Return to Sender

Leafmatter5

Educators, if you received a free and unsolicited book in the mail, would you read it? That’s what a conservative “climate realist” group by the name of Heartland Institute wants you to do. In fact, it would be really swell if teachers would do a little more than just read their free book(s). If you would also start teaching some of their conceptions and beliefs, that would be great.

Here’s an introduction to this Heartland Institute courtesy of Dean Reynolds’ report on April 22 CBS News.  There among the reported 97% of scientists who believe global warming is real, is non-scientist Joseph Bast claiming that global warming is not only part of the cycle of life on Planet Earth, but actually desirable for us humans (see video link above).

Bast, CEO and President of Heartland Institute, is admittedly not a scientist; what he claims to be is a “climate realist”. Here are some of the ideas Heartland Institute champions:

  • Second hand smoke, smoking, and lung cancer have no connections
  • Global warming is not a “thing” – it is more like a cycle of nature and “cold weather kills more people than warm weather does.” (refer to clip at 1:15 mark)
  • In Education, the group supports the increasing charter schools, providing education tax credits for private school students, vouchers and the group supported the parent “trigger” reform started in California.
  • Health care saving accounts and a “free market” health care system, and (finally)
  • Hydraulic fracking

Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, Heartland Institute is engaged in a concerted effort to influence science educators in Grades K-12. As such, this group has committed to mailing 25,000 copies of a free book (Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming authored by Craig Idso, PhD; Robert M. Carter, PhD; and S. Fred Singer, PhD) and DVD every two weeks until every single K-12 Science teacher in the United States has a copy (reported total 200,000 copies). Lennie Jarrett, who manages Heartland Institute’s Center for Transforming Education, includes a cover letter (please read it here).

Now everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if one is going to flood schools with science materials, shouldn’t those materials be…. scientific? As in something that is based upon proven and replicable fact and not on opinion? Bast and Heartland Institute hope that science educators will have some doubts about that. After all, 3% of the scientific community don’t agree on the cause(s) for climate change.

From time to time, entities offer curriculum and materials to schools and educators for free or reduced costs. The utilities companies used to send Lenny Lightbulb coloring books to elementary school teachers who requested them. Apple Computers became prevalent technology in schools because Apple targeted the education market and offered deep discounts.

 

As a teacher, presenting opposing opinions on issues should be part of the educational process. When proven and science-based facts are replaced by flimsy opinions of “think tanks” with a political agenda, that is not science. Here’s a second viewpoint detailing why the Heartland Institutes’ effort is alarming written by NY Times Op-Ed writer, Curt Stager.

That’s a gift that should be returned to sender.

On Homework

10012015FrenchStThis morning, the New York Times carried the story of the decision by several Public Schools in New York City to suspend traditional homework. The disagreements that have ensued have largely been by parents of students with very different viewpoints on this topic.  This is definitely worth a read if only to broaden the lens with which one views this topic because, as I read, two things came to mind:

  • in some families, providing meaningful after school activities is frequently limited by economics, time and money/resources, and
  • parent input into broad ideas is a key to change.

As a parent, I would have loved the idea of no homework for my own child, who by the end of a school day had had just about enough with sitting still and completing paperwork. One assignment, burned in my memory, is of him sitting at our dining room table attempting to fill in the remaining (empty) pages of a spelling workbook, assigned for the night’s homework ostensibly because it was the end of a school year and all pages must be completed. Did anyone “learn” anything from that exercise?

In the Times article, the attempts to move away from mindless drill-and-kill worksheets is something I would applaud. Suggested replacements for traditional homework include reading and finding other exploratory pursuits.  These are all great ideas. Most students have library books from school or the public library that can be accessed if a personal library is not within reach.

However, I would suggest that the ability to find and fund those “other” resources for explorations – mentioned were additional software products or for-fee activities and programs – is problematic for parents who don’t have the same monetary resources found in privileged, middle-class homes.  Yes, Khan Academy is a free resource, but if your family doesn’t have internet access or a workable computer device, that free resource is not available. I worry that under the current federal administration how long programs like 21st Century School grants will continue. How this impacts a community with a large number of students from lower socio-economic means remains to be seen.

