Speak Out, First of Many

Last week, the president-elect selected Elizabeth DeVos as his nominee for Secretary of Education.  If there was ever a more unqualified candidate for such a post, I can’t think of one. Ms. DeVos, a former Michigan GOP state party chair, is a billionaire philanthropist. Apparently that meets the qualifications for heading the US Department of Education.

Betsy DeVos heads a PAC, All Children Matter, along with her husband. Founded in 2003 All Children Matter promotes school vouchers. In fact, Ms. DeVos, has been active as an advocate for school choice and vouchers as evidenced from this notation on her Wikipedia Page:

During the 1990s, she served on the boards of Children First America and the American Education Reform Council, which sought to expand school choice through vouchers and tax credits. She and her husband worked for the successful passage of Michigan’s first charter-school bill in 1993, and for the unsuccessful effort in 2000 to amend Michigan’s constitution to allow tax-credit scholarships or vouchers.

There is plenty more about this nominee that skews her viewpoint toward privatizing traditional public schools and, thereby, diverting essential and needed funding away from the education efforts for ALL children.  DeVos is a member of the board of Foundation for Excellence in Education  and  Chair of the American Federation for Children (AFC), which according to Wikipedia,

describes itself as “a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs.”

So with a bias toward vouchers, charter schools, and “choice”, the Department of Education should be in good hands, right?

The time for speaking out is now, before Ms. DeVos’ nomination is approved. Take a close look at the policies and positions Betsy DeVos supports, where she directs her considerable financial resources, and then decide if you are willing to wait to see how this plays out.

My hope is that educators, parents and those interested in education of all students flood the phone lines of our Senators who will make a recommendation on this nomination – those Senators sitting on the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions <link here, scroll to the bottom to see which Senators are on the committee and then contact them>.

If you live in Massachusetts, one of our Senators, Elizabeth Warren, is a member of that committee. Call her office and register your opinion: Washington Office (202) 224-4543, Boston Office (617) 565-3170, or Springfield Office (413) 788-2690.


And Now…. In-Your-Face Prejudice

img_0794Within the past week, our United Teachers of Lowell organized and hosted a FirstBook “Books on Wheels” event where over 2000 students and their families received free books. As we sorted and organized 40,000+ books, we heard about a fire in a near-by Lawrence school, the Bruce School, and the impact of the loss on students, teachers and classrooms. What could we do to help? 

Hearing that the destruction impacted 7th and 8th grade classrooms, we set aside over 500 books from our event to donate to the Bruce School. The books were selected by Lowell middle-school teachers working to unpack pallets, boxed up by students and educators who were volunteering at our event, and picked up on Saturday – our event’s distribution day – by the Principal of the Bruce School and the Lawrence Schools COO. One would think this would be a feel-good moment. Not so fast.

We sent a press release (link here) to the Lawrence Eagle Tribune and other news outlets in the Merrimack Valley. However, the report in the Lawrence Eagle Tribune was not accurate  (I refer to paragraph 3) and stated that all the donated books were in Spanish. This is simply untrue.

As a co-chair of the event, our concern in Lowell was that the diversity of the donated materials from FirstBook (and the Disney Publishing house) would not be reflective of our LOWELL community, and as a Lowell community, we raised funds to supplement the FirstBook truck with many linguistic and culturally diverse books. Those supplemental books, meant for our Lowell families, were not included in the donation to Bruce School.

And so, with inaccurate reporting, the caller to the United Teachers of Lowell based her outburst on misinformation. 


Dear Anonymous Caller to the UTL Office,

I regret that I was not there to take your phone call. In what can only be characterized as boorish and rude behavior, I understand you are angry and upset that the United Teachers of Lowell donated books to the Bruce School. You seem to be upset that “we” shouldn’t be giving Spanish language books to “those people”. In fact, how dare we do so?

As I understand it, your objections seem to be focused on the linguistic quality of the books because they were not “American”. Madam, I am not sure which language you consider “American” as most of us are immigrants to this continent, unless you intend for everyone to learn and speak the language of indigenous people.

