What If Miss Parker Hadn’t

I was in the seventh grade when Miss Parker told me, “Donovan, we could put all your excess energy to good use.” And she introduced me to the sound of my own voice.

In five minutes, Donovan Livingston the Student speaker at Harvard Graduate School of Education 2016 Convocation and Ed.M. candidate uses his voice to remind all of us of why education is powerful. His voice reminds us that equity in access to education and educational possibilities cannot and should not be restricted.

The reason to be an educator is embedded in his poetry.  A number on a test does not define a person’s worth. Invest in five minutes that can reaffirm your resolve to be an educator.

Use this link from Harvard GSE to link to the text.

Sir Ken Robinson on Teaching

Subtitle: EdReformers Have Got It All Wrong

IMG_0200Perhaps you have never heard of Sir Ken Robinson before today, but I guarantee that if you are willing to spend 20 minutes to play the TED-Ed video found here, he will become someone who you can’t forget. Sir Ken, educator, speaker, author and champion of creativity, nudges us to examine what must be done in order to save education in this TedED Talk.

Teaching is, afterall, “a creative profession, not a delivery system. Great teachers mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage.”

Those ideas certainly resonated with me, a teacher for over 30 years. In place of lessons crafted for the students in front of the teacher, educators now are forced to follow pacing “guides” and scripted teaching manuals. You read that correctly. Teachers are provided with a script of the words to use during a lesson. Apparently, anyone can teach as long as there is a script involve.

No need for gauging whether or not students are actually learning; stick to the script. Further evidence that it’s not about the processing of learning or creating a learning experience can be found in the pacing guides driving the sequence and delivery of lessons. These pacing guides assume that the scripts are a guaranteed success for every student in the room. In lock-step, every classroom must deliver the same knowledge act the exact same time. Does that make even an ounce of sense to anyone?

If students in a classroom don’t understand a lesson or need more time to learn, too bad. The frenetic pace that is currently upheld in the classroom is, in truth, only useful for preparing students for testing. Until someone, somewhere, somehow understands that the humans in a classroom are quite unlike widgets on an assembly line, I fear education is destined to remain in assembly line mode, or as Sir Ken calls it, the Death Valley of creativity.

Ed reformers with backgrounds in making profits need to get out of education. Education is not a profit center, it is an opportunity center. It is where young minds learn to love learning, to follow curiousity, to craft solutions to problems. It should not be the one-size-fits-all, narrowly mandated program it has become. No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top and the newest iteration of government driven education reform, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has not and will not work because each and every student is an individual with a range of needs and talents. Students will always be individuals with diverse and complicated needs. Shouldn’t education reflect that?

There should be an outcry from parents, teachers, students, and the general public. From my vantage point, there are several ways to do this:

  • Give equal time to non-STEM disciplines such as physical education, humanities, arts,
  • End mindless paperwork tasks,
  • Reduce the inordinate attention on high-stakes standardized test preparation and testing.

What would happen if, instead of training a generation of conformers, our students were encouraged to be creative and use that creativity to solve problems? What if we trusted educators to meet the needs of our students with absolutely no interference or second-guesses from corporate America’s hotshots willing to put up cash in exchange for dubious influence.

We are approaching education in the worst possible way. We are killing creativity. Education reformers are getting it all wrong. All of it.

School Committee Meeting, 18 May 2016

School Committee Meeting, 18 May 2016

All present

12022015ClockBetween Tuesday’s City Council Meeting and Wednesday’s School Committee Meeting, Mayor Kennedy has done a yeoman’s job of navigating through some very highly charged Public Comment sessions.

The agenda included a Public Hearing on Inter-District School Choice which quickly morphed into comment on Item 10, the Policy Subcommittee’s Report of Monday, May 16, 2016.

Special Order of Business

Mayor Kennedy mentions there are 10 speakers registered to speak about Item 2016/134, Inter-District School Choice; however, after the first speaker, it was pointed out to him by Robert Gignac that many of the speakers were here to advocate for/against the policy of allowing out-of-district children of Lowell Public School staff to be educated by the Lowell Schools. I would urge anyone interested in both sides of this issue to find the LTC meeting replay (tape) and listen to the first hour of the meeting for yourself.

