Connecting Dots

2013fielddaybNancy Carlsson-Paige, Lesley University Professor Emerita, recently stated the following during an acceptance speech for the Deborah Meier award. Dr. Carlsson-Paige cites a statistic from the DOE Department of Civil Rights which reports that 8,000 Preschool students (!) were suspended at least once in a school year.

“There is a connection, I know, between these suspensions and ed reform policies: Children in low income communities are enduring play deficient classrooms where they get heavy doses of direct teaching and testing. They have to sit still, be quiet in their seats and comply. Many young children can’t do this and none should have to.”

Anecdotally I know she is right, not only for low income early childhood classrooms, but upper grades as well. Kids may not always be direct in identifying what is bothering them; they sometimes show us with their actions. They “act out” with displeasure.

Brain-based research from experts such as Ken Wesson tells that children in Kindergarten are capable of 5-10 minutes direct instruction and learning before they become inattentive; fourth graders – my former wheel house – can sustain attention for 10-20 minutes.

The connection is that “mini” lessons, those short and focused bursts of direct instruction beginning a learning segment, are often 20 minutes or more. And when that is followed by more pencil/paper task work, there lies a recipe for disengagement. Now extend that: what happens when a 10-year old is asked to sit and engage in a high-stakes task such as our current MCAS test? Last spring most of my students wrote from 9 am to 2:35 with a 25 minute break for lunch during Long Composition, English Language Arts, and Mathematics Tests.

Teachers do what they can to make classrooms and lessons more active by allowing kids to get out of seats, work in different parts of the room, and through cooperative/collaborative learning activities. What is lacking, however, is recess and play time – time for socialization, for learning to negotiate with peers, for exercise, fresh air, and fun.

Make no mistake: play time is important to every child. And yet it is the first thing to be cut back when schedules are tightened to accommodate more time on tasks.

So when Dr. Carlsson-Paige is talking about a connection between allowing kids more recess and the number of discipline issues, we need to listen. Our kids are stressed out and need to get off the conveyor belt.

School Committee Meeting, 18 November 2015

School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Two enterprising young guys.

All members present. Ms. Martin was presented with an award from Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) recognizing her work during 8 terms on the School Committee.

Tonight was a packed agenda which included 15 Motion Responses addressing the lengthy and sometimes obsolete list of motions from prior meetings.


Two new motions,  Agenda Item 6 (2015/415) and Agenda Item 8 (2015/425) sparked significant discussion/questions. Agenda Item 6 requests a report on the number of children of LPS teachers who are not residents of Lowell and who attend the City schools. Agenda Item 8 requests this same information with the additional data on whether or not this is compliant with School compliance policy.

Although not part of the new motions, these two agenda items and Agenda Item 7 (2015/424) are integrally connected to a prior notion by Mr. Elliot regarding the feasibility of a return to neighborhood schools. The two newer motions were put forward in response to constituents contacting school committee members. The constituents expressed concerns around a perception that the children of residents were wait-listed from their (first) choice schools within neighborhood zones because an out-of-district student had been given a seat.

Three School Committee members who spoke about the motions (Connie Martin, Kristin Ross-Sitcawich and Kim Scott) supported the continuation of the practice allowing out-of-district children of LPSD teachers a seat in the school system. Many questions about the number of students (from Dr. Khelfaoui that number is reported to be 37 children throughout the LPSD), how many children were placed into each school level (elementary, middle, high?), cost to the City (LPS do not participate in the Commonwealth “School Choice” program thereby limiting recouping any per pupil cost to the district), and whether or not the current policy which is based upon a memorandum that had received School Committee approval, needs to be reviewed and fine-tuned.

One of the main elements in reviewing policy is to determine whether there needs to be a change in wording to reflect whether or not there are available seats. Twice it was mentioned anecdotally that Lowell residents were seeking placements in an outside district when they could not have their child placed in one of the neighborhood school choices they desired. The actual number of students impacted and whether or not seat availability is a cause was not clear. An anecdote regarding a child of a teacher living in, for example, Pelham, NH, but being educated in Lowell, MA was given to illustrate a “cost” problem.

Item 7 (2015/424) requested that the Superintendent provide a review of school assignment process to ensure that the District is in compliance with policy (links below) and to propose a plan that would resolve any situations with students who were improperly placed in a school outside of their neighborhood school zone.

Jim Leary spoke to the complexity of placements and some misunderstandings of school assignments using the geography outlined in the LPS zone system. He advocated that the three motions are directly connected to the issue of school assignment zones and neighborhood schools proposed (a motion Mr. Elliot made at a prior meeting). This is a huge and complicated issue for the School Department/School Committee and, while Dr. Khelfaoui has assigned a Task Force Committee from the Strategic Plan to study the issue, changes to the school assignment policy would most likely not be ready for implementation in 2016-17.

