First Book/AFT Kicks Off Lowell’s Books on Wheels

FB TruckI’m really excited about this project!

When the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts (AFT-MA), our local union’s state affiliate, approached our local union a year ago about hosting a First Book/AFT Books on Wheels event, we were intrigued, but the timing was just not right. We may have had to put the project on a back burner, but it was never forgotten. And here we are at the start of a new school year, ready to launch for an event to take place in less than 8 weeks.  Things just got real!

The premise is really simple.  First Book is a national non-profit with a mission to provide new books to children in need, addressing one of the most important factors affecting literacy – access to books. Through a unique partnership with American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national affiliate of our local United Teachers of Lowell, we are planning to bring a semi-tractor trailer of new books (ages 0-18) – that’s 40,000 to 44,000 books – to distribute absolutely free to our teachers, schools, programs, and families right here in Lowell.

What is needed in return are 2,000 email addresses of programs and educators working with those children and families in need. By registering an email address, the owner can then access First Book’s Marketplace where brand new books are available for 50-90% off list prices. I personally used First Book’s Marketplace when I was in the classroom to round out my classroom library purchases (yes, teachers do indeed buy many materials) or to create a study set of a book a group of children were reading.

Our efforts toward earning the Books on Wheels Truck of 40,000+ free books kicked off last Friday with the newest faculty members at Lowell Teacher Academy orientation.  We will begin recruiting all returning staff – teachers, administrators, coaches, paraprofessionals, custodians, cafeteria workers, therapists, librarians, school clerks, and tutors – beginning on Monday morning.

We know this is a unique opportunity to increase access to literature for our families. While a truck loaded with 40,000 plus new books is a.w.e.s.o.m.e. by itself, we are hoping to make this event even better.  We’ve also established a gofundme effort to raise $5,000 which will allow Lowell’s English Language Learner expert teachers/coaches to select literature from First Book’s Marketplace of Books.  Click this LINK to access our gofundme page and please, feel free to share with friends and neighbors.

We will use any funds raised through gofundme to purchase books that are reflective of the cultural and language diversity in our community.  If 500 people donate just $10, we will meet our goal, and if we exceed our goal we’ll be able to purchase even greater numbers of culturally appropriate books for our families and readers.

Our goal is to have everything in place for a Book Distribution on Saturday, October 22 at the Rogers STEM Academy. We are appreciative of Superintendent Khelfaoui’s support of this effort and especially grateful to Principal Jason McCrevan and his team at the Rogers STEM Academy for offering to host this event. More information on the Book Distribution and how you can help will be coming in a future post.

It takes a village, or in Lowell’s case, a city to make this endeavor a success. We are counting on everyone to help our village bring books to our children that will embrace the diversity of cultures and languages of our community.

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

IMG_0794All present

This was a lengthy (2-3/4 hours) meeting due to not only the summer schedule of monthly meetings, but the financial topics that became the focus of discussion. Apologies in advance for the delay in getting notes out; I also presented information about First Book to the Committee (separate post to follow).

Permissions to Enter

Contract ratifications for the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendents were deferred to Executive Session, which followed the public portion this meeting.

Subcommittee Reports:

Mr. Gendron shared findings from the Facilities Subcommittee meeting of 8/11. The recommendation, followed by full School Committee approval, to name the Butler School Auditorium in honor of former administrator Mary Alice Foley was made. (Approved). Additionally Skanska, the Project Manager for the Lowell High School Building Project, presented a quarterly report of the work thus far and listed deadlines and timeline for the projected planning work needed to be accomplished ahead of a May 31, 2017 Mass. School Building Deadline.

While I understood this to be a huge construction project for the City of Lowell, I was unaware that the LHS Building Project is the largest school building project in the Commonwealth. There is a need to get the design “right” (sustainable with adaptability for future needs projected 20-30 years out) and to ensure that the costs are under control throughout all phases of the project.  The Project Manager, Skanska, is charged with this task and will work with the design team.  To view the timeline for the work that is envisioned, Sanska has provided details beginning around page 73 of the School Committee Packet.

