Online Preschool? Surely you jest.

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I was once called an education technology pioneer, probably because there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try at least once if it seemed like it might be a good fit for my students. Drawing on my experience in the private sector, and as an Instructional Technology Specialist in public schools, I embraced the idea that technology was a tool and there was a core of programming that should be in every student’s technology toolbox.

This article, An Online Preschool Closes a Gap But Exposes Another, published in the New York Times, however, indicates to me that educational technology has gone too far.

Briefly, the article tells of less-affluent communities who are embracing a Pre-School curriculum developed by Waterford. You can learn more about the mission of this non-profit here and read more about their partnerships.

While “preschool for all” should be must be a priority for US education, replacing a face-to-face preschool with screen time and 15 minutes of technology programming bothers me. I agree, every child should have access to preschool. As an early grade educator, I recognize that the fact that many communities that cannot and do not offer a quality preschool program puts some young children at a disadvantage which is difficult to overcome.

For some communities, offering universal preschool education through public schools is a matter of economics. There just isn’t adequate public funding for the public schools to offer preschool programs to every family wanting to send a child to preschool. Community budgets are strapped, and there are as many reasons for short funds as there are preschoolers, so community leaders do as the mayor in Fowler, California has done: offer a freebie program for online preschool access.

While I understand that this may seem like a good idea on the surface, it is not. In an effort to ensure every child can read by Grade 3, academics are being foisted onto 4 year olds. That is wrong.

The question is: Just what should a preschool program look like? Should a preschool be 15 minutes of drill and kill on a computer? Who is deciding which computer-aided skills are taught? I ask this because I was stunned to discover the Waterford program teaching silent letters as a phonics skills appropriate for preschoolers. When I actively taught Grade 2, “i+gh” for example was a second grade skill, not a preschool/pre-reading skill.

Preschool, in my opinion, should be heavily weighted toward teaching children to get along with each other, to share and take turns, and to learn appropriate group social behaviors. Preschoolers should also be allowed to learn by experiences; those experiences are important to everything that comes later in learning. Preschool children need to form a strong, compassionate, relationship with the adults teaching them. A positive preschool experience sets the stage for lifelong learning attitudes. These are the things a 15-minute daily online preschool program can never provide.

Our education leaders, in fact all of us, need to step up efforts to make an affordable universal preschool experience available to all who would like one, and stop relying on questionable “free” software to fill in the gap.

Retired & Expired & Letting Go

For the first time since 1974, I no longer hold a teaching license. I decided not to renew my licenses (I have three), and that is something I am discovering to be a source of some apprehension. I retired several years ago from active teaching, however, my identity for most of my life has been, and I imagine will continue to be, synonymous with education.

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since the second grade – which oddly was my favorite grade level to teach – and despite a few detours, that is what I’ve done with most of my working career. But like most things, it is time to officially bring that to a close; my time has passed and it is time to officially let some things go.

Throughout my years of teaching I experienced, as you might expect, good days and bad days, but, as with most who enter the field of education, I wouldn’t have traded for another career. Working with children and families and learning from colleagues has been a rare privilege.

I was fortunate to re-enter education when teaching was, I think, at its best. I think it is difficult to describe that to people. There was a level of collegiality between administrators and teachers based upon mutual respect and trust. And it was that mutual respect and trust that made the hard work of education exceptionally rewarding. We worked hard, the children worked hard, we all learned. And still we had fun.

My principals were exacting and their expectations were high, yet I never felt that I couldn’t try new ideas for reaching students. I trusted my administrators and colleagues, but more importantly, they trusted me.

As I move into this next phase of my life’s story, I do know that I am not leaving education far behind. I have a granddaughter who will be entering school in the next few years, and thus, my interest in education is changing focus a bit.

The paper proclaiming my legitimacy as an educator may have expired, but there is still much to think about and speak up for. And that is what I will continue to do.

It Isn’t Just the Cuts

undefined Budget season is going full tilt in Lowell and the outlook is definitely not very palatable.

The School Department is running on fumes: no K-8 libraries this past academic year, proposed cuts to fine arts positions, proposals to cut services for students in guidance, behavioral supports, Special Education. Who knows where it will end?

Well, here’s where I get off:

I think a question should not be just about what services and positions will need to be cut. I think the big questions is this: Why isn’t the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adequately funding schools so our children receive all of the services they need to succeed? 

By all, I mean: why are schools going without libraries, or technology, or nurses, or social workers, or paraprofessionals, or class sizes that enable an educator to address the needs of the students in front of them in a consistent, thoughtful, reflective way? Why are these and other services that enable our English Language Learners, our Special Education students and our students living in trauma and poverty to be better supported on the chopping block?

