Start of School 2015 – 2016

Back to schoolThe start of school is right around the corner! This is always an exciting time and we can’t wait for our Bobcats to arrive on September 2nd. As you gear up for the start of school, be sure to check out the following resources:

  1. Ben-Hem’s start of school web-page
  2. PBSParents article
    • For some kiddos, the start of school feels overwhelming. This great article offers practical advice and strategies to help kids feel more comfortable with the transition to or back to school.
  3. Other PBS Parent Resources
    • This article provides a number of links to other great articles about separation anxiety, food allergies, starting school for the first time, etc.

If you have any questions about the start of school, please do not hesitate to reach out to the main office or your child’s teacher.

Ben-Hem and Standardized Testing

If you are the parent of a third or fourth grade student you know that this week marks the beginning of PARCC testing. If your kiddos are a bit younger, you may be hearing a lot of talk about PARCC testing in the community and in the media. Whether you are new to the PARCC conversation or have been involved for a long time, it is important that you understand why we are working with the PARCC assessment and where we stand as a professionals with this new standardized test.

Background and Context

In 1993 the Massachusetts legislature enacted an aggressive educational reform agenda. One major outcome of this legislation was the implementation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). MCAS was intended to measure the overall efficacy of schools, districts, and the state in ensuring that all students had access to and were mastering the skills and concepts spelled out in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

Just a few years after MCAS was implemented in Massachusetts, the federal government signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In 2001, this law brought with it a considerable focus on holding public schools accountable by measuring student learning using standardized testing results. The accountability movement achieved the desired outcome of focusing schools on student achievement and using data to make strategic decisions about how to best meet the needs of a diverse student population. Unfortunately, the accountability movement achieved a number of unintended outcomes.

The accountability systems outlined in NCLB detailed serious consequences should a school not achieve at the performance targets spelled out in the law. The penalties associated with “failure” pushed schools to focus narrowly on tested curriculum and caused a high degree of anxiety amongst professionals at all levels of the public education sector. Sadly, this focus on testing and the related anxiety spilled over to families, students, and communities.

As the accountability movement gained momentum in the years following the implementation of NCLB, the tumult and debate over test scores and the performance of public schools continued. In 2008 the federal government made its latest attempt to bring about sweeping educational reform. This time the reform did not come in the form of law but in a competitive grant program known as Race to the Top (RTTT).

RTTT provided states with an opportunity to apply for grants using twenty-eight criteria to judge applications. Grant winners would share in the $4.35 billion encapsulated in RTTT. Four of those criteria focused on standards and assessment. In order to score points states had to submit plans that committed to “developing and implementing high quality assessments.” These federal grant criteria are the fuel behind the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and PARCC.

One of the primary criticisms of MCAS has been and continues to be that it tests low level thinking and comprehension skills. In its current format, the MCAS assessments do not provide insight into the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are so critical to life in the twenty-first century. PARCC assessments were designed to enhance MCAS like assessments by creating testing scenarios that provided those insights into higher order thinking and problem solving skills while maintaining the standardize testing regiment necessary for school accountability purposes. Time and experience will allow professionals to judge whether the PARCC assessment meets that need and achieves its intended outcome.

What are the next steps for PARCC at Ben-Hem?

PARCC is a new standardized testing measure. As such, the test developer (Pearson) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) need to calibrate the tests to make sure that they assess the skills and concepts that they are intended to measure and that the skills and concepts are grade level appropriate. Because of the need to tune these assessments, the results, in essence, don’t count this year. You might hear educators say things like, “… we are being held-harmless this year.” When they say this they are referring to the fact that the testing results will not count for school accountability measures.

Beyond the fine tuning of the test, there are also a huge number of technical, staff training, and student preparation elements that we are working out. The PARCC tests will be taken on iPads using an application developed by Pearson called TestNav. Implementing computer based standardized testing on a broad scale presents a massive challenge that has taken many, many months to sort out and prepare for.

How is Ben-Hem managing PARCC testing with students?

The public discourse surrounding the CCSS and PARCC can best be described as heated and divisive. Regardless of the public debate, we are choosing to use PARCC as an opportunity to do something positive for our students and for our community.

Over the course of my career, I have heard many teachers talking about “getting kids ready for MCAS.” I have heard parents talking about the stress that their their children feel and I have seen kids get incredibly worked up about these assessments. None of these outcomes remotely resemble what we hope for our schools and our students. These are the outcomes we intend to change and I ask that parents and families join us in this worthwhile endeavor.

At school, we are taking a three pronged approach.

