Funding Our Future: Lowell Legislative Forum

As almost everyone with a stake in public education knows, Massachusetts funding of Public School education is in dire need of updating. Since 1993 when Education Reform and the Foundation Budget calculations were developed, there has been little done by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to update the funding formulae and account for changes in costs over the past 26 years.

Last July, after the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed legislation to update the Foundation Budget formulae, the attention turned to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Sadly, the Foundation Budget Reform legislation was unsuccessful in the House and the entire effort fell short.

A broad coalition of advocates for not only K-12 public education funding reforms, but also Massachusetts public higher education reform worked together throughout the Fall of 2018. In early January 2019 when the new Legislature was seated, the coalition presented two critical Acts designed to provide funds for all students across Massachusetts public education systems. The two acts, the Promise Act and the Cherish Act, endeavor to bring critical funding support to K-12 public education and public higher education respectively.

As part of the state-wide and local coalitions working together, Lowell Education Justice Alliance or LEJA, has been hard at work in the Merrimack Valley to bring attention to the critical effort to update funding of our public schools. Along with LEJA, there is broad support from Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance (MEJA), Massachusetts American Federation of Teachers or AFT-MA, Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), SEIU, and teachers’ union locals in the Lowell area, including UTL495. By establishing this broad coalition and working with students, parents, and the community at large, we intend to bring attention to the needs that our schools are experiencing and work to fund our public schools adequately for the next school year.

On Monday, March 11, 2019, the groups sponsored a well-attended Legislative Forum which included Senator Ed Kennedy and a representative from Senator Barry Finegold’s office, and Representatives Rady Mom, Tami Gouveia, Tom Golden, Marc Lombardo, and a representatives from David Nangle’s office. Parents, students, educators, school administrators, and community members spoke about how underfunding schools has made a personal impact. We were fortunate to speak to several of the participants before and after their testimony, and we have compiled some of their ideas in our podcast, Episode 35.

It is clear that while many in the Massachusetts Legislature do understand the impact of under-funding schools and why that must change, not everyone does. We hope you, our listeners will consider joining this effort to convince local Legislators that our students cannot wait. We need to fix the Foundation Budget Formula now and Fund Our Future.

You can listen to Lowell Legislative Forum participants talk about why the Promise and Cherish Acts are important on this podcast from Episode 35, UTL StraightTalk.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lowell is, according the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, underfunded by $42 Million each year. You can read more about Lowell’s underfunding by downloading this flyer.

BUT, Lowell is not alone in underfunded Foundation Budget funding. Get the Facts about Funding Our Future by linking to AFT-MA Fund Our Future website OR use this interactive map from MTA to select a city or town in MA and discover how much that municipality is underfunded.

Confused about how the Foundation Budget works. We were too – take a look at this short video featuring Colin Jones from Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center. Mass Budget & Policy Center also maintains an excellent website of resources if you are looking for more information.

Lowell Education Justice Alliance (LEJA) meets regularly in Lowell to advocate for students and public education locally. You can keep up with their efforts by joining the group on Facebook OR emailing lowelleducationjusticealliance@gmail.com for more details. All who are interested in Lowell Public education, whether a students, parent, educator or community member are welcome to attend meetings.

LEJA is affiliated with Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance or MEJA. You can visit the MEJA website for more information by clicking here.

If you are moved to contact your State Legislator to add your own voice and to raise your concerns about the Foundation Budget, you can find contact information for every member of the Massachusetts Senate or House by using Find My Legislator.

United Teachers Of Lowell 495 is participating in several statewide events for Fund Our Future. Please be sure to check our email blast, Five for Friday for dates and times. We welcome all members to make suggestions for future events.

PHENOM, of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, has a lot of information about the higher education funding bill, the Cherish Act.

If you were unable to attend the Forum, you can see a video recording of the presentations on Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance’s Facebook page.