You are, of course, aware that America is a very large land area which includes countries in both Northern and Southern hemispheres. Just considering the North American continent would encompass at least two other languages, including a very large country to our south where the citizens speak the language you object to, Spanish.

As an acquaintance of mine said to me, recent political posturing appears to have given people a microphone to spout hate and ugliness. So let me be perfectly clear that I do understand the unstated purpose for your telephone call. Racism and intolerance.

Regardless of what the language make up of the donated books, you have boldly allowed your prejudices and bias to reach the point at which you feel free to blast away at an act of generosity from one organization to another without regard to tolerance of differences. Your ignorance is on display.

Unfortunately, the climate of tolerance in our country is being challenged, and an atmosphere of intolerance may become more accepted, even in progressive states such as Massachusetts.

This cannot stand. Your comments were out of line, hateful and intolerant of our communities.


School Committee Meeting, 16 November 2016

IMG_0794School Committee Meeting 16 November 2016

Six present, Mayor Kennedy Absent (SC Gendron presiding)

The attention of the School Committe was on the Middle School Report (Item 12) and Joint Subcommittee Minutes.

Special Order of Business

SC Gendron introduces both Principal Carmona of the Lincoln School and Francey Slater from Mill City Grows to speak about the recent Lincoln School Garden construction; a project video can be found here.  The garden, located  between the Lincoln School and Lincoln Street in what had been an eyesore and abandonded lot, is visioned as a place for extended learning and discovery. Along with the school garden, the space will become a community gardening space.

Permissions to Enter

$9,534 in expenses approved. See detail in the Meeting Packet.


Two motions were presented; both by SC Doherty

  • 2016/456 (J. Doherty): request Superintendent meet with stakeholders to develop/plan for adequate nursing coverage in all schools. SC Doherty points to the important role of nurses in each school for students and staff. Concerned about compliance with state law regarding coverage and high turnover. SC Martin mentions substitute nursing coverage for absentees and school trips should be included (friendly amendment).
  • 2016/457 (J. Doherty): requests Superintendent work with School Committee and City Council Facilities Subcommittees to establish monthly meeting dates to address ongoing maintenance issues. Motion to show solidarity to work with the City regarding issues of building maintenance. By scheduling dates in advance, members not on the subcommittee will have adequate notice and can arrange to attend. Building maintenance ($55 million number includes more than maintenance).  SC Gendron says that misunderstandings arise from miscommunications; would like to change the motion to “bi-monthly” from “monthly”. SC Doherty would like to see more frequent meetings to address critical needs (mentions heat issues in schools) and then possible shift to bi-monthly.

Mr. Hoey speaks about costs charter schools (net school spending for charter schools is $14 million – not all of this is maintenance). For the City Public Schools Mr. Frisch confirms $400,000-$500,000.

Subcommittee Report

The Joint Facilities Subcommittee report from November 2, 2016 and Item 12 (2016/450 Middle School Report) were taken together. SC Martin takes chair as this is SC Gendron’s report. See notes on this meeting here (11/2) or Meeting Packet p 30-32 and Middle School Report on p 71-73 of the Meeting Packet.

See report in the Meeting Packet. Maintenance already addressed. Superintendent Khelfaoui through Mr. Frisch reports on middle school crowding and a plan requested by SC Gendron for addressing the middle school bubble.

Four classrooms needed at STEM Academy (1 year solution for 2017-18) for grades 5-6. Recommendation for a permanent solution for a middle school solution after that time. Notes that class sizes of 26-30 students per class are lowered when considering pull-out students in Grade 5 (pull-out services for 60% of the day).  Mr. Frisch will confirm his understanding that 150 Grade 5 students across the City are pulled out for some portion of the instructional day.

As much as possible, under the law, there is a requirement that students are instructed using the Least Restricted Environment (LRE). Sometimes this involves adaptations of the instruction planned by the “regular education” classroom teacher working with a special education teacher, and sometimes, as determined through Special Education evaluation testing and collaboration between the team (educators, parents and specialized therapists/instructiors) the student’s need requires more intensive instruction or pull-out instruction.

