Superintendent's Blog

  • School Funding-Sampson Testimony

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 6/3/2019

    Charles Sampson

    Assembly Budget Committee Testimony 3/20/2019

    Thank you to members of the Assembly Budget Committee for allowing me the opportunity to testify about school funding this afternoon. My name is Charles Sampson, and I am the Superintendent of the Freehold Regional High School District. I am also the immediate past president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the father of four public school aged children and a former board of education member in my hometown of Clinton New Jersey.  Freehold Regional is the largest limited purpose district in the state, serving almost 11,000 students from eight municipalities with a wide range of district demographics. I’m proud of the district’s outstanding track record in both academic and fiscal performance measures, and I thank you for the opportunity to share my perspective on the important issue of school funding fairness.

    I believe it is necessary to provide greater context to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 and the current changes under S2, and to bring to light areas that necessitate much closer scrutiny, understanding and context. Without a pause and a deeper analysis of the SFRA and S2, the immediate and long term consequences are dire for tens of thousands of students and dozens of school systems across the state. These consequences will have an exponentially negative impact over the multi-year phase in of S2. I implore members of this body to more thoroughly examine the flawed components of the SFRA and S2.

    The SFRA is simply defined in the opening paragraph of A Formula for Success:  All Children, All Communities:

    “…to develop an equitable and predictable way to distribute State aid for education.”

    More specifically, the formula attempted to address the need for a “permanent, formulaic remedy…based on actual community characteristics…that can equitably be applied to all school districts.”   

    Equalization Aid represented approximately 75% of SFRA based state aid to schools for FY20.  Each component of the Equalization Aid calculation has specific vulnerabilities that, if left unrecognized, can undermine the structural integrity of this otherwise well designed funding formula. As we seek solutions to our funding disparities, we cannot provide solutions without fully understanding the context of the SFRA and areas that need closer scrutiny. These include:

    • Educational Adequacy Report (EAR): The FY2020 EAR recognizes the need for a deeper analysis of all aspects of the formula in addition to the CPI-driven triennial update.  I welcome the opportunity to join the expert panel in examining the underlying base cost data within the context of current legislative recommendations around special education and regionalization, along with certain high school specific costs associated with vocational and athletic transportation.    

     

    • Local Fair Share (LFS): Of particular concern is the volatility of the Local Fair Share calculation.  Specifically, the wealth multipliers do not consistently interpret income and property value and, as a result, the calculation generates large swings in the community’s capacity to pay property tax – swings that are inconsistent with actual changes in income and property value.  For example, Freehold Regional’s Local Fair Share increased by 68% from FY09 to FY20 despite property value and district income only increasing 11% and 48% respectively.  If the wealth multipliers had remained the same during that time, Freehold Regional’s Local Fair Share would have increased by 30% instead of 68%.  Essentially, increases in the multipliers force citizens to pay more taxes in addition to the taxes associated with increased wealth.

    Concerns about the Adequacy Budget and LFS have effectively been obscured by years of districts being held harmless with adjustment aid.  S2’s proposed phase out of adjustment aid brings into clear focus the shifting of financial responsibility to the taxpayers via arbitrary increases to property and income multipliers by 57% and 10% respectively.  For districts like Freehold Regional, who spend $3,000 less than the average for limited purpose regional high school districts, opportunities for students will evaporate, programs will be cut and reduced, critical infrastructure work ignored, dozens of staff will be eliminated, our class sizes already at 28-30 for core courses will grow exponentially and the heart of our community- an exceptional school system; will struggle to provide the proper support to our most prized resource-our children

    While I believe that the SFRA is well suited as the framework for our state’s funding formula, reforms are necessary to ensure an equitable, predictable and fairly presented funding model. Put simply, the manner through which LFS is calculated is neither equitable nor predictable. Please take a pause and more fully assess the impacts of S2 and the flaws of the SFRA. Thank you for your time today, it is greatly appreciated.

