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.

Motions

There were 5 motions on the agenda, although one (2016/91) was withdrawn (no reason given).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

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