Under the pull-out model for special needs, students go to locations other than the regular classroom for specialized instruction as outlined in each students Individualized Education Plan or IEP. Students may be pulled out for intervals during the school day up to 60% of the total school day. The remaining 40% of the day, the students are with their peers in the regular classroom setting. For example, if a student’s need is determined to be only in the realm of mathematics, the student may go to a separate space to receive the instruction that is needed for academic growth for just the mathematics portion of the school day instruction and will remain in the regular classroom for all other instruction and activity during the day.  

Mr. Frisch is pointing out that in considering the class sizes at the Middle Schools the size of each instructional class can be somewhat lower due to the numbers of students who receive this smaller group or pull-out instruction.

Mr. Frisch detailed the costs of adding classroom space at the STEM Academy for 2017-18.  These costs include: four teachers (approximately $480,000), an additional custodian ($55,000), guidance counselor ($80,000), and supplies/furnishing which will total $440,000.  Mr. Frisch is still calculating the costs associated with the permanent solution of a new STEM Academy.

SC Gendron states 27.25 students this year and the STEM solution 26.66 for 2017-18.  Mr. Frisch notes that an additional 60 students could possibly transition to a Charter School in 2017-18 which would result in a further reduction.  This does not, however, take into consideration that any students who transition to a Charter School would result in lowered per pupil monies received by the City from the Commonwealth.

The new classroom spaces would be obtained through reuse of the home economics and office space conversion . Mr. Hoey notes there could be six possible spaces when considering some spaces he noticed during a recent tour (removal of TV Studio for example).  He notes that the increased student population (over 700 students) may necessitate the need for an addditional Assistant Principal. Mr. Frisch asserts that the District would prefer to avoid moving children in a CSA classroom (CSA means Children on the Spectrum of Autism).

Superintendent Khelfaoui points to the transition from Grade 5 to 6 is not as easy a transition as it is for students coming from Grade 4 to the middle grades, Grade 5.  Charter School increased capacity (32 fifth graders anticipated to move to Charter Schools) may impact the configuration of the short-term plan.  School Committee and District will need to come to a decision about whether the STEM Academy become K-8 or is divided into 2 schools (K-4 and 5-8). Many middle schools are reaching the 700 student population – whether or not that threshold triggers the need for a new assistant principalship will become a decision impacting more than just the STEM School (Sullivan School for example is already at close to this threshold).

SC Martin states that the original intent of the STEM school model was predicated on the Stoklosa being built with the STEM curriulum and focus in mind. School Committee will need to address the “what’s next” for STEM facilities in the near future. Superitendent Khelfaoui reminds the Committee that there is no longer any capacity to transition STEM Academy students back into all the other Middle School buildings; there is no additional physical space to include Grades 7 and 8 at the Rogers site on Highland Street.  The conversations for addressing capacity with the City (building, leasing space, etc.) has not yet been started. When the High School project is completed there will be a possibility of addressing the capacity for the seventh grade (in 2018-19) will be less problematic, but that is a long way off.

SC Martin speaks to the original intent of creating a STEM school had been in conjunction with building a new middle school.  Reconfiguring the grade structures could have unintended consequences that the School Committee and Administration needs to examine carefully and thoughtfully. A longer term solution will need to take place now as opposed to 6 months from now.

SC Doherty suggests looking at other options such as centralizing all Grade 8 students in one location (or, as previously suggested, putting all the Pre-Kindergarten in one location).  Superintendent Khelfaoui states that adding students to Lowell High during construction will be more than difficult to manage. The School Department and City will need to meet collaboratively to form the ultimate solution.

Accepted as a Report of Progress.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were four items under Reports of the Superintendent, including 2016/450 which was taken out of order during Public Participation.

  • 2016/445: Youth Summit Report See page 34-35 of the Meeting Packet for details.
  • 2016/446: BRIDGE Annual Report. See pages 37-62 of the Meeting Packet. This is an alternative education program which has been directed through Middlesex Community College and which will be transitioned to fully under the auspices of the Lowell Public Schools.
  • 2016/449 : Monthly Budget Reportt.  See pages 64-70 of the Meeting Packet.

