By Chris Lisinski
GROTON -- Groton-Dunstable Regional School District assistant superintendent Katie Novak, a recognized expert on an educational technique that is growing in popularity, has been giving presentations about the topic for years.
And although she sometimes profits personally from such speaking engagements, it was recently revealed that Novak, who is in charge of the district's Curriculum, Teaching and Learning department, has been quietly using her expertise as a fundraising mechanism to bring thousands of dollars into the district.
Since she started in Groton-Dunstable in 2014, she has earned more than $10,000 for the district by giving presentations in school districts and at seminars ranging from Carver to Houston to New Zealand. That money has gone toward a variety of expenses, including professional development for Groton-Dunstable staff and specialized curriculum materials.
"We're very appreciative that she has dedicated so much time and revenue to support our needs here in the district," said Superintendent Kristan Rodriguez.
The district first announced Novak's extra work last month after the Nashoba Valley Voice submitted a records request to examine time off taken by district administrators.
Since then, Novak has given 12 presentations on district time and brought in about $10,200 from those engagements. She has also taken roughly 15 of her contracted vacation or personal days to give other presentations, and she said in those instances, she received payment herself.
Novak said there is no cost to the district -- when she presents on the clock, she will pay her own travel costs and be reimbursed by the organization hosting her.
"I won't miss any obligation here (in Groton-Dunstable) to do this, but if my calendar is free here, then I will go out on behalf of the district and they will pay the district," she said.
Novak's presentations all focus on an educational technique called Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. The short version of that theory, as Novak describes it, is that students learn more successfully when they have more agency: instead of, say, an entire class silently reading "Charlotte's Web" to understand the theme of friendship, a UDL model will offer students "a buffet of options," be it an audiobook or a group discussion or silent reading, and allow students to choose which strategy will work best for them. The emphasis is on understanding the theme, not on the route taken to get there.
"It's much more trying to integrate these 21st-century skills of self-direction, critical thinking and problem-solving into a curriculum," Novak said. "You walk into a classroom, and students are doing really different things ... It's not teacher-directed at all. It's teacher-facilitated."
Novak is an expert on the topic and published a book, "UDL Now!," in 2014. She also co-wrote "UDL in the Cloud!," and next year, she and Rodriguez will release a book they authored together about how to foster such a learning environment as a district leader.
Wakefield non-profit CAST has spearheaded much of the growth for UDL. Novak is a member of the organization's UDL Cadre, a group of current teachers and administrators that promote the technique.
Novak frequently speaks at CAST-run events, while other times those in charge of a conference or seminar will contact CAST and ask for an expert such as Novak to participate. Still other times, Novak travels directly to a school district to give a presentation to the staff about UDL implementation.
This month, she will even go to Ghent, Belgium to deliver the keynote at a conference -- and Groton-Dunstable will receive $2,000 because of it.
Novak, an administrator with a doctorate degree who buzzes around with the energy of a classroom teacher, is happy with her set-up: she gets to continue her advocacy for UDL, but Groton-Dunstable feels a tangible benefit from it, too.
Her presentations have funded a number of items in the district, particularly professional development. Staff members have been able to acquire extra certifications; substitutes were paid to cover so teachers could go to workshops; Novak purchased extra teacher guidebooks so that no one had to share.
"We're starting to look at how we can create more revenue," Novak said. "I have an opportunity to help the district in some way, so it makes sense to be able to do it while I can do it."
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