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.

Motions

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.

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