School Committee Meeting, 16 March 2016

School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, March 16, 2016

2016-Mar-01_0051 All members present.

Item 19, a motion by Ms. Martin meant to highlight innovative curricula in the Lowell Schools, was taken out of order.  The featured school, The Pyne Arts (link here), is a Grades PK-8 magnet school. It is unique because of the grade span that the school includes (most Lowell schools are PK-4 or 5-8) and its focus on integration of the arts into their curriculum.

What makes these types of presentations particularly powerful is when the school articulates what makes them unique. During last evening’s presentation viewers were treated to a great performance by a choral group and a video of the students engaged in drama and other arts programs. The Pyne Arts is known for their parent engagement as well. They have an excellent Math Resource page (view link herewith a rich collection of explanations and information helpful to parents supporting their children, as well as up-to-date and well-written parent information (click on Parent and Student link in the banner).  

My only suggestion for scheduling featured school presentations in the future is to give a timeframe (15, 20, 30 minutes?). Devoting almost an hour to a spotlight presentation made last night’s meeting quite lengthy. Providing a time limit might be useful in distilling presentations to the uniqueness of each school.


There were 5 motions on the agenda. The motions included:

  1. 2016/118: A request that the Transportation Subcommittee address bus contract and safety concerns (Mr. Gignac).
  2. 2016/119: A request for a joint meeting of the Facilities Subcommittee (School Committee)and Municipal Facilities Subcommittee (City Council). Parent Tim Blake spoke about a recent issue at the Sullivan School illuminating concerns about the building. (Mr. Gignac and Mr. Gendron)
  3. 2016/120: A request for an update from the superintendent on standard-based report cards (Ms. Doherty) 
  4. 2016/127: Request Subcommittee meeting to consider making a museum of educational history at the former Elliott School (Mayor Kennedy)
  5. 2016/128: Request for review of the safety policy by Subcommittee on Safety & Discipline, Alternative School Program, and Student Support Services & Special Education.  Parent Laura Ortiz spoke about the need to review and update the current policy (this policy mainly refers to food allergens) to provide safety measures and access to needed medication (inhalers, epi-pens) for all students who may be anaphylaxic regardless of the allergen.


Mr. Hoey reported on the Policy Subcommittee meeting (15 March 2016) during which the policy for placing children of staff who live out of district in Lowell Schools was discussed.  Currently, there are 32 students (I also heard the number 35 mentioned at one point in this discussion) who live out-of-district but are educated in the Lowell Schools because a parent is a Lowell Public School staff member. This policy has been regarded as a means of retaining staff. A problem happens when a out-of-district child of a staff member is placed in a school for which there is high interest and a waiting list. There have been some instances where a resident requesting the same school as a “first pick” is put on a waiting list. Additionally, there are concerns with regard to availability of space as the district experiences growth a particular levels (Middle School in particular) which may impact space available and class size.

Mr. Hoey’s subcommittee discussed three options during their meeting Tuesday night and brought forward one in which the committee would adhere to the state law regarding school choice. This option includes giving Lowell residents first choice in school seat openings (children of staff placed as space allows), engaging the funding options of School Choice, and making the Wait Lists transparent.

After much discussion, the motion was amended to include a timeline for reviewing the policy with school department, school committee, and law department input by the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.  Questions were raised about how to phase in any change in policy fairly, and the importance of reaching out to affected staff so they can plan accordingly.

Reports of the Superintendent

School Year 2016-2017 calendars as well as the budget deliberation calendar/schedule were approved. Lowell Career Academy reported on their efforts to provide education and support for disengaged students.

New Business

  • Budget transfer
    • $800,000 (from School Committee Suspense Account to Salary Account for recent settlement of grievances), and
    • $82,217 (from School Food Revolving Account to General Fund as a result of a DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools) audit)
  • Acceptance of Grant ($2,5000) from Kronos for IDEA camp
  • Permission to post Interim Grant Manager Position

Following approval of Convention Requests and Civil Service Requests, the School Committee went into Executive Session to review Collective Bargaining proposals and positions. Meeting adjourned from Executive Session.

The meeting packet can be found here.

Brain Research Matters!

Ken Wesson, asks this question

 If it’s your job to develop the mind, shouldn’t you know how the brain works?

