speaking frankly about what options are available to kids, families and teachers.
4. Layers of Mitigation so we can understand the impacts of any changes we make, for example pool testing.
We should be looking at any return to school decisions both at district wide and at each level, elementary, middle and high school.
The amount of ELL children and families is increasing every year in the Natick Schools, how do you think the school district can get prepared to support those families in the short, medium and long term?
I love this question because you ask about the timeline. In the long run, I think we should be dreaming big and soliciting ideas from community members. I know a bi-lingual immersion classroom option has long been desired by members of our community. A program like that would support the inclusion of our students who are already developing bi-lingualism by indicating that it is not only for students learning English. Language acquisition for all students could be a priority that we set and support with resources.
In the short run, we need to ask our ELL students & families and our teachers & administrators about what they need, especially in the wake of COVID. While asking that we also need to see more data from this year. For students who do not speak English as their primary language at home, the shutdown was especially problematic. We put supports in place this year to compensate for any language loss including remote ELL classes on students’ home weeks. Did they work? We need to celebrate what did and look carefully at what did not. Additionally, in the ELLPAC meetings I have attended, I hear a primary need in finding the people power to run and establish ELLPAC. I’d like to see our School Committee use its connections in the community to help our families network and better establish this group.
In the mid-range, we need to use that data that we can gather from the short run and turn any need that we can see into measurable goals for the next 2-3 years.
English Language Learner Parent Advisory Council (ELLPAC)
What are your goals to improve the educational experience for multilingual students?
We have a district goal to do this - Goal #2 is Teaching and Learning while Nurturing Connections. There are so many ways to support the educational experience for students. In Natick, one of the action steps currently under this goal is to add a micro-aggression policy to our schools. While I support deep work in diversity, equity and inclusion, I have real concerns with the way our School Committee approached this policy development in January. I want to see us develop policies, especially ones that impact the culture of our schools, with outreach and engagement from the start. I’d like to see the teachers and administration who work with the multilingual students explicitly involved in its creation. Families and students surveyed in detailed and careful ways….central to any of my goals in the coming years will be the involvement of our community and in meaningful and authentic ways.
English Language Learner Parent Advisory Council (ELLPAC)
What are your ideas to get more engagement to the community from the ELL families?
Networking is one of my biggest skills and I know that I will need to use it all of the time as a School Committee member. This role is about relationships - through them, understanding what the needs are in our community and then how to help us meet them. Oftentimes, the very best thing that we have to offer is people power. I will continue to attend ELLPAC meetings, I will listen to the needs of families and I will reflect what I hear as a leader and as a connected community member.
I will also ask questions about our current engagement practices and ask that the data be disaggregated by ethnicity and language access wherever possible. My goal in any data I consider or questions that I ask about it: That every student who attends our schools and every family who sends us their most special people feels like 01760 can be home.
English Language Learner Parent Advisory Council (ELLPAC)
Would you support a study or examination of the need for a police presence in Natick Schools? There seems to be a national trend towards a police-free schools movement, which seeks to shift schools’ disciplinary cultures away from control and punishment and towards a more supportive model.
I will always support our district and our community learning more about the services that we provide through our state and local taxes. National trends are a start, but I am more interested in our local experience. Natick has the opportunity to be a leader in so many ways and this is one example of that.
Before we form a study committee, however, I would like our existing committee to do the work it is elected to do. I would like our school committee to deliberate over all kinds of data - for example, student experience, school resource officer experience, disaggregated discipline statistics, funding, and any changes in use of the program in the past decade. Were I on the committee, I would also be reaching out to our Police Department and the individual officers (via the Chief), our Principals (via our Superintendent) and our families to understand what the goal of the program, what we want it to be and how we are measuring its outcomes. A lot of digging and educating are needed before we jump to national statistics.
For example, I attended a school committee meeting last year where a student, the same student who was nominated as the School Committee’s representative on the town wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion taskforce, was asked to share her experience and her understanding of other students’ experiences when it came to School Resource Officers. With courage, the student spoke in front of 7 school committee members, our Superintendent and other administrators from NPS and multiple police officers. I was disappointed that the adults in our community put a student in that position - she rose to the occasion - but structuring the meeting that way was a mistake. We don’t need anecdotes, we need data. And we need data and the courage to go through the data in a public way. We need this especially when the topic involves beloved members of our community, school resource officers and individual students, if we expect any kind of productive outcome in this or any polarizing issue.
In the past year, youth movements such as Fridays for Future, Climate Strike, Sunrise Movement have engaged many young people who are concerned about the impact the climate crisis will have on their future. How do you think the School Committee should engage with students on this issue and what could the School Committee and the School Administration do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage waste-reduction in our school buildings and throughout our school system?
This is where my commitment to creating policy with meaningful community input comes into play. School districts across the country have sustainability policies created by their policy subcommittees and adopt sustainability goals in their strategic plans. Those levers then result in things like district wide composting programs, plans to improve the energy efficiency of schools to renewable sources, and evaluating how any sustainability efforts are being incorporated into curriculums. If this is a Natick community priority, the role of the School Committee is to ask how the district plans to incorporate it into NPS’ work. Further, it is increasingly common to see a subcommittee on Climate change, Sustainability and the Environment formed with School Committee members, educators and members of the public diving deep into the topics and bringing initiatives to the district for budget consideration and implementation.
As for engaging students, the School Committee could improve student engagement by ensuring that there is a student representative at their meetings and when there, they are given a chance to speak at them. Students could also be given a spot on the policy subcommittee and could attend focus groups by the School Committee so that the leaders had another window into student perspectives. This would apply to many areas of student experience including the youth movements listed.
What is your track record on environmental sustainability, including any related interests, experience, or initiatives?
My family and I were part of the compost pilot in Natick and it continues to be a practice we use daily! Also, when the schools investigated composting last year, I was a parent volunteer for the pilot day in the lunchroom helping the kids divide their compost, waste and recyclables. We would love to move to solar and have begun the process for our roof.
Many local communities are now requiring environmental education in their curriculum, including time spent outdoors studying nature. Studies have shown a correlation between time spent outdoors and lower student anxiety and stress. Do you think environmental education should be expanded in Natick schools and if so, how would you go about advocating for such programs? What other ideas do you have for engaging students in environmental programming through the curriculum?
I will admit, I would have to learn what our current practices are across the district before I could comment on improving them. I know at the elementary level, things like the outdoor classroom at Lilja and the garden spaces at other schools are a big hit with the children and parents. Even physical education happening outdoors when possible is a great thing. As for adding more, this could be something that the School Committee addressed through a subcommittee on Health and Wellness. The more we are willing to dive into and back any decision around our outcomes with data and the more we are willing to carefully align any available part of our budget towards the priorities that come from the community, the more effective we will be with student outcomes and with building community engagement.