It Isn’t Just the Cuts

undefined Budget season is going full tilt in Lowell and the outlook is definitely not very palatable.

The School Department is running on fumes: no K-8 libraries this past academic year, proposed cuts to fine arts positions, proposals to cut services for students in guidance, behavioral supports, Special Education. Who knows where it will end?

Well, here’s where I get off:

I think a question should not be just about what services and positions will need to be cut. I think the big questions is this: Why isn’t the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adequately funding schools so our children receive all of the services they need to succeed? 

By all, I mean: why are schools going without libraries, or technology, or nurses, or social workers, or paraprofessionals, or class sizes that enable an educator to address the needs of the students in front of them in a consistent, thoughtful, reflective way? Why are these and other services that enable our English Language Learners, our Special Education students and our students living in trauma and poverty to be better supported on the chopping block?

Today, across Massachusetts, educators, parents, students, community members are gathering in both Boston and Springfield to SHOW our Legislators that we are not willing to accept the flimsy excuses that have left public school funding scratching for scraps for the last 25-plus years. We are showing up to let you all know IN PERSON that it is beyond time to fix the Foundation Formulas and that our Commonwealth needs to fund our schools so that all of our youngest citizens get an equitable and adequately funded public education.

So even though I could be doing about a million other things today, I will show up, not only for the Rally at 5, but also to engage any Legislator who will agree to speak with me about the importance of funding our future through supporting the Promise Act and the Cherish Act. This is for all the students I’ve taught, the ELLs, the SpED students, the children living in poverty – and for my baby granddaughter, who just might be able to attend a fully and adequately funded school when she enters Kindergarten five years from now if the Promise Act is passed this year.

And that is why I’ll be attending today’s Rally to Fund Our Future on the Common. Will you?

I’m Not Giving Up On You

Maybe you’ve seen this awesome YouTube video floating around. If not, take a listen to the PS22 Chorus led by Gregg Breinberg, singing with Andy Grammer.

Look at the faces on the students who are about as engaged as any child can be. These are fifth graders and they are not only having the time of their life, they are making a memory never to be forgotten. What would their school experience be if there were no music opportunities in their young lives?

The former music educator in me can certainly appreciate the skill and organization that propels this group of musicians. But I would argue that the connection made to an art like music is just as important.

As a high school freshman, when my Dad’s career took him to New England. it was music that made the culture shock of moving from the comfortable Midwestern community in which I had grown up more bearable. There were friendships that were made in the music room; it was a place where I had something in common with my otherwise foreign New England peers. It was the only place I felt less of a freak or outsider.

What if that safe place that my high school’s music program provided had not been available to me? Because I was different, I already felt a lot of teenaged alienation, and yet, the experience of practicing with other students in our orchestra and chorus helped me to belong. And by belonging, I had a pathway in as a student; it made me into an engaged learner which is something that has stayed with me throughout my life.

One of the impacts bothering me about the test-driven curriculum that we see today is that the arts are in increased danger of losing funding during tough budget times. The disciplines of music and art are often looked upon a frills. I would disagree.

While not every student will choose a career as an artist or musician, our schools should be places where students can experience and appreciate the arts in a personal way. Sometimes, as it was for me, that encounter with the arts may become the difference between a dismal and exceptional educational experience.

As the budget season gets underway in our public schools, Gateway communities in Massachusetts are faced decisions about which programs to keep and which will be cut. When municipal school budgets like we see in Gateway cities do not adequately provide for educational expenses, the temptation will always be to jettison the arts. That I believe is not only short-sighted, it is wrong.

The solution, however, is within our grasp. With 25-year-old Foundation Budget formulas driving which programs are funded and which are not, the answer lies with the Legislature’s capacity for adopting the Promise Act and for making progress toward fully and adequately funding all of our public schools.

So on May 16, I’ll be on the Boston Common rallying with my colleagues to demand our Legislature does the right thing for our students. Somewhere in that crowd might be a young person for whom the arts is a safe way to engage in learning, just as it was for me. I not only won’t give up on you. I cannot give up.

The Envelop System of Foundation Budgets

When I first met my mother-in-law, I was totally fascinated by the organization she used to allocate family finances, the system we fondly refer to as the “envelop system”. My mother-in-law would take an amount of money each week, break it down into smaller portions, and put each portion in its own coin-sized manila envelop which was kept handy throughout the week.

For example, if she budgeted $100 for food shopping throughout the week, five $20-bills would be put into the grocery envelop. When the money was gone, she either shifted cash from another envelop to buy something or went without until next payday.

In my mind, this is an apt analogy for what is happening in the Foundation Budget nightmare currently in place in our Commonwealth. The Commonwealth assigns a set dollar amount of aid for each community based on particular spending allocations, the chunk of money arrives at the municipality and when it doesn’t fully cover one spending category, the schools shift the funding from one category to another that has been shorted.

However, one of the biggest issues with the Commonwealth’s envelop system is that the money going into each envelop is the same amount as was used in 1993, over 25 years ago. Imagine trying to run your own household using the same amounts of cash as you comfortably spent in 1993.

