By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
Lateefah Franck replaced Sheryl Goodloe as Westwood’s METCO director in June of 2019. Originally from Washington DC, Franck considered going to law school before falling in love with education, eventually serving as everything from a literacy tutor, to an elementary school teacher, all the way to the principal of Hyde Park’s Boston Renaissance Charter School. After ten years there, Franck moved on to the town of Lincoln as its METCO director, noting that the role provided her with a number of unique opportunities including experiencing working in the public school system, and working not only in the nation’s first voluntary desegregation program, but in one of the state’s original seven METCO programs. Transitioning from Lincoln to Westwood provided more unique opportunities, as well as unique challenges due to the small size of Westwood’s METCO program (just 47 students) - and the fact that it’s one of only two METCO programs to start at the middle school level. Lateefah is the first Westwood METCO Director to sit as a member of the district level administrative leadership team, a decision made by Superintendent Emily Parks.
One of the district’s main goals in recent years has been to increase the diversity of its educators and school faculty. This was one of the main concerns brought up this summer in a letter from a group of Westwood METCO alumni. While Franck wasn’t there for the group’s tenure (they had graduated six years ago), she is committed to encouraging and supporting the many efforts the district is embarking on to promote the hiring and retention of educators of color. Franck has been part of conversations about hiring and retaining educators from more diverse backgrounds, ranging from ideas of examining the district websites to other efforts like joining a wide variety of diversity organizations. This fall, the high school hired one of the Westwood alumni who authored the June 2020 letter.
Franck is the only administrator of color in the district, something she’d like to see change, should an opening arise. “It’s [a lack of diversity in staff] not a problem that is only impacting Westwood, it’s a problem that’s impacting education systems all across Massachusetts,” she explained. "The district, led by Assistant Superintendent Allison Borchers, has thought extensively about it and is committed to working on finding solutions to increase staff diversity. Parks and Borchers have been in communication with other superintendents, principals and directors in the surrounding communities about tips and things that are working well in their district, so I would say right now, currently, there is an active engagement in recruiting, hiring and maintaining staff of color.”
Franck noted that Westwood has also looked at their tools for hiring: it's examined what the hiring team looks like, what types of questions are being asked of applicants, and the equity in those questions. Westwood has also looked at what colleges and universities the district could be reaching out to and forming partnerships with that have a diverse student populations in their education programs. "We hope that thinking strategically about how to attract diverse educators to the district will have a positive impact on increasing the diversity of our staff," Franck went on to explain. "It is important that all students experience a diverse group of teachers during their pre-k through 12 school education."
One of Franck’s greatest joys is working on professional development. She hopes to continue to have the opportunity to work with educators in Westwood in this capacity. So far, she has had the opportunity to provide PD at the high school on anti-bias and anti racism education. Westwood has also become a member of IDEAS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access), which offers professional development around equity in education. "Also," explains Franck, "this year, we have been very purposeful about the professional development we’re giving to all of our staff."
Having Franck as METCO Director at the district administrative table paid off last spring and this summer; as the pandemic hit, she was able to make sure the METCO program students and their families were represented in discussions about what school would look like during the pandemic. This resulted in the system not having to adopt accommodations to meet the needs of Boston students, but providing a model with them in mind from inception. “As part of the district’s leadership, we had our Boston students at the helm of every conversation. We were making sure the policies and practices, the schedules, the commitment, the things we were putting in place didn’t have our Boston students as an afterthought - we had already factored them into the actual plan."
That’s not to say COVID hasn’t created unique challenges for both Franck and the Boston resident students. While many METCO students chose the fully remote option, Franck noted that she would never want METCO to be seen as “just a school-based program,” and that “We want the students to integrate into the community (the town) itself." With COVID keeping METCO students literally out of the town for long periods of time - whether they opted for fully remote or the hybrid system - Franck has had to be more flexible and creative to make sure they remain engaged. Outside of phone calls and Zoom meetings with both students and parents, this has included bringing in speakers like Anthony Valentine to talk with the high school about creating the kind of culture where everyone feels safe and accepted. Franck said comments from that assembly have already had an impact.
“I think the great thing about the METCO program is when you’re supporting students that come from diverse backgrounds or backgrounds that are different from the typical resident student, what tends to start to happen is you start to tap into resident students who might not fit neatly and nicely into a typical resident mold, so you start to meet the needs of all of the students in your school community.”
A big part of this philosophy of integrating Boston resident students into the Westwood community at large is Franck’s onboarding system, which addresses both the academic changes and emotional ones Boston resident students may deal with. Franck, with the help of members from the Thurston PTO, started a Welcome Club to both help Boston resident students who likely have never been to Westwood - never mind inside Thurston Middle School - get acquainted with the town, get the Boston resident students to know each other before classes begin, and make sure METCO program families know about events going on in the Westwood community (like the town fair, or when youth sports sign-ups are). In addition, COVID made it impossible to continue the jump start program that had traditionally been held at Thurston for new students. Franck worked with Charesse McIntosh, Thurston’s METCO Academic Advisor, to develop a virtual jump start program that included weekly check-in, academic tutoring and getting-to-know-you activities.
“Boston’s a large city, and our Boston’s students come from all over the city. We don’t have students that are just from one neighborhood. Many times, unless we actively engage with students, they don’t know each other. So in creating an onboarding program, we give the students the opportunity to know and meet each other as Boston METCO program students, and then let them have an opportunity to get to know the town of Westwood and get to know the schools. Our Running Start program was created initially because our Boston students have never been in Thurston Middle School before, so having them be able to come to the school and familiarize themselves with the school, and then to be able to meet Westwood resident students so that when they come to school, the only other students they know aren’t just Boston students. It is important to also engage families. I’ve partnered with the Thurston PTO, which has a newly-created subcommittee of METCO liaisons, and we have created the Welcome Club. The Welcome Club is a group of Westwood resident parents who have been in the Westwood Public School system for more than a year and have volunteered their time to contact a new to Thurston family."
The Welcome Club has already crafted keepsake bags for new Thurston Middle School students (both Boston resident and new-to-the-Westwood Public-School-system), and holds events - a family game night, for example - throughout the year. It also provides updates about things like Westwood youth sport sign-ups and fun town events, so Boston and new to WPS families who are not not as familiar with town happenings don’t miss out.
Franck’s long-term goal involves moving from a 6-12 METCO program to a K-12 program. Interestingly, from her research, she discovered Westwood was a K-12 program at one point, and although she acknowledges there would be challenges (like transportation), that’s what she views as one of her long-term goals - and was one of the things that attracted her to the Westwood METCO director role in the first place: the opportunity to expand the program.
For now, though, Lateefah Franck is working to expand the onboarding system to make the transition to the Westwood School system easier, to increase the diversity of the town’s educators, to improve the district’s professional development, and to ensure that Westwood's out-of-town students are socially, emotionally and academically flourishing in the midst of a global pandemic.