In the end, the School Committee adopted a substitute motion. They have decided to keep the current number of students (grandfathered) for one year and allow them to attend the schools they have been attending. There will be no increase to the out-of-district student pool (freezing the incoming) and the basic policy stands until Fall 2017 when the School Committee intends to have a new/revised policy in place, possibly attaching allowance of out-of-district children of staff based on a still to be developed contractual policy.

Discussing the placement out-of-district (OOD) students of employees in Lowell’s public schools is one that has long been overdue. The issue has been percolating since it first came to wider attention last Fall.  According to the meeting discussion, in 2010 when Dr. Chris Scott was Superintendent, a written policy was floated and referred to Subcommittee. What happened after that seems to be a mystery. I have reviewed the list of open motions submitted by Dr. Khelfaoui in October 2015 and there is no specific mention of an open motion of this nature (although there were at least 2 motions calling for reports investigating changes to School Zones and possibly vacating the School Desegregation Plan).

The current policy seems to be more “past practice” than formal policy.  According to several speakers at this meeting, the practice goes back more than 20 years. If that is true, it was not well known, at least by this Blowellian. So why would it become a more prominent issue at this time? Here’s why I think this issue has bubbled up: funding, space, and a intra-district school choice plan that needs an overhaul.

Money: With the Commonwealth’s habitual underfunding of Foundation Budget calculations, the monies available from Chapter 70 (the Commonwealth) to educate students are well below reasonable. Significant shortfalls put undue strain on local school budgets in cities like Lowell where the difference is unlikely to be made up through increased property taxes (nor should it when the Commonwealth purposefully calculates expenses like Health Benefits of teaching staff at 140% under actual cost). Just an FYI, that each area of the Commonwealth’s Chapter 70 calculations are similarly off. 

So right away, Lowell starts out without adequate financial assistance from the Commonwealth and the penny-pinching begins. In the words of Cindy Lauper, “Money changes everything”. If the Lowell Public Schools had plenty of money to work with would educating 36 out-of-district students be so contentious? Probably not.

Space The space crisis at the Middle School is highlighting the need to accommodate increasing student population – there’s not enough room for everyone and the District is in crisis mode trying to figure this out.  Class sizes at the Middle School level are going to be very challenging for the next 4-5 years.

There also exists competition to ensure students are placed in a “good” school – the waitlist for the Daley School is reported to be about 70 students per grade. The lack of enough space for everyone which will likely lead to ridiculous class sizes is compounded by wait lists at plum school placements.

School Choice/Wait Lists And finally, the Intra-District School Choice policy is overdue for a major review.  There have been several comments over the process of adopting budgets and reducing costs regarding the creation of new neighborhood school zones.  I believe there is a pending motion to explore the legalities and options to do so.  In addition to looking at zones and placements, though, the School Department needs to get a firm handle on where students reside and the use of false addresses (using a grandparent or daycare/afterschool care home address as student residence when the student resides in another town for example). This is a link is documents about the School Desegregation Plan are found on the LPS website.

One aspect of School choice that should be looked at immediately is the Wait List. The list process is confusing and so that confusion and lack of transparency can make the process seem rigged.  Mr. Hoey himself has admitted he has advocated for someone’s placement himself. I am sure he was not alone in this.

One additional thought. It makes me wonder why ALL Lowell Middle Schools, or elementary schools, aren’t as sought after as the one or two perceived to be “the best”.  What is it about the Daley Middle School (culture? leadership? student demographics? parent support?) that creates the demand? Can the Daley’s Success be replicated and how? 

I sincerely feel for the children caught up in this whether they are children from a neighborhood unable to attend their Zone School or are students of staff from out of district who are now acclimated to their current school placement. As Mr. Gignac pointed out, they haven’t done anything that was not allowed.

The second Special Order of Business was recognition of Onotse Omoyeni as the 2016 Princeton Prize recipient for the Boston Area. Given her role as a leader for Lowell High School during this year when racial tensions have been at the forefront, this award is well deserved.