A little review about the geographic school zones might be helpful. Resulting from the 1987 (revised in 1996) LPS Desegregation Order/Plan , the city schools are divided into one of two zones. In reality, Lowell, has three, not two zones. The PDF of the LPS zone map is found here. A third “zone”  in the City includes those schools drawing students from all neighborhoods. They are designated “City Wide” schools and include Lowell High School, Bartlett, Lincoln, Moody, JG Pyne Arts, and Robinson. 

The remaining 15 middle and elementary schools are assigned a geographical zone. According to Mr. Leary, the geography of these zones can be confusing to parents. He cited the example of a 4th grader who attends the Washington School (Zone 2) is assigned to the Butler Middle School for Grade 5 (also Zone 2). Parents question this assignment as the Daley School (Zone 1) is much closer – on just the other side of Stevens Street. 

The actual assignment of students is made not only based on zone preferences, but on minority/non-minority student population and student service needs. For example, a particular special education program such as Life Skills may be offered only at a particular school. Other factors impact assignments as well.

I would agree with Mr. Leary that reviewing a move to neighborhood schools is going to be a giant undertaking. Paramount is the need for fidelity toward the court-ordered Desegregation Plan as well as consideration of parents who wish to send their children to nearby schools in their geographic neighborhood. It is not an easy revision to assigning students, and time will be needed to consider all aspects of school assignment as they are intertwined. 

The motions have been referred to the Policy Subcommittee (Kim Scott, chair; Kristin Ross-Sitcawich, Dave Conway, plus one Central Office representative).

Reports of the Superintendent

In an effort to clear up open and possibly obsolete motions, the Superintendent provided 16 responses to motions. Most of these were accepted without comment from the Committee; however, there was prolonged discussion surrounding three topics: Delayed Openings, Maintenance of buildings and grounds, and Newcomer Program resources.

Item 13 (2015/499) was the response to Ms. Scott’s motion regarding a delayed opening of school in lieu of cancellation and received the greatest attention from Committee members.  The school administration is prepared to move to 2-hour delays when there is agreement from the City DPW that roads/streets and schools can be cleaned up to ensure student and staff safety. However, this motion response will not be voted on until the next meeting (December 2, 2015) as several questions and issues need further attention.

Committee concerns and questions include coordination with partnerships providing before and after school services for parents who need child care in order to get to jobs regardless of weather situations, coordination with the City DPW, and LRT bus schedules. Mr. Gendron requested assurance that communications for delays would be clearly understood by all parents regardless of language barriers. Dr. Khelfaoui will bring definitive answers to concerns to the committee at the next meeting (December 2).

The advantage of a school delay over canceling school, from a teaching standpoint, means that instruction is not disrupted quite as much. The daily continuity of lessons is more or less intact. Last winter, the District cancelled school 8 times resulting in extending the school year further in to June when the weather and temperatures are not as conducive to learning. Tacking on time at the end of a school year may satisfy the Commonwealth’s requirement for number of days in session, but it is not what any teacher would call quality learning time – the weather is too nice be be indoors, the temperatures in classrooms can get extremely hot (that’s another issue), and students’ attention is waning as summer vacation is in sight. For families, travel plans that seemed reasonable when made in January or February, now become rescheduling headaches with extra expenses attached. 

MCAS dates and windows are impacted significantly when winter instructional time is lost due to cancellations. For the most part, the Commonwealth (DESE) does not move dates for testing. In fact I can recall only one time in almost 20 years that the Long Composition test date was moved due to weather. Losing instructional time ahead of testing can mean a topic that needs to be explored prior to MCAS may not be taught as deeply as students need. While a delay may not be ideal, my opinion is that instruction is less disrupted by a delay when that option is safely available. 

School building and ground maintenance (Agenda Item 19, 2015/421, and Agenda Item 14 (2015/410) were discussed. Some frustration expressed by School Committee members about the speed with which building/facility repairs are made by City. Committee wishes to regularly review open ticket items, thus this motion will not be “closed” and removed from the list of Motion Responses.

Lastly, the response to Mr. Leary’s motion (Agenda Item 21, 2015/427) regarding state and federal resources available to defray the cost of Newcomer Programs was discussed  The actual cost of the program is reported at $20,000-$22,000 per student while reimbursement is currently $12,000 per student.  Letters to the legislative delegations have not resulted in any satisfactory response. There was a discussion about the transparency of how the Commonwealth chooses school districts for the Newcomer programs – what is the criteria for receiving districts? The financial impact of this program on LPS is continuing to be felt in budget and resources for all students. Referred to both Student Support (Kristin Ross-Sitcawich (Chair), Dave Conway, Kim Scott and Jeannine Durkin, Adm. Representative) and Curriculum Subcommittees (Chairperson, Connie Martin (Chair), Jim Leary, Kim Scott, Claire Abrams, Adm. Representative).

