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.

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It seems pretty clear to me

Screenshot 2018-06-08 07.05.05About two weeks ago, the Massachusetts Legislature failed once again to update school funding formulae known as the “Foundation”.  In my opinion, this is not only a huge disappointment, it is a disservice to students, families, and public schools in 351 cities and towns across Massachusetts.

Here in Lowell, the erosion of school services and supports can be traced in the budget cuts that have been necessary over the last nearly 20 years. In the late 1990s, when an elementary class size reached 25, it was common practice to assign a paraprofessional to that classroom, which allowed for more focused and individualized attention to students. In 2015, my retirement year, my grade level of 100 students and 4 classroom teachers shared 1 paraprofessional.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, elementary school staff included not only a library aide, but a certified Library Media Specialist. The library was a space where students not only learned research skills, but were exposed to wonderfully diverse literature and media curated by the Library Media staff. By the mid-2000s, all but one Library Media specialist was cut from the Lowell Public Schools and school libraries were maintained by Library Media aides. This year, 2018-19, the school budget has cut all library staff in Grades Kindergarten through Grade 8 essentially closing the libraries to any students below Grade 9.

These are but two examples of service cuts in Lowell. There have been many others. Teachers in Lowell spend inordinate amounts of personal money (in my own case, I spent on average of $1,000 each year and some years much more) to supply classrooms. Social workers, Speech and Language therapists, OT, PT, Special Education…. all carry larger-than-reasonable caseloads.

Have municipalities like Burlington or Wellesley cut K-8 library staff and access to school libraries? Of course not. Wealthier communities make up the shortfalls in Foundation funding from their property tax base and a community that is able to afford to allocate more funds toward schools. Does that seem equitable to anyone? (read WBUR’s commentary Inaction on School Funding Will Keep Opportunity Gaps in Place.)

What does our Commonwealth say about our schools and the Commonwealth’s responsibility to fund education? We only need to look at the Commonwealth’s Constitution and this paragraph:

“Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge [and] public schools and grammar schools in the towns….” Mass. Const. Pt. 2, C. 5, § 2.

As of this writing, the Legislature has failed our schools and our children. They have failed in their duties to “cherish” education and they have failed to provide the funding that would allow ALL public schools across Massachusetts to provide equitable educational opportunities.

We must tell our narratives as parents, students, educators, and community members. We must let our legislators know in no uncertain terms, that to continue to underfund the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations is unacceptable. We need to cherish our schools here in Massachusetts and fix the funding so that every child has access to equitable educational opportunities.

What Are YOU Missing?

We are about a week beyond the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) disappointment. Last evening, as I listened in to a conference call sponsored by Mass Education Justice Alliance (MEJA), this question was posed:

What we are missing because of underfunded schools?

When I left active teaching in 2015, I know that underfunding was impacting the public school in which I worked in many ways. Paraprofessional staff had been severely reduced as had ELL support teachers, Reading Specialists, and Science specialists. Library Media Specialists and Instructional Technology Specialists were eliminated. GoFundMe and Donors Choose were the new “normal” for obtaining necessary school classroom supplies. Teacher out-of-pocket expenses climbed (at the time I was spending nearly $1,200 per year on books and paper goods), new curriculum often meant more personal expenditures on trade books and resources for the classroom.

But, as I write this, I know my experiences are three years post-retirement. So I ask you, if you are a Massachusetts Public School teacher, how has underfunding impacted you?

Leave the Drama to the Drama Department

pexels-photo-220320.jpegLowell appears to have established a personnel practice that is not, in my opinion, a winning strategy for attracting, and more importantly, keeping the best administrators to serve a large and complex school system.  

The last two School Superintendents in Lowell had tenures lasting 3 years. When these former administrators first were appointed, the spirit of collaboration and cooperation was positive. And then, as often happens, the honeymoon period disintegrated. Time passed, the acrimony continues and before you can say “help wanted”, a new hiring committee formed. 

Oh Lowell, this is why we can’t have nice things.

The School Committee agenda published on the City’s website hints at what could turn out to be an extension of this practice, this time directed toward the current superintendent, Dr. Khelfaoui. This is disturbing for several reasons:  the loss of continuity in LPS District leadership and the manner in which what appears to me to be a personnel issue, is being conducted.