The “quality” of homework is cited in the article. This, too, needs investigation. What are the elements that constitute “quality” homework?  I know how I would answer that, but maybe I don’t know how a parent who is working 2 consecutive shifts and still living below poverty would answer.

Which brings me to Point 2. Parents need to be a big part of this conversation. Schools and Districts considering the change from a traditional homework model to something else, whatever that might be, have to engage all – and I mean all – the parents, not just those who find it convenient to come to meetings and presentations between 8:30 am and 3 pm. The educators have the expertise to make these changes, but the parents bring viewpoints to the discussion that not only need to be considered, those views must be considered.

Read the article. Learn from it. And let’s move forward in making homework something more than a mindless and epic after school battle.

You have to show up

Yoga serves.

But you have to show up.

-Adriene Mishler Yoga with Adriene

There is something both beautifully simple and truthful in that statement.

 

What are you invested in? Physically, mentally, intellectually. Show up for that. It really is that simple.

After a year of some minor, mainly annoying, challenges that come with the advancement of growing older, I decided that I now had the time to invest in my own well-being. And so I embarked on some physical training (who starts a running program after age 60?) and an exploration of centering myself through yoga. I’ve been well-served by both running and yoga. But in order to reap the benefits of not running out of breath by simply walking uphill or a more steady, balanced foundation, the commitment to doing one or both of these on a daily basis has been a challenge. It is easy to become distracted or to allow appointments and meetings to become an excuse to skip.

As a former educator, I think the act of showing up has to apply as well, particularly in times when public education is under daily attack. Purposeful underfunding of the Commonwealth’s obligation to fund schools, over-reliance on high-stakes testing, an education that is at once developmentally appropriate and flexible, valuing humanities as well as science and technology.

These are just a few of the issues that I feel strongly about. This is why I worry that educational opportunity, that great equalizer, may not be much of an opportunity for our young citizens.

And this is why I will continue to show up – because just like yoga, education serves. But you have to show up.

 

05 April 2017: School Committee Meeting

10012015FrenchStSchool Committee Meeting 05 April 2017

7 Members Present, Student representative: Cole Conlin

 

 

Spotlight on Excellence & Permissions to Enter.

  • Science and Engineering Fair.
  • Bartlett Community Partnership School
  • LHS Ice Hockey Team

Public Hearing for Interdistrict Choice: No comments from the public.  2016-17 had 30 open slots, 15 were filled.  Decision to continue the School Choice decision is made annually. Motion to recommend continued participation for grades 9-12 (30 students within grades 9-12). 7 yeas approved.

Motions

There were 8 new motions presented tonight:

  • 7.I. [By Robert Gigac]: Request the Superintendent work with the City Administration to develop a plan and/or update on the capital improvement funds that were allocated for the schools. City RFP process, repairs that were determined will proceed in May.  Mr. Gignac requests looking into roof repairs and AC/Boiler repairs. Motion passes.
  • 7.II. [By Connie Martin]: Requesting an update on the plan for recruiting and hiring a new Head of School for Lowell High School, including a proposed timeline for assembling the interviewing committee and any public sessions that will be part of the process. 

Registered Jonathan Richmond. Begins by speaking about LRTA passes and then proceeds to enumerate his thoughts concerning the hiring requirements and qualifications for new Head of School. Registered speaker Daniel Ouk speaks about suggestions for chosing LHS Head of School.

In my opinion, the acrimonious and abrasive nature of this segment of the meeting was unnecessary and distracting from the importance of the process of selecting a new LHS Head of School. It is worth viewing this for yourself on LTC’s posting of the meeting video when that occurs. Move about 40 minutes in to the video to view this for yourself.

Ms. Martin questions the process and the timeline. Superintendent Khelfaoui clarifies that there is a plan and a timeline and that the taskforce is in process. Should a person be interested in becoming part of this taskforce (approximately 15 members), that person should apply via email or snail mail to either Superintendent Khelfaoui or Anne Sheehy, Director of Human Resources, Personnel & Recruitment. Ms. Doherty is absolutely on point in suggesting the importance of including stakeholders representative of the population of Lowell High School in the taskforce. 