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  • Statement Regarding Referendum

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 10/5/2018

     

     

    This past Tuesday the Freehold Regional High School District (FRHSD) asked the public to vote for FRHSD: Ensuring Excellence.  Sadly, with the defeat of our referendum we lost an opportunity to enrich the school experience for all of our students by failing to build upon years of deliberate and prudent financial stewardship of the organization.  

    Capital Planning

    FRHSD was one of the first districts in the state to develop an Energy Savings Improvement Plan (ESIP), which allowed us to fund almost $20 million of critical infrastructure improvements at no additional cost to the taxpayers and, importantly, without compromising our financial commitment to providing quality educational opportunities to our students.

    At the same time the ESIP addressed important facility infrastructure needs, it simultaneously provided the funding bridge that allowed the district to synchronize this referendum with our expiring bonded debt. This purposefully designed referendum proposal fully considered the perspective of all stakeholders when balancing reinvestment and tax relief.

    Annual School Budgets

    The district also has a well-documented track record of responsible restraint when designing annual operating budgets. Since the inception of the 2.0% cap on the property tax levy in 2011, FRHSD has forgone more than $27 million in available property taxes, all during a time of stagnate state aid to school districts. As you are undoubtedly aware, the state has significantly changed its position on school funding during the last several months, and FRHSD is slated to lose nearly 50% of its state aid over a seven-year phase out period…a cumulative total loss of $78 million dollars compared to continued flat funding.  The core issue surrounding this change is the state’s measure of a community’s ability to fund its own education – in short, the state calculates that the FRHSD tax levy should be approximately $20 million higher than it currently is.

    We have benefited from our regionalized model that allows us to deliver a high-quality academic and extra-curricular experience for all children at scale. This results in a per pupil cost that is almost $3,000 under the statewide average.  The proposed projects in FRHSD: Ensuring Excellence were designed to benefit all six of our high schools and were based on the needs of each unique school. The district also received a promise of state funding to offset the referendum costs, as the state was going to fund almost 30% of the entire project. In short, a tax decrease, state funding of almost 30% of the entire project, and a promise to the students we serve of maintaining an exceptional school system. The defeat of the referendum coupled with a devastating loss in state aid over the next several years places the FRHSD in a precarious position that will fundamentally affect the experience for the children of this community. This is not an exaggeration. We stand to lose millions in state aid in the coming years. The referendum would allow for needed capital projects that we simply cannot fund within the 2% tax levy. With the defeat of the referendum, many of these projects, including significant security upgrades to all schools, are now unlikely to come to fruition without a direct impact on the quality of programs and services this community comes to expect. For this reason we will continue to explore our options to complete this work and will once again be looking toward our broader school community to help us ensure an exceptional public school experience for all of the children we presently serve and those we will serve in the coming years.

     

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  • Our Reality: Schools in the Modern Age

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 2/23/2018

    The tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has shined a light on a larger conversation of what it means to be safe in schools in 2018. There are no easy answers as we move forward. The Freehold Regional High School District continues to review and refine all security protocols, maintain constant dialogue with our local law enforcement agencies and communicate with our school community with the goal of ensuring a collaborative approach to school safety.

    In some instances, there are factors that work counter to this collaborative approach that are important to address. The proliferation of social media allows for the constant and rapid flow of information and, unfortunately, at times, this information is often unsubstantiated and inaccurate. It is appropriate to “see something and say something” as we have all been encouraged to do in order to be proactive. It is equally important to confirm the accuracy of a social media post before forwarding and potentially creating unnecessary fear and panic. In the days following the Parkland shooting, we have found ourselves needing to contact parents and community members about social media posts that are uninformed and contribute to the spread of fear and suspicion through our community. We are all accountable for the children we serve and our collective responsibility to this effort ensures a culture that does not create undue fear by spreading false information regarding our students and schools.

    Our greatest asset is our collective will and fortitude to work together to ensure that schools remain institutions of learning and not walled fortresses. Our schools must be environments that promote warmth, risk-taking and collaboration to support all students in reaching their potential and finding their paths toward success in endeavors beyond our walls. Our schools must serve as beacons of the highest form of humanity-places where our children, our most precious resource, are nurtured to make smart decisions, embraced for who they are, and challenged to be the best they can be.

