Another Reason for Increased Recess

2013fielddayaI wonder how many other adults have experienced this? After about 30 minutes of intense focus, there is a need to get up and move. For me, moving around when I am actively engaging my brain applies in nearly every circumstance, and I notice it most especially during some training or class when my brain is powered up and I’m trying hard to retain new information.

An article republished in the New York Times’ Well column made me think of how sitting and movement impact learning for all students regardless of age level. Written for runners and titled Can Running Make You Smarter, the article was originally published in July 2016. Here are some major take-aways from the article:

  • exercise fosters neurogenesis, or creation of neurons which cluster in the brain and increase ability for thinking and recall
  • physical stimulation is necessary for healthy brains
  • Cathepsin B protein, which helps muscles recover from exercise such as running, appears to be a factor in neurogenesis
  • in the study, more active subjects like runners had better and more improved tests scores for memory and thinking

So what’s the connection to students and learning? Here’s my take:

One of the first things schools jettison when time-on-task and test preparation becomes the focus, is recess. Recess is short-changed in many schools across the US even though research study after research study shows that children need recess and breaks from more academic pursuits in order to learn and think. Google the phrase “importance of recess” and page upon page of research pops up. And then, of course, you could just ask a teacher.

Recess is important. If this study is taken seriously, active play during recess appears to be even more important. Recently, in response to School Committee member Jackie Doherty’s motion of January 18, 2017, the Lowell Schools reported (click here for the report from the February 15 meeting packet) on the number of minutes allocated for recess at each Lowell Public Schools. The times ranged from zero minutes at Lowell High School and alternative school settings to 20 minutes at several elementary schools (25 for some Kindergarten classrooms).

The studies cited in Can Running Make You Smarter point once again to the importance of allowing students enough time to be active throughout the school day. Isn’t that a good reason to pay greater attention on finding some additional recess and play time in the school day?


School Committee Meeting, 15 March 2017

10012015FrenchStImagine for a moment that you are 10 years old, speak another language at home, and as kids sometimes do, have heard the adults in your family expressing concern about Immigration returning you and your family to another country where your life had been one filled with violence and poverty.  Worries about being removed from this new place where you had felt safe might naturally fill your waking thoughts. And those worries would, of course, extend to the place where you, a ten-year-old, spends the greater part of each day: your school. Last night, the Lowell School Committee ensured that, at least within the walls of school, a child whose family’s immigration status might be called in to question could know that they would not be forcibly removed from their school and classmates. While the School Committee’s motion and School Department’s response is reassuring for that child during time spent within the school setting, there is no guarantee of protection outside of it. Whether a 10-year-old refugee can differentiate that remains to be seen.

School Committee Meeting 15 March 2017

5 members present (Ms. Martin absent), Student representative: Onoste Omoyeni

Spotlight on Excellence & Permissions to Enter.

Please refer to packet and agenda. LTC neglected to start the broadcast at the beginning of this meeting.


Six motions :

  • 6.I. [By Jacqueline Doherty]: Request the Superintendent provide the committee with recommendations for increasing the compensation of our Substitute Teachers to be competitive in today’s education market along with the data to support such increases. Request the Superintendent provide the committee with recommendations for increasing the compensation of our Substitute Teachers to be competitive in today’s education market along with the data to support such increases.
  • 6.II. [By Jacqueline Doherty]: Request the Superintendent ensure the LPS website is updated, links to packet reports are working, and each school page provides information on its School Site Council members, meeting times, agendas, and minutes along with other relevant school-specific dates, events and information. THIS IS WHERE THE MEETING COVERAGE BEGINS. 
  • 6.III. [By Steve Gendron] Request the Superintendent develop a class size policy for Lowell Public Schools that includes current status and goals for all grades K- 12.
  • 6.IV. [By Connie Martin And Robert Gignac] Request that the Administration prepare a resolution for consideration by the Lowell School Committee that clearly defines the district’s commitment to protecting our students, regardless of their immigration status and offers all LPS staff a clear procedure for ensuring that no Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will be granted access to the Lowell Public Schools without the expressed permission of the Superintendent of Schools.

