The five people running for School Committee reacted to several questions during the first School Committee Candidate Forum hosted by Watertown News on Thursday night.
Among the questions sent in by parents and residents were what they would do about school building/capacity problems, and setting goals for the district. A second candidate forum will be hosted by the Watertown Education Foundation on Thursday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. at Watertown Middle School. The election is Tuesday, Nov. 3.
School Committee member Michael Shepard seeks his second term on the board. He said some had talked about using the former branch libraries, but those have asbestos and are not large enough for a school.
He did see another option.
“Cunniff School had an addition in 1997, and it is designed to have another level put on top,” Shepard said. “It should be explored what we can do there.”
He noted adding space there could relieve class sizes not only at the Cunniff, but also at the other two elementary schools – the Hosmer and the Lowell.
School Committee challenger Kendra Foley went to the Phillips School – across from Watertown High School – when she grew up in town, and she said that seems like a possibility in the future.
“The potential of having a small elementary school there is exciting, but it is a long term, 3-5 year plan,” Foley said.
She has seen teachers at her children’s school, the Hosmer, do a lot with co-teaching where classes are larger but they have two teachers to create smaller learning groups.
School Committee member Julie McMahon, who is seeking her second term, said she thinks the district could look at using alternative facilities to move programs, perhaps pre-kindergarten, to free up space at the schools in the short term.
She worries about making too many changes without input from Watertown teachers.
“I would not want to do something that is not the best for her or his class,” McMahon said. “It requires a lot of talking and heads coming together.”
Current School Committee Chairwoman and 20-year veteran of the board Eileeen Hsu-Balzer said she would not want to make changes to schools without a lot of input from staff.
“In modern education you don’t have seventh-grade in this room. You have a room set up for a specialty,” Hsu-Balzer said. “You don’t have just one kind of space.”
It is also important to bring in parents and others to find out what they are thinking, she said.
Challenger Candace Miller said she has heard about the space problems when talking with parents at the Lowell School Playground, but the school is in better shape than the Hosmer and the Cunniff.
She would like to see the Building and Grounds subcommittee meet more often, at least monthly, to look at ways to solve the space problem. Town Councilors and parents should also be involved.
Miller worries the problem will just get worse.
“Projections show the numbers increasing for elementary kids,” Miller said. “Each year we are talking about more children.”
Candidates were asked if they favor setting short- and long-term goals for the Watertown Public Schools.
Goals are an important way to measure progress, Miller said. She said she uses goals in her work as an education policy researcher, and said short-term goals can show the progress toward meeting long-term goals.
“We should get everybody together and talk about what do we want to do in Watertown,” Miller said. “We can look at what we are doing, what is in line and where there are gaps.”
Areas she suggested looking at include student outcomes, teacher and administrator satisfaction and buildings.
To find out how the district is doing, Hsu-Balzer recommended talking to Watertown residents who teach in other towns. She also said people should not put too much stock on one score from one test, especially without knowing more about the student.
“When did they get here? Have they been here for five or more years. Those that have been here that long do well,” Hsu-Balzer said.
She added that tests do not measure other things, such as musical talent, artistic talent, community spirit, ethics and effort.
McMahon said she likes the idea of measuring teacher and administrator satisfaction. Also, talk to students.
“We should check with our kids to see where they are at after graduation,” McMahon said.
She added that one way to measure how well the district is doing is how well contract negotiations go with staff.
Foley said test scores, such as MCAS can be a valuable tool.
“I gives us valuable feedback about the gaps and holes we need to address,” Foley said. “We can ask, are we doing best on the science curriculum if only 68 percent of 10th graders passed the science MCAS test?”
Foley said would like to see a five year goal for to measure the progress of the schools, and she would like the community involved in coming up with the goal.
Shepard said he does not think it is as easy to measure school success as other places.
“Unfortunately education is not like sales. You can’t measure the number of widgets that come out,” Shepard said. “These are real children, real people with real social problems.”
Follow Watertown News for more from the School Committee Candidate Forum.
More information about the candidates is available by reading the candidate Q&As (click here).