Right now, the Lowell Public Schools budget/financial situation is dire. The lack of funding is so critical that K-8 school libraries will no longer have a library aide to oversee them. Effectively, that will end the library access for elementary and middle school students. There have been several cuts, equally acute, at the High School level. Lack of funding is no longer a belt-tightening exercise, it is now affecting students and school services directly. 

Anyone paying attention knows that the amount of Chapter 70 funding allocated to Lowell’s charter schools has increased by $2 million to a total assessment of $19 million. Top that off with a state budget that chronically, and I’d say intentionally, underfunds its obligations to both ELL and low-income students (see Foundation Budget) and a charter school reimbursement that never actually receives funding from the State.  Consequently the swirling vortex of school funding has turned into a tsunami. This is not necessarily the fault of Lowell’s Superintendent of Schools.

The CFO for the District has left Lowell for another Massachusetts school position. Currently the CFO position is vacant at a time when critical end-of-year reporting is in process. Three candidates for the interim CFO position withdrew before being interviewed. Does this indicate that Lowell’s reputation for being a tough gig is limiting the number of candidates willing to work here? 

Lowell, your reputation precedes you.

And that reputation as a “tough gig” brings me to conducting and discussing personnel and evaluative issues. No doubt about it, one of the School Committee’s main responsibilities is overseeing the school superintendent. It is the body that evaluates the superintendent. [Note the last evaluation, overall “Proficient”, was completed and reported at the School Committee meeting on Dec. 20, 2017. Notes for that meeting are found here in Agenda Item 6. under “Unfinished Business].

The three agenda items for the July 18, 2018 meeting (link above in Paragraph 4) which, in short, call for a document to terminate the superintendent’s employment, an immediate move to put the superintendent on administrative leave, and the appointment of a replacement from the Superintendent’s Central Office “team” telegraph that the School Committee has issues with the Superintendent’s performance since that 2017 evaluation. Shouldn’t this be a discussion held in person, either in a face-to-face meeting OR in executive session?  Putting such items out in an open meeting seems vindictive and petty, and not at all benefitting to Lowell’s schools or families. It most likely means any resemblance to a Central Office “team” has now evaporated.

This is an embarrassment to our schools and our community. It does not serve Lowell’s interests now, nor will it serve in the future when a new leader for our schools needs to be selected.

Recess: How can we not?

IMG_2565LEJA, a local grassroots collaborative of teachers, parents, students and community allies is hard at work here in Lowell to advocate for consistency in recess allocation across all elementary and middle schools in Lowell. One would think, logically, that fair and equitable recess would be a given, but it is not.

Recess time is a building based decision. Anecdotal evidence shows that in this test-crazed, performance based era of education, it is much too easy for a building administrative team to shave recess minutes away in favor of test preparation. Having recently retired from nearly 10 years as a 3rd and 4th grade teacher, I have personally experienced the pressure put on students and educators at test grades, and the response has generally been to increase test preparation time. That increase comes at a cost; the cost has historically been to reallocate recess minutes to academics and test preparation. When I tell you that more targeted test preparation does not yield higher test scores, you don’t have to believe me, but you should.

I empathize when schools try to carve out more test prep through less recess time. However, that doesn’t make less recess the right thing to do. Research notwithstanding, there should be an expectation that children will a) have recess AND b) have a minimum of 30 minutes to re-set. There is much research that supports the need for recess (LEJA Recess Policy Guideline Proposal) including the impact on a child’s brain and the manner in which children learn and the impact on executive function and social-emotional growth of children.

Here’s a personal story that I hope illustrates that cramming more information in without sufficient break time is a recipe for ineffective teaching:

Some years ago, I attempted to learn Italian. I felt doing so would serve several purposes,  not the least of which would be an experience similar to what the children I taught as ESL learners might experience.  The class was 3 hours long without a break and conducted completely in Italian. By Hour 2, I was no longer able to retain any of the important language learning that the class was engaging in; the instructor’s pace did not slow and mainly what I was hearing was nonsensical droning. By the end of Hour 3 I had a terrific headache and couldn’t tell you what I had been learning. What I can vividly recall is the rush of fresh air as I stepped outside of the building. My brain needed a break not only to refresh and be ready to learn, but also so that synapses could form that would allow the connections to what I already know grow to include new information.