Taking Item 8.7 (resolution) which is the response at the same time. There was mention of a registered speaker, but that person did not materialize. The motion and response found in 8.VII are a response to discussion with Superintendent re families who had received letters from Immigration about their immigration status. Mr. Gignac feels it is imperative that the SC takes a formal position so that students do not feel unsafe or fearful while they are in school.

Mr. Hoey asks Superintendent if this resolution could negatively impact government grants. When the City Council took up the Sanctuary City issue earlier this year, one of the reasons for not supporting such a motion was that the City, highly dependent upon federal funding, could possibly find those funds removed or suspended should Lowell adopt a sanctuary city policy.  Superintendent  states he does not know the definitive answer to this query; however, Dr. Khelfaoui notes that tonight’s policy is reflective of the state policy. Students need to feel safe in schools or they are not learning. Ms. Omoyeni expresses support for this motion on behalf of the students at LHS.  Mr. Gendron also expresses support; Lowell is and continues to be a city of immigrants and we should support them by removing any concerns that these students could potentially be removed forcibly from school during the school day.

Ms. Doherty echoes this sentiment as does Mr. Descoteaux. Superintendent Khelfaoui reiterates that the policy as presented tonight has been in place in the LPSD. It has been vetted by the Police Department and is legally correct.  Dr. Khelfaoui states that this policy is intended to reassure children, some of whom have already received notices from Immigration, that whatever their status, the children can regard their school as a place of safety.

Mr. Gendron reiterates that it is exactly because of the situation at the federal level that Lowell needs to put this policy in writing for peace of mind and safety of students and their families. Ms. Omoyeni also notes anectdotally that there have been some increased absences and it is the moral obligation of our community to ensure that students know they are safe.  Mr. Kennedy notes the difference in the role of the school committee as different from the City Council in creating a sancutary city.  In response to Mr. Hoey’s question about how ICE would know a students’ status, Dr. Khelfaoui responds that there is legal processes in place which prohibit just anyone from accessing students’ school records.

This issue is divisive and complicated and, as I am not a legal expert. I do note that bowing to pressure and threats about loss of funding from the federal government concerns me. Other cities such as Boston – also heavily reliant on federal funds – have taken steps to become sanctuary cities.  Role Call:  5 yeas, 1 abstain, 1 absent – approved

  • 6.V. [Robert J. Hoey]: Request a report from the Superintendent regarding the total cost of security and safety in our schools, including the amount we spend on resource officers, security and security equipment.
  • 6.VI. [By Steve Gendron] Request the Superintendent provide a response to the contract offer from the Lowell School Committee. Referred to Executive Session which follows this meeting.

Policy Subcommittee

Review of Homework Policy and Staff Sick Time.

Ms. Desmond reviews the current policy which is based on number of minutes. She is approaching building leaders to reinforce that homework might be differentiated and evaluated in a more meaningful way.  Mr. Gendron notes that a student has contacted all the Committee members and his wish is that homework is less about quantity and more about making homework a more effective activity. Ms. Omoyeni also speaks to the importance of ensuring that homework is designed to be more than busywork.

The second part of the report was about sick time. This report was intended to provide information to the City. Ms. Doherty noted a motion was made to request Human Resources formalize the policy on staff attendance on purpose. Accepted as a report of progress.

 Reports of the Superintendent

There were 9 items under Reports of the Superintendent.

8.I. Food Service Presentation At Satellite Sites & Food Truck Approval Documents

The food truck purchase would be (partially) reimbursed through the distribution of summer meals. The vehicle would also be used during the school year to transport meals to satellite schools (those without food prep kitchens).

Mr. Gignac clarifies that $14K is returned to Aramark for meals served; $45K costs include personnel in the Food Service Department working through the summer. Questions re re-serving food that has been stored in the (refriegerated) truck. Leaving food in a truck, even if refrigerated is a concern (break-ins). Expresses the opinion that we should fix what we currently have and does not feel that the $14K in administrative fees turned back to Aramark is problematic.

Mr. Hoey asks who is paying for the truck; Dr. Khelfaoui confirms the truck is paid from the “revolving account”, which is also used for other direct costs for the food program. The money originates from the federal government. Mr. Hoey also notes that cafeteria staff is hired to work 3.5 hours daily. Advocates for a 5 hour day.

Ms. Doherty notes the reality of poverty in Massachusetts and in Lowell. Being able to feed students throughout the summer and taking the food to where the children play/are, will lead to a positive outcome.