  • 7.III. [By Steve Gendron] Request the Superintendent form a task force to interview Lowell High School Head of School applicants.
  • 7.IV. [By Connie Martin] Requesting an update on the staff plans for Principals and Assistant Principals for the fy17 and fy18.
  • 7.V [By Jacqueline Doherty] Request the Superintendent provide the committee with the DESE School Climate Survey along with recommendations as to whether we should implement the survey or some other instrument. The recommendations should also include timelines for beginning to collect baseline data about school climate, family involvement, or other aspects that address the education of the whole child.

Mitchell Chester (DESE Commissioner) has announced (link here) that, following MCAS 2.0 testing this year, students in Grades 5, 8, and 10 will be asked to complete a survey about school climate. DESE claims that the results will not be disaggregated nor used in any significant manner, so my question is WHY subject students to this “optional” survey right after the completion of a high-stakes and draining academic test? According the Dr. Chester’s update, parents and students can refuse to complete the survey; in fact, some entire districts have already decided not to administer this DESE survey. It doesn’t sound like LPS is going to do that. Also, according to DESE’s update reference above, parents can request that principals and/or superintendent show the survey questions to them.

What was confusing throughout the discussion is that Lowell Public Schools is part of a consortium of school districts developing a more thorough and valid survey of community education stakeholders that will hopefully become part of a more thorough and thoughtful analysis of the public school system.  This consortium survey is in draft form and not yet ready for administration to student from what I understand.

  • 7.VI [By Steve Gendron] Request the Superintendent work with the City and the LRTA to develop a program to provide free bus passes to Lowell High School students based on financial need.
  • 7.VII [By Connie Martin] Requesting that the administration provide the committee with an update on plans to accommodate the middle school bubble for the FY17-18 school year.
  • 7.VIII [By Robert J. Hoey] Request Superintendent conduct a review of safety and security in our schools.

Joint Finance and Student Support Services Subcommittee report on meeting 3/29/17. John Descoteaux presented a draft plan for a 5-zone system (eliminating city-wide). The current desegregation order would stay in place. The issue is complicated by costs for busing (the Cawley option for LHS would need 26 additional buses or a projected $3.2 million plus additional amounts for future years). Start/dismissal times would need adjustment as well. The endeavor needs further study, which was the recommendation from the subcommittees. Mayor Kennedy notes the cost of busing is going to increase substantially over time and that some of the proposed zones will be unfair to 2 neighborhoods. The K-8 model being proposed to accommodate a 5-zone system will necessitate additional teachers. Mayor Kennedy supports a more thorough look at how the schools provide transportation in order to potentially increase efficiency. Motion to accept.

There were 3 Reports from the Superintendent and 2 items under New Business:

  • Report: Tutoring Services offered by Dharma Center
  • Report: Community Service Update
  • Report: Quarterly Report on Motions
  • New Business: Interdistrict Choice (Voted on previously)
  • New Business: Farm to School Research Project

For anyone looking for the full meeting packet and agenda, please navigate to the City of Lowell’s Agenda/Minutes website.

Lost Things

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone

IMG_1929_edited-1I was thinking about Joni Mitchell’s lyrics to Big Yellow Taxi this morning because, I think a lot of what has disappeared in classrooms has happened so gradually that even educators don’t realize the value of what has gone missing.

During last Friday’s middle segment on Beat The Press, Adam Riley asked if the panel believed viewers could tell the difference between fact and opinion. Here’s the link to the segment which is definitely worth the five minutes viewing time.

If as an adult, knowing the difference between fact and opinion is an important skill, do educators have opportunities to explicitly teach students to distinguish between opinion and news/facts? I would suggest that in this era of time-on-task we do not. I think teaching and practicing critical thinking has been replaced by test preparation and test strategy sessions.

As a high school student, one of the courses I took to fulfill the English requirements was a course called Propaganda and Prejudice.  We started out examining marketing materials and ended up dissecting political discourse to better understand opinions and how facts can be manipulated to prove a point. Those lessons of examination and questioning have stayed with me my entire adult life.

As a teacher of elementary students in 1987, one of the PBS programs that we employed to encourage students to think deeply about issues was called (I think) Think About It. Think About It was a 15-minute, current events based program for middle-elementary and junior high students and broadcast each week on the local PBS airwaves. We watched it together every Friday afternoon. Students were enjoined to dive deeply into a current issue and engage in opinion writing or discourse based on facts they could uncover throughout the upcoming week. I underscore based on facts, because, as the panel from Beat The Press points out, our current conversations seem mainly based on beliefs and perception and not necessarily on researched or proven fact.