A donation of 60 books to the Office of Student Support Services and the Convention and Conference Requests (2) were all approved.

Meeting Packet can be found here.

Election Day Thoughts, 2016

This morning I was up early and set out to vote at 7 am. There was a small line already when we arrived prior to the 7 am opening and the usual early-morning rough start as poll workers get into their rhythm.

No surprise here – I am a woman, a registered Democrat – and I proudly cast my vote for Hillary Clinton.

I was thinking about other strong women in my own life who have shaped me. My great-grandmother, Minnie Palmer Flournoy, was a suffragette. I never met her, but studying our family’s story, I am not too surprised that she felt compelled to march for women’s voting rights. Minnie Palmer Flournoy became a widow after her husband Richard was killed tragically in a train accident. My grandfather, her youngest of two children, was 1 at the time. The railroad for which my great-grandfather Flournoy worked barely offered compensation or accepted responsibility for his death. Minnie fought that decision, but was turned down.

Returning to her family in Stanhope, MO, Minnie worked as a chamber maid, eventually moving to St. Joseph, MO where she ran a boarding house and worked as a seamstress.  She raised two smart and independently minded children who were devoted to her throughout her life.

My grandmother Edna Wyant, who married Minnie’s son, was another strong woman who was given the right to vote thanks to the 19th Amendment. I’m sure my own Mother can verify this – I believe Edna voted in every single election for which she was eligible.  She became a factory worker during World War II in order to do her part. As far as I know, she voted a straight Republican ticket every single time that I know of.  Even Nixon. As family stories go, my Grandfather would vote in opposition, so my grandparents cancelled each other out.  I wonder if she might have made an exception this time.

My aunt, Eleanor, my Father’s older sister, managed an insurance office full of men. She was opinionated and tough – characteristics that she no doubt cultivated because she was a woman working in a man’s world. Imagine how hard it must have been to be taken seriously back in the 1950s and 1960s.  I can’t help but think she’d be interested in the election today.

And I was thinking of my Mom, Sarah Flournoy Puglisi, as I cast my vote this morning. She was the first of her family to attend college. She raised 4 of us and still leads by example with generosity and service. I think she’s voted in every election (although unlike her Mother, not always Republican – right Mom?). At 93, she’ll be voting this morning in the swing state of New Hampshire.  So if you were entertaining the thought of not bothering, get off your duff and go vote. If Grandma Sarah can get herself to the polls at age 93, you can too.

This morning as I voted, I thought of all these wonderful strong women and how amazing it is to see the cracks in that glass ceiling.  As a woman working in business in the 1970s and 1980s, I feel the deep sense of privilege to be able to vote and witness this historic election. We’re not just fetching coffee or drycleaning for “the boss”, we may just end up being the boss. We’re knocking on the door of the White House. And hopefully putting a large hole in that ceiling’s cracked glass.

School Committee Meeting, 02 November 2016

IMG_0794School Committee Meeting

Six present, Mr. Descoteaux absent

Along with the prior meeting’s minutes, the minutes of the Special School Committee Meeting held on October 27, 2016 were approved. The October 27 meeting topic was Superintendent Khelfaoui’s evaluation.

Permissions to Enter

$51,060 in expenses approved. See detail in the Meeting Packet.

Public Participation

Otse Omeyeni, Lowell High School Senior Class President, spoke in favor of Agenda Item 2016/437, a proposal that would include a non-voting student representative in the School Committee.  After this presentation, the School Committee decided to take this item (Number 11 on the Agenda) out of order in order to facilitate discussion.

The Committee members were generally in support of this agenda item; however, because of several corrections necessary to the proposal as worded (clarification that student representatives would not participate in Executive Sessions, for example), it has been referred to the Lowell High School Subcommittee for clarification.


Two motions were presented; both by Mr. Gignac

  • 2016/432 (R. Gignac): Requests the Superintendent write a formal letter of thanks to members of the Lowell Fire Department for their generosity in providing winter coats for Lowell Public Schools students under their Coats for Ann Program.
  • 2016/433 (R. Gignac): Request that Lowell Public Schools participate in the Massachusetts Youth Summit on Opiate Awareness taking place at the Tsongas Center.

