Watertown News: Please provide a brief description of yourself: your family, profession, any other relevant information.
David Stokes: My wife and I continue to love living in Watertown, after moving here 27 years ago. Our daughter went through Watertown Public Schools K-12, graduating in 2020. She is currently a senior at Keene State College, studying to become a high school biology teacher.
I graduated from Swarthmore College in 1990, with a secondary school English teaching certificate, and have decades of experience teaching, mostly in non-traditional classroom settings (like BU’s Questrom School of Business, the American Red Cross, and the City of Cambridge Recreation Department), including at MWRA, where I’ve worked for 29 years. The last 20 of those, I’ve worked as its computer security manager, responsible for keeping hackers from disrupting the delivery of drinking water and wastewater services and managing a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract.
Over the last 4 years, as a member of the School Committee, I have served as Chair of the Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee, member of both the Policy and the Budget & Finance Subcommittees, and Chair of the Ad Hoc Career, Vocational, and Technical Education (CVTE) Committee.
WN: Please tell us about what inspired you to run for School Committee, and what experiences you have that would help you serve on the committee.
DS: Once my daughter started Kindergarten, and for the last 16 years, I have worked persistently to improve the Watertown Public Schools: first, as a member of the Site Councils for each of her schools (and sometimes as Chair), and then as a School Committee member (I am finishing my first 4-year term). I have always believed that successful public education requires both family and community involvement – something that my wife and I readily embraced. Watertown has a strong commitment to the education of its students, and I want to continue to maximize that commitment. I have learned much over the last 4 years about the state of the equity in our schools, and now I can help the District to keep moving forward on that front. I am also in a strong position to help figure out how to create more CTE opportunities for our high school students.
WN: During your campaigning, what have you heard most from Watertown residents, and what was something that was a new issue or surprised you?
DS: Aside from talking about the new – and newly renovated – elementary schools and the project for the new high school, I heard residents’ concerns about equity, academic achievement (especially related to the pandemic), and the social-emotional health of our students and faculty. Somewhat surprising (although perhaps it shouldn’t have been), was how often Career & Technical Education (CTE) concerns also came up. I didn’t realize how many Watertown residents had participated in that sort of training during their high school years. As chair of the Ad Hoc CVTE Committee that was researching the available options for additional opportunities outside Watertown, I knew that families sought a broader set of choices for their students. While WHS has 3 complete “Chapter 74” programs today (Engineering Technology, Medical Assisting, and Digital Media Communication), with a couple more to come after the new high school is built, and lots of CTE electives, our students have limited opportunities to apply to any of the other 40 or so “Chapter 74” programs that Massachusetts recognizes. I think that we will need to be more creative and think further “outside the box” here (I already have ideas to explore).
WN: Watertown has built two new elementary schools, completely renovated another, and is constructing a new high school. People are coming back to the Watertown Public Schools, or are moving to town for the state-of-the-art facilities. What should the district be doing to deal with the influx of new students, and what would you propose to do if the schools reach capacity?
DS: Today, the District keeps good track of its students, including those who move in and out during the school year. The School Committee hears monthly updates about enrollment. We instituted buffer zones between our elementary school neighborhoods, to provide flexibility in assigning a new student to a different school if their grade in the “home” school is full, which will continue to help. Flexibility to accommodate increased student population can be less obvious at the secondary level, since we only have 1 middle school and 1 high school. Nonetheless, I think that there are solutions. The high school is currently using a multi-building “campus” model temporarily (thank you WMS and Watertown Boys & Girls Club!). Should we ever need, this “pilot” will have worked out many of the issues with this sort of arrangement, which could be one possible solution (as an example, use of the Phillips building might be a consideration for expanding the high school). Additionally, Watertown has a strong dedication to small class sizes, which is an important element of a high-quality education. I would not be in favor of moving away from that position as a solution, except as a last resort.
WN: While having new school facilities is a bonus, the focus of education is what happens in the classroom. Watertown has been updating curriculum in various subjects at different levels. What curriculum area do you think needs the most attention and why?
DS: Curriculum should be reviewed with a regular frequency. The District is piloting new reading curriculum in 1st and 4th grades (before rolling out across K-5), which is something that was really needed, as it is a foundational component for success in upper grade levels. The curriculum for Multilingual Learners (MLs) is currently being reviewed; this is an important area on which to focus because of the marked increase (66%) in MLs over the last 5 years, and some of their struggles that came out in the MCAS ELA results (6th, 7th, and 10th grades).
WN: Keeping quality teachers in Watertown is getting more difficult every year. What can the WPS do to encourage the best candidates to come to Watertown, and keep them here?
DS: Providing high quality, updated working environments in new or fully renovated schools is one step forward. (Don’t worry – I won’t forget about the Middle School!) But having a diverse, equitable, respected work environment is also important. Compensation is always a consideration, as are housing affordability and proximity (including commute to work). I do think that the District continues to try recruiting the best candidates from both trusted and new pipelines. And I think that candidates see that Watertown is not only a vibrant community with a strong public school district, but that we also are trying to improve the diversity of our faculty and staff, and the quality of our curriculum. We have many layers of support for students and teachers alike. We respect and appreciate our teachers and our schools. And, our new HR director also has some exciting ideas about how to recruit and retain staff (and the energy to match!).
WN: Tell us something about yourself that people may not know.
DS: One of the lessons that I taught to my 7th grade English class during my student teaching was around not judging someone until you’ve “walked a mile in their shoes.” So, I devised a relay race, using my own size 15 shoes, where the students would step into my shoes (with their own shoes on) and walk down the hallway and back. It was a grand exercise that invigorated much discussion afterwards. I like to think that my students still remember the race to this day, some 35 years later, as fondly as I do. And, as the lesson taught, each time I think of this activity, I am reminded that my experiences inform my view of the world, and that others do not see everything as I do.