Today, across Massachusetts, educators, parents, students, community members are gathering in both Boston and Springfield to SHOW our Legislators that we are not willing to accept the flimsy excuses that have left public school funding scratching for scraps for the last 25-plus years. We are showing up to let you all know IN PERSON that it is beyond time to fix the Foundation Formulas and that our Commonwealth needs to fund our schools so that all of our youngest citizens get an equitable and adequately funded public education.

So even though I could be doing about a million other things today, I will show up, not only for the Rally at 5, but also to engage any Legislator who will agree to speak with me about the importance of funding our future through supporting the Promise Act and the Cherish Act. This is for all the students I’ve taught, the ELLs, the SpED students, the children living in poverty – and for my baby granddaughter, who just might be able to attend a fully and adequately funded school when she enters Kindergarten five years from now if the Promise Act is passed this year.

And that is why I’ll be attending today’s Rally to Fund Our Future on the Common. Will you?

Here’s a short-list of why YOU need to be at the Fund Our Future Rally

Every time I lead a Balanced Literacy course, I ask the participants to create a list of what is needed in the classroom IF funding were no problem. This Spring Semester group came up with these ideas. (yup, a couple tongue-in-cheek, but mostly serious).

Unfortunately, most of these are out-of-reach as our school budget reflects a 25-year under-funded and outdated Foundation Formula.

Our students deserve better. Get to Thursday’s Rally to #FundOurFuture on the Boston Common and send a clear message to those Legislators (and yes, there are some uncommitted in #Lowell who don’t see this as a problem) that it is time to throw on those big boy/girl pants and support the revenues that will enable our public schools to function on more than fumes.

There are events starting at 1 pm for anyone able to get to the Statehouse for them; the Big Rally begins at 5 pm on the Common. If you’re coming from Lowell – look for the Lowell sign so we can stand together.

I’m Not Giving Up On You

Maybe you’ve seen this awesome YouTube video floating around. If not, take a listen to the PS22 Chorus led by Gregg Breinberg, singing with Andy Grammer.

Look at the faces on the students who are about as engaged as any child can be. These are fifth graders and they are not only having the time of their life, they are making a memory never to be forgotten. What would their school experience be if there were no music opportunities in their young lives?

The former music educator in me can certainly appreciate the skill and organization that propels this group of musicians. But I would argue that the connection made to an art like music is just as important.

As a high school freshman, when my Dad’s career took him to New England. it was music that made the culture shock of moving from the comfortable Midwestern community in which I had grown up more bearable. There were friendships that were made in the music room; it was a place where I had something in common with my otherwise foreign New England peers. It was the only place I felt less of a freak or outsider.

What if that safe place that my high school’s music program provided had not been available to me? Because I was different, I already felt a lot of teenaged alienation, and yet, the experience of practicing with other students in our orchestra and chorus helped me to belong. And by belonging, I had a pathway in as a student; it made me into an engaged learner which is something that has stayed with me throughout my life.

One of the impacts bothering me about the test-driven curriculum that we see today is that the arts are in increased danger of losing funding during tough budget times. The disciplines of music and art are often looked upon a frills. I would disagree.

While not every student will choose a career as an artist or musician, our schools should be places where students can experience and appreciate the arts in a personal way. Sometimes, as it was for me, that encounter with the arts may become the difference between a dismal and exceptional educational experience.

As the budget season gets underway in our public schools, Gateway communities in Massachusetts are faced decisions about which programs to keep and which will be cut. When municipal school budgets like we see in Gateway cities do not adequately provide for educational expenses, the temptation will always be to jettison the arts. That I believe is not only short-sighted, it is wrong.

The solution, however, is within our grasp. With 25-year-old Foundation Budget formulas driving which programs are funded and which are not, the answer lies with the Legislature’s capacity for adopting the Promise Act and for making progress toward fully and adequately funding all of our public schools.

So on May 16, I’ll be on the Boston Common rallying with my colleagues to demand our Legislature does the right thing for our students. Somewhere in that crowd might be a young person for whom the arts is a safe way to engage in learning, just as it was for me. I not only won’t give up on you. I cannot give up.

The Envelop System of Foundation Budgets

When I first met my mother-in-law, I was totally fascinated by the organization she used to allocate family finances, the system we fondly refer to as the “envelop system”. My mother-in-law would take an amount of money each week, break it down into smaller portions, and put each portion in its own coin-sized manila envelop which was kept handy throughout the week.

For example, if she budgeted $100 for food shopping throughout the week, five $20-bills would be put into the grocery envelop. When the money was gone, she either shifted cash from another envelop to buy something or went without until next payday.

In my mind, this is an apt analogy for what is happening in the Foundation Budget nightmare currently in place in our Commonwealth. The Commonwealth assigns a set dollar amount of aid for each community based on particular spending allocations, the chunk of money arrives at the municipality and when it doesn’t fully cover one spending category, the schools shift the funding from one category to another that has been shorted.

