LETTER: School Committee Member Proposing Change to Athletic Subcommittee

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School Committee member Candace Miller will propose the following change to the Athletic Subcommittee into a Student Development Subcommittee at Thursday’s Policy Subcommittee at 10 a.m. in the Phillips Building.

I am proposing to broaden the current Athletic subcommittee into a Student Development subcommittee which would focus on health and development issues that are fundamental to student academic performance and achievement. Topics to consider include social-emotional learning, physical and mental health, and extracurricular activities such as athletics, the arts, and other clubs and teams. I envision the subcommittee would strengthen existing partnerships and forge new links between WPS, town departments, Wayside Youth Services, the Watertown Boys and Girls Club and other public and private groups across Watertown working to improve student health and development from early childhood to young adulthood.

Within the education field, there is a growing body of evidence on the fundamental importance of social-emotional learning and optimal health to students’ academic performance and long- term success. [Footnotes 1,2] Put simply, happy and healthy students learn better. Unhappy and unhealthy students do not reach their potential.

Given this reality, school districts across Massachusetts have increased their attention to and investments in student development programming. According to the Rennie Center’s “Condition of Education in the Commonwealth” [3], districts should “set a social-emotional foundation in early childhood, build comprehensive k-12 systems of social-emotional support, foster skills for college and career success, and equip educators to foster social-emotional wellbeing”. This is a tall order, but WPS’s Behavioral Health Department has already begun implementing a 3-tiered model of behavioral health with general education, interventions for at-risk students, and specialized behavioral and counselling services for students most in need. In March 2016, Dr.

Barbara Gortych, Assessment and Testing Coordinator, presented Watertown Public School’s approach to the School Committee, describing both the strengths and gaps of our current programming. [4] Dr. Gortych emphasized that behavioral services are only available to students during the school day. As a result, many students do not have the support they need in late afternoons, evenings, weekends, holidays, and over the summer. Thus, while we are beginning to integrate social-emotional learning in classrooms and offer services to our at-risk students, we know that many opportunities exist while gaps persist. In a recent survey, a WPS teacher wrote:

I don’t feel that people recognize the true issues of poverty, and transient lifestyles and gaps in educational history that many of our students face. We have many children transfer in and out, many children are doubled up with other families, many students move … causing inconsistent instruction and time out if school. This leads to issues in the classroom such as fatigue, gaps in education, lack of snack, no homework and low parental involvement. When we do so much to meet a child’s basic needs, it is difficult to balance academic tasks. It is also important to acknowledge that schools are the only public agency that helps many of these families. We have many students with special needs, tragic domestic circumstances and mental health diagnosis that have no community support. A lack of parent ability to engage in a solution and scarcity of proper resources for children are large contributors to that issue. However, as educators, we are responsible for their learning and social emotional growth and we do our best to fill each and every role for all of our children.

Turning to health, the Watertown Youth Coalition recently released the “The Well Being of Watertown Youth Report” based on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey [5]. The mental health results are alarming: 15.2 percent of WMS students said they had seriously considered suicide and 8.6 percent had made a suicide plan. At WHS, 14.4 percent of students had seriously considered suicide and 11.4 percent had made a plan to commit suicide. In addition, students’ reports of the use of illicit drugs, as well as the age of first use, was of grave concern, particularly given the opioid epidemic and that “drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury death in the United States.” [6] Finally, both WMS and WHS students reported that academic stress was the biggest challenge they faced (85.7 percent at WHS, 85.5 percent at WMS).

We have work to do.

The proposed Student Development Subcommittees would work closely with our administrators to focus on range of important issues critical to healthy student development. The subcommittee would engage in dialogue, and assess strengths to build on, weaknesses to reduce, and gaps to fill. We must also assess whether our investments and approaches are working because we do not have the information right now to make evidence-based decisions on how to use our limited resources. Responding to these issues is critical to developing healthy, happy, connected, and resilient students who are able to reach their highest level of potential academically and developmentally.

Finally, I want to be clear: the proposed change is not a slight to athletics. My family and I take part in and have a deep love of athletics. We place a high value on both recreational and competitive sports. The new subcommittee would still respond to athletic issues that arise. Again, the Student Development subcommittee can still be the place for athletic issues to be heard and debated.

I hope this proposal—to initiate a Student Development Subcommittee—garners the full support of the Policy Subcommittee, the full School Committee, WPS administrators, teachers, and staff, Town Staff and elected officials, and the Watertown community.



1 Basch, C.E. “Healthier students are better learners: a missing link in school reforms to close the achievement gap.” Equity Matters: Research Review No. 6. http://www.equitycampaign.org/i/a/document/12557_EquityMattersVol6_Web03082010.pdf

2 Condition of Education in the Commonwealth: Toward a more comprehensive Vision of Student Learning. The Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. Winter 2016. http://www.renniecenter.org/topics/conditionofeducation_2016.html

3 Condition of Education in the Commonwealth http://www.renniecenter.org/topics/conditionofeducation_2016.html

4 Dr. Barbara Gortych, Watertown School Committee March 2016.


5 The 2014 YRBS included 539 WHS students (73.3 percent of the school) and 480 WMS students (88.7 percent of WMS)

6 US. Department of Health and Human Services http://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the- epidemic/

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