Reports of the Superintendent

The Superintendent offered 12 reports to the Committee.  The ones receiving the closest scrutiny were financial in nature, but attention also was given to a facilities report by Mr. Rick Underwood. The Doors Open Lowell Public Schools announcement has been covered in detail by both Amelia Pak-Harvey of the Lowell Sun and through the LPS Website.  I was also wearing my “other hat”, co-coordinator of the Lowell First Book Truck Event in October, and will detail that event this week as we kick-off efforts to bring 40,000 free books to our Lowell Public Schools families.  Sharon LaGasse and Kristina Webber presented an end-of-year report on Food Services and the CEP program in Lowell.

The Purchase Order Report (2016/311), received extended discussion as it addressed some of the expenditures and encumbrances made at the end of the fiscal year. Mr. Gignac requested clarification some June 30 Purchase Orders including rental of the Tsongas Center (graduation) as well as hardware (Apple Laptops and carts).

Further in the discussion was the proposal for how to make up the last-minute loss of Kindergarten Grant Funding.  The Kindergarten Grant in Lowell is used in part or in whole to support the services of instructional paraprofessionals at the Kindergartens across the City.  On July 17, Governor Baker’s veto during the Commonwealth’s Budget process created a loss of funding for the Kindergarten Grant – and other budget items as well.  The Lowell School Administration  in attempting to find ways to maintain the paraprofessional positions, has resorted to what I liken to rearranging the deck chairs.  LPS had a budget surplus which seems to have some connection to the “fifth” quarterly circuit breaker payment accounted for in the 2015-16 budget of $2.8 million.  The carryover to 2016-17 is restricted by law to $2.3 million which leaves $548,000 to be returned to the City of Lowell.

Noting the amount needed to make up for the loss of funds triggered by the Governor’s veto, the LPS would request $527,642 once the books are certified by the Commonwealth (December 2016?). The City Manager had been alerted that there might be need for up to $600,000 in supplemental requests to make up for the loss. The trail of transactions as I understand it, would be this:

  • Funds in excess of $2.3 Million returned to City (approximately $547,000)
  • School Committee will request $527,642 supplemental from City Council
  • $527,642 will be placed by City in a Suspense Account (and eventually transferred to the line item needed to pay the salaries of Kindergarten paraprofessionals).

While there is an aversion to using one-time funding sources/payments for on-going expenditures, the Superintendent posited that these transactions will give the LPS a year to plan for how to fund the monies lost by the Governor’s veto on a more permanent basis.  In the end the Committee approved both the motion to request supplemental funding from the City Council and to place such funds in a Suspense Account (6 yeas, 1 absent – Mayor Kennedy).

In a related report, the update to Purchasing Policy (2016/321), an effort to bring the language in the current LPS Purchasing Policy in alignment with both City and DESE/State practice, was referred to the Finance Subcommittee for review.

The updated Hiring Policies (2016/331) giving qualified and certified Lowell residents an interview was passed.

A report on the status of Facilities (2016/326) was made by Mr. Rick Underwood,.  The enormity of maintaining facilities and the near-term end of lifecycle for building components of those schools built during the 1991-1993 school building boom is something for which the LPSD needs to plan. Many of the HVAC plants are reaching the end of life expectancy and are becoming difficult to keep in service. The custodial staff has an enormous amount of work to complete throughout the summer:  thoroughly cleaning buildings, floors, and performing other maintenance tasks (often with community programs in the building AND when temperatures are extremely hot) that are needed while the students and teachers are out of the building. During crunch times, the outside of the building – the landscaping – may not receive the same level of attention.

Mainly what I learned through this discussion is that the custodial staff have performed yeoman’s work to get all the facilities clean and ready for a new academic year. I know that  in the past, when I returned to set up my own classroom, the floors had been stripped, waxed, minor repairs performed – sometimes a new coat of paint, the the overhead lights cleaned. Any surface I didn’t have covered with packed boxes of materials was wiped down. The lockers outside the classroom were cleaned, the halls stripped and waxed and the community spaces maintained as well.

