Members of the Board of Education, parents, staff, and the Class of 2017, it is an honor to be with you this evening.
I could get up here and give a speech about how special you are, how amazing you will become, and how you will change the world. That’s a given. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I want to talk to you about lessons in leadership. You see, leadership is not the big boss, the politician, or the captain of the football team. Transformational leadership is someone who creates an inspiring vision of the future, motivating and inspiring people to buy into that vision. Each of you is a leader to someone in your own special way but many of you have not even realized it yet.
I would like to leave you with The Four Agreements from don Miguel Ruiz that may serve as life lessons in leadership for you as you embark on the next chapter of your life. Follow through on these four agreements and perhaps you may walk a bit straighter, stand slightly taller, and view life a little differently.
Lesson #1. Be Impeccable with your Word:
Speak with integrity. Remember you are your word and your teeth are a gate for your tongue. Say only what you mean. Avoid using words that speak against yourself or others. Your word, like a first impression, is how people will remember you.
Lesson #2. Don’t Take Anything Personally:
Perspective is subjective. Life will be so much easier for you if you embrace this simple message. Let go of what others think of you, or what you think they may think of you. Don’t get sucked in by the drama. Don’t succumb to a false fear that other people have an opinion of you and that their opinion matters more than your own. Quite frankly, it doesn’t. Look to your family and friends for advice. Lead your life. Stay in your lane. But don’t be afraid to take the occasional fork in the road. Live your best life by not taking the naysayers too personally. It is only a projection of their own reality, and not yours.
Lesson #3. Don’t Make Assumptions:
Don’t assume the worst. Find the courage to say what you mean and mean what you say. My best advice to you is to be direct in your conversations. And that means stop texting. Look eye to eye. Speak face to face. So often, conflicts and problems arise from misunderstandings that stem from poor communication. As you interact with others, your friends, family, peers … don’t assume the worst. Most people just want to be seen and heard.
And Lesson #4. Always Do Your Best:
Living a meaningful life is not a popularity contest. Your best is a moving target on any given day. You will have some good days, and you will have some bad ones too. It is inevitable. It happened to the great ones before you: Jordan, Earhart, Disney, Edison. Start each day practicing gratitude. Be thankful for what you have. Then make your bed, literally and figuratively, tending to all of the things that matter most in life. Never cut corners. Because if you do, you only shortchange yourself.
Tonight, I leave you with one final valuable lesson from Thomas J. Sellitto. Graduates, I am sure you recognize the Sellitto name as Verona recently re-dedicated our upper athletic field to this extraordinary man. Tom Sellitto was very successful in life. He was a wonderful teacher, Hall of Fame coach, and prominent leader in Verona for many, many years. He was an incredibly respected man who left a positive impact on the lives of so many young people throughout the years. But what made him truly special was not what he did for a living, but how he made people feel. And that’s what matters most.
His message from years ago still resonates with all of us here this evening:
“My advice to young people is to surround yourself with people you admire. Learn from them. Stay determined and work hard. And remember, when challenges arise - and they will - you must keep moving forward. Take the high road, rise above things. Know that you are strong enough to do that, capable enough to meet every challenge life throws your way. And once you have lived enough to know that what I am telling you is the truth, take what you have learned and pass it on.”
Class of 2017, go out and ignite your spark. Congratulations to you and your families on this very special day.
Immigration and Public Education
Our nation, not unlike the Verona community, is brilliantly arranged as a kaleidoscope of diversity which encompasses different race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. For most of us, our forefathers originated in a different part of the world but came to America to establish roots with the hope of good fortune. Some may be more recent immigrants to the United States while others have families that date back several generations. Personally, I am first generation American born, the eldest son of two Portuguese parents who came to America to begin a new life. I was unable to read, write, or speak fluent English until the age of 8, yet I was afforded so many incredible opportunities because of access to a public education despite challenges I faced along the way. We all have our own personal narrative to tell and each of us has similar stories about our own ancestry.
Over the past several weeks, we have received inquiries from community members regarding newfound anxiety around immigration status and enrollment in public school education. The Verona Public Schools is committed to protecting the rights of all students, as we value diversity and nurture vibrant, robust spaces for student learning. All children are entitled to an education, regardless of immigration status. The law is clear that public schools have a responsibility to provide a free, thorough, and efficient education to all student residents. State law and a Supreme Court decision clearly state that U.S. citizenship is not required for a domiciled child to attend public school (Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982) and NJAC 6A: 22-3.3b). These laws have been in effect for many years and are not the result of the current political climate. Nonetheless, recent events, along with continuous media coverage, have made this a real issue for some people within local communities.
The Verona Public School district has agreements in place that cover sharing of information across a myriad of issues with the Verona Police Department, the Essex County County Prosecutor’s Office, New Jersey State Police, and DCP&P (formerly known as DYFS). The district is obligated to cooperate with all law enforcement, including agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). However, any agency outside of those in our local partnerships would always operate through the appropriate organizations within our agreements.