The 5 Percent

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, the Lowell School Committee and anyone who was listening to the School Committee’s meeting heard the LPS McKinney-Vento report. The report enumerates homeless students in the Lowell Public Schools as defined by McKinney-Vento act:

The McKinney-Vento act defines homeless students as students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence due to economic hardship, loss of housing or a similar reason.

– March 1, 2019 Report to Lowell School Committee

As of March 1, that number in Lowell was 982 – and actually climbed a bit from there due to students displaced by two fires in the City. The reported number of homeless children, however, represents 5 percent of Lowell Public Schools’ students.

This is a heart-breaking situation, and it is one that I, a former teacher, was aware of when I was a teacher. Nearly every year in which I taught, I had one – and sometimes more – students who were identified as homeless. They lived in shelters, they lived temporarily with a neighbor or relatives, and yes, some of them were living in a vehicle until their situation was discovered by Social Workers.

This brings me to the point of writing this entry: in our public schools, we rely on Social Workers, Counselors, and Health professionals to help us not only to identify which students and families are in trauma, but to help mitigate the circumstances in which they find themselves. In our public schools, with 5 percent of a given student population in crisis due to housing uncertainty, that is a massive responsibility for which there are some, but not many solutions.

Lowell’s McKinney-Vento report sparked a lot of conversations, as well as people asking “what can we do”? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know our school social workers, with caseloads stretched beyond reasonableness, are a key response to students and families living the trauma of becoming homeless.

With burgeoning caseloads, our schools need more professional, trained school counselors, social workers, and wrap-around services to support the homeless in our midst. That, of course, takes a monetary investment.

You may have heard me state that the outdated Foundation Budget calculations, now over 25 years old, are shortchanging Lowell Public Schools by $42 million each year. That is not just a guess on my part, but an estimate based on real numbers that come from Mass. Budget & Policy Center. School funding is a crisis for which the solution – fully funding schools by updating ridiculously outdated funding forumulae – should be a priority.

Our community’s children cannot wait.

Here’s the thing

pexels-photo-626165.jpegDid you happen upon KQED’s interview with San Francisco educator, Michael Essien, principal of MLK Middle School? If not, here’s the report which includes an audio of the story.

So many of us in education feel the pressure to keep teaching the prescribed curriculum even when our students, our kids, are telegraphing their emotional response to the curricular pressures they are experiencing. Could it be possible that the children are telling us “this is not working for me?”

I believe this to be the case when so many kids have escalating behaviors that disrupt the flow of the classroom. Just as an infant wails when it is hungry, tired or bored, our students are also wailing in the form of noncompliant behaviors.

As a classroom teacher, I was fortunate to have some really supportive push-in help when a child’s behavior was, let’s use the education-ese term, “off the wall”. I can picture Liz Higgins, a now-retired social worker who was assigned to my last school, talking in the calmest of voices to one of my students who was under my desk after having up-ended her own. The child eventually returned to the class activity, and the day continued.

I was fortunate to experience the power of push-in reconnections with traumatized and frustrated students many times over the course of 30 years. I hope over time I learned from these education mentors. Fred and Sandy and Sharon, Mary Ann and Maria, I don’t believe I properly thanked you for that. You taught me that when a child acts out, it is important to reconnect and re-establish our relationship. What has always impressed me about these six educators is that none of them ever seem to have lost touch with their roots in education. They may have been (or may now be) administrators, but they never forgot about their own experiences in classrooms or with students.

On some plane of understanding, I eventually realized that when one of my students was acting disruptively, that was a signal that, for that student at least, the demands of the classroom were too much. The times that I was able to keep that student with us in the classroom were, for the most part, successful outcomes. They did not happen all the time and they certainly did not happen as often as they should have.

Principal Essien’s experience as a teacher and in special education informed his decisions. He demonstrated to his staff that he could be trusted as an administrator because he still remembered what it is like to be in a classroom. Mr. Essien recognized that adding one more thing to a classroom teacher’s responsibilities was unworkable, that there needed to be a collaboration between administration and classrooms in order to best serve the students.