    Our schools can only make good on these promises to our children if we do not surrender to a culture of fear. We will continue to examine all facets of our safety and security plans. And, we will embrace that challenge with our guiding belief - our schools must be safe and orderly environments for all students to learn, grow and thrive.

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  • New Standards, Old Thinking

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 11/21/2017

    New Jersey is in the process of implementing new science assessments to align to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Science*. According to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), these assessments are designed to meet the federal requirement that states must continue annual statewide tests in reading/language arts and mathematics to all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school as well as in science at least once in each of grades 3-5, 6-9, & 10-12 grades.

    Let me be clear: standardized assessments have a place in public education. They can help to identify specific attributes of student learning, highlight disparities in achievement, be effective gauges of content and skill mastery and inform curricular and programmatic decisions. Sadly, here in NJ, we have veered sharply from standardized assessments simply having a place to occupying too much space.

    Our testing requirements under the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) extend far beyond federal requirements. With the introduction this year of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment-Science (NJSLA-S) we have jumped the proverbial shark. With the NJSLA-S, a junior in a New Jersey Public High School will sit for approximately 13 hours of testing between mid-April and mid-June. This does not include Advanced Placement or College Admissions Exams (e.g. SAT, ACT) also commonly taken in the junior year. In fact, current juniors who have already taken the New Jersey Biology Competency Test (NJBCT) as ninth graders, will now take a four-hour field test in the sciences even though they have already taken the federally required assessment!

    The NJSLA-S will have teeth-in fact, it will be comprehensive and there are plans to include it as a graduation assessment requirement. Students that follow interests or passions in the sciences and not prescribed course sequences may be at a disadvantage in meeting assessment benchmarks. These consequences will be compounded by the reverberations of PARCC. If current requirements hold, additional gates barring graduation will be raised, hundreds of students may be required to take a “refresher” course based on standardized assessment performance,  equity issues for poor students will become more pronounced and test preparation far worse than what we experienced under No Child Left Behind will be the answer.

    Sound frightening? It should.

    As a superintendent, I am gravely concerned. As a parent, I am outraged.

    We need to stop adding to our standardized assessment load and give back time and energy to teaching and learning. We have a responsibility to speak up for the children we serve, for our own children and for children who have no one to speak for them. I want to see New Jersey lead the nation in educational experiences for children, not seat time for standardized assessments.

     

    *After the publication of this blog, the New Jersey Department of Education responded by saying that at this time there are no plans to make the science assessment a graduation requirement, however, districts will be expected to maintain 95% participation on the test and districts will be formally evaluated through NJQSAC on how well students perform on the assessment.

     

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  • Communication Redux

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 7/5/2017

    As modern educational leaders we have communicative tools at our disposal that allow us to flatten the organization, brand our districts and provide outreach to our vast educational communities. Social media, district apps, email, on demand video conferencing have all allowed school and district leaders to expand the Mission of our schools across new mediums and new frontiers. These communication tools allow for greater and timelier communication at scale.

    But I’m wondering if I am speaking into an echo chamber at times and actually stifling real dialogue. I have found that social media sometimes allows for the one way flow of information that minimizes accountability, that email is often used as a shield to avoid real conversations and that we spend far too much time engaged in surface conversations rather than deeply engaging our larger school community.

    We must be social media savvy to lead school systems today however we have to find the balance to restore personal and individual conversations to our work.

    There is no way to fully convey the complexity that goes into educating a child in 2017. We need to spend our time talking to individuals and meeting with small groups. No fancy communication tools needed. If we do not continue to model this behavior, I fear we will spend all of our time communicating without ever listening.

