Sawyer outlines Shrewsbury Public Schools’ highlights, challenges

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Superintendent Joseph Sawyer speaks at a School Committee meeting earlier this year. (Photo/Laura Hayes)
Shrewsbury Superintendent Joseph Sawyer speaks at a previous School Committee meeting. Sawyer recently delivered his state of the district address. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

SHREWSBURY – Superintendent Joe Sawyer delivered his annual State of the District address during the School Committee’s Jan. 24 meeting.

“If someone were to ask me about [the school district], what would I tell them? I could speak for a long time about what I think about our schools… It is a school community — a set of school communities, a collective school district — of which I’m enormously proud,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer said that the school community and the sense of belonging that students feel is one of the district’s major strengths. He alluded to Shrewsbury’s involvement with Unified sports, the English language learner program and the opening of Maple & Main — the RISE Program’s store in the center of town — in November. Sawyer said he was proud of how the district has been able to build community with students from different backgrounds.

Sawyer also pointed to what he called the “strong level of trust from the community” about the school district. The trust, Sawyer said, could be attributed to the district’s “stability in governance.” With several long-tenured members of the School Committee and district leadership team, the district is able to form better relationships with the municipal government and town boards.

“All that works to make things work overall… We know we get excellent results,” Sawyer said.

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Yet, Sawyer acknowledged the district still faces challenges. Many of the challenges Sawyer noted were not unique to Shrewsbury.

The district has had an influx of mental and behavioral health problems. The issue has become more pronounced after COVID-19, said Sawyer.

Shrewsbury has had five students — including three elementary-age students — transported out of school in an ambulance for mental-health emergencies. The district has referred 49 students to emergency mental health care; 12 students have become inpatients. Sawyer said that the district has filed 26 different reports of suspected abuse or neglect.

“We live in a time that is fraught in a variety of ways. All the things that are challenging and difficult and unstable about society right now all affect our schools… because our school communities ultimately are made up of humans… I think we’ve taken a lot of steps and we’re continuing to find ways to not only support our students, but support our staff… so that they can be their best,” Sawyer said.

“There are real, deep, difficult problems that people have in this community that our responsibility as schools is to support, but more and more people are turning to the schools for that support because they can’t find that support elsewhere. We respond the best we can, but it is an enormous challenge,” he added.

The School Committee agreed that the district is facing several challenges.

“We want to talk about the good things. There are a lot of good things going on… This is the first year I felt — as a parent and a School Committee member — that we are seeing more intense needs, more issues in the classroom, that need to be taken care of for academic services to be provided to all students. I think it’s a change, and it’s societal… It’s not just Shrewsbury… but we do have things we need to work on,” said School Committee Chair Sandra Fryc.

Although the district faces challenges, Sawyer said that Shrewsbury continues to work hard to provide every student the best educational experience possible. Sawyer remained confident in what the district offers.

“If that family were asking me, ‘Is this a good place to live? Is this a good place to raise your kids and send them to school?’ One hundred percent. I made that choice in 1997, and I’m proud and glad that we did,” Sawyer said. “This is a community that does well by its children.”

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