His push-in model is working because the collective focus is on what the students need in today’s education pressure-cooker.

Shouldn’t this be the goal for every child?

 

Happy or Proficient?

IMG_0021Our good friend and UTL president Paul Georges shared this article with me this morning: “Is a good teacher one who makes kids happy or one who raises test scores“. If you read nothing else in this post, migrate to EdWeek and read that article.

For educators, this is the question above all questions because doing one thing does not necessarily compliment the other.  According to the EdWeek article, a recent study found that, on average, a teacher who managed to raise test scores was worse at making students happy. Here’s the study from David Blazar in MIT Press- read it and weep.

Over the course of my career, I have been an MCAS test administrator (admittedly only for the “legacy” version – whatever that descriptor means). I’ve felt the dichotomy of creating a positive and joyful learning environment for 3rd and 4th grade students and the pressure of removing high stakes testing monkey from our backs. Don’t forget the weeks of “preparation”.

I have no great love or respect for high stakes testing nor for the value of high stakes testing. It did not inform my teaching in a timely manner as the results from the Spring arrive on a teacher’s desk in October. How helpful is that?

What testing in the era of No Child Left Behind and its successors does accomplish is the creation of a toxic and stressful environment for everyone. The joy of learning and exploring is sucked right out of the room; curricula are narrowed and teachable moments left in the dust.

Of course in a perfect world teachers could just not worry about test scores. The reality, however, is far more harsh and possibly devastating.  Agree with it or not, state Departments of Education (including our own here  in Massachusetts), periodically attempt to tie student high-stakes test results to teacher evaluations. So far, thankfully, that effort in Massachusetts has failed.

Kids and teachers are more than a number. Isn’t it time schools used other measures beyond a test to evaluate learning and schools?

Adventures in Web-meetings

10082015TryAgainHere in the Northeast, we’ve endured some whacky weather – high winds and plenty of rain. Not exactly a hurricane, but a giant inconvenience, particularly for those without power since Sunday night. The wind damage and power outages resulted in school cancellations throughout the Merrimack Valley; some school districts are now left with just 2 of the allocated 5-day calendar allowance for snow days before snow season actually starts. Buckle those seat belts, it is going to be a bumpy ride this winter.

So what does the weather have to do with web meetings?  One of the off-shoots of a no-school day is that all activities after school are cancelled. For me, and the trusty group of participants in the graduate literacy course I am leading, that meant our All-Hallows-Eve session of EDUC 7226 was postponed and would need to be made up.

So, in a semi-panic (okay, that was a full-blown panic), I offered the possibility of doing a conference call based lecture to the participants in lieu of a face-to-face class. Making up the class would be a scheduling problem in that the class sessions needed for the full course already occupy every Tuesday between mid-September and December 19. I was pretty certain no one would be enthusiastic about pushing out the end date to the first Tuesday after the holiday break, January 2.  We needed to hold the Halloween class now somehow.

Anticipating that with 2 days out of school, some people might actually want to try to hold this session even if it was held off-site, I started to wonder about having a conference call where participants could access the slides that I use to accompany our class session. It turned out that quite a few participants were willing to give this a go, even those who were without WIFI and electricity.  The problem solvers in the group found ways to overcome those challenges, some even heading over to local coffee shops where WIFI and electricity could still be had.

So, my task yesterday morning was to quickly get up-to-speed with webinars and conference calls.  Never having hosted such a thing, I Googled “webinars” and discovered  hosting an online web-meeting was indeed possible… at a cost of $89/month to $429/month. I was pretty sure the bookkeeper in this family would veto that. Next search was “free+webinar+software” and BINGO! The product I serendipitously discovered was Free Conference Calls.

When something is free, there shouldn’t be any expectation for easy use or full functionality.  Free usually means there will be some pain for the user, because… free, what do you expect?

