Eileen Hsu-Balzer is running for re-election to the School Committee. The Watertown Election will be held on Nov. 3.
1) What inspired you to run for School Committee?
Public schools not only opened doors for me, they showed me where the doors I wanted were. My parents were immigrants, and my Mother arrived not speaking English. They trusted my public schools to guide me. I want to continue to build a public school system in Watertown that not only provides students with the skills they will need when we launch them into the world, but which opens their minds to a vast world of possibilities. I hope that every Watertown student will feel that their years in the public schools opened doors for them.
2) What do you see as the biggest issue for the Watertown Public Schools and why?
There are many challenges for the Watertown Public Schools to take on in the coming four years, such as our aging buildings, the varied and changing needs of our unusually large number of state-designated High Need Students (48 percent), and our ongoing struggle to adequately fund the exciting curriculum expansion our staff has proposed (more science, technology, engineering, arts and math or STEAM, and elementary foreign language, are at the top of the list). None of these challenges can be met without outstanding administrative leadership.
To my mind, the School Committee must be a partner with the Town, the professional educational staff and the community in creating successful schools. I do not take for granted the current collegial school climate, as, during my tenure on the Committee, I have seen it be otherwise, which was reflected in and adversely affected by events such as the resignations of the previous two Superintendents before their contracts were up. In fact, when I was re-elected, four years ago, relationships between the School Committee and the Watertown Educators Association were poor. The teachers had been working without a contract for two years. Dissatisfaction was taking a toll on the District’s ability to concentrate on teaching and learning. After I became Chairman of the School Committee, we settled that contract, and another one later, in a collegial and respectful manner.
There will be two rounds of labor negotiations to come in the next four years. I intend to maintain and build on the current culture of trust and respect among staff, Administration and School Committee, so that we all continue to feel we are working on the same team, toward the same goals.
Under the Ed Reform Law, School Committees are not granted responsibility for curriculum, or teacher hiring or evaluation, or professional development. That is the purview of the professional educational staff. In states such as Texas or Alabama, school boards exercise power over curriculum. The voters of the State of Massachusetts have decided that those decisions should be made by licensed professional educators.
The School Committee’s mandate is to hire, evaluate and then support a Superintendent who has the vision for excellence we want, the professional skills to carry out that vision, and the interpersonal skills which generate a school culture of mutual respect and trust. When this trust exists, that is when real educational growth can occur. The School Committee is not a duplicate school administration. Without a unified team approach, the success we all want will be elusive. To be an effective team, all parties must have trust in the others. Ed Reform law gives School Committees the rights to hire the Superintendent, pass a budget request, vote on policies and negotiate labor contracts. Teaching and learning decisions are the responsibility of the Superintendent and the professional staff under the Superintendent’s direction. If the School Committee is dissatisfied with the progress of the schools, then its recourse is to find a new Superintendent.
3) While schools are your focus, working with the Town Council and town administration is also part of the job. What would you do to have a good relationship with people on the Town side?
I believe the basis of any good working relationship is a combination of being knowledgeable on the topics at hand and yet open to other opinions. For instance, this past year we were able to work collaboratively with the Town Manager, his staff and the Town Council to pass an Education budget at an unheard of 5 percent increase. Additionally, the Manager and Council have approved one-time expenditures for much-needed curriculum materials in the past two years. We also have a Special Education Stabilization Fund set up by the Town in case there is an unexpected expenditure required due to unforeseen circumstances.
Some of these successes are based on our hiring, last year, of a School Business Manager who has also been a Town Manager, and who understands what the Town Administration needs. He and the Town Auditor have a productive, respectful, working relationship. In addition, some credit must go to changes in how the School Committee has publicly presented the curriculum and its attendant budgetary requirements.
Since 2012, when I was voted Chairman of the School Committee, all curriculum presentations have been made, not at a Curriculum Subcommittee meeting, but at the full School Committee meeting. Presentations have been made both by students and by staff. Not only has this created more transparency around budgetary requests, it also has enabled the entire School Committee to witness the staff presentations and participate in the discussions, and the public has been able to watch the presentations on Cable TV and on the Cable station’s website, over and over. Town Council members who have attended or watched the meetings thus have had the opportunity to understand why the Education budget contains the items it does. Everyone has benefitted from explanations of the arcana of Special Education costs, and other restrictions on and requirements for expenditures that are unique to school budgets.
During the winter and spring ramp-up to the presentation of the Education budget to the Town Council for a vote, every school curriculum chair presented his/her budget request, outlining how this request filled a particular educational/student need, aligned with overall department planning, and served to improve teaching and learning throughout the Watertown school district.
