On Thursday, April 6th, the Needham Resilience Network met at the Center at the Heights. In this second to last "State of Needham" presentation, the NRN reflected on data from the Needham Public Schools.


“Do you wish you could hear what other people were thinking? Why or why not?”

Many NRN members said, “no,” noting that they have enough to manage with their own thoughts. Others noted that curiosity is a valuable tool for deepening connection. We build relationships by asking questions and opening up lines of communication, but if we didn’t ask ourselves and others to walk through their thinking, we might miss the opportunity to grow from a discussion.


“We all are the NPS.”

With these words, Dr. Dan Gutekanst, the Superintendent of Needham Public Schools, reminded the NRN that most NRN members and residents have either a direct or indirect connection to Needham’s children and/or to education in our town.  

In 2019-20, 60 residents came together as part of the “Portrait of a Needham Student” initiative to ask: “What’s most important for our children as learners?” The goals below, drawn from this initiative, guide education within Needham schools. Needham graduates are meant to be:
  • Creative thinkers and Problem-Solvers 
  • Communicators and Collaborators
  • Socially and Culturally Responsive Contributors 
  • Responsible and Resilient Individuals 
  • Empowered Learners

Needham schools have seen a great deal of change in recent years, particularly in the following areas:

  • Enrollment: Starting in 2006, Needham’s student population has exceeded average growth rates throughout the state. 

  • Special Education services: From 2013 to 2023, the number of students receiving Special Education services increased from 14% to 18%. 

  • As a METCO district: METCO is a big part of Needham’s story, and core to who we are. While some districts are diminishing in size, Needham is preparing to welcome an increasing number of students from Boston. 

  • Diversity: The percentage of BIPOC students has increased from 17% in 2013 to 27.4% in 2023. The percentages of students speaking languages other than or in addition to English include: Chinese (19%), Russian (18%), Spanish (14%), Hebrew (5%), Korean (10%), and Arabic (5%). The number of students speaking additional languages, including Azerbaijan, Turkish, Portuguese, Pusto, Ukrainian, French, and Haitian Creole has grown from 7% to 11.4% (600 students). The percentage of students facing economic disadvantage in Needham grew from 5% in 2013 to 8.2% in 2023. 

A Focus on Equity

The NPS is focused on providing an educational program that supports student equity, which it defines in this way: 

  • fair and just access, inclusion, and participation
  • the practice of nurturing a learning environment in which all children are empowered to grow, create, and achieve
  • freedom from bias and discrimination
  • an understanding that each child possesses personal gifts and attributes and brings these to the classroom which strengthen learning for all
  • a process by which we promote justice, engender respect, and inspire hope

Recognizing that students are better off when they are exposed to some teachers and staff that reflect core aspects of their identity, NPS is trying to match student diversity with more staff diversity. While this is a work in progress, there have been significant gains in the right direction.

For instance, Needham staff has grown from 51 BIPOC individuals in 2018 to 78 in 2022 (from 5% to 11% of staff). Encouragingly, preliminary data suggests a significant jump in 2023, to 93 BIPOC staff. These efforts are strongly supported by Dr. Joanne Allen-Willoughby, Director of METCO and Dr. Alex Montes McNeil, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. 

The NPS also works to support its diverse student and staff body by engaging the community and building support outside of school walls. This is done through the REAL (Race, Equity, Access, Leadership) Coalition, various school and METCO parent councils, SEPAC (Special Education Advisory Council), and ELPAC (English Language Learner Parent Advisory).

Student engagement also occurs through affinity groups, mostly centered at Needham High but also emerging at Pollard Middle School. For instance, NHS has Jewish, Asian, Black, Muslim, and Queer Student Unions. These are not exclusive to the group, but instead welcome all who want to support these identities. NPS also houses a strong SEL (social emotional learning) program, a K-5 racial equity curriculum, and programs like Unified Sports, Mentors Like Me, Launching Scholars Program, and a free universal breakfast and lunch program. 

NPS staff also receives support through ongoing professional learning and affinity groups (e.g., Stronger Together) and monthly Needham Education Association conversations, as well as through a Superintendent Open House that include both staff and parents. 


Breaking into small groups of four, NRN members reflected on the following questions (written below in black, while members’ responses are written in blue):
1) What was striking or surprising from the presentation?

  • The jump in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students (which increased from 5% in 2013 to 8.2%% in 2023) and in students who need special education resources (which increased from 14% in 2013 to 18% in 2023).  