2016/196 (Mayor Kennedy) was to appoint Steve Gendron to be a member of the Lowell High School Designer Selection team.

2016/199 (Ms. Doherty) was to request a report from the Superintendent on short-term and long term student population trends possibly providing insight into population trends, class sizes, building capacity and transportation needs.

Reports of the Superintendent

2016/190 Interdistrict School Choice. For 2016-17, Lowell High (only) will participate. The program will involve no more than 30 seats at Grades 9-12.

You may be wondering why Lowell does not just apply School Choice to all grade levels and “solve” the issue of non-reimbursement of employee OOD students.  A legal ruling clarified this: if School Choice is invoked, there is no “special category” of students (i.e., students of employees) that can take precedence over any other out of district applicant.  If more families apply for School Choice in Lowell than are allowed seats, there must be a lottery. This does not ensure the employee’s student would have a seat at any Lowell School.  

Meeting adjourned. Meeting notes can be found here.

Still Ignoring the Evidence

2013fielddayaPlay – real, unstructured brain break time – is as important to a child’s learning as academic time.

So why are school leaders and decision-makers so reluctant to let go and allow more recess? I cringe whenever I hear a school leader lecture that there isn’t enough time in a school day to increase play or unstructured time. Two reasons come to mind:

  • Quantity not quality – somehow the misguided idea that number of minutes and time-on-task are larger concerns than actual learning,
  • Test preparation is driving the construction of a school day.

Quantity not quality assumes that a student can maintain peak brain function and learn every second of a lesson. Ken Wesson tells us that students can attend to a lesson launch for approximately the same number of minutes as that child’s age.  Here is a link to an article I posted some time ago outlining this thought as it applies to a classroom.  If we are serious about optimizing student learning and making sure academic time is effective, we should know how the brain functions. What is the point of just yammering for 60 minutes when a 10 year old brain turned off 40 minutes ago?

I often hear – and truth be told, sometimes would say – that school days are packed. At one point when I taught 4th Grade, there were more minutes of instruction required within the day than there were minutes in the entire school day. And in this day and age, there is test preparation, which has to come from somewhere. Just exactly how much time gets expended to prepare students for those high-stakes tests like PARCC or Smarter Balance?

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Professor of Education at Lesley University advocates for younger students to have more time for play and unstructured learning time as does K-12 writer Caralee Adams in the article “Recess Makes Kids Smarter“. Students are routinely asked not only to sit, but sit still for inordinate amounts of time when they developmentally are not ready to do so. Could misguided school policies requiring students to be on-task for long periods of time be driving the bulk of students perceived to have ADD or ADHD? Brain research makes me wonder.

For more about the importance of recess, free play, and unstructured time, the New York Times Parent Blog posted an article titled “Students Who Lose Recess Are The Ones Who Need It Most”. This article takes the importance of unstructured time a step further by advocating that taking away recess as a means of punishment for out of compliant behavior or for missing homework is counter-productive.  Losing recess may be a major factor in loss of self-control or executive function.

Our kids need to move, they need less chair time for their physical health and for their brains for function. Why do we continue to ignore brain researchers? To quote Ken Wesson, “If your job is to develop the mind, shouldn’t you know how the brain works?”


IMG_1369Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, was the Commencement Speaker at U Cal Berkeley this past week.  Ms. Sandberg also wrote the book Lean In which generated lots of controversy among women. (Full disclosure, I have not read it). Sheryl Sandberg has endured what is understandably the worst year of her life after her husband Dave Goldberg had a cardiac arrhythmia while working out on a treadmill about one year ago. The story of what came next is astoundingly honest, brutally frank, and incredibly inspirational. I’m providing a link to the transcript here as well as a later link to the video.

Since reading this commencement address, I’ve thought a lot about what Ms. Sandberg says about resilience and those life-changing times that we encounter in living.

I have an undergraduate degree in Music Education with a performance major in piano. I had my ego stroked quite often as reading music came quite easily to me and I could play fairly well. So I when I graduated, I figured teaching would be a cakewalk. Was I ever wrong!