Subcommittee Report

The Finance Subcommittee met on October 26, 2016 to develop a policy for “permission to enter”  and a policy for budget transfer.  The details for these policies are found in the Meeting Packet on p 33-34

Reports of the Superintendent

There were five items under Reports of the Superintendent, including 2016/437 which was taken out of order during Public Participation.

  • 2016/434, Community Service Learning See page 36-37 of the Meeting Packet for details submitted by each school.
  • 2016/437: LHS Representative Proposal. Taken out of order under Public Participation.
  • 2016/435: School Site Councils. See pages 45-49 of the Meeting Packet for each school’s Council make-up and schedule of meetings. A suggestion was made that in the future, whether the member is part of the faculty or a parent of a student would be helpful.
  • 2016/436 LHS Atheltic Rule 53 Waiver Request.  Mr. DeProfrio spoke about the value of including students from the middle school in programs such as hockey not only help to build an individual sports program, but to enable students who might not have financial means o afford the expense of early instruction in a sport to more fully participate.
  • 2016/438 MASS EEC Fiscal and Program Compliance Review. Reports starts on p 54 of the Meeting Packet.

Convention and Conference Requests (3) were all approved.

Meeting Packet can be found here.

Joint Facilities Subcommittee Meeting, 02 November 2016

IMG_0891Joint Facilities SubCommittee Meeting (School Committee and City Council)

Six present

The meeting was requested jointly by the Lowell School Committee and the Municipal Facility Subcommittee. It took place prior to the regularly scheduled School Committee Meeting for the purpose of addressing two agenda items.

Agenda Item 1: Discuss the Superintendent’s plan to address the over-crowding in middle schools in the 20170-2018 school year.

Gary Frisch addresses joint committee. Superintendent & Leadership Team worked together to provide recommendation. Enrollment last year went up 137 students at middle school, 176 total for grades K-12. Additionally,  4 5th-grade classes were added last year.  Class size calculated for 2017-18, average 26.3 to 30.5/classroom (predictions of 32 last year) without adding classrooms. SC Gendron notes last year the projection was 28-30 with Rogers/Wang solution in place.  Adding classrooms at STEM Academy would reduce class sizes city-wide (4 sections of 5th, 2 sections of 6th – increase 4 new classroom spaces at STEM Academy as students move to next grade level).  The plan involves converting two spaces – home ec & TV studio plus conversion of smaller divided instructional spaces. The LPSD would need to promote the STEM Academy as a Middle School option to the Grade 4 students transitioning to Middle School for 2017-18.

The student population at the STEM Academy would increase from 606 to 756 students and would require additional staff and supply resources.

SC Gendron asks about how the proposed plan impacts class size.  Mr. Frisch believes these adaptations bring average class size to 26-28.  Questioned if the average would be reduced, Mr. Frisch believes the average would be reduced.

SC notes current report states 28 students per class is a “band-aid” and doesn’t like putting a temporary solution in place. What happens if the proposal before the committee is not agreed upon? Mr. Frisch believes the current fifth grade students would be matriculated to 6th grade at STEM.  SC Gignac asks if this 2017-18 plan in not in place, what would happen.  Mr. Frisch reiterates that 4 fourth-grades at Rogers going to fifth grade plus 2 fifth grades going to 6th grade would mean additional classrooms.

SC Hoey wonders about adding a fifth grade to each PK-4 school. Mr. Frisch says new high school project may provide different space capacity (opening the Freshman Academy).  Currently space options are limited as buildings are at capacity. Present time is a space crunch but administration looking at adding space without using modular (not cost-effective and are quite expensive). CC Hoey reiterates that the high school project is about five years off so that makes the impact of the high school project something to consider for the future.

CC Leahy questions STEM Academy capacity proposal (150 students). What additional resources will be needed? Mr. Frisch notes a need for additional teachers, an additional assistant principal, and other resources. CC Leahy states he is not aware that the new high school project might prompt closing of the Freshman Academy. SC Gendron says this is an idea that was “floated” but it is one of several suggestions for configuration of grades after the high school project is completed.  CC Leahy still concerned about class size. CC Samaras notes he would like more of the report to look at (much of the report appeared to be delivered verbally) and wonders about the feasibility of an “extended day” (requires agreement of parents, school department, bargaining units).  He would prefer to see money spent on teachers over acquiring physical spaces temporarily.