Regarding food quality, Mr. Gignac notes positive improvements in food quality in a short amount of time.

Providing meals to children throughout the summer is something Lowell should support. When the Commonwealth calculates the “Economically Disadvantaged” student percentage in Lowell at 55%, it is an understatement of reality borne by fuzzy mathematical computation. I taught in several schools where the actual number of students in poverty was over 90%. Those kids are hungry and school meals, as well as food provided by organizations like Merrimack Valley Food Bank, might be the only nutrition they receive.  

In my opinion, expanding food distribution throughout the summer is a moral obligation to help children in need. What I am having difficulty understanding is the fact that the School Department is being asked to purchase a new truck for Aramark. This new truck would be used for summer food distribution as well as delivery of meals to satellite schools during the school year (satellite schools are schools without food preparation facilities). The “administrative” costs for the summer food program is $14,000, which is the cost Aramark assesses for what I understand is overhead at the corporate level.

The new truck will ostensibly be purchased to distribute meals to students “where they are” during the summer months. Those places include program sites, playgrounds, etc.  The new truck will be used to replace 3 smaller vehicles currently in use for school-year meal delivery to satellite schools. Because the truck is bigger and has a refrigeration feature (no warming option), only 2 food service employees will be needed to staff it, eliminating need for one food service employee for 2017-18.  

Roll call to send truck request to bid (4 yeas, 2 nay, 1 absent). Approved. Report accepted as a report of progress.

8.II. Dropout Prevention And Recovery Documents LHS dropout rate reflects the hard work and coordination of efforts PreK-Grade 12.  LHS Dropout rate is 1.8% (below the Massachusetts state average) for 2 years in a row.

8.III. Extracurricular Activities Update Documents

8.IV. K-12 Student Population By Zip Code Documents Ms. Doherty requests the report be referred to Finance/Student Services Subcommittee.

8.V. Management Letter Documents: Mr. Gignac asks about some funds that had been returned to DESE, but then returned to LPS and used for a summer SpEd program.

8.VI. Response To Mayor Kennedy’s Motion Of 02/01/17 Regarding STEM Academy At LHS Documents 

8.VII. Rights Of Undocumented Students And Protocols For ICE Access In Schools

Documents Taken previously

8.VIII. Monthly Financial Report Documents Referred to next Finance Subcommittee Meeting.

8.IX. Response To Robert Hoey’s Motion Of 01/04/17 Regarding Diversity Hiring Efforts

Documents Mr. Hoey requests Anne Sheehy’s explanation of Paraprofessional cohort and the opportunity to obtain teaching licensure. Lowell has applied to offer licensure through a program in the district which would in turn create a pool of diverse candidates for teaching positions. Ms. Doherty spoke to encouragement of students in High School who would be candidates for paraprofessional positions and who might go on to a career as an educator. Mr. Gignac reminds that there is state aid/assistance for tuition through EEC (Early Education & Care).

All approved 6 yeas, 1 absent

All conference requests were also approved.

Following adjournment, the Committee went into Executive Session.

Meeting detail and support documentation  can be found here.

The Test Participation Penalty

I wonder how many parents have submitted a letter to opt a child out of state mandated testing (MCAS2.0)? And in the process of opting-out, were any of those parents called to discuss their choice with the school administrator? IMG_1596

According to the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, parents need to have a choice in a child’s education. It appears, however, that “choice” has limits.

According to state and federal government, there should be a “choice” of educational setting.  School setting is a choice, whether it is public, charter, private, or religious. That’s a good choice according to the government. Using federal funds to pay for vouchers? That’s the current federal proposal. And our government claims that that kind of choice is also a “good” choice.

However, if you exercise your parental judgement by choosing to opt your child out of long, arduous, standardized tests like MCAS 2.0 or PARCC, then your choice as a parent is questionable. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education really does not want parents to make that choice. Why? Because in assessments, unless a significant number of students participate in those tests, the reported results may become skewed or inaccurate.

The issue of test participation rates is part of the newest federal education act, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). The current DESE draft of Massachusetts’ ESSA application states that:

E. Participation Rate. Describe how the State is factoring the requirement for 95 percent student participation in assessments into its system of annual meaningful differentiation of schools consistent with the requirements of 34 C.F.R. § 200.15.