My first teaching job was as a K-12 choral/general music teacher in a struggling northwest New Hampshire school district. I was ill-prepared for the actual job of teaching and so, after a year, I left. That failure, as difficult as it was to accept, forced me to reflect on what it was I really wanted to do. If the past 20 years is any indication, I think I did find it.

The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days — the times that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.

Finding a Plan B is not as easy as waking up the next morning and knowing what to do. Sometimes, as it did for me, it takes years to figure things out. And sometimes Plan B can turn into Plan C, Plan D and Plan E.

And if you’ve read Ms. Sandberg’s speech, well you’ll know what to do with Plan B when you get there.




Budget Meeting Part 2, 11 May 2016

School Committee Public Budget Hearing, Part 2

11 May 2015

All members present.

The Budget Hearing was taped for later broadcast. The originally proposed budget can be found on the LPS website here.  Changed budget allocations will hopefully be published sooner rather than later because there were many, MANY changes as the budget numbers were revised to reflect suggestions from the School Committee.  

The Committee continued the detailed budget analysis and approval process, reserving the last part of the meeting for LPS Administration responses to queries. Process begins on Page 37 of the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget document (Account 5100/5200).

Mr. Gignac asked whether or not Mr. Frisch had reached out to the City Auditor regarding legalities of using monies from Food Service Revolving Account to offset the salaries of two Health/Nutrition Teachers. When Mr. Frisch said he had not, Mr. Gignac said that he had done so and had discovered that using Revolving Account monies for teaching salaries was not allowable. After brief discussion, motions made to realign offset from Food Service Revolving Account to Account 2300 to Account 1400 (page 18, 23, and page 37).

During discussion of Account 5300 (Rentals), Mr. Hoey commented that he was against paying rent and that the LPS Central Office location on Merrimack Street was not a good use for Downtown Lowell storefront location.  His suggestion was that, in the process of either locating space for other school programs or in the process of the High School building/renovation project, some land/space be located for Central Offices.  Both Mr. Gendron and Mayor Kennedy spoke in favor of the Merrimack Street offices as a viable solution (for the present) and cited the advantages to Downtown businesses by having a School Department presence on Merrimack Street.

The School Committee Suspense Acvount (9000) was adjusted several times over the past two meeting to account for a teacher’s salary that had been listed in two places. A line item request for an allocation for Choral Music budget was offered by Mr. Descoteaux at this meeting. There were also adjustments to accounts impacting the Suspense Account that had been approved on May 9.  Some monies remain in the account (approximately $183.9 K).

The Committee explored using a significant amount ($95K for salary + benefits) to reinstate a crisis social worker at the High School.  The Committee thought this cut would have significant impact on improvements to things such as school attendance; however Ms. Durkin and Dr. Khelfaoui explained that while cutting a social worker would be difficult, there would be 6 still at the High School who would realign their work to the budget realities. The current Suspense Account balance is being held pending the settlement of the Clerk’s contract negotiations; however, the School Committee agreed that, should a surplus remain at the close of 2015-16, cuts to Lowell High custodial staff, clerks, and academic positions would be revisited.

After a brief discussion regarding the number of FTE between comparison years, the Committee votes 7-0 to approve the budget as depicted on p 15 ($158,445,232). This total was composed of the City of Lowell contribution of $19,856,851 ($12,037,191 Cash + $7,819,660 Transportation) plus Chapter 70 Aid from the Commonwealth of $138,588,381.

Discussion/Answers to questions posed on Monday night included clarification of the regular education transportation budgeted amount ($7,819,660). The Committee had questioned this amount as it represented a reduction from 2015-16, yet increased transportation to accommodate students attending the Wang and Rogers Grade 5 (Bubble Classroom Accommodations) would make the budget number seem impossible.

John Descoteaux explained the District was entering the fifth and final year of the contract with the bus contractor which would result in a stepped increase of about $50,000. However, relief in the form of an effort by the Governor to reduce homeless transportation costs is expected to yield a savings of $80,000; the net effect would be a $30,000 reduction in regular education transportation costs.