However, one of the biggest issues with the Commonwealth’s envelop system is that the money going into each envelop is the same amount as was used in 1993, over 25 years ago. Imagine trying to run your own household using the same amounts of cash as you comfortably spent in 1993.

Lowell Superintendents’ Forum, 4/22/2019

In Lowell, we heard last Monday about a shortfall of nearly 500 classroom teachers each year. Big underfunded and under-calculated items in the Foundation Budget are surely contributing factors to this. If a district such as Lowell has huge differences between the Commonwealth’s foundation budget determinations for school spending and the amount spent is more than what has been put aside, there are two choices.

Applying the “envelop system” demands a municipality either a) add money from the municipal coffers to make up that difference or b) shift funding from one category to another.

Of course these differences between state funding and actual spending are quite common – not to mention quite large – when the basis for the Foundation Budget calculations have not be updated in about 25 years. If state funding is based in the 1990s but actual expenses reflect the reality of 2019, it follows logically that there will be a huge conflict between state funding and reality. The differences are exacerbated when a municipality, like Lowell, Brockton, Springfield or Worcester, cannot contribute beyond what has been calculated in the Foundation Budget numbers, something a more affluent city of town might be able to do. It follows, then that some difficult educational budgeting choices must be made.

A gateway city, like Lowell, has nearly zero percent chance of not feeling some excruciating budget pain which brings us up to the shortfall of 500 classroom teachers. It is indeed painful to Lowell and to our children.

Four major areas – think of them as “envelopes” – need Foundation Budget reform: English Language Learners, Special Education (not including the Circuit Breaker), Health Insurance and Low Income. All of these funding categories are based on amounts that were set in 1993 which means that when one looks at what the Commonwealth funds and what the expense reality in 2019 is, there are huge variances.

Lowell Superintendents’ Forum, 4/22/2019

Let’s consider the budget “envelops” for a couple of these categories. The Foundation Budget calculates Special Education spending at $16.7 million, but the actual cost of Special Education in Lowell is $31.1 million. That’s a difference of $14.4 million which has to come out of one of the other budget envelopes. Health Insurance as budgeted through the Foundation Budget calculations is figured at $17.3 million, but the actual insurance costs, even after switching to a cost-effective plan like the GIC, is $33.1 million. Surely no one in Massachusetts is expecting to pay the same insurance costs as they did in 1993, so is it any wonder that the Foundation Fund amount is so out of whack?

As a taxpayer, a voter, and as a former educator, I am shocked when local politicians claim there’s no money to correct this. I think it is more likely there is no courage because that is what it will take to face the reality of underfunding schools. Revenues to fund schools, as well as transportation and infrastructure, in our Commonwealth are essential.

The envelop is empty and there is no time to waste.


If you don’t like the numbers, just change the criteria

There is so much to digest from last evening’s Funding Forum. So I’m just going to start with one aspect of Massachusetts school funding – the poverty level calculations.

Here’s a bit of recent history. In 2014, the year prior to when I retired, the poverty level in Lowell overall was 75.1%. It was called what it is: Low Income and was based on free and reduced lunch statistics as explained in this report from Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

When I retired in 2015, the Low Income Level in Lowell, was re-tooled as “Economically Disadvantaged”. In 2015, the number of students considered economically disadvantaged in Lowell was reported to be 49.0%. One would think the world would be knocking at Lowell’s door to find out how magically 25% of the public school student population was no longer economically disadvantaged. But, the world is not.

There was no magic solution. The same children I taught who needed supports because they came to us from low income families and socio-economically disadvantaged environments, simply moved up a grade level and experienced those same socio-economic traumas. This time, the supports were fewer. The change in counting these children was caused by the Commonwealth’s redefinition of how low income status should be determined. Starting in 2015, the determining factors became participation in SNAP, DCF foster care, transitional assistance for families, and Medicaid (MassHealth).

How does this impact school funding? To begin with, the Foundation Budget allocations contain a calculation to support low income students. The low income multiplier is applied to a community’s low income population to assist with supports these children may require in order to be on an equitable playing field with children who do not experience poverty. So when the Commonwealth changed the definition of poverty so that fewer students were considered economically disadvantaged, the amount of funding available for support also decreased.

This is some pretty fancy footwork with data and statistics isn’t it? Correcting the calculations for low income support was one of the issues directly addressed by the Foundation Budget Review Commission 3 years ago. It is also one of the many reasons why the Foundation Budget must be overhauled this year.

Our children who need support, whether that means additional academic support or extra-curricular opportunities before/after school, or essential wrap-around services such as programs that address health needs and food insecurities, cannot wait. Changing the definition doesn’t solve the problem. It just makes things more difficult.