A school’s summative performance level will be lowered if that school assesses less than 95% of students in the aggregate or for any subgroup that meets a minimum N size of 20.

Broken down to simpler terms, this statement means that if a group of parents decides that MCAS 2.0, the standardized test in Massachusetts, is harmful to their child, the entire school and school district could be penalized. The penalty is to lower a school’s rating (Level 1, high to Level 5, low) by one level if less than 95% of students eligible for testing participate.

Here’s a mathematical example: A Pre-K through Grade 4 school may have 500 students. The two grades that participate in state testing within that school are Grades 3 and 4. Perhaps there are 100 students in each of these grades (200 total). If the parents of 11 student request that their children be excused from MCAS 2.0, as is their parental right, then according to the regulation, the state will lower the school’s level rating by one.

I believe a new feature of the ESSA draft is that participation rates apply to subgroups of students. An example of a subgroup would  be a group of students from a given school who are also identified as English Language Learners, Students with Disabilities, or Economically Disadvantaged students.  Applying the 5% non-participation rate penalty, if there are 25 children identified as Students with Disabilities in Grades 3 and 4, and parents of as few as 2 students choose to opt them out, then the school’s level rating could be lowered.

The stakes for building and district administrators to maintain excellent school ratings are quite high, and therein lies the conflict between parental choice and the unfair penalties for participation rates. The feds bully the states, the states in turn bully the districts, and the principals and parents are caught up in a conflict of choosing what is best for students.

Parents should not have their decision as to whether or not to subject their child to standardized MCAS 2.0 testing questioned if opting-out is truly a choice. If too many opt-outs skew the test results, maybe it’s time to look at the value of the assessment.

Not-the-Notes Blog 1 March 2017

2017-mar-01_walkinglowell_0456Something happened this evening preventing the live broadcast of Lowell’s School Committee Meeting for March 1. Until the taped meeting materializes, there won’t be any notes about what transpired; however, this doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to think about.

Found in the Permissions to Enter, are 4 requests totaling $882,470. All of these requests are expenditures from the Special Education Tuition account and are for Out of District (OOD) costs to agencies servicing student Individual Education Plans (IEPs).

When the services necessary to provide a free and adequate education for a student cannot be met within the local school district, they must be contracted out. It is the legal responsibility of the school district to ensure that all students have access to the educational services that they need, and if the services cannot be provided from within, the district must provide those services through an agency that can. No one gets turned away because educational needs are challenging.

All of the recent talk about vouchers and funding and such got me thinking about this. With the implementation of a voucher, or “school choice” program, would there be a requirement for all school settings (public, charter, private/religious) to equitably accept students regardless of special education need?

Here’s how that is playing out right now in Lowell. Students receiving services are counted as Students with Disabilities on DESE’s student profile for Lowell Public School District. This number is reported at 16% (data from 2016-17). There are several educational environments for special education service delivery as shown in the following graphic. This data, the most recent on DESE’s Lowell Public Schools profile site, is from 2015 and is the most recent reported on DESE’s site. The data includes children aged 6-21 with IEPs.


Lowell Public Schools, Educational Environments (2015 data)


In thinking about what might happen should a voucher program become reality, I took a look at what currently occurs with traditional public schools and charter schools. Charter Schools should reflect a similar demographic to the local public school district. In principle, sometimes charter schools do, but sometimes they do not.

In Lowell, the Community Charter School reports 15.5% of enrolled students have disabilities, yet the Collegiate Charter School reports 11.6% (both 2016-17 data, same timeframe as reported for LPSD above).

Using the most recent data available for educational environments (2015), however, reveals that sometimes digging deeper into data can be interesting. Take a look at the data specifying educational environment, especially those environments that require specialized intervention and services, such as Out of District placements.


Lowell Community Charter School, Educational Environments (2015 data)


Collegiate Charter School of Lowell, Educational Environments (2015 data)

Neither of the two charter schools have special education students needing either substantially separate services or separate schools/facilities/homebound-hospital placements?

So as the proponents of a voucher, or “choice” system continue to push their agenda forward, I’ll be watching to see if those hollering about choice for all families and students really mean all. Or do they mean just those students with less challenging needs.