SC Gendron expresses concern that this is a “band-aid”: too late in bid for modulars similar to the solution arrived at last school year. and voices opinion this proposal is a “band-aid on a band-aid.” A reasonable class size needs to be prioritized. SC Gignac would like some consideration given to what happens in 2018-19 with STEM Academy students who will be seventh graders.  He suggest that his prior request for an RFP for modulars should have been addressed. He suggests it would be useful to see a comprehensive plan with multiple scenarios.

Mr. Frisch expresses that the goal of 26 students (or less) per average class gives the school Leadership Team a target and is helpful in developing a plan with the Leadership Team. SC Gendron expresses that a lower average class size (20) would be even more preferable.

CC Mercier would have appreciated a written plan at the meeting. Would like a report in the City Council packet by Friday. Mr. Frisch states that a report could be in packet the following Friday. Notes the many costs that are associated with adding classroom (buses, personnel, supplies).  SC Hoey notes that the staffing in schools with close to 16,000 students in the schools is an issue to consider; notes 20 years ago, Lowell built many schools to accommodate student population.  CC Leahy notes the lowest class size should be what we try for. CC Samaras urges consideration of an extended day. and would like the school department to consider programming that may not be working well. By analyzing the programming, there may be a gain in space. Encourages a study of programs to see if any changes of this nature might be necessary.

Agenda Item 2: Discussion regarding facility maintenance in schools and school grounds.

CC Leahy notes that the purpose of this discussion is to come up with a better plan to maintain Lowell’s schools.  Notes that there have been changes in the players.  Is there a way to stay ahead of the repairs/work orders? Notes that in his touring of facilities, noted disrepair of the high school building and that some of the issues seem to be ongoing.  Especially concerned about the process in getting repairs done; it shouldn’t take a year to make minor repairs. November 1 should not be when broken heating equipment is discovered. We can’t let the high school fall down around us because we’re expecting a new one.

Mr. Frisch notes that the School Department is responsible for cleaning of the building. Proposes a joint administrative committee to work on the maintenance issues and states that deferred maintenance is bad for student learning. Definition of shared responsiblities needs better articulation. Current status is unacceptable.

CC Samaras agrees with frustrations and notes never enough money to do everything we need to do.  Asks how school administration/custodial staff and central office staff prioritize the work that needs to be completed. Finding fault should not be the purpose of this review. Focus on the process that will ensure students are in a comfortable and safe situation.

CC Mercier notes 19 schools with a boiler, roof leak or air handler leak problem. How did it get to this point that they are leaking simultaneously? What is the plan to address this? Mr. Frisch agrees the current status is unacceptable.  Notes need for urgent plan to address these repairs and that every child needs a healthy learning environment.  CC Mercier states that heating and the need for students need to wear coats in a classroom is a concern that needs to be addressed.

CC Leahy notes that new people in place and the need to reorganize and manage this better. SC Hoey asks about the amount for charge-backs from City to School Deparment.  SC Gendron reminds joint committee that all the equipment in the schools built 30 years ago are all turning 30 at the same time (and needing major repair/replacement). Requests Mr. Underwood to speak to facilities status.  Mr. Underwood suggests that custodial staff could do some of the things that do not require permits; however collective bargaining limits that.  Willing to think “outside the box”, but at times limited by what is and is not allowable. Had requested Senior Custodians submit a priority list which joint committee has before them tonight.

Manager Murphy cites unfairness of characterizing DPW as not doing the best they can. All the heating issues were addressed and states we (City) will continue to work as a partnership. DPW is doing best job possible.

CC Samaras expresses a need for more communication between the School Committee and City Council. This is the time to have a paradigm shift. SC Gignac notes that a similar discussion was held four years ago; a rprioritized eport with more information is needed. Collaborative work should happen more frequently.

Report of progress. Motion to adjourn.