Making Their Own Gold Star: High School Senior Volunteers Honored

At some point during the annual presentation of the President’s Volunteer Service Awards to Belmont High School seniors, there is a moment where Alice Melnikoff will get a little, let’s say, “verklempt.”

Melnikoff told the students, parents and educators in the audience at the Chenery Middle School during the ceremony held Tuesday, May 13, of her favorite quote from Winston Churchill: “We make a living of what we get; but we make a life by what we give.”

“This is it,” said Melnikoff of when she would have to pause for a moment, as she looked towards the 12th graders sitting in the first two rows of the auditorium, each who gave more than 100 volunteer hours in the past 12 months.

“You have already demonstrated that you are building a life that is rich and fulfilling in part because of service to which you were committed,” said Melnikoff.

And no one would begrudge Melnikoff a time to feel a bit emotional towards those she mentored during the past four years in giving of themselves to the benefit of others. And while the students will be receiving a certificate and pin as well as a letter bearing the signature of President Obama, the time spent improving the society in which they live will be their lasting memorial, said Melnikoff.


While the term community was used throughout the ceremony, Belmont School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston also spoke of the word “philanthropy” which is mostly used describing money given to others. But its root meaning is “love of humankind.”

“The richest form of philanthropy doesn’t come from the money that you give … but from the service you give one another; the care that we use to support each other,” said Kingston.

Speaking for the recipients, Amy Zhang, a co-president of the Belmontian Club, said, “Service is as self-serving as it is wonderful, as you undoubtedly gain something, an equal reaction whether you are volunteering with kids or raising money for cancer.”

“Community service can not be quantified nor can its effects be measured and analyzed. It can not be logged in hours or dollars, it doesn’t always come with a happy ending. To me, community service is about … acting to set the world in a positive direction,” said the 18 year old graduating senior who will be matriculating this fall at Harvard College.

The award winners included:

Bronze award (100 to 174 hours)

  • Victoria Beecroft; Founding mother of the Water Drop Club which supports an orphanage in Madagascar where she also volunteered.
  • Emily Burke; Wellington Aftercare
  • Joseph Thiel; Benton Library
  • Cindy and Jason Yu; research in cell biology and cancer

Silver award (175 to 249 hours)

  • Raina Crawford; orienteering group and the high school library.
  • Juliette and Sarah Dankens; the other founding mothers of the Water Drop Club who both volunteered at the orphanage in Madagascar.
  • Arden Fereshetian; Working in the lab, on a website and research at a cancer research institute.
  • Virginia Hardy; Community-based work in Nicaragua.
  • Sam Kerans; Coaching basketball and tutoring.
  • Amiee Lin; Working with children from broken homes in Taiwan.
  • Andrew Logan; Trail work for the Appalachian Mountain Club and at Belmont’s Habitat.
  • Lucy Martirosyan; Belmont Acres farm.
  • Tyler Papciak; The Bristol Lodge soup kitchen.
  • Sarah Ramsey; Coaching basketball and cancer fundraising.
  • Justin Rogers: Belmont Acres farm.
  • Peter Staub: Red Cross Food Pantry.
  • Andrew Strawbridge: Worked on a gubernatorial campaign.

Gold award (more than 250 hours) 

  • Talin Tahajian: Non-profit literary journal.
  • Haruka Uchida; Research in a psychology lab.
  • Rowan Wu; Samariteens.

These six seniors have earned presidential awards each of the four years they attended Belmont High School:

  • Anna Hillel; a bronze this year for working in Birmingham, Alabama painting houses.
  • Keith Burns; gold, Cardiovascular research.
  • Gabe Faber; gold, Making soccer available to young people in Boston.
  • Tess Smichenko; gold, Working with children and adults with special needs in Belmont, Vermont and Guatemala.
  • David Sullivan; gold, Working on immigration issues in US Sen. Warren’s office.
  • Amy Zhang; gold, on several service issues including Wellington Aftercare and fundraising to fight breast cancer.

Belmont’s Fiscal ’15 School Budget Gets Committee OK

The Belmont School Committee voted unanimously to approve the fiscal 2015 school district budget at last night’s, Tuesday, May 13, meeting, even if everyone in attendance – about 25 residents, educators and committee members in the small community room at the Chenery Middle School – admits that the financial blueprint for the 2014-15 school year is barely enough to keep the district from slipping off its high educational perch.

