First Days

IMG_1586 (1)It is back-to-school time here in the City in which I taught for nearly 30 years. You can sense the anticipation in the  breezes that flow down the Merrimack. There is  an almost unidentifiable change to the air. We are changing seasons; we are changing routines.

I loved the first day of school when I was teaching. Make no mistake about it, those first days – and oftentimes weeks – are exhausting as teachers and their new students work to find common ground and to build a community. The first day, the day when everyone wears a little vulnerability in anticipation of new things, the first day is special. And for every teacher who starts rebuilding a new community of learners today, I wish you the best.

My mind floods with the memories of some of those wonderfully special students who made the 30 first days that I was privileged to be part of special. So many unique personalities! You kids have enriched my life in ways I could never have imagined.

In 1990, I was returning to the classroom after a summer of health crises. I remember the exhaustion that year was not from teaching, but from treatments. Dragging my sorry self into a classroom filled with second graders was not only teacher-exhausting, it was physically and mentally exhausting. Yet every single morning, one of my bubbly, precious second graders, Anita, would throw her arms into the air and tell me “Mrs. Bisson, you look mahvelous today!” Now I know the reality was, I didn’t look even close to passable most days. Some mornings, Anita’s greeting was the one thing that kept me moving forward. A few years later, this special girl lost her own battle with cancer – and took a piece of my heart with her to heaven.

All of “my” kids whether you are grown with your own children or still in the middle of schooling, I am grateful to every single one of you. You challenged me to do better, to figure it out, and yet, every day you taught me something about making the most of our time here in our classroom community and on this earth. All those times when you thought I was teaching you, you were really teaching me.

Students are meeting their teachers once again today. May you all have a year filled with precious moments and memory-making. Cherish each moment as you build a lifetime of memories.

First Book/AFT Kicks Off Lowell’s Books on Wheels

FB TruckI’m really excited about this project!

When the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts (AFT-MA), our local union’s state affiliate, approached our local union a year ago about hosting a First Book/AFT Books on Wheels event, we were intrigued, but the timing was just not right. We may have had to put the project on a back burner, but it was never forgotten. And here we are at the start of a new school year, ready to launch for an event to take place in less than 8 weeks.  Things just got real!

The premise is really simple.  First Book is a national non-profit with a mission to provide new books to children in need, addressing one of the most important factors affecting literacy – access to books. Through a unique partnership with American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national affiliate of our local United Teachers of Lowell, we are planning to bring a semi-tractor trailer of new books (ages 0-18) – that’s 40,000 to 44,000 books – to distribute absolutely free to our teachers, schools, programs, and families right here in Lowell.

What is needed in return are 2,000 email addresses of programs and educators working with those children and families in need. By registering an email address, the owner can then access First Book’s Marketplace where brand new books are available for 50-90% off list prices. I personally used First Book’s Marketplace when I was in the classroom to round out my classroom library purchases (yes, teachers do indeed buy many materials) or to create a study set of a book a group of children were reading.

Our efforts toward earning the Books on Wheels Truck of 40,000+ free books kicked off last Friday with the newest faculty members at Lowell Teacher Academy orientation.  We will begin recruiting all returning staff – teachers, administrators, coaches, paraprofessionals, custodians, cafeteria workers, therapists, librarians, school clerks, and tutors – beginning on Monday morning.

We know this is a unique opportunity to increase access to literature for our families. While a truck loaded with 40,000 plus new books is a.w.e.s.o.m.e. by itself, we are hoping to make this event even better.  We’ve also established a gofundme effort to raise $5,000 which will allow Lowell’s English Language Learner expert teachers/coaches to select literature from First Book’s Marketplace of Books.  Click this LINK to access our gofundme page and please, feel free to share with friends and neighbors.

8/28: (Calling out our First Book Lowell crowd funding link here: www.gofundme.com/firstbooklowell)

We will use any funds raised through gofundme to purchase books that are reflective of the cultural and language diversity in our community.  If 500 people donate just $10, we will meet our goal, and if we exceed our goal we’ll be able to purchase even greater numbers of culturally appropriate books for our families and readers.

Our goal is to have everything in place for a Book Distribution on Saturday, October 22 at the Rogers STEM Academy. We are appreciative of Superintendent Khelfaoui’s support of this effort and especially grateful to Principal Jason McCrevan and his team at the Rogers STEM Academy for offering to host this event. More information on the Book Distribution and how you can help will be coming in a future post.

It takes a village, or in Lowell’s case, a city to make this endeavor a success. We are counting on everyone to help our village bring books to our children that will embrace the diversity of cultures and languages of our community.

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

IMG_0794All present

This was a lengthy (2-3/4 hours) meeting due to not only the summer schedule of monthly meetings, but the financial topics that became the focus of discussion. Apologies in advance for the delay in getting notes out; I also presented information about First Book to the Committee (separate post to follow).