  1. We are focusing on the idea that the PARCC assessment is a test of the test. We are explaining to students that Massachusetts still isn’t sure how good the test is and that giving it to kids will let them know just how good (or bad) the test is.
  2. We are reinforcing the message that these tests aren’t a measure of a person’s intelligence or capacity to learn and perform. Standardized tests, no matter how good, are not exact measures of students knowledge and understanding. If a student took a standardized test on fifteen different occasions, we would expect to get fifteen different scores that fall within a range of scores that third graders normally fall into. Understanding this variability helps kids to understand that the test is not a certain measure of what they know and are able to do.
  3. We are moving away from “MCAS preparation.” This is the practice of dedicating teaching and learning time to taking mock tests and focusing on how to take test questions apart to get the right answers. There is no question that we have an ethical obligation to our students to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge to participate effectively in PARCC examinations. To do so we provide orientation to the online testing environment and the overall layout and format of the test. Beyond this orientation to the test and testing environment we will entrust success on any standardized test to the amazing learning opportunities that this community provides for its students and children.

Here is how you can help.

  1. Reiterate the messages we are sharing with kids. Kids feel more comfortable when they know that the adults in their lives are on the same page.
  2. If your kids mention PARCC, give your children information not opinions about the test. Help them by giving facts. There are many great resources that describe the tests and their content.
  3. Reinforce the idea that they should do their best work just like they do on any other school day. The only difference is that on PARCC testing days they will do their best work on an iPad.
  4. Relax. PARCC scores will in no way limit your child’s admission to honors courses or any other opportunities later in life. These tests are designed to give a general sense of how children are performing and what they may need in terms of instructional focus in future months and years.

There is a lot here and I understand that this is a lot of information to take in. If there are questions you have that are not answered here, please feel free to get in touch. You can reach me at



Classroom Placements for the 2015-2016


Every Spring the faulty and staff at Ben-Hem engage in the process of creating classes for the coming school year. Developing and balancing our classrooms is a major step in preparing for each school year. Classroom composition plays an important role in the success of every school year and, therefore, we invest a great deal of time and energy into the placement process.

Class placement begins in April and extends through the last day of the school year. Classroom teachers, guidance counselors, specialists, special educators and administrators work collaboratively to ensure the very best composition of classes for the coming years. Parents participate in this process by submitting letters that provide specific information about the learning style and needs of their child or children. Parent input is valued and given consideration throughout a rigorous placement procedure.

Every child is unique and brings specific needs and characteristics to the classroom. Creating balanced classrooms that maximize the experience and learning of all students is a top priority for Ben-Hem faculty. To facilitate effective balancing, many variables and factors are considered when creating the classes. The following list provides an overview of the criteria by which every proposed class list is reviewed and revised throughout the process.

  • Kindergarten screening results (Kindergarten placements only)
  • Academic Needs
  • Work Habits and Study Skills
  • Home/Family/Developmental Variables
  • Child Study Referrals/Intervention
  • Specialized Educational Services IEP (Individual Education Plan)
  • 504 Accommodation Plan
  • Guidance services
  • Medical needs and allergies
  • Behavioral needs
  • Social/Emotional needs

Guidelines for Parent Participation

Parents who wish to participate in the class placement process may do so by submitting a letter to Ian Kelly by May 1st of each school year. The following paragraph is intended to support parents in crafting letters that will support placement teams as they strive to ensure the best placement for every student.

The overarching goal of the placement process is to create classes that support the learning and well-being of all students. Given that this is a child-centered process, parent letters should focus on providing the placement team with specific information pertaining to their children as opposed to specific teachers. Requests for specific teachers will not be considered during the placement process. The balancing criteria referenced in the previous section are great places to start when thinking about what you would like to share. Parents hold critical information about their children that broadens the perspective of class placement teams. Every so often, circumstances or needs extend beyond those listed above. Parents are encouraged to share this information as well. Robust information about children supports effective placement decisions.


Great start of school resources for families!


The start of school is always a time filled with anticipation, excitement, and (sometimes)anxiety. Parents and families often ask what they can do to provide information, reduce anxiety, and get the year off to a great start. Here are a few great resources to help out on that front.

Starting School from PBSParents

  • This is a great piece that covers many topics relating to supporting students through the start of school. It also includes links to more specific topics including separation anxiety, school transitions, food allergies, etc.

Homework: A Guide for Parents from The National Association of School Psychologists

  • This is a comprehensive article covering setting expectations, developing routines and supporting kids (and families) in developing healthy and effective homework behaviors.

16 Ways to Prep for School Separation Anxiety from

  • This piece is really helpful in thinking about and preparing for kiddos who might have some difficulty separating from their families during the start of school. The article offers concrete recommendations that families can put into play right away.

8 Ways You Can Build a Good Relationship With Your Child’s Teacher from The National Center for Learning Disabilities

  • This is a quick and easy read with simple advice for getting your relationship with your child’s teacher off on the right foot.