IMG_1532I would add, and if your job is to develop the curriculum or make an assessment of that young mind, you also need to know how the brain works.

The brain science, based on the work of Dr. Wesson, tells us that a child’s sustained attention can be predicted fairly accurately.

  • Ages 4-5   =  5 – 10 minutes
  • Ages 6-8   = 15- 20 minutes
  • Ages 9-12 = 22-35 minutes

This is real data based on real brain research. Data-driven. Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (the Two Sisters of the Daily Five), support this research in their work organizing and managing instructional structures for children (see prior post).

When reading Jeffrey Brosco’s article about increasing ADD/ADHD rates among young children (link to article above), and the array of pharmaceuticals and their side effects (WebMD), it makes one wonder about the numbers of children diagnosed as ADHD/ADD. Could the increased numbers of diagnoses be driven by children who are responding to inappropriately long and stressful attention span demands?  Is there an organic reason for a diagnosis? Or is the diagnosis driven by developmentally inappropriate demands on kids?

For the educational “experts” creating those packed curricula, demanding “time on task”, and sustained periods of testing, brain research must be considered. But it isn’t, of course. We continue to subject children to long periods of academics, especially high stakes testing, requiring attention beyond what they are capable.

Brain Research matters.





School Committee Meeting, 02 March 2016

School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, March 2, 2016

2016-Mar-01_0051All members present.

This meeting, the first since February 3 due to the Winter vacation week cancellation, was extra lengthy – 37 items. The highlights are posted below.  

Special Order of Business: Spotlight on Youth Mental Health First Aid

This new program was funded through a $100,000 federal grant and trains staff and community members to recognize and offer resources to youth who need to be connected to mental health supports.  Not only school staff, but community members (Middlesex Community College, UTEC, Public Health nurses, Boys and Girls Club, etc.) receive an 8-hour training and in turn, become resources at their organizations for staff not yet trained.  The grant represents a collaborative effort between Project Learn and the community.

No one wants to miss the signs of a mental health trauma and wonder later if there was some resource that could have helped a youth in crisis. This program sounds like it has been and will continue to be a strong support for our community’s youth who need mental health support. Although the grant funding for this program is coming to an end, the coordinators expressed confidence that the “train the trainer” model will allow the program to continue through the use of  trained in-house expertise and possibly a series of videos.


There were 5 motions on the agenda, although one (2016/91) was withdrawn (no reason given).

Given the revival and renewed interest in the Citywide Parent Council, Mr. Descoteaux and Ms. Doherty, requested (2016/86) a report detailing the parent involvement in each school along with meeting times. The Superintendent’s Report (2016/101) on Parent Involvement provided some detail on the state of parent involvement at this point.  Both Mr. Descoteaux and Ms. Doherty stressed that School Site Councils (a blend of school staff and parents) and other parent involvement-based groups are mandated as part of education reform.

Several schools did not submit information or submitted incomplete information pointing to the need to refocus on including parents in both school-based and city-wide decision-making. Dr. Khelfaoui was quite adamant that all schools will renew their efforts to include parents in schools.

Although participation in parent involvement groups have, over time fallen off, in the past, parent input was routinely sought for such things as the school’s USIP (Unified School Improvement Plan) as well as more routine decision making such as evening events (game nights, curriculum informational nights, etc.). My opinion is that the success of any school or classroom depends on a trusting, shared relationship between parent, school (teacher), and student. It has been my experience that most parents want to know about their child’s education and want to be a part of it no matter the life circumstances that might be interferring. Renewing the Citywide Parents, increasing parent advocacy and support, and insisting that every school include parents in meaningful school discussion and decision-making will make Lowell schools strong and vibrant.

Two additional motions (2016/90 and 2016/93) addressed the next school budget cycle.  Mr. Gary Frisch, the new school business administrator, has committed to preparing a draft budget by mid-April so that the School Committee can go about reviewing and approval processes prior to May 2.  Because of the tight deadline, the mid-April School Committee meeting (previously cancelled), may need to be reinstated.