Additional conversation included input from both Mr. Descoteaux and Central Office Administration and focused on a need to have a more comprehensive, complete plan for dealing with space needs to accommodate the 2016-17 anticipated increase in students at the start of each school year (about 200 students) PLUS the increase in middle school population resulting from bubble classes moving from elementary to middle school over the next 5 years. Some suggestions needing further research might include:a move toward neighborhood schools OR increasing school zones (currently 2 plus City Wide). Changing zoning and school assignments action may necessitate vacating the desegregation order under which the school system currently operates. Some possible ramifications of changing such an action may include:

  • an effect on obtaining aid through school building assistance fund,
  • disruption to families who would be moved out of current zones into newly configured ones
  • effect on parochial school students who access regular education transportation system

Mr. Gignac and Ms. Doherty both expressed concern over populating the Rogers STEM school Grade 5 classrooms. As available space currently stands, there would be no room at the Rogers STEM school for next year’s fifth grade to continue in the same school for Grade 6 (or 7 or 8). This needs to be expressly communicated to parents. In other words, any student who attends the Rogers for Grade 5 next year should be prepared to be moved to another school for Grade 6.

This conversation led to a discussion of class sizes at the largest middle schools and what contingencies the LPS might have should there not be enough interest/enrollment to populate 2 classrooms at the Rogers STEM next year.  The administration has considered this and could make a decision to add paraprofessionals in place of one teacher at the Rogers; doing so would reduce numbers at the most populated Grade 5s (Daley, Robinson, Wang).

Mr. Hoey also commented that he has received many calls regarding the Wait List and transparency of the same. The administration stated that a review of this school assignment procedures is in process of being addressed. Mr. Gignac, Ms. Martin, and Mr. Gendron expressed that a timeline for implementing any changes to accommodate the Bubble Classroom (Grade 5) in 2016-17 needs to be developed and known soon.

Another lengthy discussion took place regarding cutting positions at the high school. There was much concern that changing the Social Worker/Crisis Teams would impact the notable success with students who are at risk of dropping out or for those with attendance issues.  The Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent for Student Services both feel that, while this is unpalatable, Lowell High School has made the best of the need to cut a position in this area. Mr. Gignac expressed concern that the High School was shouldering cuts in support staff (custodial, clerk) which could possibly be alleviated by looking at a slight class size increase (LHS class sizes will be less than those at Middle School). Mr. Frisch offered that, should a 2015-16 surplus be found after the school year closes, the decision to cut support staff in any of these positions could possibly be changed. There was a motion made to refer a strategy for this to the Lowell High School Subcommittee.

Meeting video is now available on the LPS website. Click here and scroll down to the May 11 meeting.

Public Budget Hearing, 09 May 2016

School Committee Public Budget Hearing

09 May 2015

[EDITED TO INCLUDE] LTC Taped the hearing and it can be found on this weblink.  Click on May 9 videolink.

All members present.

The Budget Hearing was taped for later broadcast. The originally proposed budget can be found on the LPS website here.  The Finance Department link for the Lowell Schools is here. Changed budget allocations will hopefully be published sooner rather than later.

As this was on record as a public input session, there were several participants who spoke during the beginning of the meeting when public input was invited.

  • Susan Orton, a parent of two students at the Middle School level spoke about the positive impact on her family and special needs child in this child’s success. Her student is assigned to a substantially separate classroom, and is experiencing school success credited to a strong program and the expertise of in-district autism staff.
  • Ellen Romanowsky, a CSA teacher at the Bailey School detailed burnout of teachers within this type of program and advocated for increasing the staff so that student to staff ratios were more in line with meeting the needs of this challenging population.
  • Lisa Tenczar, a teacher in a substantially separate program in the Lowell Schools spoke about needs for expertise of behavior specialists and how classroom-specialist collaboration makes for successful support of students’ needs.
  • Shon Texiera made an impassioned plea for increasing the in-district program. Mr. Texiera is the parent of a young student whose needs are currently met through participation in CREST Collaborative program and must be bused to Methuen daily.