This product, however, is the real deal.  Since I had to come up to speed with the product in about 3 hours, I keep my wishlist simple:  a) ability for access to audio only (for those listening in on cellphones) or for audio+shared screen b) easy (for me) to negotiate invites and manage participation, and c) free.  Free Conference Calls was all of that – and I was able to record myself for participants who may need this class session on instant replay. Other functions that I didn’t use (yet) included Q&A boards, break-out sessions, and using pointers and highlighters on my shared screen.

At the appointed hour for our class to start, nearly all of the 22 participants in this course were logged in either as either full meeting participants or audio only.  The audio recording resides on my Conference Call account as a weblink which will allow anyone who was unable to attend our live meeting to listen in later.  And, considering that I’m not the most technology-saavy person on this planet, the fact that all of this went off without a disaster, is totally gratifying.

Sometimes the stars do line up in our favor.  We are Technology Warriors – every single one of us!

“Doing” Justice: More than just forms

Donalyn Miller recently tweeted about a recording sheet she uses for the 40 Book Challenge she not only “invented” but practices with her students in her classroom.  As I’ve recently added her book “The Book Whisperer” to the book study portion of a course I’ve developed, Donalyn’s tweet caught my attention:

Screenshot 2017-08-17 20.30.30

My curiosity over why Donalyn Miller would feel compelled to tweet an endorsement of  Debbie Ohi’s collection of forms led me to read this post from August 2014:  The 40 book Challenge Revisited.

Her point this:

… the original thinking behind an instructional idea becomes lost when it’s passed along like a game of Telephone. You heard about it from a 60-minute conference session. Your teammate attended a book study and she gave you the highlight reel. The teacher down the hall is doing something innovative. You should try it. We’ve all seen the quick adoption of shiny, new ideas without a full picture of how these concepts fit into best practices (or don’t).

I’ve frequently heard fellow educators reference that they are “doing” the Daily Five or the Daily CAFE. However, digging in a little deeper, misinformed yet well-intentioned educator’s idea of the “doing” is more likely to be incorporating some of the “centers” (sorry Gail and Joan, I know that’s not what you intended) or using some printable for students downloaded from one of the educator enterprise sites.

The Daily Five practice is based on developing a trusting relationship between learners and teacher. The development of this trusting relationship is every bit as important as the student activities.  A gradual release of responsibility leads to developing students independence and accountability.  Joan and Gail’s commitment to research and development of their own practice is the powerful glue that, in my opinion, holds the Daily Five and CAFE together. This becomes the basis for educator changes that lead to best practice.

Shiny new ideas are terrific, of course. That is the basis of being “green and growing”, as one of my former administrators used to say.  However, without fully understanding a method for management of teacher, the practice become so simplified that it often becomes just another tedious fill-in-the-blank task to keep students occupied.

 

And that, is not a best practice of any kind.

 

School Committee Meeting, 1 February 2017

School Committee Meeting 01 February 2017

IMG_08906 present, 1 absent (S. Gendron) Onoste Omoyeni represented the students during this meeting.

After approval of minutes, SC Gignac requests Lowell HS Subcommittee/Joint Facilities meeting be taken out of order. 

Permissions to Enter

$20,665 in expenses approved, See detail in the Meeting Packet (downloadable PDF) (6 yeas, 1 absent approved)

Motions

Nine motions were presented:

  • 6.I (E. Kennedy): Request that the Superintendent and Administration at Lowell High School provide information regarding how many students walk to Lowell High School and how many students participate in athletic events. (Passes)

Mayor Kennedy is looking for updated information so that any decisions about Lowell High School’s renovation plans reflect that.  Ms. Omoyeni asks School Committee to consider equity in education. The current Lowell High site is centrally located; the impact of other site under consideration for the High School’s building project could have far-reaching impact on students.

  • 6.II (E. Kennedy): Request that the Superintendent and Administration at Lowell High School provide an update on the proposal to institute a STEM curriculum or STEM Academy at Lowell High School. (Passes)
  • 6.III (E. Kennedy): Request to either postpone or cancel the School Committee meeting scheduled for April 19th, which falls during April school vacation. (To be discussed during Reports of Superintendent).
  • 6.IV (E. Kennedy): Request the Superintendent provide a report and update on the school department’s efforts towards recruitment designed to bring diversity to the Lowell High School faculty.