The final motion (2016/97) by Ms. Martin requested a standing Curriculum and Instruction subcommittee time; however, after much discussion by the committee and clarification of the protocol for scheduling subcommittee meetings as standing meetings by Mayor Kennedy, the original motion was withdrawn and a substitute motion for including the full School Committee in some activities of the subcommittee was approved.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 12 reports from the Superintendent. Due to some confusion over 2017 February School Vacation, the School Committee meeting dates and School Calendar for 2016-17 may contain an error (to be reviewed and presented for final approval at next meeting). Several reports were responses to motions made by former Mayor Elliott about scholarship information (it sounded like communication of the two scholarship opportunities may have unintentionally slipped and that this has been remedied for the future). There was also a response to Mayor Kennedy’s STEM curriculum proposal. This information is thoroughly outlined in the packet for those wondering what STEM offerings are currently offered and what the plans for increase STEM coursework

Additionally, Assistant Superintendent Durkin offered an update (2016/89) on the LPS response to complying with new (January 1, 2016) regulations from DESE regarding student restraint.  However, the reports (see packet) are quite lengthy and the Committee needed more time to process the reports. By working throughout the  fall, the LPS has addressed the new regulations and they are compliant with the new regulations; however, the report was referred to Student Support subcommittee prior to formal acceptance.

Two programs impacting student success were highlighted in this portion of the meeting: the Dropout and Recovery Program (2016/96) and Middle School Intervention Program and Policy (2016/102). There is plenty of statistical detail for both programs in the packet; however the presentation for both of these programs was quite impressive.  With collaboration and persistent effort to reach all affected youth, the drop out rate in Lowell is effectively 1.6% – an historically low number.

The High School staff know exactly who has not been attending school, who is in danger of giving up and therefore dropping out, and makes a multi-prong effort to reach out to students. However, that is not the end. Through collaboration with many supportive partnerships and departments, students in danger of dropping out are only encouraged to continue schooling through meaningful and often personalized solutions and support. This enables that student to continue their education and obtain a High School diploma. Examples of such supports include allowing a student who is juggling infant/child care to come in during 2nd period to accommodate childcare arrangements, and finding ways to make up missing credits (credit recovery). Knowing how essential it is to continue to reach disengaged students and not give up on them, this is truly an effort to be recognized.

Sometimes, the most effective solution is a result of looking for creative ways to solve a problem and that, it seems, is what has been the result of defunding summer school at the Middle Schools. Ms. Durkin explained that when summer school (estimated costs $250,000) was defunded, her office cobbled together about $20,000 from a variety of budget sources. With that money, the Middle Schools offered extra interventions (before/after school, Saturdays, April vacation) for students in danger of failing coursework or in danger of non-promotion. Middle School administrators reported that the interventions were far more successful than Summer School.

The packet contains details for these two programs, but a suggestion might be to look for the re-broadcast of the meeting or the LTC video link for this meeting online. Discussion and presentations for the two items come up somewhere in the vicinity of the 90 minute mark.

New Business

The biggest item from this portion of the meeting was the School Committee’s approval of the United Teachers of Lowell (UTL) and Lowell School Administrators (LSAA) contracts. The principals’ and Assistant Superintendents as well as SEIU were discussed in Executive Session. 

The contracts were approved quickly with virtually no discussion save the comment by Mr. Gendron that this was the best agreement for all parties along with a stated wish that the contract could have been 3 years, not two.  The negotiations on a successor contract will begin shortly.

Those viewing the meeting may have wondered why Mr. Descoteaux recused himself from the vote.  Mr. Descoteaux, like I, retired in June 2016, and the recently ratified and signed contract will have a personal financial impact.  As I understand it, there will be benefit from the 0.5% increase that went into effect in January 2015 as there will be a change and adjustment in salary reporting to MTRS for the purpose of pension computations. 

For the uninitiated, pension amounts (funded through contributions to Massachusetts Teacher Retirement System or MTRS) are impacted by collective bargaining agreements as a retiree’s pension amount is a percentage (based on age and years of service) of the average of the highest (usually the last) 3 years of remuneration.

When a collective bargaining agreement has lapsed, as it did in Lowell, the reported salary for a teacher is considered tentative. In simple terms, as far as MTRS is concerned, any Lowell teacher who retired last June will need an updated 3-year salary average, and recalculated monthly pension amount.  Since Mr. Descoteaux is benefiting from the “new” contract, he must recuse himself from the vote. 

The meeting packet can be found here.