Lowell Superintendents’ Forum, 4/22/2019

In Lowell, we heard last Monday about a shortfall of nearly 500 classroom teachers each year. Big underfunded and under-calculated items in the Foundation Budget are surely contributing factors to this. If a district such as Lowell has huge differences between the Commonwealth’s foundation budget determinations for school spending and the amount spent is more than what has been put aside, there are two choices.

Applying the “envelop system” demands a municipality either a) add money from the municipal coffers to make up that difference or b) shift funding from one category to another.

Of course these differences between state funding and actual spending are quite common – not to mention quite large – when the basis for the Foundation Budget calculations have not be updated in about 25 years. If state funding is based in the 1990s but actual expenses reflect the reality of 2019, it follows logically that there will be a huge conflict between state funding and reality. The differences are exacerbated when a municipality, like Lowell, Brockton, Springfield or Worcester, cannot contribute beyond what has been calculated in the Foundation Budget numbers, something a more affluent city of town might be able to do. It follows, then that some difficult educational budgeting choices must be made.

A gateway city, like Lowell, has nearly zero percent chance of not feeling some excruciating budget pain which brings us up to the shortfall of 500 classroom teachers. It is indeed painful to Lowell and to our children.

Four major areas – think of them as “envelopes” – need Foundation Budget reform: English Language Learners, Special Education (not including the Circuit Breaker), Health Insurance and Low Income. All of these funding categories are based on amounts that were set in 1993 which means that when one looks at what the Commonwealth funds and what the expense reality in 2019 is, there are huge variances.

Lowell Superintendents’ Forum, 4/22/2019

Let’s consider the budget “envelops” for a couple of these categories. The Foundation Budget calculates Special Education spending at $16.7 million, but the actual cost of Special Education in Lowell is $31.1 million. That’s a difference of $14.4 million which has to come out of one of the other budget envelopes. Health Insurance as budgeted through the Foundation Budget calculations is figured at $17.3 million, but the actual insurance costs, even after switching to a cost-effective plan like the GIC, is $33.1 million. Surely no one in Massachusetts is expecting to pay the same insurance costs as they did in 1993, so is it any wonder that the Foundation Fund amount is so out of whack?

As a taxpayer, a voter, and as a former educator, I am shocked when local politicians claim there’s no money to correct this. I think it is more likely there is no courage because that is what it will take to face the reality of underfunding schools. Revenues to fund schools, as well as transportation and infrastructure, in our Commonwealth are essential.

The envelop is empty and there is no time to waste.


Diversify and Commit

The Lowell Public Schools has a racially and ethnically diverse student population. This chart generated by Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) gives some insight into that.

Data from http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/profiles/student.aspx?orgcode=01600000&orgtypecode=5&

The teaching workforce, however, looks like this:

While the school building administrators (Principals and LSAA) looks like this:

With all the research – Google to find more – on diversification of the workforce and the positive impact on students, clearly Lowell needs to step up.

Lowell also needs to put far more serious import and effort into Human Resources and Recruiting. Recently, both the Interim director of Human Resources AND the Assistant HR Director left their positions. The School Department’s CFO is apparently attempting to take on many of the HR Director’s responsibilities.

In my opinion, that is definitely NOT OKAY. In order to recruit and retain diverse, qualified candidates for positions within the Lowell Public Schools, this department needs a full-time and, dare I say, professionally trained HR Director. If Lowell Public Schools is serious about diversifying the workforce to be more of a reflection of the students in our schools, throwing off the tasks of HR onto the responsibilities of the finance officer, who already has a pretty full plate, is ridiculous.

However, along with giving the Human Resources Department the resources – human (oh the irony) and fiscal – to begin to diversify the school work force, there needs to be other considerations that will call for a long-term remedy. Can Lowell can “grow their own” diverse education workforce? Read more about how one district in Oregon is doing just that.

Some years ago, Lowell had a program for Paraprofessionals that would enable those interested to pursue certification as educators, although at the time, I believe the certification was limited to Special Education. Would Lowell be willing to invest whatever monetary expense might be needed to help our Paraprofessionals transition to licensure as educators?

We also need to do a little soul-searching on how attractive a career in education may appear to students in secondary schools. Are there internships that could be explored for High School age students? Can Lowell partner with MCC and UML to make a degree in education affordable and accessible for LHS students who commit to working in District?

The conversations have started, and that is encouraging. But to achieve the vision of having a diverse education workforce reflective of our students here in Lowell, there will need to be some other commitments made. Let’s put our money where our mouths are.

Don’t Sit This Out. Please.

white and grey voting day sign

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Don’t sit tomorrow’s election out. Go vote.

Think your vote “doesn’t matter”. I disagree. Recently in the MA3 Congressional District Primary, less than 150 (recounted) votes was the difference between the eventual winner, Lori Trahan and second place, Dan Koh. Yeah, those 150 votes mattered. Quite a bit as it turned out. Your vote might just be a deciding factor; go vote.