     

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  • Education Meets Life

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 2/2/2017

    We spend too much time chasing the next best thing in education. Fads come and go. Under the guise of keeping our systems relevant, we chase those fads and run our students, faculty and parents ragged with change. Schools can fall into the habit of feverishly pursuing new programs, only to drop them before they become fully manifest within our systems. As emerging technologies become more prevalent in our schools, we need to ensure that we are not simply pursuing fads to make traditional school more efficient. We must build upon student experiences to help develop children who more fully realize who they are and how their learning connects to their experience--their own personal narrative within the larger educational context. We embrace personalization or “agency” as a proxy for the deep cultural shifts that must occur to provide true student ownership over learning. Here’s one take on why we need to move beyond catch phrases for something more connected to student actualization: https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/modernlearners/Modern+Learners+10+Principles+for+Schools+of+Modern+Learning+whitepaper.pdf  Dewey had it right almost a century ago when he remarked “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

    We need to stop chasing shiny new toys and look to change our systems in ways that will allow students to thrive in the modern age. This does not mean embracing every new technology trend as it comes.  Rather, it reminds us that utilizing those technologies for their own sake is meaningless if not connected to the daily existence of our students. The educator’s role is in connecting those technologies where appropriate, building a bold new culture in which students own their learning rather than have it parceled out for them by bureaucratic mandates rife with seat time requirements, outdated assessments and fragmented course offerings.  I am proud of the connections we are building here at FRHSD, where opportunities, learning spaces and student experiences are beginning to drive our curriculum and programmatic development in ways that are profoundly stirring our culture.  Experiences like these highlighted below are becoming the norm:

    http://nj1015.com/are-these-nj-high-schoolers-smarter-than-you-the-best-hacks-of-the-weekend/

    http://frhsd.schoolwires.net/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=4&ModuleInstanceID=15&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=2374&PageID=1

    https://twitter.com/MrNTechEd/status/825438355357827072

    https://twitter.com/MHSBraves/status/793786608264810496

    http://frhsd.schoolwires.net/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=4&ModuleInstanceID=15&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=2482&PageID=1

    http://frhsd.schoolwires.net/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=13&ModuleInstanceID=574&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=2268&PageID=19

    Moving forward, we must continue to build our programs from the student perspective out. The adult life that our children live will be fundamentally different from ours. They deserve an education that prepares them for that seismic shift.

     

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  • Stepping off the PARCC Hamster Wheel

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 9/28/2016

    When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we found a lever to potentially stop the hamster wheel of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) examinations in New Jersey, the pitfalls of which have been detailed here by my colleague, Dr. David Aderhold.  

    New Jersey is doubling down on standardized assessments despite decades of educational research and centuries of common sense insisting that it takes more than a single score to understand student achievement, teacher effectiveness, or any relationship between the two.  There are serious questions we must ask about whether PARCC should even be considered as one of multiple measures, let alone stand as the only measure. Look here and here for sobering news about the future of PARCC.

    ESSA provides an opportunity to unhitch our wagon from the reactionary “test and punish” regime unleashed by its predecessor No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and work together to craft a more balanced approach to measuring the academic success of our children. See this rundown of the opportunities within ESSA to rethink our tired approach to accountability.

    We must rally behind those possibilities. 

    I hope we can follow a more sensible approach to determine which measurements of “achievement” ring true in 2016 and beyond. Those measurements do not lie in the ability to decipher and solve a four step word problem unlike any other problem we will face in our lives. Rather, those measurements should include standardized assessments as one piece of a larger portfolio that demonstrates the whole of a student’s goals and experiences in our school systems. Otherwise, that four step math problem becomes the summation of a child’s educational experience. I do not want that for the children I serve. I certainly do not want that for my own children.

    We live in a world in which children’s play dates are scheduled and structured, youth sports extend year round, and the national education agenda is unclear. It is striking to me that education is a minor talking point in the presidential election conversations and debates. However, in New Jersey and elsewhere, big decisions are being made about tests, careers, and graduation requirements that may go beyond what ESSA imagined, all while parents juggle their children’s calendars.

    Why wouldn’t we step off that hamster wheel to see if there’s a better way?