SC Gignac suggests diversity hiring report to include schools all levels, not just Lowell High School.

  • 6.V (E. Kennedy): Request that the Superintendent direct the Lowell High School Administration to take advantage of the free tutoring services offered at the Dharma Center on Merrimack Street.

Mayor Kennedy attended an opening at this Center which is located in the same area as the Curriculum Office. Mayor Kennedy wants to bring this information to the Superintendent’s attention. (Passes)

  • 6.VI (R. Gignac): Request the Superintendent develop and distribute an Organizational Health Survey to all staff and parents throughout the district. (Passed)

SC Gignac would like 2 surveys: one for staff by building; one for parents by building. Focus on Leadership, Teaching Learning, Security, etc. Would like a sense of how each building’s organizational units are functioning and how parents feel. SC Doherty supports the idea as it speaks to the culture in our schools. Asks the Superintendent if LPSD currently doing something like this already (they are). Wonders if an implementation of surveys should consider how this data is collected.  Tim Blake, parent at the Sullivan school (and Leominster teacher) and on site council speaks about a survey the Sullivan Site Council developed. Mr. Blake found the electronic response to surveys increased parent participation.  Ms. Omoyeni advocates for a portion of the survey addressing school climate and comfort level of parent when contacting the school (translators available, cultural norms, etc.). Cautions that multiple language versions are necessary.

Dr. Khelfaoui cites Lowell’s participation in state-wide accountability group and how this type of survey (parent, faculty, student, etc) focuses accountability to include input from all stakeholders in accountability for a school district (part of ESSA, or Every Student Success Act). SC Descoteaux notes the success of the survey can be tied to the brevity of the survey.

  • 6.VII (R. Hoey): Request that the Superintendent send a letter of appreciation to Coach George Bossi, on behalf of the Lowell Public Schools and the Lowell School Committee, in recognition of Coach Bossi’s holiday wrestling tournament, held at the Paul Tsongas Arena annually, and known to bring large crowds into the city. (Passes)
  • 6.VIII (R. Hoey): Request that the Superintendent send a letter of congratulations to Coach Tom Cassidy, on behalf of the Lowell Public Schools and the Lowell School Committee, on Greater Lowell Technical High School Gryphons wrestling team’s recent win over Lowell High School. (Passes)
  • 6.IX (A. Descoteaux):  Have the Superintendent work with the Lowell High School administration to look into adding the IB (International Baccalaureate) program to offer our advanced HS students another opportunity in addition to AP course work. (Passes)

SC Descoteaux would like this offering available to advanced students if it is possible to incorporate such a program into the High School. SC Doherty notices that the program is offered for Elementary and Middle School as well; is this a program that would enhance younger students?  Superintendent Khelfaoui notes that advantages of the program, geared to Grades 11/12 and the preparatory programs (K-10). SC Doherty would like to know more about this as there are costs involved in having educators be certified as Advanced Placement coursework.

Subcommittee Meeting Reports

Finance Subcommittee

The minutes for the January 24 Finance Subcommittee Meeting are found here.  Two Special Education Reserve Fund line item was removed from discussion as there were new regulations regarding carry-over of Special Education Fund. SC Gignac makes motion to create a Special Education Reserve Fund (must go to the City Council). Once the Reserve Fund (currently circuit breaker funds are mandated just to fund outside Special Education placements) is approved, any monies can be expended for Special Education as determined by the Committee. (6 yeas, 1 absent) approved.

Also included during the Finance Subcommittee discussion was a report of transfers by Mr. Cassidy and year-to-date budget expenditures.

Joint Facilities & Lowell High Subcommittee (also 1/24/2017)

Meeting notes can be found here.

Mr. Martin, Head of School, gives a brief presentation  and notes the LHS project is the largest school project in history of MSBA.  Public can access documents and progress through the LHS site on the City of Lowell website (see link here).

