What follows are some highlights from a very lengthy School Committee meeting. In place of a bulleted list of meeting agenda items (the meetings are televised and rebroadcast by LTC), I’ve included some explanatory commentary. Why? Education issues are often fairly complicated; we use too many acronyms and assume what is obvious to those of us who live in the educational world is just as obviously clear to those who may not.
I decided to make School Committee Meeting commentary part of my education blogging for several reasons, the main purpose is to clarify why we should all care about and pay attention to local decisions impacting our schools. When we all understand the implications of decisions and work together to support Lowell on the path to becoming one of the great urban school districts, everyone, but especially our children, benefits.
So here is my first offering, a synthesis of the major points of the meeting.My own opinions are highlighted in italics. If you have suggestions and or commentary that might make these posts more informative and helpful, I welcome them.
Meeting Wednesday, October 21, 2015
All seven committee members were present for this meeting. The Spotlight on Education portion of the meeting highlighted the achievements of the Kindergarten through Grade 8 Summer Math Program.
One of the first agenda items to receive close attention was Item 7, a motion to go on record in opposition to the PARCC Tests (Partnership to Assess Readiness for College and Careers) by Steve Gendron. After discussion, the committee has decided to approve communicating opposition to PARCC with a “friendly amendment”. The operative words “at this time” expressed the reservations discussed: namely that the PARCC will be very expensive in terms of time and equipment and, at this writing, those expenses seem to fall on local school budgets. I have previously written about my own concerns regarding PARCC tests and will reblog those posts separately.
As the Lowell Schools, and most of the schools across the US, are currently tying curriculum to the Common Core Standards, there could be a perceived disconnect between the curriculum (Common Core) and the standardized tests (MCAS, PARCC and Smart-Balance used in some states). This is a complicated issue as the Common Core standards themselves are controversial, and there are efforts underway to return Massachusetts to prior curriculum standards.
Additionally, Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Education (DESE – Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), just this week suggested the PARCC could be replaced by a hybrid of the MCAS (current) assessment system. (see link to Commonwealth Magazine). This hybrid is referenced as MCAS 2.0. It is unknown whether MCAS 2.0 will just look like a mildly reworked PARCC, thereby not making any substantive change. Mr. Chester is also head of the PARCC Consortium, a group formed to advance the use of this test throughout the US as a way to test Common Core standards. In my opinion, if even the Commissioner who has a bias toward adopting PARCC, is abandoning this assessment, there is reason to question whether or not to adopt it at all.
As for the expense of PARCC implementation in Lowell, there are several factors. The technology infrastructure was overloaded last year when a pilot, or small group of schools experimented with the test administration on iPads and laptops. Additional technology infrastructure and hardware would be required. Estimates are currently in the $2 million range. That’s $2 million that Lowell does not have laying around. In the words of Mr. Leary, the state (or feds) need to “fund the mandate”.
Newcomer Programs and Additional ELL Teachers
As an urban district, it is not a surprise that Lowell has a rather large population (29%) of English Language Learners which include newcomers. Mr. Leary noted that the newcomer program costs were reimbursed (by the state?) at about a 50% rate, leaving the City and School Department budget to come up with the rest. Given the 29% ELL population, the shortfall numbers will not be sustainable and will impact other budgetary items and programs.
The School Department prepared a detailed rationale and analysis of the need for assistance and issued a letter to our congressional representatives at the federal level. The Committee has requested that Dr. Khelfaoui and his administration continue to keep the need for (financial) assistance on the minds of legislators at both state and federal levels and perhaps work in coordination with other schools in similar circumstance to bring this to the forefront.
In a related agenda item, Lowell Schools have requested 5 additional ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers to support the mandated 45 minutes per day support for higher performing ELLs (English Language Learners) and 90+ minutes per day support for early English acquisition students. Performance levels are tested and tracked via yearly testing. Note: All classroom teachers are required to have an “endorsement” on their teaching license that they have been trained in differentiation techniques for ELLs. An ESL teacher has more specialized training to help students acquire English skills needed in content areas, for example.
The School Committee supported this motion; the funding for the 5 positions will be presented at the next meeting. Funding is pending approval at the state level to transfer money from an Early Childhood revolving account.
Other Agenda Items
Two other agenda items were discussed more thoroughly: a motion from Kim Scott to address quality of food in the cafeteria (including returning to in-house food services) and a review of the District finances.
As the contract with Aramark is expiring this year, the Committee members would like to survey students and families about the food quality, and review Aramark’s performance ahead of any decisions to renew or revise the food services contract.
A review of the budget expenses by Mr. Antonelli revealed that the district has expended or encumbered about 18% of the budget and this is considered within the normal range of operations. There is a concern, however, that the budgeted amount for insurance will show a deficit by the end of the fiscal year. This seems to be due to more employees choosing the indemnity plan. When questioned further, Mr. Antonelli explained that the budgeted amount is derived after consultation with the City CFO and generated prior to the Open Enrollment period when employees choose their insurance plan. Therefore, while the budgeted amount may be a “best guess”, there are factors which can cause it to be inaccurate.
The agenda and meeting packet for this meeting can be found at this link.