Yes, I agree with you that the electoral college is an abomination but we are in the mid-terms and the electoral college won’t be a factor this time. Maybe who you vote for will be able to help change the presidential election process; however, so go vote.

Good ol’ boy/girl network making you think it’s pointless. Vote anyway. It will only be pointless if you don’t vote your heart and mind. If the candidate for office is unopposed and you write in a name, that also sends a message. As I learned in Latin class, illegitimi non carborundum. You can look that one up and then go vote.

Does an Election Day on a November Tuesday seem inconvenient?  (The answer to why we vote on the first Tuesday in November is here.) Your vote could change that; after all many states allow early voting now.  Absentee ballots can still be petitioned for and submitted prior to noon today (see MA Secretary of State Absentee Voting or call your City/Town elections office). And although the Early Voting window is closed for this election, you can and should still go vote.

Hard to get to the polls? Need a ride? Contact candidate campaign offices. Oftentimes there are volunteers who can help with that. And by-the-way, the rumors about free Lyft and Uber rides are not exactly true. Here’s the straight talk dispelling rumor and misunderstanding from Snopes. Get a ride and go vote.

In Massachusetts, the polls must be open from 7 am until 8 pm; some places are allowed to open at 5:45 am, so check with your city or town election office. If you are in line at 8 pm, you must be allowed to vote. DO NOT GET OUT OF LINE (that is also true for most other states). The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office has a detailed list of when (and why) you might be asked for identification and also about requesting a “provisional ballot”. Check here. Know the voting regulations and go vote.

Listen, we all need to make time for this civic obligation. There are some important issues that are being decided and even more coming in the future. You may or may not be cancelling out my vote; go vote anyway.

More is Less

depth of field photography of p l a y wooden letter decors on top of beige wooden surface

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Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost our collective minds when it comes to early childhood education.  This morning, I found this well-written article, from January 2016’s Atlantic: “The New Preschool is Crushing Kids“.  Thoughtfully written by author Erika Christakas, the idea that our education system has shifted from a “protected” childhood to a “prepared” one resonated. Ask educators and you will hear that what used to be taught in second grade, is now a requirement for first grade. First grade expectations are have moved down to kindergarten. And preschool? Yes, preschool is filled with academic skills.  It’s the trickle down theory of education.

According to Christakas though, all of this new “rigor” may not translate into academic success.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills.

Could it be that by forcing young children to perform academic skills at such an early age is killing their curiosity and love for learning?

Our schools seem to focus on the “cognitive potential” learners, even those of a very young age. When test scores are published and reported, we hear about gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged learners.

In my experience, such gaps are a function of a child who needs more time to experience the world, to learn the language used in school, to converse, to listen, and to experiment. It troubles me that in place of deepening and enriching the experiences of young children, young learners are subjected to more seat/paper/desk work. In an impatient rush to boost test scores and school ratings, there has been a misguided effort to push academic skills and concepts earlier and earlier at the expense of learning that is developmentally appropriate.

I was taught that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I believe our edu-crats need to take heed of this adage. More is definitely less for our youngest learners.

Early Childhood Education Insanity (my rant)

two multicolored slinky toys

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Our first grandchild arrived in August, and as many grandparents come to understand, things have changed since we raised our own children. Babies don’t sleep with crib bumpers, or on their tummies. Children don’t wear winter coats in car seats. I most definitely have zero applicable knowledge when it comes to infants. Times have changed, research has changed, thinking has changed.

My wheelhouse, though, is education. I wonder – often as it turns out – if my own thinking as a teacher is outdated. I was reminded of this when a colleague shared the school district’s current Early Childhood (PreK) progress report with me – which was over 10 pages long. These 3- and 4-year-olds have been “in school” barely 5 weeks and already their teachers are tasked with assessing their progress.

Progress in what, exactly? When one is 3- or 4-years old, shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn to love learning? To get along with others and take turns? Socialize?  A 10-page checklist of skills – by category – seems ridiculous for a little one who has only been on this planet for less than 5 trips around the sun.

It did make me curious: what exactly is being asked of young children, so I did some browsing through Boston Public School’s Early Childhood page. Check out the “robust questions” intended to spark conversation with 3- or 4-year olds in Centers found in the vocabulary section of this document,  “What is the inspiration for your work?” “What is your plan for structure?”

Looking at the assessments recommended for this age group, there are a number of screening and assessment tools recommended and required.  Some would be useful as a child’s language development progresses; one that seems “optional” but noted in use in some school PreK programs is Fountas & Pinnell benchmark testing. That’s right, some schools endeavor to find a 3-year-olds “independent” reading level. No, they are not kidding. Shouldn’t we be reading to children this young and not expecting them to read to us?

Here’s my question as a new grandparent and a retired educator:

When do young children get to just be young children?

Is there such a driving need to prove children are “learning” at such young ages that reasonable expectations, developmental appropriateness and an emphasis on developing social skills and love of learning been replaced by assessment, evaluation, and checklists?

My hope is that the pendulum swings back to more child-friendly early childhood education before my granddaughter reaches school-age.