Permissions to Enter

Contract ratifications for the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendents were deferred to Executive Session, which followed the public portion this meeting.

Subcommittee Reports:

Mr. Gendron shared findings from the Facilities Subcommittee meeting of 8/11. The recommendation, followed by full School Committee approval, to name the Butler School Auditorium in honor of former administrator Mary Alice Foley was made. (Approved). Additionally Skanska, the Project Manager for the Lowell High School Building Project, presented a quarterly report of the work thus far and listed deadlines and timeline for the projected planning work needed to be accomplished ahead of a May 31, 2017 Mass. School Building Deadline.

While I understood this to be a huge construction project for the City of Lowell, I was unaware that the LHS Building Project is the largest school building project in the Commonwealth. There is a need to get the design “right” (sustainable with adaptability for future needs projected 20-30 years out) and to ensure that the costs are under control throughout all phases of the project.  The Project Manager, Skanska, is charged with this task and will work with the design team.  To view the timeline for the work that is envisioned, Sanska has provided details beginning around page 73 of the School Committee Packet.

Reports of the Superintendent

The Superintendent offered 12 reports to the Committee.  The ones receiving the closest scrutiny were financial in nature, but attention also was given to a facilities report by Mr. Rick Underwood. The Doors Open Lowell Public Schools announcement has been covered in detail by both Amelia Pak-Harvey of the Lowell Sun and through the LPS Website.  I was also wearing my “other hat”, co-coordinator of the Lowell First Book Truck Event in October, and will detail that event this week as we kick-off efforts to bring 40,000 free books to our Lowell Public Schools families.  Sharon LaGasse and Kristina Webber presented an end-of-year report on Food Services and the CEP program in Lowell.

The Purchase Order Report (2016/311), received extended discussion as it addressed some of the expenditures and encumbrances made at the end of the fiscal year. Mr. Gignac requested clarification some June 30 Purchase Orders including rental of the Tsongas Center (graduation) as well as hardware (Apple Laptops and carts).

Further in the discussion was the proposal for how to make up the last-minute loss of Kindergarten Grant Funding.  The Kindergarten Grant in Lowell is used in part or in whole to support the services of instructional paraprofessionals at the Kindergartens across the City.  On July 17, Governor Baker’s veto during the Commonwealth’s Budget process created a loss of funding for the Kindergarten Grant – and other budget items as well.  The Lowell School Administration  in attempting to find ways to maintain the paraprofessional positions, has resorted to what I liken to rearranging the deck chairs.  LPS had a budget surplus which seems to have some connection to the “fifth” quarterly circuit breaker payment accounted for in the 2015-16 budget of $2.8 million.  The carryover to 2016-17 is restricted by law to $2.3 million which leaves $548,000 to be returned to the City of Lowell.

Noting the amount needed to make up for the loss of funds triggered by the Governor’s veto, the LPS would request $527,642 once the books are certified by the Commonwealth (December 2016?). The City Manager had been alerted that there might be need for up to $600,000 in supplemental requests to make up for the loss. The trail of transactions as I understand it, would be this:

  • Funds in excess of $2.3 Million returned to City (approximately $547,000)
  • School Committee will request $527,642 supplemental from City Council
  • $527,642 will be placed by City in a Suspense Account (and eventually transferred to the line item needed to pay the salaries of Kindergarten paraprofessionals).

While there is an aversion to using one-time funding sources/payments for on-going expenditures, the Superintendent posited that these transactions will give the LPS a year to plan for how to fund the monies lost by the Governor’s veto on a more permanent basis.  In the end the Committee approved both the motion to request supplemental funding from the City Council and to place such funds in a Suspense Account (6 yeas, 1 absent – Mayor Kennedy).

In a related report, the update to Purchasing Policy (2016/321), an effort to bring the language in the current LPS Purchasing Policy in alignment with both City and DESE/State practice, was referred to the Finance Subcommittee for review.

The updated Hiring Policies (2016/331) giving qualified and certified Lowell residents an interview was passed.

A report on the status of Facilities (2016/326) was made by Mr. Rick Underwood,.  The enormity of maintaining facilities and the near-term end of lifecycle for building components of those schools built during the 1991-1993 school building boom is something for which the LPSD needs to plan. Many of the HVAC plants are reaching the end of life expectancy and are becoming difficult to keep in service. The custodial staff has an enormous amount of work to complete throughout the summer:  thoroughly cleaning buildings, floors, and performing other maintenance tasks (often with community programs in the building AND when temperatures are extremely hot) that are needed while the students and teachers are out of the building. During crunch times, the outside of the building – the landscaping – may not receive the same level of attention.

Mainly what I learned through this discussion is that the custodial staff have performed yeoman’s work to get all the facilities clean and ready for a new academic year. I know that  in the past, when I returned to set up my own classroom, the floors had been stripped, waxed, minor repairs performed – sometimes a new coat of paint, the the overhead lights cleaned. Any surface I didn’t have covered with packed boxes of materials was wiped down. The lockers outside the classroom were cleaned, the halls stripped and waxed and the community spaces maintained as well.

