By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Grafton – In his fourth year as Grafton’s superintendent, Dr. James E. Cummings said that things have finally “settled down” in his district.
When he was hired in 2011, following the retirement of Dr. Joseph F. Connors, Grafton schools were in the midst of a complete restructuring, including the building of a $73 million new high school, mainly to address overcrowding.
“There was a plan in place when I came on,” Cummings said. “And I went ahead and completely changed the plan. Now, I realize how bold that was.”
Cummings has lived in Grafton for 14 years and has three children between second and 10th grade in Grafton schools, so he has a personal investment in creating a successful learning environment for students in the district.
After many years as a special education teacher, he became a principal in Framingham for six years and assistant superintendent in Shrewsbury for two before the Grafton position became available.
Cummings said he was excited to take on the “positive challenge” of bringing the district up to date.
The Grafton school system serves just over 3,000 students in six schools: two elementary schools for pre-K to grade 1; two elementary schools for grades 2 to 6; a middle school located in the former high school for grades 7 and 8; and the high school.
One of the most important changes during his tenure so far has been the addition of full-day kindergarten.
“This is one of the best things we’ve done,” Cummings noted. “We are already seeing improvements on an educational and social level in our first-grade students. It wouldn’t have been possible without the new high school.”
He has also promoted the high school’s special education program for students ages 18-22 and the addition of unified sports. High school students pair up with special education students to participate in flag football, track, soccer and basketball.
“Unified sports have definitely taken off,” Cummings said. “We have one of the more robust programs in the state. The kids love participating.”
Grafton had the benefit of two successful Proposition 2-½ overrides in five years – the first in 2010 for the new high school and the second just last June.
The second override “provides more stability in school finances for the next few years,” Cumming said. “Thanks to the override our class size is fantastic, at or below the average. We can’t ask for much more than what the town has provided.”
According to the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in 2012-13 Grafton ranked last in per pupil expenditure in the state at $10,111 per pupil. The override will allow an increase in that amount as well as maintaining the number of teachers and staff.
It will also accommodate the sharp increase in overall numbers of students. Cummings said the current graduating class of seniors comprises 160 students; the class of 2015-16 is 240. Subsequent classes are about the same size.
Cummings attributes the growth to more families moving into town.
“I think they like the affordability, its location near the Mass. Pike,” he said. “It’s a great community.”
The school’s positive changes are already being noticed statewide. In February, Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester visited Grafton High School to learn about its 1:1 iPad program and said the district is “on the leading edge” of using the technology. The devices are leased through Apple and are given to each of the 800 students in grades 9 to 12, who use them in nearly every aspect of their school experience.
Cummings said they are currently piloting the use of Chromebooks.
“The benefit of leasing rather than purchasing is that we can keep up-to-date with the technology,” he said.
He said there are no plans for any new major improvements or programs, but for the time being, he is happy with the status quo.
“Our current focus is on strengthening what we have,” he said.