Sunday, October 11, 2015

Franklin Candidate for School Committee - Vanessa Bilello

Vanessa Bilello, one of the candidates for School Committee, met with me recently at Panera Bread. This is the summary of our conversation.

FM - Tell me the story about how you ended up here in Franklin?
Vanessa Bilello – I was raised on Mercer Island, in the state of Washington. I came to MA to attend Wellesley College, where I graduated as Poly Sci major in 1997. I intended on being a lawyer with a focus on education. Before my senior year, I spent a summer in an internship at the Dept. of Ed in Washington, DC. 
There I realized how critical it was that people making educational policy decisions have real experience in schools - as teachers. Even at that time, there was a big disconnect with reality for some of the policy makers, so I returned to Wellesley where I did student teaching to get my elementary teaching license. I spent the next two years completing a Masters in Special Education at Boston College while teaching 3rd-6th graders in the Brookline Public Schools. 
My husband took a job transfer from Boston to San Francisco, so I spent four years as the only Special Educator in a K-5 building in the Palo Alto School District. When my husband got an opportunity to transfer back to New England, we initially settled in North Attleboro. I began substitute teaching and was impressed with the caliber of the schools and the strong community here in Franklin. 
I spent several years as a stay-at-home mom for our young family. I was active in the community, serving as the President of the North Attleboro MOMS Club for several years. However, when a friend from Boston College asked me to apply for her maternity leave, I was thrilled at the prospect of returning to the classroom. That led me to Oak St, where I spent much of the 2008-2009 school year as a 4th and 5th grade Special Education Teacher. 
The positive experience at Oak St. and our desire to be part of this community led my family to relocate to Franklin that summer. I got hired on for a Special Education position and spent five years teaching 7th and 8th grade at the Annie Sullivan Middle School. During my last year there I also completed an administrative internship. After being in the elementary setting in Brookline and Palo Alto, teaching and serving as a principal intern at the middle level opened my eyes quite a bit. 
I went on to get my second Masters of Education in 2014, this one in Organizational Management. The degree is from Endicott College, but the program is a collaboration of Endicott, MSSAA and Teachers 21 (an educational consulting group). That led to my current job in educational administration.
FM – So from teaching special education to administration and now running for the School Committee?
Vanessa Bilello - It was not an easy decision, but I left ASMS to become Assistant Principal at the Hopkins School in Hopkinton. The Hopkins School is the combined 4th-5th grade school for Hopkinton Public Schools with just over 500 students. This will be my second year there and it has been a great transition. I love working at Hopkins, but miss my involvement in Franklin Public Schools. While no longer teaching here, I try to stay knowledgeable about district policy by reading School Committee minutes and attending informational nights at the schools my children attend. 
Franklin is a great place to raise a family! When my husband and I chose to settle and raise our children here, it was because we believed in Franklin and its schools. I have two daughters- one is currently a 4th grader at Keller and one is a 6th grader at Annie Sullivan. 
While working here in Franklin, it wasn’t possible for me to get involved in district policy-making as a parent, though I did participate in a number of leadership roles as teacher - such as School Council and as a mentor teacher. Having had the professional separation for a year now, I think the timing is right for me to do something more for our community. This is another way that I can share my knowledge about teaching and education policy, because as a parent and community member I want to get involved and give back to Franklin.
FM – What will you bring to the School Committee?
Vanessa Bilello - We are at such a crossroads in public education. If you look at the history and development of public education over the years, it is always additive. There has been tremendous change and pressures placed on educators… and also our students. 
The mandates on public schools are so immense, particularly in the past ten to twenty years. This is why we need to have a clear, coherent vision with strategic planning for our district. We need to bring all community members together- stakeholders and educators- to talk about what that education looks like, with the understanding that continual improvement is critical. 
What is our vision to move these discussions forward? Open and honest communication through respectful dialogue is crucial. As a new administrator, I believe that there are tools available to gather information from community members and to foster the needed conversation. 
The recent school calendar and school start-times survey is a good example of that. I am willing to sift through data; technology gives us an avenue that we have not had in the past. We need to do that to keep the conversation going. These conversations need to happen in ways that everyone feels they have a voice and can share opinions- not just at the soccer fields or in the local Starbucks. 
The more non-discussables there are in an organization, the harder it is to have positive and real change. It may be much easier to have a discussion on Facebook about something you don’t like, but it is not necessarily moving the issue into the open for problem solving. In my recent Master’s program, we talked a lot about the importance of building a culture of trust. 
Public school districts must do this while involving the many different stakeholders- teachers, administrators, taxpayers, parents and course, the students. We may be coming to the table with different opinions, but we all must come together in the interest of improving our students’ learning. Sometimes those difficult conversations, those different viewpoints, can get in the way of remembering that. I think that’s where listening and understanding play a critical role. 
As an assistant principal, I also recognize how big a role budget plays in public education- we must constantly find creative ways to make the best given budgetary constraints. Franklin faces challenges, especially since we do not have a budget available that is as large as other districts in the state. Since our per-pupil expenditure is lower than many and especially since we are still a Level 2 district, we need to be constantly evaluating our progress- at the student, classroom, building and district level- to find ways to improve our student outcomes. 
As an educator, I recognize the demands placed on teachers and schools through unfunded political mandates, community expectations and complex student needs. As a parent of elementary and middle school-aged children, I am committed to providing my children and the rest of the students here in Franklin the best education possible. This brings me full circle to the role I believe I can play on School Committee –as a dedicated educator and devoted parent.
FM – What is your view on standardized testing?
Vanessa Bilello – I have spent a lot of time learning about and implementing the 2011 MA Curriculum Frameworks for Math and ELA. Standards are a critical part of education and provide a necessary coherence and consistency across classrooms and districts. They allow parents and educators to have conversations about the essential skills students need to develop as they progress through the grades. I fear that sometimes the line gets blurred between standards and standardized testing. 
Obviously, the testing of these standards is a hot topic right now and conversations are ongoing at the state and national level- we are still waiting for MA DESE to decide between PARCC and MCAS. While Franklin moved to PARCC this past year, the Hopkinton District School Committee voted to stay with MCAS. More of my experience has been with MCAS, though I’ve been learning as much as I can about PARCC to prepare my staff in the case the state goes that route. 
Formative and summative assessment data is important- you can do analysis and act on it. Regardless, assessment should take a variety of forms and there should be transparency with parents about how this data is used by schools. 
As a Special Educator who spent many years administering these assessments and now as a parent, I also recognize that there is not an easy answer when it comes to standardized testing - assessment times are long and stressful for students, teachers and parents, regardless of which test we implement. While the data is important, we must always remember the learner is more than a number - these are children and performance on one assessment cannot possibly paint a full picture of them. 
This summer my daughter and I were talking about testing and she said to me “Mommy, it seems like sometimes schools are trying to suck the love of learning out of you.” As a life-long educator, that stabbed me in the heart. 
We need to explore ways to bring a love of learning to all our children and foster a growth mindset in our students by modeling it as adults. Schools should be a place where students are excited about learning since being a life-long learner is what it is all about. I firmly believe that “passionate learning is based upon a foundation of compassion.” This is the vision I will lead with as a Franklin School Committee member.

If you have questions for Vanessa, you can contact her via email at

You can find additional information on her campaign on her Facebook page

Noteworthy:  This information is intended to help the Franklin voters when we all head to the ballot box on November 3rd. The interview candidates have had an opportunity to review the text before publishing to ensure the accuracy of our discussion. 

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