Maintaining the grounds at schools is also a huge undertaking, and of course, the grounds are what the neighbors and public see as they drive by a school building.  Adding landscaping to a custodian’s punch list is sometimes impossible, yet the grounds do need to be taken care of. Mr. Underwood seems quite open to seeking outside-the-box solutions for this, perhaps involving local landscapers in regular maintenance for a courtesy sign or involving community service groups as suggested by Mr. Gendron.

Before moving to Motions, Mayor Kennedy requested an update on when to expect reports for four motions submitted during the July 2016 School Committee meeting. A Report on Graduation Rates  and one on the STEM Program, specific to the High School is expected at the first meeting in September.  The LHS Curriculum Review in light of the building project is expected before December and the Suspension/Expulsion Policy is pending input and action by DESE.

New Business

There were four items under New Business:

  • 2016/310: Update on Business Office Reorganization & District HiringMr. Frisch confirms that the number of bodies remains the same; however, report was very difficult to follow. An Organizational Chart with names would go a long way to clarify what positions are filled and which remain unfilled.
  • 2016/318 Accept a grant award of $2,000 for Wang School
  • 2016/322 Expenditure transfer request (see page 165-172 of Meeting Packet)
  • 2016/325 Budget Transfers (see page 172-211  of Meeting packet). These appear to be the detailed transfers of monies to balance accounts from 2015-16.

All passed.

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.

LFF 2016: The View From Here

Fans of music and festivals know to keep the last weekend of July free for the Lowell Folk Festival. This year marked the 30th year for this stellar event and, for me, it was one of the best in recent memory. The weather was outstanding and the performances a treat. Did I mention the food?  If you’ve missed this annual free (!) festival, block out the last weekend in July on next year’s calendar. You won’t be disappointed.

The diversity of Lowell is always a driving theme to the folk festival. Where else could you couple Cape Breton fiddling with rock-a-billy and Inuit throat singing? So many of Lowell’s great photographers are out and about capturing the crowds and music and excitement – I have nothing to add to that.  But I do have a bit of another perspective on the folk festival, here’s my Walking Lowell homage to this year’s festival. Click the image below to go to the video.

2016-Jul-30_LowellFolkFest-Day2_1013

 

A Technology Dilemma

DSC_0162Sometimes what appears to be an inventive solution to a time-consuming problem slips into place without the thorough scrutiny that it needs.  Enter Exhibit 1: ClassDojo.

ClassDojo is an application which, according to the application website, “connects teachers with parents and students to build amazing classroom communities.” Who wouldn’t want to do that? As an educator, I know that the success of my students was always connected to open dialog and understanding between teacher, student, and home. This could be an effective and time-efficient way to do so.

ClassDojo is free for teachers and seems to be cross-platform and useable on several devices. It allows a teacher to give a virtual high-five to students for a number of categories, allows for behavior monitoring and feedback to parents who also sign up, and allows students to post work to the a portfolio. All of this sounds like a dream come true to those of us who kept records in folders and stick-on notes. The skeptic in me knows there is no such thing as a free lunch and wants to know how the company is going to monetize this.

However, in this article from the New York Times, there is much to consider when thinking about privacy of student data. In addition to concerns about using the program in a way that publicly shames a student for behavior missteps, there is in my opinion, a larger issue. Where is the students’ data being shared and with whom? Do school districts have a clear policy for individual data being collected and then stored in the cloud or other internet based technology.

ClassDojo does not seek explicit parental consent for teachers to log detailed information about a child’s conduct. Although the app’s terms of service state that teachers who sign up guarantee that their schools have authorized them to do so, many teachers can download ClassDojo, and other free apps, without vetting by school supervisors.

Technology most certainly has a place in education; but parents first and foremost should know how the data being collected about their child is being used and/or shared. In order to opt-out of ClassDojo, a parent must initiate the process through email to the classroom teacher or the company.

Although one of ClassDojo’s co-founders has stated that the company will not sell, lease or share students’ individual information to third parties, one of the potential revenue streams for ClassDojo is a (pay) service detailing behavior analyses for parents. The company may also use individual student data to customize advertisements for students based on interests and surveys. Think Facebook-style targeted click ads directed at students.

Parents, administrators and educators are rightly divided on using these types of programs and the increasing collection of data which then is stored somewhere in the internet. Data collection and storage is an issue that should concern everyone. What happens to the large amounts of data being collected in schools from test scores, surveys, and teacher evaluations. Can the collected data be corrected if it incorrect? Can it be expunged?

The answer to how to ensure student data in particular is kept private and secure is not one for which there will be a simple solution, but it is one issue we should all keep in mind as data collection and storage are increasingly reliant on internet and cloud storage.