At Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, Principal Aaron Sicotte showed how the Needham High School Improvement Plan has changed the approach to teaching students and fostering well-rounded learners.

The five-year plan is part of a collaborative effort to tackle issues that affect teaching and social-emotional wellbeing at the high school. The plan is developed under the lens of the Portrait of a Needham Graduate program.

Key issues the high school focused on in the 2023-2024 school year were social and emotional learning (SEL), culturally responsive learning, universal design for learning (UDL), and interdisciplinary learning.

In part, instituting SEL within the school day is meant to give students the option of taking mental health days. Sicotte said this was part of a push to emphasize mental health just as much as physical health in the curriculum. “If you need that mental health day, take it,” he said.

Culturally Responsive Learning ensures that all students, regardless of background, are seen and their experiences are validated. Sicotte emphasized that this validation helps students reach their learning potential. Needham High partnered with outside educators like Cornelius Minor, author of “We Got This,” and Mirko Chardin, chief equity and inclusion officer at Novak Education, to create culturally responsive teaching techniques. 

UDL uses scientific evidence to tailor lessons to different types of learners. “As we’re recognizing that students are coming into our classrooms and dealing with a lot of different needs and challenges, we need to be even more thoughtful and intentional with designing learning for all students,” said Sicotte.

He acknowledged that the school didn’t meet all of its goals for interdisciplinary learning, but praised many teachers who were developing curricula that challenged students’ knowledge of subjects outside the classroom they were in.

Sicotte said much of the progress was the result of what they learned while the school was closed during the pandemic.

Sicotte also presented the Needham High School Performance and Achievement Report, which highlighted student and student organizations’ recent accomplishments.

Previous reports focused primarily on data, but he changed the format to provide a more holistic overview of student achievement.

“I think it’s really important that we see achievement broadly. And particularly see it through the lens of the portrait of graduate competency. So as I did last year, I’ve shifted some of the format here and approach to be able to highlight or spotlight a few of the elements,” said Sicotte.

Among those highlighted were the high school’s music program, the Jewish Student Union, the Asian Student Union and the speech and debate team.

Average ACT scores have risen across subjects (excluding English). Ninety percent of students this year earned qualifying scores in their AP classes. Finally, Sicotte noted that even though colleges focus less on SAT scores for prospective students, a higher rate of students at Needham High took the test.

Needham resident Christian Maitre is a recent graduate of Ithaca College’s journalism program where he covered politics, healthcare and local businesses.

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