The members of the committee visioning this project came from a broad cross-section of stakeholders. The architects will work to refine the resulting parameters for a 21st century Lowell High School. It was interesting to note that the net affect of a transition to a flexible classroom plan is that, even with increased enrollment, the number of classroom spaces will be decreased. Notes this occurs because the rooms will not be assigned to a single staff member, but will be flexibly programmed throughout the day. Presentation Powerpoint is here.

Dr. Amy McLeod presents the Education Program and Programming for the future and how the architects will use this information to plan for a new High School. The visioning group feels that the structure of the school with a separate Freshman Academy is still important, however, including the Freshman Academy as a wing or separate section of a new High School would be more inclusive.

Important updates will address adaptability and flexibility as well as technology needs (creating equitable access to technology) and appropriate science configurations. Another big space is to include teacher planning space. The group feels that clustering classrooms for interdisciplinary studies will allow for advantages where learning crosses the boundaries of a strict, structured curriculum.

Take a look at the last slide on the Powerpoint Presentation. The amount of thoughtful consideration into what Lowell High students need and what is important and valued in the High School, becomes apparent.

MSBA needs document generated by stakeholders can be located here.

Motion to accept this Subcommittee Report (6 yeas, 1 absent), Approved.

Reports of the Superintendent

  • Online Community Resource Guide. Ms. Durkin notes that the resource guide is currently live on the LPSD website.  It is not all-encompassing; however, there is information that can be elaborated on. (Student Support Services); the goal is to update this information quarterly and will include Early Childhood information. The resources will be pushed out to school websites.

This is a valuable resource for everyone working with students in the Lowell School System – parents, students, and educators.  The website is easily accessed from the LPSD website by navigating to Departments-Student Support Services-Community Resources (direct link here)

  • Chapter 70 State Aid The total budget is anticipated to increase by $6.107 million (about a 3.3% increase). About 80% of the funding comes from the Commonwealth and the balance is provided by the City in either cash contribution or in-kind contribution (for example amounts the city “charges” for things like snow removal). The City’s contribution would increase by about $1.1 Million for the 2017-2018 school year making the City’s contribution a bit over $40 million.

Information from City Manager on Wednesday afternoon indicated the non-cash contribution will increase but the cash contribution will decrease by $1 Million. The net effect is a $3.82 increase FY17 and FY18. SC Doherty asked for and received clarification that the cash received from the City would be less even though the Chapter 70 formula indicates an increased City contribution to schools. Several factors contribute to a decrease in cash contribution:

  • non-cash contribution increases and
  • charter school assessment increase of $1.8 Million

SC Doherty also clarifies that Chapter 70 is all state funding, not federal (true). Lowell’s budget has a large proportion of federal grant funding, and, all of those funds are in question pending what may or may not happen with a new administration in Washington.

Foundation Budget Estimates (oh boy). Foundation budgets are – as I understand them – the amounts of funding the state determines necessary for education. This is generated at the state and is based on enrollments and a set of expense categories (here’s DESE link; read it at your own peril).  On the state level, there have been several attempts to update the expense amounts that drive the foundation budget calculations. Some of those expense computations have not be updated in over 20 years; it doesn’t take a degree in finance to understand that 20-year-old numbers are bound to be erroneous. The impact of out-of-date calculation is to underfund education on the state level which of course, trickles down to the local level. 

  • Budget Meeting Dates

The proposed meetings as published in the packed are here and will hopefully be updated to reflect some changes that were approved including: a) date revision for first meeting to 4/12, b) the second meeting (4/26) will be with Finance Subcommitteef and c) location of final budget adoption meetings will be in council chambers so as to allow for broadcast on LTC.

New Business:

A transfer of $500 to create a Coral Supplies account (approved); disposal of surplus supplies (approved)

Convention and Conference Requests were all approved (6 yeas, 1 absent)

Meeting detail and support documentation  can be found here.