Why these anecdotes are important is the action of thinking about whether or not a statement is true or verifiable or even plausible seems to be a missing skill. In our divisive political conversation, proveable facts are in very short supply and thinking about whether a statement is reasonable or truthful is often even more scarce. Case in point would be the Comet Pizza shootings in DC.

When the focus is on test preparation and standardized testing, something has to go. Honestly, until I started to think about the question posed by the Beat The Press panel and wonder more about why our grown up and adult students don’t necessarily discern between fact and opinion, I didn’t realize the full extent to which teaching critical thought has been omitted. Is one of those “things” educators let go in favor of prepping students for test success explicit teaching and practice with critical thinking?

I wonder, if result of 20 years of education “reform” and focus on standardized high stakes testing, is a cohort of adults who cannot critically question and discern opinion from fact?

Another Reason for Increased Recess

2013fielddayaI wonder how many other adults have experienced this? After about 30 minutes of intense focus, there is a need to get up and move. For me, moving around when I am actively engaging my brain applies in nearly every circumstance, and I notice it most especially during some training or class when my brain is powered up and I’m trying hard to retain new information.

An article republished in the New York Times’ Well column made me think of how sitting and movement impact learning for all students regardless of age level. Written for runners and titled Can Running Make You Smarter, the article was originally published in July 2016. Here are some major take-aways from the article:

  • exercise fosters neurogenesis, or creation of neurons which cluster in the brain and increase ability for thinking and recall
  • physical stimulation is necessary for healthy brains
  • Cathepsin B protein, which helps muscles recover from exercise such as running, appears to be a factor in neurogenesis
  • in the study, more active subjects like runners had better and more improved tests scores for memory and thinking

So what’s the connection to students and learning? Here’s my take:

One of the first things schools jettison when time-on-task and test preparation becomes the focus, is recess. Recess is short-changed in many schools across the US even though research study after research study shows that children need recess and breaks from more academic pursuits in order to learn and think. Google the phrase “importance of recess” and page upon page of research pops up. And then, of course, you could just ask a teacher.

Recess is important. If this study is taken seriously, active play during recess appears to be even more important. Recently, in response to School Committee member Jackie Doherty’s motion of January 18, 2017, the Lowell Schools reported (click here for the report from the February 15 meeting packet) on the number of minutes allocated for recess at each Lowell Public Schools. The times ranged from zero minutes at Lowell High School and alternative school settings to 20 minutes at several elementary schools (25 for some Kindergarten classrooms).

The studies cited in Can Running Make You Smarter point once again to the importance of allowing students enough time to be active throughout the school day. Isn’t that a good reason to pay greater attention on finding some additional recess and play time in the school day?

 

School Committee Meeting, 15 March 2017

10012015FrenchStImagine for a moment that you are 10 years old, speak another language at home, and as kids sometimes do, have heard the adults in your family expressing concern about Immigration returning you and your family to another country where your life had been one filled with violence and poverty.  Worries about being removed from this new place where you had felt safe might naturally fill your waking thoughts. And those worries would, of course, extend to the place where you, a ten-year-old, spends the greater part of each day: your school. Last night, the Lowell School Committee ensured that, at least within the walls of school, a child whose family’s immigration status might be called in to question could know that they would not be forcibly removed from their school and classmates. While the School Committee’s motion and School Department’s response is reassuring for that child during time spent within the school setting, there is no guarantee of protection outside of it. Whether a 10-year-old refugee can differentiate that remains to be seen.

School Committee Meeting 15 March 2017

5 members present (Ms. Martin absent), Student representative: Onoste Omoyeni

Spotlight on Excellence & Permissions to Enter.

Please refer to packet and agenda. LTC neglected to start the broadcast at the beginning of this meeting.