Maintaining the grounds at schools is also a huge undertaking, and of course, the grounds are what the neighbors and public see as they drive by a school building.  Adding landscaping to a custodian’s punch list is sometimes impossible, yet the grounds do need to be taken care of. Mr. Underwood seems quite open to seeking outside-the-box solutions for this, perhaps involving local landscapers in regular maintenance for a courtesy sign or involving community service groups as suggested by Mr. Gendron.

Before moving to Motions, Mayor Kennedy requested an update on when to expect reports for four motions submitted during the July 2016 School Committee meeting. A Report on Graduation Rates  and one on the STEM Program, specific to the High School is expected at the first meeting in September.  The LHS Curriculum Review in light of the building project is expected before December and the Suspension/Expulsion Policy is pending input and action by DESE.

New Business

There were four items under New Business:

  • 2016/310: Update on Business Office Reorganization & District HiringMr. Frisch confirms that the number of bodies remains the same; however, report was very difficult to follow. An Organizational Chart with names would go a long way to clarify what positions are filled and which remain unfilled.
  • 2016/318 Accept a grant award of $2,000 for Wang School
  • 2016/322 Expenditure transfer request (see page 165-172 of Meeting Packet)
  • 2016/325 Budget Transfers (see page 172-211  of Meeting packet). These appear to be the detailed transfers of monies to balance accounts from 2015-16.

All passed.

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.

LFF 2016: The View From Here

Fans of music and festivals know to keep the last weekend of July free for the Lowell Folk Festival. This year marked the 30th year for this stellar event and, for me, it was one of the best in recent memory. The weather was outstanding and the performances a treat. Did I mention the food?  If you’ve missed this annual free (!) festival, block out the last weekend in July on next year’s calendar. You won’t be disappointed.

The diversity of Lowell is always a driving theme to the folk festival. Where else could you couple Cape Breton fiddling with rock-a-billy and Inuit throat singing? So many of Lowell’s great photographers are out and about capturing the crowds and music and excitement – I have nothing to add to that.  But I do have a bit of another perspective on the folk festival, here’s my Walking Lowell homage to this year’s festival. Click the image below to go to the video.



A Technology Dilemma

DSC_0162Sometimes what appears to be an inventive solution to a time-consuming problem slips into place without the thorough scrutiny that it needs.  Enter Exhibit 1: ClassDojo.

ClassDojo is an application which, according to the application website, “connects teachers with parents and students to build amazing classroom communities.” Who wouldn’t want to do that? As an educator, I know that the success of my students was always connected to open dialog and understanding between teacher, student, and home. This could be an effective and time-efficient way to do so.

ClassDojo is free for teachers and seems to be cross-platform and useable on several devices. It allows a teacher to give a virtual high-five to students for a number of categories, allows for behavior monitoring and feedback to parents who also sign up, and allows students to post work to the a portfolio. All of this sounds like a dream come true to those of us who kept records in folders and stick-on notes. The skeptic in me knows there is no such thing as a free lunch and wants to know how the company is going to monetize this.

However, in this article from the New York Times, there is much to consider when thinking about privacy of student data. In addition to concerns about using the program in a way that publicly shames a student for behavior missteps, there is in my opinion, a larger issue. Where is the students’ data being shared and with whom? Do school districts have a clear policy for individual data being collected and then stored in the cloud or other internet based technology.

ClassDojo does not seek explicit parental consent for teachers to log detailed information about a child’s conduct. Although the app’s terms of service state that teachers who sign up guarantee that their schools have authorized them to do so, many teachers can download ClassDojo, and other free apps, without vetting by school supervisors.

Technology most certainly has a place in education; but parents first and foremost should know how the data being collected about their child is being used and/or shared. In order to opt-out of ClassDojo, a parent must initiate the process through email to the classroom teacher or the company.