A brief conversation took place about the recent decision by DESE to implement MCAS 2.0 as a fully technology-dependent assessment by 2019. Many questions are still to be answered about how the state plans to support (i.e., financially) urban districts needing technology infrastructure build-outs to support the tech demands of the test administration.

Following the open meeting, the Committee went into Executive Session to discuss updates to the UTL contract negotiations, litigation and grievances.

The link to the meeting packet can be found here.

Truthiness in Local Education

The current Mayor of Lowell, Rodney Elliot, recently posited this gem in our local newspaper. Take a look at the bulleted items, if you have not already read this, and be outraged. Note the date on the letter – the day after the City elections. Could this be a manipulation of facts engineered for personal gain such as a second term as mayor?

This bullet from the article caught my attention as it points to a fundamental problem with the article and appears to include unattributed misinformation. Here’s a quote:DSC_0161

“Instructional time increase to state average of 275 minutes (4 hours, 35 minutes a day). Lowell is at 255. Most states exceed 300 minutes.”

Let’s take a closer look at what Mr. Elliot is saying.  As Blogger Gerry Nutter pointed out in today’s post, State Law mandates the amount of instructional time in a school year. The times mandated are 900 HOURS (54,000 minutes) per school year (elementary) and 990 HOURS (59,400 minutes) per school year (Middle & High School). And because in education, there is no such thing as “simple arithmetic” in getting to the minutes that count toward an academic day, some number manipulation is required. Time spent in recess, transition times, lunch or breakfast do not count.

In the realm of activities that do and do not count as education, I suppose administering 3 days of MCAS testing (975 minutes) last spring might also be disallowed. But I digress.

When Mr. Elliot wants to talk instructional time using minutes per day, his argument needs a bit more scrutiny. Simply throwing a out a claim that Lowell teachers instruct students for just 255 minutes a day is more than a bit misleading. What is his source for the claim that “most states exceed 300 minutes”.

An elementary school day (I’ll use an example of the school from which I recently retired) is 6 hours and 20 minutes (380 minutes) from start to finish. To be precise, an additional 5 minutes is “unassigned” at the end of a school day for teachers only and is not included in the 380 calculation. Let’s subtract 15 minutes at the beginning of the day because the “tardy” bell rings 15 minutes after the other students have arrived and universal breakfast is served during that time as breakfast. 6 hours and 5 minutes (365 minutes).

Less 30 minutes for lunch and recess leaves 5 hours 35 minutes (335 minutes). Students attend Allied Arts classes for 50 minutes every day (physical education, art, music, content/library). THEY are still receiving instruction, albeit from another professional. Even if a generous 10 minutes is allocated daily for transitioning between rooms (many teachers no longer take whole classes to the bathroom, students sign out when they need to leave), the number of instructional minutes is 325 which is more than the 255 minutes Mr. Elliot reports Lowell teachers spend and even above 275 minutes which he claims as a state “average”.

So what about the classroom teachers? If the students aren’t in the room, what is that prep time used for? Four days of the week, the teacher is given prep time of 50 minutes; one day each week is reserved for Common Planning, or some type of professional meeting involving all the teachers at a grade level. While not directly instructing students at this time, prep time activities support students (and families) in many ways.

Prep time really involves: phone calls and follow up with parents, report writing and preparation for SpED team meetings (sometimes even the meetings take place in this timeframe), helping students process behavior issues, correcting assessment (and sometimes administering assessments), preparing materials for lessons, planning co-teaching activities with colleagues, mentoring a new teacher, meeting with an administrator for evaluation/student concerns. It is not a “free” period – time to put up the feet and chat with another teacher. I feel the minutes a teacher spends preparing do impact instruction and should go right back into the teaching day.

So at a minimum, disallowing the preparation time, a teacher spends an average 285 minutes teaching; however, counting preparation time – as it should count – the daily minutes rise to 325. Bottom line: This time is essential to a teacher’s responsibilities. This IS work time.

If you’re keeping track, the tally is between 285 and 325 minutes of teaching per day, not 255 and not 275 as reported by the Mayor.

So my question remains: where is the truth? Because, I for one am tired of education and hard-working educators being tossed around as collateral by politicians with an ax to grind.

School Committee Meeting, 5 November 2015

Meeting: Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All members present.

