Melanie McLaughlin

Background

What motivates you to run for school committee?

I am the mother of three Medford public school students who have attended 5 of our 8 schools. My children have played on sports teams, participated in drama clubs, studied in advanced placement classrooms and received special education supports and services. In my own childhood school experience, I was a student in a poorly resourced school district. At the age of 13 I became a ward of the state and entered the foster care system where I developed strong self-advocacy skills. It was only as an adult that I understood that I did not have the networks and connections, the ‘social capital’ to receive what I needed as a student. Because of these lived experiences I know transforming education policy is the most effective way to create positive systemic change for all our children. The range of my children’s experience has helped me understand the differences across our school district; some of our schools have more resources than others. In 2017 I received my masters degree in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education where I learned about equity and diversity in schools, implicit and explicit bias, the achievement and opportunity gaps and disproportionality. As the co-chair of Medford’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council I have further developed my advocacy skills. I have been a strong advocate for my own children but I understand there are families in our district who do not have the time or ability – due to work, family and other commitments – to advocate for themselves. As a public school district, it is our responsibility to provide a high quality public education for every child. As your school committee candidate I will advocate for every child so that every school and teacher has the resources and ability to provide the highest quality public education Medford public schools can offer.

What experiences or skills have prepared you to serve on the school committee?

In addition to my work in education policy I am a small business owner who has worked on multi-million dollar budgets for a number of independent projects. I am also a public speaker and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker with a background in communications media and human services. For the past several years I have served as the co-chair on the statewide Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Special Advisory Council. I was also a consultant on the DESE “Building Inclusive Schools” project. I am the co-chair of the Medford Special Education Parent Advisory Council and a member of the board for The Federation for Children with Special Needs.

I helped create a district-wide committee to address the needs and concerns of the safety of students in our schools after a public safety incident involving live ammunition in our schools. The safety committee includes teachers, central administration and families. We met monthly working for the past year on addressing the safety needs of both children and adults in our schools with annual recommendations to the school committee. Our work will be expanding into our second year with specific goals on integrating recommendations and feedback across all schools within the district. Our work was featured on National Public Radio highlighting Medford as a leader in this effort.

I was selected by the Mayor to serve on the Superintendent Hiring Committee and am looking forward to working with the candidate we recommended, Dr. Marice Edouard-Vincente, as our new superintendent. I am an active leader in our community as the co-chair of the Medford Special Education Parent Advisory. For the past six years I have helped families navigate the complicated special education process while building relationships with school staff and administrators. I co-host monthly workshops educating parents and administrators on various topics such as school anxiety, dyslexia, basic rights in education, school safety, etc.

I have a master’s degree in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education where I was a Teaching Fellow on inclusive education, an equity coach in Somerville public schools and a consultant on family and community engagement in Charlestown public schools.


Vision

In the past two years, what School Committee actions did you support or oppose, and why?

I supported the middle school lottery based on the data Dr. Edouard-Vincente provided regarding the racial and economic disparity in our middle schools. The story the superintendent presented was one of segregation where one of our middle schools had racial and economic diversity while the other did not. As the Superintendent says we are “one Medford” where we create a high quality public education with access to resources for every child.

I advocated for the creation of a School Committee special education subcommittee to address access to before and after school programming for every child including students with social / emotional and other needs. The subcommittee set specific annual goals and helped ensure training for after and before-school staff and streamlined language to promote inclusivity across our district.

Finally, I support breakfast before the bell for all students in need in our district. Currently the school committee has created a pilot program for breakfast in some of our schools. I would like to see this program expanded for every child.

What are the greatest strengths and challenges of our current school system?

Our greatest strength in Medford is our community. As the Superintendent mentioned at the 2019 graduation, we had over 100 countries represented in our graduating class. Medford’s students are receiving a valuable global education. We have top-notch advanced college placement courses, drama programs and athletics. We have highly qualified teachers; one of Medford’s very own, the McGlynn school’s Anthony Petrelis, was awarded the highly esteemed Milken Educator Award and Ms. Christine Hingston was recognized as the MATSOL Teacher of the Year.

Medford schools host the Center for Citizenship and Social Responsibility (https://medfordccsr.org/) where our student’s civic engagement is fostered as they learn firsthand the importance of social responsibility and giving back to our community. Medford has a marching band that was created by the support of parents as partners in our community. We have a strong volunteer base in several of our elementary schools and a wealth of local university and business stakeholders. We have the Medford vocational program that works directly with the Medford public access station and offers trades to students choosing to enter a desirable career path. I’m excited by the leadership of our new Superintendent, Dr. Marice Edouard-Vincente, the first new Superintendent in our schools in 24 years. As a Medford native and a first generation Haitian American Dr. Edouard-Vincente understands our community and the value of equity and diversity in our schools.

Regarding challenges, I think we need to work toward creating a more unified school district. While the new superintendent has addressed disparities among our middle schools we have not addressed what is often seen as the “elephant in the room” with our elementary school disparities. Some schools have far more resources than others. I would like to see all of our schools well resourced with a strong volunteer base. We do this by building relationships across our schools between staff, families and administrators. I want to see equity and equality of opportunity for every child.

What initiatives would you prioritize in our school system?

There are three initiatives I will prioritize if elected:

1. I will start by working with colleagues in collaboration with stakeholders (teachers, administrators, families, business owners, etc.) to create a strategic plan. The strategic plan will have 1, 3 and 5 year benchmarks and include a clear process to increase family and community engagement. As a measure of accountability the strategic plan will also include the implementation of an annual goals report. The report will illustrate what the school committee has accomplished and what goals we have yet to meet.