In response to this commentary, both Jeannine Durkin (Assistant Superintendent for Student Support) and Jennifer McCrystal (Director of Special Education) reiterated that the LPS is committed to expanding in-house placement of students; however there are necessary considerations for space and safety that need to be addressed.

Returning the budget, Mr. Frisch, CFO, began by stating that budget decisions were a function of the Superintendent’s Strategic Plan with recommendations for changes made by an administrator of each program affected. After the last budget presentation and Finance Subcommittee meeting there were some adjustments made to the originally proposed budget including adding back Lowell High positions in World Language and English, changes to the merger of the MCC Bridge Program with the Cardinal O’Connell School Program, reducing the number of positions for coaches from the originally request, lowering the Superintendent’s Office Supply Budget and use of School Lunch Program funds for some line items.

Starting with page 16 in the Superintendent’s Recommended FY2017 Budget, the School Committee commented and asked for clarifications on changes line by line.  Some noted that the Year to Date (YTD) expenditures seemed significantly off (example under Line 1100, School Committee memberships were budgeted at $6,000 for 2015-16, yet show spent amount at $100). As the Committee reviewed the recommendations, questionable numbers for YTD expenses were listed several times causing the Committee members to ask both Mr. Frisch and Dr. Khelfaoui to review questionable items with answers available by the next meeting (5/11).

There was a note made that, as the Bridge Program will be transitioned more slowly, the salaries of the personnel currently picked up by Middlesex Community College will become the responsibility of the Lowell Schools. Most, if not all, of the staff are paid at a rate below the Collective Bargaining amounts. The United Teachers of Lowell will need to allow the transitioning Bridge staff members to be paid at lower rates for the transition year. (not yet assured, however the Superintendent seems confident that it will be allowed and the following year affected staff will be paid according to Collective Bargaining).

Class size numbers caused by the promotion of the Bubble Class (currently in Grade 4) was a concern. The numbers (ranging from 24 at the Pyne Arts to 31 at the Daley) do not reflect any students transferring to the Rogers STEM classrooms (2 Grade 5 classes to open in the Fall 2016). The School Committee concern is that students may not wish to attend a school outside of their neighborhood assignment in Grade 5, or that the majority of students assigned to the Rogers will be newcomers; the final tally after recruitment to the Rogers Grade 5 is still to be determined. Mr. Gignac did not vote to approve this budgeted account due to his concerns about large class sizes and the need for further discussion to address the same.

Both monies from an account with Comcast and the school lunch program were used to offset some expenses throughout the proposed budget.  The Comcast account, in particular was mentioned as having a significant balance which, prior to this budget, had not been tapped.

Surprisingly the Transportation budget (Item 3300) was for less than the past year (2015-16: $3,399,900 proposed 2016-17 $$3,369,500). Even with what may be increased transport of students (opening of Grade 4 and Grade 5 at the Rogers was cited), the Superintendent and CFO both feel the number is accurately pegged as the transportation company will not replace buses as aggressively as in the past.

Under Account 3500, Athletics and Student Activities, there was an increase in coaches to include 10 new coaching stipends. Ms. Martin questioned this and expressed that adding athletic coaching positions while cutting academic staff (paras, teachers) seemed ill-timed. Additionally the line item for CBOs (Community Based programming such as the after-school Y or CTI before/after school programs) was eliminated.

During discussion of Item 4000, Custodial and Security, the elimination of custodians at the High School was discussed as well as the inclusion of two plumber positions and HVAC technician at LHS.  The Facility Director position returned to a single K-12 position (was two: a K-8 and a LHS). Mr. Hoey proposed that a stipend ($25,000) be given to two custodians who could perform facility director functions as part of a career ladder.  There was much discussion about the building maintenance and city-side vs. school-side maintenance and charge-backs. In the end, this budget item was approved 6 to 1 with Mr. Hoey voting no.

As it was after 10 pm, the meeting was adjourned with three additional budget items to be discussed (starting on Page 38 of the proposed budget) and several questions to be answered. The Budget Discussions will continue on Wednesday, May 11 at 7:15 pm, Rogers School (taped for later broadcast).