Although one of ClassDojo’s co-founders has stated that the company will not sell, lease or share students’ individual information to third parties, one of the potential revenue streams for ClassDojo is a (pay) service detailing behavior analyses for parents. The company may also use individual student data to customize advertisements for students based on interests and surveys. Think Facebook-style targeted click ads directed at students.

Parents, administrators and educators are rightly divided on using these types of programs and the increasing collection of data which then is stored somewhere in the internet. Data collection and storage is an issue that should concern everyone. What happens to the large amounts of data being collected in schools from test scores, surveys, and teacher evaluations. Can the collected data be corrected if it incorrect? Can it be expunged?

The answer to how to ensure student data in particular is kept private and secure is not one for which there will be a simple solution, but it is one issue we should all keep in mind as data collection and storage are increasingly reliant on internet and cloud storage.




Rigor is not what you think it is

An English vocabulary word tossed around education today is “rigor”. As the Common Core standards became de rigueur, teachers were told to teach with rigor. We’ve been encouraged to raise our expectations of our students by raising the “rigor”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 7.04.46 AM

“Rigor.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 July 2016.

I’m not sure edu-experts know exactly what rigor is. Harsh inflexibility, strict precision, rigidity, severity? These words are not what I would want to guide my own child’s education, and they are certainly not something I feel comfortable aspiring to as an educator.

If the standards call for inflexibility then how can we, as educators, say we meet our students where they are and move forward? Some child is getting left behind.

What would I want? I would want a standard that allows me to differentiate for students who are challenged linguistically, intellectually, and experientially. I would like those same standards to be appropriate to the development of a child. Perhaps in place of teaching for rigor, we should aspire to teaching for responsiveness to how our children learn? Or flexibility of thought? Or inclusiveness?

How about trusting the professional judgement of educators and allowing teachers who know their students best determine how and when to push children up to and beyond what is expected?


School Committee Meeting, 20 July 2016

School Committee Meeting, 20 July 2016

IMG_0190All present

Meeting once a month instead of twice means that monthly meeting is extra long – this one was 3 hours without the Executive Session.  Next meeting will also be on the Committee’s Summer Schedule on August 17.


2016/287, 2016/288, 2016/289, 2016/290 (Mayor Kennedy) All four motions requested reports from the Superintendent regarding Lowell High. The reports request will be to review curriculum needs and plan for curriculum in tangent the design of Lowell High. Since an architect has been selected and named, consideration of how the building is configured to address curricular needs is timely.

Motion 289 requests a report in response to DESE’s recently published information naming Lowell’s expulsion and suspension rates (along with several other school districts). The DESE report and news release can be found here. Ms. Durkin assured the committee that discussions are already underway to better understand and address this report.

2016/296 (Mr. Gignac) Request superintendent provide full year-end financials to the entire School Committee prior to year-end audit.

2016/297 (Mr. Gignac) Requests report on opiate prevention program/awareness programs.

2016/301 (Ms. Martin) Request status on Central Office hiring along with a current organization chart reflecting changes made in Central Office personnel due to retirements and resignations.

2016/305 (Mr. Gendron) Request Facilities Subcommittee name Butler School Auditorium for Maryalice Foley.

2016/306 (Mr. Gendron) Request Facilities Subcommittee establish quarterly meeting with the Lowell High Project Manager (Skanska OPM).

SubCommittee Report

The July 13th Joint Policy and Student Services subcommittees met to revise School Policy for students with severe allergy and to address Mr. Hoey’s motion suggesting the creation of an early candidate pool for Lowell residents seeking employment in the Lowell Public Schools.

Ms. Laura Ortiz spoke on behalf of 200-plus students who have life-threatening reactions to allergens other than food. The Joint Committee is in favor of revisions suggested to the Lowell Public Schools Handbook which will include non-food allergies such as latex, insect bites/stings, and other allergens that can be life-threatening.  The Joint Committee proposed the changes to the Handbooks and have requested their adoption. This was accomplished in Item 2016/299.