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  • Reimagining ALL

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 7/28/2016

    I wrote this piece as part of a larger conversation about ensuring student opportunities, access and support within the FRHSD and grappling with the term ALL from a systems perspective. A work in progress in many ways!

     

    No Child Left Behind spurred a narrowing of the term ALL in schools across the nation. Achievement was measured solely by performance on standardized assessments which inhibited the development of alternative measures for student growth. The national focus on assessment performance stilted schools from developing systems that nurtured and supported equity and excellence in ways that defined the concept of ALL more broadly. Distinct achievement gaps were uncovered for the first time as a result of subsequent reporting requirements. In following a narrow definition of ALL, schools pursued aggressive policies and practices aimed at closing achievement gaps identified by singular metrics that emerged from disaggregated analysis of standardized assessments. Often, these metrics devolved into traditionally subjective sorting processes that limited opportunities for students, whether through leveling, teacher recommendation, or school practice that ignored the complexity of an individual student journey through a K-12 institution.  At the FRHSD we have been reimagining the concept of ALL by engaging in a systems approach to identify individual student needs, strengths and aspirations within the larger system and to utilize data in more unconventional and district specific means.  This allows us to broaden the scope of our understanding of opportunities and achievement in our district while simultaneously expanding our work grounded in the concepts of equity and excellence.  The pursuit of ALL must be understood as the core Mission. As a result, our definition of equity and excellence for ALL has been sharpened by a simple guiding belief, that all students will explore passions in rigorous course work. To pursue our Mission we have created unique, district specific metrics that provide a directional beyond standardized assessments.  These metrics capture programmatic, instructional and curricular data which is utilized by school and district leadership teams to ensure every student is appropriately challenged.

    To achieve fidelity to our promises of equity and excellence, we have grounded our work within school specific goals that are reflective of the district mission but designed with flexibility to serve unique and shifting populations. These goals are uncovered organically, embracing a wide range of data that requires a nuanced examination of the individual student experience within our six high schools. As we broaden our understanding of school data, structures are in place that allow for alignment of school goals to the larger Mission through collaborative analysis among school and district administrators, representatives of the School Improvement Panel (ScIP) and our Professional Learning Communities.  Principals utilize these metrics to chart progress, identify strengths and struggles and engage in double loop learning in order to continually refine our action steps to promote improved student outcomes while ensuring that we tear down traditional cycles of understanding progress that do not adequately serve ALL students. As we crystalize our understanding of student needs, our tools to provide answers become apparent. In this sense we are not simply developing interventions or reactive measures to promote student achievement along narrow measures of success, nor are we following static data from a standardized assessment.  We are freeing our administrators from traditionally stunted means of examining student work to focus on individuals within the system and to target areas of need.  We are flipping our understanding and use of student outcome data to focus on deeper systems processes that propel us down the road to embracing each and every student as a unique learner. These processes have unfolded over the past several years and have led to the development of concurrent support courses, the elimination of courses that stagnated student growth, the creation of bridge courses to spur acceleration and the removal of a host of artificial barriers to student opportunity such as cumbersome and unaffiliated pre-requisites, and an overreliance on standardized assessment data to determine student fate. Through the holistic use of systems data that both informed and fueled our wonderings, we are on course to guarantee all FRHSD students an educational journey that promotes the development of the whole child.

    Our success has been dramatic. Student opportunity in more rigorous courses has grown significantly; we increased our Advanced Placement examinations by over 2,000 from 2010-2015 despite a declining student population. We have expanded our career and technical education programs, increased our community partnerships and internship opportunities and instituted an International Baccalaureate program to appeal more specifically to student passions. Hundreds of students have moved along the continuum to explore more demanding course work. While our Hispanic population represented in AP courses has increased by 110% we know that we must continue to make strides toward ensuring equity of access and opportunity and support for ALL learners to follow passions for their own growth.  Therefore, we have begun the process of embedding specific equity goals directly into our school based goals to help drive continual growth. In this endeavor our district based metrics and directionals have pointed toward the path, it is up to us to continue to shape the journey.