School must remain a safe place for our students to learn, each and every day. As educators, we act in loco parentis, where our staff serve in place of a parent during the school day on behalf of the best interests of all of your children. Our schools are responsible to protect our students from any interference during their educational school day while under our care and supervision. The district has noted a long standing practice, that our students will not be questioned or detained by law enforcement officials without the proper, court ordered warrant. With that, any agency who comes to our schools and requests to interact in any way with a student must first demonstrate the legitimacy of such a request and must operate with our local law enforcement officials.
In an effort to provide clarity on this issue, the District highlighted many of these important points during a recent Board of Education meeting. Our educators provide safety and consistency for all of our children to thrive. Our schools must remain a place where we advocate for children while promoting and protecting the welfare and safety of all students, safeguarding the values of democracy, equity, and diversity.
All my best,
Dr. Rui Dionisio
Superintendent of Schools
Dear Parents, Guardians, and Community Members:
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gratitude as the state of being grateful; thankfulness. Gratitude has been scientifically proven to have profoundly positive effects on people, both on oneself and others who come into contact with those that maintain an attitude of gratitude.
In the hustle and bustle of life, it is not uncommon for people of all walks to go unrecognized for their contributions, caring, and good will that makes a positive difference within our communities. This week is designated as National Teacher Appreciation Week. I hope you will reflect on those very special people who have made a difference in your families lives. And whatever you do, don’t forget Mother’s Day on Sunday.
All my best,
Dr. Rui Dionisio
Superintendent of Schools
National Teacher Appreciation Week
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Eleanor Roosevelt
It is impressive to work in our community where our faculty is deeply committed to their craft and always seeking to improve their teaching and helping children. But most importantly, it is inspiring to see such dedication in supporting the best in our students. The impact all of our educators have with our children is immense and extends well beyond academics. You greet your students at the door each morning, build a warm classroom environment, develop meaningful relationships and show them you care, act as a role model by which our students can look up to, nurture them in their time of need, and seek out supports when they need help. You serve as a teacher, coach, and mentor. Suffice it to say you wear many hats and seek to open a child’s mind and touch their hearts.
This week is recognized as national Teacher Appreciation Week, a celebration that dates back to 1953 when Eleanor Roosevelt persuaded the 81st Congress to proclaim National Teacher Day. The quality of the teacher in front of the classroom is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement. Verona is fortunate to be able to recruit, retain, reward, and support outstanding educators that make a difference every day. We are proud of our faculty for your countless hours and devotion to planning innovative lessons, developing and supporting programs and initiatives that help us meet our student needs, engaging in staff development to further hone your craft, and collaboration with colleagues to make Verona better each and every year.
The ripple effects that you make which impact our students sometimes go unnoticed. But it is because of teachers like you who inspire our students to try harder and pursue their dreams that makes our profession the most rewarding. Remember that your passion and purpose makes all the difference in the lives of so many young people. On behalf of our district and the Verona Board of Education, we thank you for your incredible contributions during Teacher Appreciation Week. But most importantly, thank you for all you do that makes Verona so very special each and every day.
Dr. Rui Dionisio
Superintendent of Schools
Superintendent Corner Column
Important Information on Netflix Series 13 Reasons Why
“In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.” Marianne Williamson
Over the past week, I have had the opportunity to watch several episodes of a newly released Netflix miniseries called 13 Reasons Why. This new show, executive produced by former Disney star Selena Gomez, is based on the 2007 fictional book by Jay Asher. 13 Reasons Why tells the story of a teen who commits suicide. This series depicts strong and graphic themes of suicide, sexual assault, drug use, bullying, and other social issues that may affect teens. This series has attracted the interest of many young people, specifically students in middle and high school, with discussions about the show becoming prominent and trending on social media. Although this show is fictional, the nature of the storyline raises serious concerns as to the emotional safety of adolescents who may be watching, especially children who have had experience with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24 (2014). Suicide is a very real issue that leaves behind long lasting and negative effects on families, friends, and entire communities. Verona has tragically experienced such loss firsthand. Talking about suicide, although difficult, is a critical first step and healthy way to process what people are feeling. But mental health experts have repeatedly cautioned on the manner in which suicide deaths are portrayed in the media, which may contribute to the glorification of suicide and potentially causing a contagion effect.
The Verona Public Schools has been engaged in extremely significant efforts over the past several months. Last fall our district, with the support of our Board of Education and engagement of numerous community stakeholders, mobilized a committee to discuss the issues of mental health and suicide prevention. This committee has established overarching goals that will allow us to meet the needs of our youth while exploring a multitude of resources and approaches that supports the emotional safety of our students.
As a parent and educator, I have serious concerns about the nature of 13 Reasons Why and the message it sends our children, especially since this show does not always provide appropriate responses to suicide prevention. I do, however, see that there exists an incredible opportunity to have an important and constructive conversation about suicide prevention to protect the emotional health of our students.