Motions

Six motions :

  • 6.I. [By Jacqueline Doherty]: Request the Superintendent provide the committee with recommendations for increasing the compensation of our Substitute Teachers to be competitive in today’s education market along with the data to support such increases. Request the Superintendent provide the committee with recommendations for increasing the compensation of our Substitute Teachers to be competitive in today’s education market along with the data to support such increases.
  • 6.II. [By Jacqueline Doherty]: Request the Superintendent ensure the LPS website is updated, links to packet reports are working, and each school page provides information on its School Site Council members, meeting times, agendas, and minutes along with other relevant school-specific dates, events and information. THIS IS WHERE THE MEETING COVERAGE BEGINS. 
  • 6.III. [By Steve Gendron] Request the Superintendent develop a class size policy for Lowell Public Schools that includes current status and goals for all grades K- 12.
  • 6.IV. [By Connie Martin And Robert Gignac] Request that the Administration prepare a resolution for consideration by the Lowell School Committee that clearly defines the district’s commitment to protecting our students, regardless of their immigration status and offers all LPS staff a clear procedure for ensuring that no Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will be granted access to the Lowell Public Schools without the expressed permission of the Superintendent of Schools.

Taking Item 8.7 (resolution) which is the response at the same time. There was mention of a registered speaker, but that person did not materialize. The motion and response found in 8.VII are a response to discussion with Superintendent re families who had received letters from Immigration about their immigration status. Mr. Gignac feels it is imperative that the SC takes a formal position so that students do not feel unsafe or fearful while they are in school.

Mr. Hoey asks Superintendent if this resolution could negatively impact government grants. When the City Council took up the Sanctuary City issue earlier this year, one of the reasons for not supporting such a motion was that the City, highly dependent upon federal funding, could possibly find those funds removed or suspended should Lowell adopt a sanctuary city policy.  Superintendent  states he does not know the definitive answer to this query; however, Dr. Khelfaoui notes that tonight’s policy is reflective of the state policy. Students need to feel safe in schools or they are not learning. Ms. Omoyeni expresses support for this motion on behalf of the students at LHS.  Mr. Gendron also expresses support; Lowell is and continues to be a city of immigrants and we should support them by removing any concerns that these students could potentially be removed forcibly from school during the school day.

Ms. Doherty echoes this sentiment as does Mr. Descoteaux. Superintendent Khelfaoui reiterates that the policy as presented tonight has been in place in the LPSD. It has been vetted by the Police Department and is legally correct.  Dr. Khelfaoui states that this policy is intended to reassure children, some of whom have already received notices from Immigration, that whatever their status, the children can regard their school as a place of safety.

Mr. Gendron reiterates that it is exactly because of the situation at the federal level that Lowell needs to put this policy in writing for peace of mind and safety of students and their families. Ms. Omoyeni also notes anectdotally that there have been some increased absences and it is the moral obligation of our community to ensure that students know they are safe.  Mr. Kennedy notes the difference in the role of the school committee as different from the City Council in creating a sancutary city.  In response to Mr. Hoey’s question about how ICE would know a students’ status, Dr. Khelfaoui responds that there is legal processes in place which prohibit just anyone from accessing students’ school records.

This issue is divisive and complicated and, as I am not a legal expert. I do note that bowing to pressure and threats about loss of funding from the federal government concerns me. Other cities such as Boston – also heavily reliant on federal funds – have taken steps to become sanctuary cities.  Role Call:  5 yeas, 1 abstain, 1 absent – approved

  • 6.V. [Robert J. Hoey]: Request a report from the Superintendent regarding the total cost of security and safety in our schools, including the amount we spend on resource officers, security and security equipment.
  • 6.VI. [By Steve Gendron] Request the Superintendent provide a response to the contract offer from the Lowell School Committee. Referred to Executive Session which follows this meeting.

Policy Subcommittee

Review of Homework Policy and Staff Sick Time.

Ms. Desmond reviews the current policy which is based on number of minutes. She is approaching building leaders to reinforce that homework might be differentiated and evaluated in a more meaningful way.  Mr. Gendron notes that a student has contacted all the Committee members and his wish is that homework is less about quantity and more about making homework a more effective activity. Ms. Omoyeni also speaks to the importance of ensuring that homework is designed to be more than busywork.

The second part of the report was about sick time. This report was intended to provide information to the City. Ms. Doherty noted a motion was made to request Human Resources formalize the policy on staff attendance on purpose. Accepted as a report of progress.