617 Bobcats!

That’s right. As of yesterday we have  617 Bobcats at Ben-Hem. Every day, hundreds of excited, energized learners pour in and out of our doors. The excitement, curiosity, and innocent humor of 617 Bobcats are the reason that I get up and come to Ben-Hem with a smile on my face. They are an amazing bunch of kids and their education is my first priority. When I think about their learning, safety and security is my first consideration.

Maze025x025Length05SpectrumNarrowPathThere are thousands of details, processes, procedures, and policies that go into creating a safe and secure environment that is conducive to learning at the high levels we expect. While it is neither prudent or feasible to elaborate on every detail, I want to share a few thoughts about dismissal time. As a parent I know that ushering 2 or 3 kids out the door can be a challenge. As a principal, the logistical complexities of getting 617 children out of the building safely and on the proper route home are daunting.

Over the years we have developed and refined a system that makes sure our students know where they are going and get there safely every day. While there is a great deal that goes on inside of the building to ensure this outcome, parents and families play an important role as well. The first and most important part that Ben-Hem families play is providing us with dismissal plans for their children. This is critical as the accurate information you provide allows us to build the many different dismissal routines that we have in place.

Parents and families play an important role in the dismissal process. Making sure we know the dismissal plans of children, coming to school on time, being at the bust stop to name a few. The place where families most often complicate the dismissal process is when dismissal plans are changed. There are two basic types of dismissal change, advanced notice and last minute. The difficulty and problems come with last minute dismissal changes. When families call the office after 2:15, we consider this a last minute dismissal change. The problem this creates is one of student safety.

blue-bird-school-bus-02When 2:15 hits, teachers are busy getting kids packed up and ready to go home. The office is busy fielding phone calls, directing visitors, and managing central operations. All other staff are moving to their positions for the dismissal. The bottom line is that after 2:15 the school is a machine in motion, all systems are preparing to move 617 Bobcats from their classrooms to their homes safely and without error. When we receive a call after 2:15 to change an existing dismissal plan, the energy it takes to execute that request draws attention and energy from our primary objective. Once change poses minimal safety issues, the real problem is that we often receive over 20 calls requesting changes in dismissal after 2:15. This creates a major safety issue that places undue stress on faculty, staff, and students.

Often when I discuss this matter with families they remind me that it is just one change. While I completely understand the rationale, I also remind families that many, many families think the exact same thing and, therefore, the requests for last minute changes of dismissal pile up fast. I certainly understand that life happens. Kids get sick, cars break down, and plans don’t always work out the way we expected. The world is not a black and white place, it’s full of gray and gray complicates the best laid plans and intentions. I am not asking you to make superhuman efforts to avoid last minute changes of dismissal. I am merely asking that you consider alternatives before making the request at the last minute.

Advanced Notice (Prior to 2:15 on the day of change)

  • Notify your child’s teacher in writing of the change of dismissal. Be specific. To whom is your child to be dismissed and on what days/dates. 

Last Minute (After 2:15 on the day of change)

  • If it is unavoidable, contact the main office directly and provide specific details.
  • The office will take your information and develop a dismissal plan that ensures the safety of your child.
  • If you are sending another adult to pick up your child, please let them know that they will need to provide photo identification to the office.

Morning Arrival Plan

As of Tuesday September 4th, morning arrival will move to our normal operating procedure. Students will arrive via bus, the drop off line, or foot and proceed directly to their grade level wings. We will have plenty of staff on hand to make sure everyone knows where to go!

If you plan on using the drop off line, please review the map to the right for driving directions and check the Arrival/Dismissal page on our website for more detailed information on using the live drop off line.

Changing Dismissal Plans

Safety is priority #1 at Ben-Hem. Dismissal is a busy time on any given day but it is particularly busy over the first few weeks of school. Students, families, and teachers are all settling into new routines and plans for the school year. As we work to make sure everyone gets home safely, there are two things that parents and families can do to help us out.

  1. Dismissal Plans: Complete and return the dismissal plan that came home in back packs this week. This will allow us to cross reference your plans with our records and ensure that they are correct.
  2. Change of Dismissal: In the event that you need to change your child/children’s normal dismissal plan, you must provide advanced, written notice to the main office. There are a number of ways parents/guardians can do this. Sending a note to the classroom teacher is a good way as is emailing the teacher. If you do email the teacher please be sure to copy the message to This will ensure that the front office receives the email communication as well. Written notice of dismissal changes is a safety measure plain and simple. We cannot release students without your consent.  Obviously there are unforeseen circumstances that come up during the day that make advance, written notice possible. In the event of an emergency, please call the front office directly at 508.647.6580.