4) What is your opinion of the Common Core standards, and how much do you think they should play a role in shaping education in Watertown?
The Common Core was intended to create a level playing field on which comparisons could be made from state to state. There is no question that understanding how we measure up against the rest of the United States is a useful piece of information. For that, we require standardized testing based on a common curriculum.
As a state, Massachusetts does extremely well. However, there are many types of ways we want to assess our children’s educational progress. Just as passing the driver’s license test on a given day does not automatically mean a person is a good driver, so the results of one educational test do not show other important abilities, such as: ability to assess and interpret new data; ability to know what questions to ask to find the relevant data; ability to work with other people; work ethic; areas not covered by testing such as artistic or musical ability; and so on.
Another important aspect in analyzing test results is to unpack the results to see where each student started, so that we are comparing apples to apples. For example, is this student a recent arrival to our District, or has he/she been with us for several years? Watertown has a very high churn rate. When we analyze test results in a cohort of students who have been with us for five years or more, they perform better than the state. Is this student a native English speaker or perhaps someone who is being supported by the English as a Second Language programs? 30% of our students come from homes in which English is not the language spoken. Does this student have significant learning disabilities? Physical disabilities? Social or emotional issues requiring additional support? Forty-eight percent of our students are designated as High Need by the state. Is this a very gifted student? We want to give each student what he or she requires to excel.
In other words, student results on tests require deeper analysis to be understood and be useful. Our small enrollment numbers, generally around or under 200 per grade, mean that a change in one or two students makes a noticeable percentage difference in our overall scores. Did an entire grade not perform well on some questions, and perform extremely well on others? Does that point to a need for an alteration to some curriculum or teaching method, and an expansion of other efforts?
In my opinion, the goal of testing is not to rank students. The goal is to gain information that can be used to improve teaching and learning. Since 1998, around the introduction of MCAS, the Watertown Schools have analyzed all test results in this painstaking way—by individual student, and by question. Last year the professional staff anticipated the pending
substitution of PARCC testing for MCAS. There are differences between the two, including that MCAS is more fact-based, whereas PARCC is considered more inquiry-based. PARCC science testing, for example, requires understanding how to use the scientific method to reach a
conclusion, and there may be more than one path to follow or more than one conclusion to be reached. PARCC and the Common Core are based on analyzing communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. I consider those skills to be vital parts of being a successful adult. Please note that we have been told that all students currently in the High School will
continue to take MCAS throughout their tenure. Stay tuned for further information from the state.
5) Tell us about yourself – your family, background and qualifications to be a School Committee member.
I am the mother of two children who are both graduates of the Watertown Public Schools. I have tried, in my forty years as a Watertown homeowner, to participate in numerous activities and organizations which enrich community ties for families. One of the wonderful aspects of Watertown is that so many people volunteer their time and talents generously. My children and I have benefited from their efforts, and I am deeply grateful.
I believe that building strong schools and supporting families is a way to build a strong and cohesive Watertown community. I have tried to be a voice for change that supports all students, from many diverse backgrounds and with many diverse needs and interests. During the next four years, issues and challenges will arise which are not currently on our radar screens.
I have a track record of listening to all sides, gathering data thoughtfully, and making decisions that always put the interests of students first. I have been unwaveringly supportive of adequate funding for the Watertown schools, while recognizing that our town must serve many varying constituencies.
My goal is to create a culture in which we can truly feel we are all part of the same team, whether we work in Town Hall, in the School Department or are part of the larger Watertown community.
- Children: Matthew WHS ‘99 and Julie WHS ‘94
- Graduate: Harvard University
- Watertown homeowner for 40 years
- School Committee: Chair since 2012; Member for 20 years; has served on every subcommittee; chair of Curriculum subcommittee for 14 years
- Recipient of Watertown-Belmont Chamber of Commerce Stanley Porter Person of the Year Award
- Recipient of World in Watertown Unity Award: “…universally respected for her ability to build bridges of understanding and cooperation between those who may disagree, uniting them around a single sense of mission, purpose and inclusiveness.”
Current community volunteer work:
- Watertown Summer Concerts: Co-founder in 2000, and Producer for the past 15 years
- Watertown Boys and Girls Club: Board
- Women’s Lunch Place (Boston day shelter for poor and homeless women): past-President and current Board
Past community volunteer work includes:
- Many PTO/classroom volunteer activities
- Member, Watertown High School Site Council
- Editor, Watertown Middle School newsletter
- Board, former Watertown Athletic Boosters
- Board, Watertown Children’s Theatre: President for 14 years
- Board, Watertown Education Foundation
- Board, former Watertown Arts Center
- Board, former Watertown Multi-Service Center