Now apply this experience to a student in an elementary school where from 8:30 to 11:30 (3 hours) you are learning in YOUR second language English. In college we used to call this type of “learning” cramming; it was useful to varying degrees of success for retaining facts just long enough for a major exam. In an elementary or middle school it is just plain cruel.

Children who reach their frustration level often show us that frustration without verbalizing it. Could the impact of a longer recess allowance reduce the number of out-of-compliance incidences in schools and classroom? Eliminating and reducing behavioral interruptions certainly would make time-on-task academics more productive for all the learners in the classroom, would it not?

I challenge our school committee and local policy makers to make increased recess and priority for our children. We need to treat our children like children. When you hear someone say we cannot schedule 30 minutes of recess in our school schedules, ask them HOW can we not?

Interested parents, students, educators, and community members are encouraged to attend a Policy Subcommittee meeting scheduled for April 23, 2018 starting at 6:00 pm in the Public Schools Central Office Fifth Floor Television Studio (notice attached).

In a (more) perfect world

pexels-photo-220320.jpegIn case you weren’t paying attention, it is budget season here in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Superintendent’s proposed budget is based on funds coming from Chapter 70 (state aide) and funds allocated by the City of Lowell. There are lots of moving parts to this process, including budget hearings which are generally open to the public and to public participation. The result is a financial roadmap for the coming fiscal year. This document links to the dates currently proposed for school budget presentations. Keep your eyes and ears open though, our New England weather may play a large role in adjustments to this meeting schedule.

What is clear to me even as a retired educator, is that our school budgets are quite lean. I know this from personal experience: throughout my career, I spent in EXCESS of $1,000 – and often closer to $2,000 – of my family’s funds to supply my classroom with a classroom library, paper, pencils, folders and much more. I know that I was not alone and I know this “tradition” continues today.

Each time I’ve led a literacy class here in Lowell, I’ve asked the participants what would appear on their classroom wishlist if there was no limitation to funding their classrooms.   I encourage them to not self-limit: if one’s opinion is that more staff would make things better for students, write that down.

As Lowell goes through the process of funding schools and school programs, this too is interesting information that should inform decision-makers. These are some of the items educators, those who work closest with students, would like to see in the budget.

Here is what the Fall participants put on their lists:

PerfectMiddleHigh

Middle/High School

PerfectGr3and4

Grades 3 & 4

Perfect2

Grade 2

PerfectKand1a

K/1 page 1 of 3

PerfectKand1b

K/1 Page 2 of 3

PerfectKand1c

K/1 Page 3 of 3

And here are the wishlists from the Summer participants

 

 

 

 

Adventures in Oxymorons

DSC_0107Say what you will about living in these political times, snaps go to the marketeers coming up with the names. Why if you didn’t actually spend a large portion of your reading time being skeptical and following up with questions and queries, you might just miss out on some really fun oxymorons.

Let’s take the group, Families for Excellent Schools as an example. Or Students First. Or Great Schools or Building Excellent Schools.

Is there a single person on the planet who is NOT for excellent schools or excellent opportunities for students and children?

Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy (FESA), a close cousin of Families for Excellent Schools, recently was fined more than $450K and banned from campaigning in Massachusetts for 4 years. Why? Because in an effort to win over a ballot question that would expand charter school networks unnecessarily, the FESA group attempted to hide large donors, including Paul Sagan (Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2015)  from campaign finance reporting.  Not cool, FESA. Not cool Mr. Sagan. Link to Maurice Cunningham’s piece on this published on the WGBH website here.

What these names, knee-deep in oxymoronic descriptors, demonstrates to me is the never-ending need to question and check on “advocacy” groups for their true mission and purpose. Marketers are expert manipulators of vocabulary. They know which word combinations may cause unsuspecting audiences to be lulled into endorsement of groups which may, or may not, be supportive of their own beliefs. Exhibit A: Democrats for Ed. Reform (DFER) which endorses expanded charter schools, rigorous high-stakes testing, and top-down school structures particularly in the areas of “accountability”.  Building Excellent Schools apparently believes the only way to make a school “excellent” is to partner with a charter group.

It always is a good policy to learn about groups purporting to advocate, especially those involved in or attempting to be involved in public education. What you may find out can be surprising.