 Reports of the Superintendent

There were 9 items under Reports of the Superintendent.

8.I. Food Service Presentation At Satellite Sites & Food Truck Approval Documents

The food truck purchase would be (partially) reimbursed through the distribution of summer meals. The vehicle would also be used during the school year to transport meals to satellite schools (those without food prep kitchens).

Mr. Gignac clarifies that $14K is returned to Aramark for meals served; $45K costs include personnel in the Food Service Department working through the summer. Questions re re-serving food that has been stored in the (refriegerated) truck. Leaving food in a truck, even if refrigerated is a concern (break-ins). Expresses the opinion that we should fix what we currently have and does not feel that the $14K in administrative fees turned back to Aramark is problematic.

Mr. Hoey asks who is paying for the truck; Dr. Khelfaoui confirms the truck is paid from the “revolving account”, which is also used for other direct costs for the food program. The money originates from the federal government. Mr. Hoey also notes that cafeteria staff is hired to work 3.5 hours daily. Advocates for a 5 hour day.

Ms. Doherty notes the reality of poverty in Massachusetts and in Lowell. Being able to feed students throughout the summer and taking the food to where the children play/are, will lead to a positive outcome.

Regarding food quality, Mr. Gignac notes positive improvements in food quality in a short amount of time.

Providing meals to children throughout the summer is something Lowell should support. When the Commonwealth calculates the “Economically Disadvantaged” student percentage in Lowell at 55%, it is an understatement of reality borne by fuzzy mathematical computation. I taught in several schools where the actual number of students in poverty was over 90%. Those kids are hungry and school meals, as well as food provided by organizations like Merrimack Valley Food Bank, might be the only nutrition they receive.  

In my opinion, expanding food distribution throughout the summer is a moral obligation to help children in need. What I am having difficulty understanding is the fact that the School Department is being asked to purchase a new truck for Aramark. This new truck would be used for summer food distribution as well as delivery of meals to satellite schools during the school year (satellite schools are schools without food preparation facilities). The “administrative” costs for the summer food program is $14,000, which is the cost Aramark assesses for what I understand is overhead at the corporate level.

The new truck will ostensibly be purchased to distribute meals to students “where they are” during the summer months. Those places include program sites, playgrounds, etc.  The new truck will be used to replace 3 smaller vehicles currently in use for school-year meal delivery to satellite schools. Because the truck is bigger and has a refrigeration feature (no warming option), only 2 food service employees will be needed to staff it, eliminating need for one food service employee for 2017-18.  

Roll call to send truck request to bid (4 yeas, 2 nay, 1 absent). Approved. Report accepted as a report of progress.

8.II. Dropout Prevention And Recovery Documents LHS dropout rate reflects the hard work and coordination of efforts PreK-Grade 12.  LHS Dropout rate is 1.8% (below the Massachusetts state average) for 2 years in a row.

8.III. Extracurricular Activities Update Documents

8.IV. K-12 Student Population By Zip Code Documents Ms. Doherty requests the report be referred to Finance/Student Services Subcommittee.

8.V. Management Letter Documents: Mr. Gignac asks about some funds that had been returned to DESE, but then returned to LPS and used for a summer SpEd program.

8.VI. Response To Mayor Kennedy’s Motion Of 02/01/17 Regarding STEM Academy At LHS Documents 

8.VII. Rights Of Undocumented Students And Protocols For ICE Access In Schools

Documents Taken previously

8.VIII. Monthly Financial Report Documents Referred to next Finance Subcommittee Meeting.

8.IX. Response To Robert Hoey’s Motion Of 01/04/17 Regarding Diversity Hiring Efforts

Documents Mr. Hoey requests Anne Sheehy’s explanation of Paraprofessional cohort and the opportunity to obtain teaching licensure. Lowell has applied to offer licensure through a program in the district which would in turn create a pool of diverse candidates for teaching positions. Ms. Doherty spoke to encouragement of students in High School who would be candidates for paraprofessional positions and who might go on to a career as an educator. Mr. Gignac reminds that there is state aid/assistance for tuition through EEC (Early Education & Care).

All approved 6 yeas, 1 absent

All conference requests were also approved.

Following adjournment, the Committee went into Executive Session.

Meeting detail and support documentation  can be found here.