  • Members asked follow-up questions: What caused these increases? Specifically, what happened in 2014 and 2022 to cause the spikes in the economic disadvantage level (it was 5% in 2012 and 4.2% in 2015, so it seems like something happened to cause the spike in 2014…we are assuming 2022 was a result of Covid, which would cause us to expect a decrease again this coming year)? Answering these questions can help us to know whether there are specific demographic groups that are (or are becoming) more vulnerable in Needham, which might improve our ability as a community to provide support.

2) What are some of the important assets or strengths of the NPS schools that came through in the presentation?

  • The leadership’s commitment to equity
  • Dr. Gutekanst’s communications, be they official or through his blog 
  • The NPS practice of calling out racist and other identity-related slurs, which send clear normative messages to students and families 
  • Efforts to seek family input through surveys
  • Needham public schools are a foundation for the whole community

3) What themes stand out as potential growth edges or areas of inequity challenges?

  • Staff diversification. 28% of the student body currently identifies as BIPOC, while only 11% of the staff does. 

  • When it comes to communicating hate incidents, finding the right balance between sharing with the larger community vs. holding back on broadcasting a norm that shouldn’t be supported.

4) What are some potential strategies/projects/initiatives that could support the NPS?

  • Diversifying staff. How can recruitment attract staff of color and what resources can be offered to make these positions desirable? Is there a role that the NRN could play? How can we as the NRN or as a community increase resources/support for BIPOC staff, thus furthering the ability of NPS to attract and retain diversity?  

  • Supporting students/staff from marginalized backgrounds. Is there a role for low-lift NPS school programs to reduce belonging uncertainty? Researchers find that being a minority, whether that be based on race, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, etc., can create an extra burden for kids in schools/universities, or adults in workplaces. In this psychological process, called “belonging uncertainty”, doubts about whether/how a person’s identity might be related to the difficulties they are experiencing can lead them to disengage, subsequently affecting their performance, school retention, and ultimately, long term life goals (such as happiness or income). But relatively straightforward school belonging interventions have been shown to be effective and are being used in schools and colleges throughout the country. Might such interventions be helpful here in Needham?  

  • Resident training/program for welcoming newcomers and people of color. What case studies/best practices are there for creating a community of inclusion and belonging? Is there a role for the NRN here, or for resident awareness/training more generally, or even more officially for the Town (e.g., inclusion certificate program) that would help us support newcomers generally, but especially people of color?

  • Increase awareness/communications. Is there a need for increased awareness/communications to the community to gather more support for NPS as well as understanding of its efforts and strengths?

  • Diverse forums. Create diverse forums for people across difference to share their experiences, and to hold conversations about race (similar to what At My Neighbors Table has done, or what the METCO parents did a couple of years ago).

GROUP BIO: Jessica Reese, President, Needham Tenant Association

The Needham Housing Authority’s mission is: 

To provide decent, safe, affordable housing for low to moderate income families and individuals and to offer programs and resources to improve the quality of life for residents, program participants and the broader Needham community while respecting the rights and privacy of all. 

It has units that vary in size, including 4 four-bedroom units, 38 three-bedroom units, and 37 two-bedroom units for the non-elderly and non-disabled, as well as 198 units for the elderly and/or disabled. Its subsidized housing is meant to be transitional, and sometimes is. But it can also be a life-saving and hugely appreciated support for individuals and/or families over longer periods of time. 

Needham public housing offers benefits beyond being an affordable place to live, such as: providing a sense of community to working class families, providing the opportunity to raise well-educated children within the Needham public school district, and providing access to an after-school program within the housing complex. Additionally, residents utilize a lot of local programming. Springwell supports the elderly, through programming, social work services, supplemental nutrition, and the elder-at-risk reporting system. Residents also appreciate the frequent relationship-building opportunities offered by the Needham Police Department.

Sadly, stigmas and stereotypes about Needham housing residents continue for some, including assumptions that residents have “no values, no money, are uncaring, are uneducated, and are not English-speaking.” 

In terms of current events: Residents have an opportunity to provide input into a redevelopment plan that is in process. Another area of focus for residents is on advocacy for ventilation (to address mold challenges) — planning for which will require support at the next Town Meeting. Also, as NPH transitions to Section 8, it may bring funding for road maintenance/pothole repair. On the flip side, the transition also marks an end to flat rent, resulting in increasing costs for tenants. Lastly, the Family Self-Sufficiency Program is seeking 25 participants. If it finds enough residents to participate, it will support them in increasing their earned income, building credit, and reducing dependency on welfare and rent subsidies. 


In the last few minutes of the meeting, the NRN reviewed its timeline in order to remind members of the accomplishments of the first 13 months and to lay out the roadmap for the remainder of Year 2.