Despite being designated as a top-flight Level 1 District in Massachusetts – “a very rare destinction,” said Belmont Schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston – and recently rated as the third “best” High School in the state (and 151st in the US) behind two examination-entry schools by US News & World Report, the growing number of “unpredictables” facing the district in the near and long term will place ever increasing financial pressures on the committee, said Kingston in his review of the $46,156,000 fiscal ’15 budget, an increase of 4.1 percent, or $1,806,900, of the previous fiscal year.

The greatest uncertainty – and the largest cost driver in the budget – is the spike in pupil enrollment, noted Kingston, as the district has seen 143 new students enter the district during the 12 months ending May 1. The district is currently educates 4,301 children between kindergarten and 12th grade. Next year, an additional 115 students are expected to “move into” the system.

And the latest predictions show that Belmont could see between 360 to 600 new pupils entering the system in the next five years.

According to Kingston, a large portion of the $1.8 million increase – which he deemed a “substantial” amount – is being used to keep 18 full-time positions added to the district last year to accommodate the rocketing enrollment numbers.

The immediate result is overcrowding classrooms as the available budget can not contend with rush of new students. Next fiscal year, each classroom can expect an additional student, many now passing the district’s own limits of students per classroom.

Add to that what Kingston calls the town’s “income issue” of relatively flat residential tax revenues and a limited ability to create new commercial property, “there isn’t more money out there” to do what the district should be in meeting its stated goal of supporting “continuous improvement and overall programmatic and fiscal stability by engaging administrators, teachers, students, and community stakeholders in generally accepted practices of long-term strategic planning.”

While, as several committee members noted that the budget will not result in staff reductions as in years past, next year’s fiscal blueprint doesn’t reflect the ever increasing needs facing the district.

According to a group of educators including principals and curriculum leaders as well as staff, the system should have an additional dozen full-time educators with the priorities being in English Language Learners and at the Chenery Middle School. But that will only occur if additional funds are available soon, said Kingston.

Operational override suggested

“This is one of the biggest arguments for an operational override,” said Kingston, noting that it will be up to the Belmont Board of Selectmen to ask for a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote to be placed on the ballot.

It is expected that the town’s newly-formed Financial Task Force will likely make a recommendation on whether Belmont should request an override (possibly in April 2015) at the Special Town Meeting expected to convene this fall.

Kingston’s report – accompanied by a set of presentation slides – was little different then his initial budgetary talk in February. The approved budget will go before the Warrant Committee, the financial watchdog for the Town Meeting, which will make a recommendation either to accept or reject the budget assumptions.

And the demands of the district do not end at the classroom door. Many of the residents who attended the meeting sought assurances that the school department and committee did not forgo the need for adequately-funding extra curricular activities and athletics moving forward.

Ann Reynolds of Fairview Avenue said the issue of creating a better community was an important issue during Town Meeting discussions held the night before.

“Sports … offers the structures these kids need; guidance … coaches and role models, mentors and peers … [all] that are very positive,” said Reynolds.

“We really want this to happen,” she noted. “Winning team, happy town, happy High School. If we are number three in the state but our sports teams stink, then there is something wrong. We all need to work together to win this … for our kids,” she said.

School Committee Chair Laurie Slap said in the near future, the district and the committee are willing to work in a private/public model – which will allow for a football program for eighth graders at the Chenery Middle School in the fall – to allow for outside sources to fund the additional sports teams and activities.

Farnham Street’s Ann Rittenburg, who is a former school committee member and chair, expressed “great frustration” with the committee’s inaction to move forward with past initiatives that would garner alternative funding sources for a budget “that clearly falls short of meeting student’s needs.”

“I was hoping to hear more about concrete actions that were taken in order to address those critical issues we know we need  to address … and it’s incredibly frustrating to see you form subcommittees to study issues and make recommendations that you then shelve in favor of forming more subcommittees … . How many more years do we have to go before we actually take action?” she asked.

Rittenburg questioned why the district has not hired a full-time professional development employee to uncover additional revenue that will help not just sustain but allow additional capacity for athletic participation.
“That recommendation was made four years ago,” she said, noting that as enrollment increases, the number of spaces for existing sport teams will also rise.
School Committee member Anne Lougee noted that while the district is aware of growing demands by student who want to participate in sports, “I think we already have a pretty rich program.”