A second topic for this joint committee was Mr. Hoey’s motion regarding creation of an early hiring pool for Lowell residents seeking employment in the Lowell Public Schools. With the addition of language specifying that the Lowell residents needs to be qualified and certified in the area of the open position, Lowell residents are to be granted an interview.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 12 reports from the Superintendent addressing motions and regularly scheduled reporting (Personnel, Motions Report). Additionally, the report regarding the possibility of reconfiguring school zones is progressing as a Task Force consisting of parents, school personnel and community members is being formed. This group will meet beginning in late August or early September with the giant task of exploring rezoning the school district while respecting the Desegregation Order as well as being mindful of the capacity issues. Dr. Khelfaoui expressed that this process will be a multi-year phase in so as to respect the needs and desires of current LPS families as well as being mindful of the factors such as capacity that may be affected. Three reports received extra attention.

In response to Connie Martin’s motions requesting information about 2015-16 educator evaluations, Anne Sheehy spoke to the process and the resulting reported data (see packet). As reported, any licensed educator in Massachusetts must be evaluated using the Commonwealth’s Teacher Evaluation Protocols.  Currently Lowell Public Schools focuses on 15 elements (out of 30) during the evaluation cycle. The resulting evaluation data shows 12% are Exemplary, 86,7% Proficient, 2% Needs Improvement, and less than 1% Unsatisfactory. As Ms. Sheehy pointed out, this is phenomenal and further gives credence to the high quality of the educational staff in Lowell.

The process of educator evaluation applies only to licensed staff at this time – from Superintendent to Teachers, Nurses, School Therapists and other support personnel, all go through the same process. Only licensed educators are evaluated using this process; those personnel who do not need Massachusetts licenses in order to work in the schools are not.

A lengthy discussion accompanied this report as this is a fairly recent initiative that has come through the U.S. Department of Education via DESE at the state level.  It is quite involved and unless you have been through the process – and I have – it is difficult to understand.  I will write a more thorough explanation in an upcoming blog. The short story is that any licensed educator undergoes a two-year evaluation cycle whereby goals (personal and student-based) are set, data-evidenced progress checked (Formatives) and end-of-cycle achievements proven (Summatives).

A second longer discussion was reserved for Item 2016/300, the Year-to-Date Budget Report. Mr. Frisch (CFO) updated the Committee as to outstanding Purchase Orders amounting to about $3.45 million as of July 20. On July 29, the City will close the books on Fiscal 2016 and cancel any outstanding purchase orders as of the final run on that date.

The School Department’s Finance people have preliminarily spoken with the City about creating a Suspense Account equal to the totality of those outstanding Purchase Orders so that vendors can be paid even though their invoices may not arrive before the City closes the books.  That way the June Purchase Orders still awaiting vendor billing for Fiscal 2016 will be fulfilled through the 2016 budgeted amounts.

Another point made during the discussion of this report was how there could be a “fifth quarter” payment for the Circuit Breaker (money for extraordinary Special Education costs provided by the Commonwealth). There was some confusion about how to handle these funds (include in Fiscal 2016 and then transfer to Suspense Account?) and whether the proposition from Central Administration would have financial implications for Fiscal 2017.

The inclusion of  a “5th quarter” Circuit Breaker payment from the Commonwealth appears to be a point of confusion. Apparently the Fiscal 2015 fourth quarterly Circuit Breaker payment was made in July last year which, with new administration is several key positions, resulted in the funds being allocated to Fiscal 2016 instead of Fiscal 2015. There was some question as to why the auditor did not discover three (not four) such deposits in 2015. Through this discovery, there is a proposal under consideration to use the fifth quarter, or windfall, to offset the loss of the 2017 Kindergarten Grant funds, and thereby preserve 17 paraprofessional positions for Fiscal 2017.  (Those who follow the state budget will recall that Governor Baker vetoed the Kindergarten Grant funding during the state budget process. The loss of the state budgeted Kindergarten Grant could potentially result in 17 paraprofessionals being displaced or laid off. This is one of the ways LPS is proposing to preserve those positions. The final decision on how to make up the loss in funding will be voted on in August at the next Committee meeting, 8/17.)