We understand that many students have been watching 13 Reasons Why but we do not recommend that children view this series. We recognize that conversations on this topic can be difficult and may be uncomfortable. If your child is already watching, I encourage you to consider the following recommendations from the National Association of School Psychologists. This guidance for families may assist you in navigating dialogue with your child and help shape his or her experience and perspective on this important issue.
- Ask your child if they have heard or seen the series 13 Reasons Why. While we don’t recommend that they be encouraged to view the series, do tell them you want to watch it, with them or to catch up, and discuss their thoughts.
- If they exhibit any of the warning signs, don’t be afraid to ask if they have thought about suicide or if someone is hurting them. Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk or plant the idea. On the contrary, it creates the opportunity to offer help.
- Ask your child if they think any of their friends or classmates exhibit warning signs. Talk with them about how to seek help for their friend or classmate. Guide them on how to respond when they see or hear any of the warning signs.
- Listen to your children’s comments without judgment. Doing so requires that you fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said. Put your own agenda aside.
- Get help from a school-employed or community-based mental health professional if you are concerned for your child’s safety or the safety of one of their peers.
Additionally, JED and the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) collaboratively developed a guide for parents, which we believe you may find helpful as you discuss this topic with your family. You may click the following link to access the 13 Reasons Why Talking Points as you discuss this series with your child.
Please feel free to review the following information you may find helpful such as Preventing Youth Suicide: Tips for Parents and Educators and Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.
The following resources may also be helpful to families in our community.
Mental Health Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK
NJ Hopeline 1-855-NJ-HOPELINE (654-6735)
2nd Floor Youth Helpline 1-888-222-2228 (call or text)
Training and Education Resources:
Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth 1-732-235-2810 (http://ubhc.rutgers.edu/tlc/)
District mental health professionals are available to discuss these issues with you and your child. Our staff can also provide additional recommendations for counseling support outside of school. Please contact your child’s school counseling department or your principal should you need any assistance.
As adults, our conversations and interactions can have an incredibly profound influence on our children. Please join us in actively listening to our students and helping them navigate adversity in life in a positive and constructive manner.
All my best,
Rui Dionisio, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Focus. Explore. Reflect. Apply. Repeat.
The Verona Public Schools district is dedicated to cultivating learning environments that nurture the curiosity that exists naturally in children. It was clear from teacher feedback that last year’s inquiry-based science pilot program fostered a high level of student engagement. The new science program, developed with support from the Smithsonian Institute and National Academies of Science, is being implemented this year in our elementary and middle schools with the goal of increasing student engagement and improving student knowledge of scientific processes.
“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” Albert Einstein
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) defines scientific inquiry as “the formulation of a question that can be answered through investigation, while engineering design involves the formulation of a problem that can be solved through design.” Research has shown that an inquiry-based teaching approach fosters deeper critical thinking. Our new science program provides a commitment to active, hands-on learning in grades 1-8 focused on research-based standards that highlight what students should be able to do to at each grade level. Implementing inquiry-based science is one approach to address the needs of all learners, personalize instruction for students by addressing the preconceptions that they bring with them to the classroom, and develop critical thinking in order to raise student engagement and achievement in science.
As educators, we have a responsibility to help students develop a deep understanding of science concepts, knowledge, skills, and attitudes in order to grow up into responsible global citizens. Our schools must prepare students to compete in the future by focusing on critical thinking and problem solving which will prepare students for careers that do not yet exist today.
"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn." Benjamin Franklin
Curriculum should be designed to support student learning to develop scientific and technological literacy for an educated society as essential preparation for all careers in the modern workforce. Curriculum developed with fewer topics in mind, where the teacher can devote time and energy on cultivating a greater depth of understanding, supports meaningful discussions centered around big ideas. If the curriculum has been designed with rich, engaging tasks, appropriate instructional decisions can be made to assist all students in attaining significant cognitive growth” (NRC, 1999).
Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences outlines how people learn through different modalities such as auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. He believed that students should think independently and develop their own understanding of concepts as opposed to utilizing rote memorization and acceptance of others’ ideas (Gardner, 1991). Inquiry-based instruction represents an evolution away from traditional lecture-based instructional methods of teaching science with a focus on process over memorization of a body of facts (Dewey, 1910). Many students simply memorize facts without truly grasping the idea but would better understand a concept if they were awarded opportunities to conduct hands-on experiments and engage firsthand with the scientific phenomena. That is exactly what our new science program seeks to accomplish.
“Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” Roger Lewin
The research from the National Research Council and AAAS Project 2061 is compelling, that conveying scientific processes in a coherent manner within and across all grade levels, provides teaching and learning opportunities in a continuous, interconnected, and cumulative manner with the greatest potential for maximizing student learning. The Verona Public Schools is committed to the success of all students by advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth. We look forward to our progress from the collective efforts of our faculty and support of the Verona community for years to come as we enhance science as we know it.
Dewey, J. (1910). Science as subject matter and as method. Science, 31(787) 121-127.
Gardner, H. (1991) The unschooled mind: how children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books Inc.
National Research Council. Designing Mathematics or Science Curriculum Programs: A Guide for Using Mathematics and Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1999.