Wellington Elementary Is Also An Environmental Winner

Not only is Belmont’s Roger Wellington Elementary School a winner architecturally, the school also proves its great for environmental learning.

Last week, Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan honored the Wellington’s “Environmental & Energy Efficiency Initiatives” along with 26 other energy and environmental education programs across the state at the 20th Annual Secretary’s Awards for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education.

“The ideas, research and knowledge being recognized today show the forward-thinking of our youth and how ready they are for the challenges ahead,”said Sullivan.

Winners competed for $5,000 in awards, funded by the Massachusetts Environmental Trust with the intention to fund further environmental education initiatives at the schools. EEA solicited Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education Award nominations in early 2014. Schools and organizations that voluntarily incorporate environmental education into public or private school curricula are eligible.

In February, the Jonathan Levi-designed building won the coveted Harleston Parker Medal signifying the “the most beautiful piece of architecture” in Greater Boston.

Belmontian Club Clean Out Tip Jar for Cradles to Crayons

On Saturday, April 12, the Belmont High School Belmontian Club – the school‘s Community Service group  and Belmont Car Wash at 521 Trapelo Rd., sponsored the annual spring car wash to benefit Cradles to Crayons, which helps poor and homeless children in Massachusetts. 

The club raised $1, 390.60 at this event, and, overall, more than $4,100 for the non-profit in a variety of activities, beginning in February.


Burbank Students, Parents Take A Walk To School

The Mary Lee Burbank School celebrated Massachusetts Walk to School Day on Wednesday, May 7, with a record 255 students who walked or biked to school, or walked a circuit around the school before the day began.
Walk to School Day and related programs are organized by the Burbank Walks PTA Committee in partnership with Massachusetts Safe Routes to School.
Built in the 1930s as a neighborhood school, Burbank still has a relatively small district. The majority of students live within half a mile of the school. While many families do walk to school regularly, Burbank’s PTA has made a huge push this year to actively encourage more walking and biking in order to reduce traffic congestion around the school which was leading to concerns for student safety.
“It’s terrific to see so many students and families walking” said Burbank’s Principal Tricia Clifford.Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 8.13.23 AM
“Walking to school promotes  wellness and strengthens our community,” she said.
Celebrity Walkers were out to greet students and walk with them to school, including Laurie Graham of the Belmont School Committee, Belmont Police Officer Michael Horan, and John MacDonald of the Belmont Fire Department. Ten Burbank staff members also took part as Celebrity Walkers and helpers.
When students arrived at school they signed their name in chalk on the Burbank Walks Hall of Fame.
Burbank also launched a new initiative on Walk to School Day: Walking School Buses. In partnership with Massachusetts Safe Routes to School, the Burbank PTA conducted a Walking Assessment and then planned four new Walking School Bus routes. In a Walking School Bus a group of children walk to school together accompanied by parent “bus drivers” and following a set route with stops to pick up ‘passengers’ along the way. On Walk to School Day more than 60 children participated in a Walking School Bus and had fun walking with their neighbors.
Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 8.13.36 AM

Burbank is encouraging students to continue to walk regularly through the spring term. Walking School Buses will operate every Wednesday, dubbed Walking Wednesdays, through the end of the school year. The pilot Walking School Bus program will be reviewed and expanded for the new school year in September.
On each Walking Wednesday this spring, Burbank’s classes will compete for a Burbank Walks Trophy. The grade Kindergarten to two grade class with the most students walking or biking to school will win the Golden Sneaker Trophy, while third and fourth grade classes compete for the Silver Sneaker award.  The trophies are presented to the winning classes by Principal Clifford, to be displayed for a week in the classroom until the following Walking Wednesday contest.
The Butler elementary school also celebrated Massachusetts Walk/Bike to School Day on May 7.

An Ace: Belmont High’s Dr. Shea Named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year

Early in the celebration honoring him as the 2015 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year on Tuesday, May 6, Dr. Jeff Shea gave the impression that he would have liked to be anywhere BUT sitting at center court of Belmont High School’s Wenner Field House.

With the entire student population and teachers in the bleachers, a brass band and chorus serenading him, a gym adorn with dozens of large signs of congratulations, and school, local and state officials gathered to honor him being named the state’s top teacher, Shea pensively sat next to his wife, Valerie, under an oversized banner proclaiming him the state’s teacher of the year.