2. I will also prioritize meeting our teachers and staff where they are by observing each of our schools and classrooms where invited. I would encourage the idea that school committee members be assigned to each of our schools on a rotating basis so that we are all learning about our individual and collective school needs on the ground. This will provide the school committee with opportunities to observe firsthand the hard work occurring in each of our schools and regularly and consistently identify the needs of our students and staff.

3. I will work with teachers, staff and community members for their input on improved professional development. I will promote the establishment of professional development for staff and community members using in-house expertise. This PD will include opportunities for both staff and community members to share their own knowledge with colleagues. I would also like measurement of staff input into professional development. For example:
a. Is the PD relevant to their classroom experience?
b. Was the PD effective, did they learn something concrete that they can take into our schools?
c. What subjects are teachers interested in? Is there outside professional development they would recommend?
d. Do teachers and staff want to implement a proposal process where staff and / or community members can submit proposals to offer professional development?


Issues

Medford has a broad diversity of students. How would you address the unique needs of various student populations? Be specific.

As the current co-chair of the Medford SEPAC we have been able to engage a broad range of families. We have met several leaders in the community who represent various cultures. Those leaders have brought others from their community into the SEPAC to meet us. We are working to empower families to engage with each other by meeting them where they are, offering support and resources and continuing to connect them to educational resources. We have hosted presentations for families with diverse staff in Medford such as Medford’s English Language director, Paul Texeira. We have also hosted workshops in other languages. Recently I have had several meetings with community leaders who offer workshops on implicit and explicit bias, racism and ableism. I will continue to host and attend events where I can regularly meet people of all backgrounds.

Additionally, I will suggest creating groups of students within our schools from diverse backgrounds who can inform the school committee about what it is they feel is important. I would like us to be an ally to individuals of all backgrounds in their space while they speak on their own behalf. I would suggest we go into community spaces where groups congregate like the Islamic mosque, the Haitian church, West Medford Community Center, etc.

Lastly, we have been conscientious about translating campaign materials into Haitian Creole, Spanish and Portuguese with the help of volunteers from our community. I would like to see more translation of important school documents and family and community engagement through integrated cultural events held at our schools hosted by our students.

Do you have any priorities for the school budget? What are they, and why?

In my first term as a school committee member my primary budget priority will be to fully immerse myself in the 2019 / 2020 school budget. I will meet with the school’s Director of Finance equipped with questions. I will ensure every community member can both access and understand the school budget through a clear narrative and access for questions. We will sustain our commitment to a rigorous STEM curriculum with subscriptions for modifications and accommodations for English learners and students with diverse needs.

I am excited by the expansion of the athletic programs in our middle schools. I will explore the athletic programs budget so that every child can participate in the middle and high school programs including English learners, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students. Returning to the Superintendent’s vision of “One Medford” it is essential that every student is able to develop a healthy lifestyle and cultivate sportsmanship skills by participating in out-of-school activities with programs that have appropriate resources.

I will also work to ensure that all staff receive appropriate cost of living increases.

What role should charter schools have in our public school system?

I fully support public schools and feel we should have a cap on charter school expansion. I would like to see state accountability systems for the charter schools that currently exist along with compliance measures on enrollment for students with learning disabilities and social / emotional needs as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What is your stance on the PROMISE Act?

I support the PROMISE Act. I believe in equality of opportunity – not every child (or district) will receive the same resources, instead every child (or district) receives what they need. I also believe transparency and communication is critical. Many of our readers may not understand what the PROMISE Act is. I found this article particularly helpful and aligned with my own values and beliefs.
While Massachusetts has been praised for being number one in the nation for academic achievement, the reality is that our Commonwealth provides the best education in the country to some of our students, not all of our students. Massachusetts has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country. Achievement gaps are measured by comparing test scores between poor students and more affluent students. As a former Lawrence public school student it’s incredible to me that under the current funding policy “…Lexington and Weston schools spend between $17,000 and $23,000 per student. In some cities like Lawrence,​ ​schools are only able to spend $13,000.” and “Weston’s guidance counselor to student ratio is 1:86 but Lawrence’s is 1:217” (Carballo, Lopez, Rivera and Mejia Commonwealth Magazine July, 15 2019)

How can we increase parental and community engagement in school committee meetings?

We should reconsider this question and instead ask “how can we increase school committee engagement in families and communities?” Part of the problem historically with community members attending meetings is that families and community members are expected to come to city hall chambers to meet or present to school committee members. This can be daunting for most individuals. City hall can be intimidating to some people. School committee members are high on a podium while community members are on the floor usually standing alone in front of a microphone often with their back to a room full of people. We should rethink the approach – perhaps with ‘community nights’ where the school committee hosts informal round table sessions, we would meet the community where they are – in schools, churches and community centers.

By actively reaching out to families and community members and inviting them to school committee meetings, providing meeting agendas in advance to each school, posting relevant meeting materials online we will demonstrate the school committee’s commitment to community participation. We could initiate robocalls with personal invitations from each of our school committee members and provide translation earpieces for advance requests.


Bonus Question

Everyone grows up holding personal biases. Please share an anecdote about a time that your own biases were confronted, and how you responded.

As a child I thought everyone who had cerebral palsy also had an intellectual disability. As an adult I learned that this is not true. I was a fellow with the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston and Boston Children’s Hospital in 2014. I had a colleague with cerebral palsy who was difficult to understand when he spoke. After a few conversations I continued to have difficulty understanding what he was saying. Finally, I went to my supervisor and asked for advice, ‘What do I do when I can’t understand Tim?’ My supervisor, a kind and experienced mentor patiently replied, “You can say ‘Sorry, Tim, I’m having a hard time understanding you’ “. The idea is simple–people are people–we must treat everyone the way we would want to be treated. I also learned that it is always important to be willing to listen with humility and to be able to laugh at yourself.