Finally, an additional long discussion took place regarding sizeable negative balances in several line items. Mr. Frisch noted, the City takes a charge for Health Insurance (monthly) and Dental Insurance (bi-yearly?) and when doing so, some of the accounts impacted turn negative. When those charges occur, the line item charges may result in negative balances showing on the financial reports. As far as the City and City Auditor are concerned, the bottom line, not the specific line item balance, is what is important.

Several School Committee members expressed discomfort with that process and suggested that the School Committee may need to consider meeting to make the financials more reflective of what actually happens with these costs/charges and transfer of funds.

The third report receiving extra attention was the Superintendent’s Evaluation. Dr. Khelfaoui took the School Committee step-by-step through his Formative Evaluation evidence (remember, that is the progress-to-date evidence) and is soliciting the current Committee and the past Committee’s input into his one-year Formative evaluation (next year is the Summative Year in the Superintendent’s two-year evaluation cycle). The School Committee members will meet with and complete their piece of the evaluation prior to the August 17 meeting; Mayor Kennedy will summarize these and the Formative Evaluation and any revisions to the Superintendent’s goals will result. This information is done in public, not through Executive Session.

New Business

The salary adjustments for unaffiliated staff were approved with a request from Mr. Gignac to provide the new job description for one of the positions. Custodial rate approved.

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.

Teaching Conflict Resolutions Through Pretzel

2013fielddaybPut yourself back in elementary school and imagine your reaction to a classmate calling you a name or hurting your feelings through action or word. Would you speak up or would you allow that hurt to fester and grow into something more significant? Would you feel listened to? And if you caused the hurt would you recognize it as such?

In our adult conversation, do we listen – really listen – to each other even when the conversation is difficult? I am not so sure any more. Maybe what we adults could use is a refresher course in conflict resolution.

Ruth Sidney Charmey, author of Teaching Children to Care and a co-founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children invented a powerful activity for children named “Pretzel” (click on the link to find out how the activity was implemented) as a way to teach children conflict resolution and empathy.

My good friend and colleague, Paula Gendron, introduced me to Pretzel as a means to teach children awareness of others. Although from year to year it morphed into other small treats (Skittle, Sticker) according to the allergy concerns in the classroom, the premise always remained the same: we all need to feel safe in our classroom community in order to do our best work. In my classrooms, we used this activity almost weekly to heighten awareness and sensitivity  in the classroom community.

Two of the rules or norms for Pretzel would be applicable to all of us.  The first one would seem fairly easy: find something positive to say and compliment someone.  It’s easy to see negativity, and that can wear anyone down.  I believe that when I look for something positive to say, no matter how seemingly insignificant, it can change not only my mindset, but another’s as well. For my former students, it was a requirement that there be something positive noticed and complimented whenever we participated in Pretzel.

The second norm is a bit harder to do whether you are a child or an adult. When someone offers a criticism, the listener needs to really listen without interjecting commentary or excuses. It is important for the listener to remember that the words are expressing how someone perceives a situation.

Listening without becoming defensive or commenting defensively is very hard whether or not you are 8 or 18 or 48 or 108. However, listening to another viewpoint or version of events along with an awareness and acceptance of how someone feels is an essential component to developing empathy. When an 8-year-old hears a classmate say that walking away from one friend to play with another caused hurt feelings, the first reaction is denial. We need to notice more when words and actions might cause another person hurt. We need to be more empathetic.

Grownups need to practice conflict resolution now more than ever. We are bombarded daily with bully talk and hate speech that inflames and does not resolve anything. We need to accept that there may be more than one way to perceive a situation, listen no matter how difficult to hear, and develop our adult empathy. And maybe once we adults practice the skills of conflict resolution, we’ll have less conflict to resolve.