“It was nerve wracking,” Shea said later. “Like your first day in the classroom.”

On, appropriately, National Teachers Recognition Day, Shea was presented with the title before the entire Belmont High community.

“Wow,” Shea said when he got to the podium, later noting that “I wouldn’t have chosen to get everyone together here for this particular reason.”

“I see this award not so much as a personal award but certainly as a reflection of the strength of our community,” said Shea, an Arlington resident who attended Andover High School before matriculating at Tulane University.

From golf pro (Shea taught on the greens in western Massachusetts and on Maui) to educational professional, the Belmont High School social studies teacher creating and leading the popular global leadership courses for 11th and 12th graders, his help introducing new technology – such as iPods to 9th grade freshmen entering the High School in September – to spur learning “and his overall ability to inspire merits him this particular recognition,” Dr. Thomas Kingston, Belmont’s school superintendent, told the assembly.

A 10-year Belmont district veteran who also coaches the resurgent Boy’s Golf team, Shea “is the kind of teacher that marries the passion for teaching … to a greater understanding of the subjects he loves and knows,” said Kingston. “It’s pretty wonderful to have someone like [Shea] on our faculty because … he represents the best in all of us,” he said.

Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Dr. Mitchell Chester – who also recognized the other teachers in the Field House “who are second to none in the world” – said “this is the place to be” as the state honors Shea. Shea will also speak before the legislature in June and will be the state’s nominee for National Teacher of the Year.

Calling him a continuous learner who is “very reflective” on educational issues, Chester said he could not think of a more important area of study today than Shea’s interest and teaching of global leadership because “increasingly where you grow up is going to be less … determinative of your opportunities” so it important “to understand the global world in which we live.”

“I am deeply humbled and extremely honored” to win the award, said Shea who gave special recognition to his “mentor and very close friend” recently retired sixth grade teacher Joanne Coffey who took Shea under her wing at Belmont’s Chenery Middle School.

Shea noted one of the major strengths Belmont has to resulted in his award and Belmont High’s high academic reputation “is the commitment parents … have made to their children’s education” having benefited from that effort which included the “generosity” of the Foundation for Belmont Education.

And despite the considerable accolades the district has received – last week, Belmont High was ranked the top open enrollment public high school in Massachusetts and 151st in the country by US News & World Report – the administration “is still trying to move us forward.”

He also took time to point to his colleagues, “so many amazing teachers in the room, so many deserving teachers” that Shea suggested Chester be provided a parking pass as he could return next year to make the same presentation.

Shea finally spoke to his former and present students, those he taught at the Chenery, in his High School classroom or coached on the golf course.

“The trait that most defines the students at Belmont High School is your curiosity and that will lead you to many successes in the past and will lead you to many successes in the future. It also makes teaching a lot of fun” with students who “want to learn is incredibly important.”

“So I would be remise if I did not say at this point that I apologize to students and facility for the interruption in teaching and learning this morning,” he said.

“[Teaching] is a great profession because it is so very challenging and trying to overcome challenges, I think, is life,” he said.

Belmont High’s Jeff Shea Named State’s Teacher of the Year

Dr. Jeff Shea has been leading his students to explore the world outside of Belmont, and make a difference.

Recently, Shea, a social studies teacher at Belmont High School, created a microfinance project for students in his innovative Global Leadership course, an elective open to 11th and 12th graders designed to increase students’ awareness of international issues.

Using online resources and other technology like a class blog, Shea asks students to examine human rights challenges and consider solutions through the frameworks of finance, leadership and diplomacy. One lesson was choosing a recipient from across the world to receive money in an effort to benefit their community. After a semester of discussions and presentations, the Shea’s class used a small pool of money – including using his own funds – for the expansion of a dairy farm in Uganda and a foreign exchange business in Liberia.

Shea has made presentations on his course at international teaching conferences and to educators nationwide.

While teaching leadership in the classroom, Shea also managed and coached an extremely young group of golfers to a historic third-place finish in the state Div. 2 golf championships.

For his innovative teaching and leadership, Shea was named Wednesday, April 30, as the 2014 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

Shea will be recognized in a ceremony at Belmont High School on Tuesday, May 6 at 9 a.m. in front of the entire school and state officials.