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  • Standardized

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 3/7/2016

    “Standardized,” like “rigor,” is one of those words that we sometimes use without really thinking about its dictionary meaning. “Standardized” usually means making or causing things to be the same size, weight, shape.

    Public schools in New Jersey administer standardized assessments to our students at each grade level, 3-11. We are not looking to make all students the same. Rather, the purpose of the assessment program is to ensure fidelity to curriculum standards and gauge student achievement against those standards. Such assessments, when used properly, reveal equity issues in schools and districts, help teachers pinpoint individual student strengths and areas for growth, and inform the improvement of our instructional program. No single assessment can do all of these things in the context of a district’s local priorities. Districts use collections of assessments, some standardized and some not, to paint this picture.

    I am growing increasingly concerned, however, that specific standardized assessments are becoming the only acceptable barometers. These specific assessments may not be the most appropriate measurements of mastery for all students. The time necessary to prepare for, administer, and monitor these assessments may not represent the best use of time for all classrooms. I am led to the unavoidable question: is there a better way?

    From age 15, I’ve experienced workplaces that included individuals with widely divergent skills and interests. The same holds true of my college and graduate school experiences. People are not standardized. They are individuals.

    If our standards are meant to provide only a foundation for the development of our local curriculum, and our goals for individual students, is it unreasonable to expect more flexibility in assessment, standardized or not? A typical high school student today now faces up to 30 hours of standardized assessments. Must we require 30 hours of testing to measure every student’s achievement of those standards? Our students deserve accountability that is balanced with the need for expanded classwork to develop modern skills. The day of more nuanced assessments that preserve validity but are more respectful of instructional time has arrived. Today’s world and today’s educational standards require a creativity that no standardized test can measure or foster in any student.

    When we accept a monolithic assessment regime, we are embracing a paradigm that ignores the skills that students need to thrive in the modern age. I would welcome the opportunity for students to demonstrate skills such as cognitive flexibility, problem solving, creativity, collaboration and negotiation. These are exceptionally complex skills, but I am certain we can measure them in less than 30 hours.

    The realities of modern life rarely require one best answer. Rather, we find ourselves exploring a host of possible answers, among which we must use our abilities to determine the most reasonable and effective choices. Indeed, our standards respect this reality by stressing the need for students to understand how to recognize, apply, and advocate for different approaches. Our determination of student achievement cannot remain so static as to be captured by a single standardized assessment. Nor can we allow the varied and effective measures that we know to be truer reflections of the real world to be crowded out by that standardized assessment.

    Our charge as educational leaders is to open new avenues for students to find and develop their passions through challenging coursework, meeting standards along the way. I am not suggesting we jettison standardized assessments. However, such assessments are just threads in the complex tapestry of a student’s mastery of standards along the way to realizing passions.

    Standardized assessments therefore have a place in our measurement. When their importance outweighs their utility, and when the investment of time, energy and money diverts from the true achievement of necessary skills, the assessments become an impediment rather than a measurement.

    We are educational leaders. We commit to the mission of preparing all students to flourish in tomorrow’s world.

    Shame on us if we are not fighting to ensure a more balanced approach to understanding our student strengths and needs in anticipation of that world.

     

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  • A Thanksgiving Message

    Posted by Charles Sampson on 11/24/2015

    As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week I am reminded of the sacrifice that so many families make for all of us during the holiday season. We have so much to be thankful for each and every day and do not always appreciate our own good fortune or the price others pay to help make that good fortune a reality. Our failings are not intentional, but emanate from losing focus on what really matters to the day to day vagaries of life. It’s a natural occurrence because we are all busy. Life is just busy. Still, I hope that you take the time to focus on what really matters over this holiday break-spending time with family and friends and not sweating the small stuff in life. Please keep those families with a missing loved one at the dinner table this Thanksgiving in your hearts. If you do find yourself sweating the small stuff, take six minutes and watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dKWq0CzK-k

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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