The day after local elections and a short agenda made for a quick public meeting – under 1 hour. The Committee met in Executive Session for an update of UTL negotiations/grievances after the public portion of the agenda.

IMG_0891Most of the 19 agenda items were passed or accepted without much discussion.


Agenda Item 11, (2015/395) LHS Athletics – Rule 53 Waiver Request, generated some clarifying questions.  The Rule 53 Waiver Request, apparently an annual agenda item, applies to 7th and 8th grade students audition for “selected” high school sports (swimming/diving, hockey). While the aim of the LHS programs in these sports is to have a feeder system through the Middle Schools, there are costs associated with these sports that make that difficult.  In the meantime, 7th and 8th grade student athletes are prepared for participation through the waiver, which passed.


Some time was spent summarizing Agenda Item 8 (2015/383), the Report from the Curriculum Subcommittee. The four-item focus of this meeting was:

  1. Average age of textbook,
  2. Kindergarten Report Card,
  3. Eureka Math (elementary),
  4. iReady implementation.

A chart of the textbooks in use (see meeting packet) shows there is a need for new materials in the Middle School science (text 1998) and Grade 7 ancient history texts (1995?).

While individual student textbooks become more and more obsolete and the use of “multi-platform programs” becomes more frequent, curriculum focus shifts from following a teachers’ guide to teaching standards (Common Core, NEXT Science Standards, link HERE for Massachusetts standards). The conflict in this approach comes when the program authors interpret a standard; it is important to remember that program publishers such as Pearson are trying to make a profit. Sometimes the connection between an activity and an important standard can be a bit fuzzy.

In my opinion and experience, “textbooks” are becoming less of a one-book-per-student purchase and more of a curriculum or program purchase. For example, the textbooks listed for the Elementary program, my area of experience/expertise, include 

  • Children Discovering Justice (a program based on inquiry experiences led by the teacher),
  • FOSS Science (mainly experiential, led by teacher, brief readings in a textbook collection),
  • Eureka Math (developed from EngageNY curriculum units – teacher scripts/lessons),
  • iReady (individualized Computer Assisted Instruction in Reading/Math),
  • Calkins Writing Units (lesson sequences, relies on example texts) 
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction Toolkit reading guides (suggested scripts, uses trade books)

Adequate and in-time professional development/training will be the key to success with these programs. For the lessons to be successful, teachers need to anticipate and prepare materials (the FOSS Kits for example take hours of teacher preparation). Educators also need to be thoughtful about how the individual students in the classroom will need to be supported. While the LPSD provides some trade books for teaching lessons, it was often my experience that these books, referred to as mentor texts, came from teachers’ personal finances. The school district as a whole needs to continually review the effectiveness of the programs for our students in reaching standards. Notice I didn’t say passing a test.

A second subcommittee meeting’s notes, Personnel, and Agenda Item 13, addressed Dr. Khelfaoui’s evaluation.  Dr. Khelfaoui’s evaluation tool is directed by the Massachusetts (DESE) Department of Elementary & Secondary Education regulations, however, the specific professional and student goals are his own and were accepted.

The link to the meeting packet can be found here.

Why Vote?

This is a local election day in Lowell, MA. Both City Council and School Committee representatives will be decided upon by the end of the day. Local pundits are predicting a low turnout, and I for one hope they are totally off base. Not exercising your right to vote is something that I just don’t understand. Don’t people want to have a voice in who represents them?

MinniePalmerFlournoyafter1891In the late part of the 19th century, women and especially married women had little in the way of citizen’s rights and they most certainly could not vote or hold office. While unmarried women could inherit money, married women could not. I’ve been reading the history of women’s voting rights in one of my ancestral heartlands, Missouri, and while this is Missouri’s story, there are probably many commonalities with other states.

My great grandmother, Minnie Palmer Flournoy was made a young widow in 1891 when her husband Richard was killed in a tragic train accident. As a widow with two very young children, she had to fight the railroad through an attorney to get a settlement for Richard’s untimely death. I have that correspondence in my genealogy files. If memory serves me correctly, she received the princely sum of $500.

When women of Missouri demonstrated for the suffragette movement, my great-grandmother was part of that. I often have wondered if her motivation and support for the 19th Amendment could have had its beginning in the treatment she received from the railroad when her husband died.

Nearly every time that I vote, I think of the courage my great-grandmother had to muster to participate in the suffragette marches. I am grateful, but also awed because women like Minnie Flournoy had the extraordinary courage to demand the right to participate in our representative democracy. They did not give up on this idea even when the measures were defeated as they were several times in Missouri.

This morning I voted as I have on nearly every Election Day since I was old enough to do so. To do otherwise would be a disservice to those women who recognized a wrong that needed to be made right.