‘Growth Spurt’ Has Belmont School Budget Bursting at the Seams

With just three months left in the fiscal year, it appears the Belmont School District will likely finish the fiscal swimming in a pool of red ink.

In a report highlighting the district’s third quarter financial status, Director of Finance and Administration Anthony DiCologero reported the Belmont’s schools are running an $220,000 deficit for the fiscal 2014 budget, which is $44.3 million excluding state and federal grants.

“There has been unanticipated events that began in the summer” resulting in the financial shortfall, said DiCologero, which Belmont School Committee member Kevin Cunningham said is caused by “a growth spurt” within the district since the bulk of the new expenses are directly related to a continued influx of students into the already brimming district.

According to DiCologero, approximately $450,000 of additional funds were spent on hiring 18 FTE (full-time equivalent) positions – many aides – to fill gaps in the system created by an increase of more than 100 students into the system.

An additional amount – not yet calculated – went to direct students services in Special Education as the actual amount spent in fiscal ’14 far outpaced what was anticipated at the beginning of the fiscal year in July, 2013.

“This continues to be a [line item] in flux,” said DiCologero.

On other unanticipated costs, the need to install a new exhaust system at the High School’s Higginbottom Pool required the expenditure of $50,000.

In addition to higher expenses, the district missed out on opportunity savings when an oil feeder pipe burst in the basement of the High School. This has delayed switching the final of the three heating burners from oil to natural gas, resulting in lost savings in the energy account, said DiCologero.

According to Belmont School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston, the deficit will be resolved with a request of $200,000 from the town’s reserve account as well as clamping down on hirings – each most be reviewed by Kingston and DiCologero before being approved this fiscal year – while also restricting spending on supplies, material and services. In addition, facility maintenance and repairs will be limited.

While the ’14 fiscal budget needs a shot of cash to finish the year, the pending fiscal year 2015 budget – which the School Committee will hold a public meeting and discuss before approving on May 13 – which stands at $46.2 million is in balance.

Early End: Belmont High Graduation June 1; Final Day of School, June 20

Sometimes, due to a quirk in the calendar, holidays are celebrated a lot earlier than what is customary. This past year Hanukkah – which is usually held in December – fell on Thanksgiving while Easter can come as soon as the third week in March.

And that phenomenon will occur this year for the graduating class of high school seniors as Dr. Thomas Kingston confirmed this year’s Belmont High School graduation will take place on Sunday, June 1 at 3 p.m. in the Wenner Field House at Belmont High.

“It’s the earliest day on the calendar that we can hold graduation,” said Kington at the Belmont School Committee meeting held on Tuesday, April 29 at the Chenery Middle School, who noted that the class of 2015 will have their ceremony on one of the latest dates, in the second week of June.

Kingston also announced that unless there is an emergency in town that would force the closure of school for a day (or with the current frigid spring, the possibility of another “snow” day) the final day for the Belmont school district will be Friday, June 20. That will also be an early-release day district wide with the High School ending its day at 10:30 a.m. and all schools “out for summer” before noon.

“So those folks anticipating camp dates and vacations can start making their plans” with a date certain finally set, said Kingston.

Belmont High Named As One of Nation’s Best

As the saying goes, you don’t come to Belmont for the roads; you come for the schools.

And in the latest issue of US News & World Report, Belmont High School is honored as one of the top-rated high schools in the country, earning the magazine’s “Gold” medal. The Concord Avenue school is ranked 151st nationally out of 19,400 public high schools in 50 states and the District of Columbia examined that includes charter and examination-entry schools from across the US.

Using the USN&WR ranking criteria, Belmont High is rated higher than 99.2 percent of all high schools in the country.

The top-ranked high school in the country is the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas, Texas.

In Massachusetts, Belmont is the top-ranked open-enrollment high school, rated just below the state’s top school, Boston Latin, an exam school, and the Advanced Math & Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough. Wellesley High and The Bromfield School, the town of Harvard’s public high school, round out the top five schools.

In 2013, the school was ranked 193rd nationally.

U.S. News teamed up with the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research, one of the largest behavioral and social science research organizations in the world, on creating the ranking methodology that is based on, as the magazine stated, “the key principles that a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show the school is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.”

According to the magazine, Belmont High scored high on college preparedness, with nearly three-quarters of high school seniors taking and passing at least one AP advanced course.

The school also rated very high, 63rd in the country, in students taking and passing AP exams in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) courses.