03 May 2017: School Committee

2017-Apr-30_WalkingLowell_0676At last night’s meeting, the School Committee met for the first time since the beginning of April. This was the first time the public got a glimpse at the proposed budget (see link within the Meeting Packet here), and the first time the rationale for the budget was shared with the public and the School Committee.

The Superintendent’s Contract was approved by a 5 yea (E. Kennedy, A. Descoteaux, S. Gendron, R. Gignac, R. Hoey) to 2 nay (C. Martin and J. Doherty) vote.

Spotlight on Excellence

The Spotlight on Excellence segment was dedicated to this past Spring’s Knowledge Bowl competition between teams from all Lowell Public School Middle Schools, including first-time entrants from the STEM Academy (the STEM has just this year expanded to include fifth grade).  After a quick presentation by Carolyn Rocheleau, coordinator for this effort, and Liam Skinner, Principal at the Daley School (this year’s winning team), Daley School students impressively and passionately spoke to the Committee about their experiences as Knowledge Bowl participants. To paraphrase one student, the Knowledge Bowl is a time when those students who love trivia and academic trivia in particular can feel the same camaraderie that students in athletic competitions feel.

Public Hearing: School Budget 2017-18

If there is a bright spot in this budget, it is that a) the Superintendent and his leadership team have crafted a balanced budget and b) the positions that are “lost” are due to retirements and not reductions in staff.  That’s the good news.

The proposed budget is posted online and definitely worth a look. This document is, as Paul Begala once said a morally profound document in that we fund what we value. Do we value our schools? Here’s a little background on where some of the numbers come from.

The cash contributed by the City to the school budget is about $3 million lower than the current fiscal year, even though the state has proposed an increase (about $5.4 million) in Chapter 70 funding. The fiscal contribution by the City to the Lowell Public Budget is made up from two parts, Net Cash and Indirect (or in-kind). Anticipated increased expenses that the City provides means that contributions in “cash” toward the School Department’s budget is lower. For example, tuitions to Charter Schools will be increased as the grade levels at one of the Lowell charter schools is expanded next Fall. The transportation bid came in at a “much higher” level (if I understood Mr. Frisch correctly, approximately $1.2 million more), and there is a 4.8% increase in health insurance premiums.

The City is meeting Net School Spending (a requirement from the Commonwealth) at the required level. Many of our neighbors in surrounding cities and towns fund budgets that are significantly higher (thanks to Paul Schlictman for this graphic!) and you may be wondering why. The need to add to the state’s funding is necessitated by the calculations for per pupil costs are old and out of date – 25 years out of date as it turns out. Out of dat calculations lead to artificially lowere state funding (And yes, there was an effort to re-set these calculations to be realistic; however, the bi-partisan proposal to do so was not enacted by the Legislature).

All of this is contributory to the proposals made for 2018 and presented at School Committee. This is a less-than-bare-bones budget and unless the School Committee can advocate for an increase in the cash contribution from the City, there will be a need for some very difficult decisions.

Just a head-up to those interested in how this budget plays out: the next budget hearing will be Wednesday, May 10 at 6:30 pm (I didn’t catch the location, so check the LPSD website for details). There will be a chance for the Public to speak in opposition if so desired.

Library Aide Positions

One of those difficult decisions is the proposed budget is elimination of school library aides. The proposal before the School Committee is to offer paraprofessional open positions to the aides (currently 23 positions of which 3 are long-term subs. Three library aides have decided to retire). Technically, no one will lose a position if they don’t object to assuming a paraprofessional position. The libraries won’t close, but library (sounds like this is just check-in and check-out books?) would be “covered” by other staff. Several Committee members expressed dismay at this development and questioned the logistics of “covering” library services.

The schools have already eliminated all but the High School Librarian (Library Media Specialist). As good as the Aides are and as much as each one goes above and beyond their job descriptions to make a school library a great space for learning important library skills, this has been a detriment. To eliminate the last vestige of a library program in the elementary and middle schools is, in my opinion, a HUGE mistake, just as it was a mistake to eliminate the library media specialists and the instructional technology specialists before that.

Bringing Out-of-District Placements In-District

The Special Education Department has made a concerted effort to be mindful of OOD tuition costs. One of the proposals that has been in development for the last few years is to accommodate students who might be sent out-of-district (OOD) within the Lowell Public Schools.

Those OOD placements often include 6-figure tuition costs and involve transporting children to collaboratives quite a distance from home.  Parents have expressed concern that their children have long bus or van rides and have expressed some preference toward including their child within the Lowell schools.  This would, in the long run, reap a cost-benefit to the School District and an educational benefit to students and their families.

To meet these needs, the proposal is to create four additional Pre-K CSA (autism) classrooms to service an increased number of students district-wide. In addition, there is a proposal to create a Special Education Day School to accommodate students who have been in local CSA classrooms. By committing funds to these two endeavors, an anticipated saving of $1.7 million (in out of district placement tuitions) should result. In other words, by investing in Lowell’s capacity to accommodate these students within the District and with District funding, there will be less need for OOD tuition payments.

Other School Committee Business

While the Budget presentation was the major focus of attention, there were two motions put forward, one of which could have possible implications for Lowell Public School budgets.

7.I (Robert Hoey): Requests the Superintendent establish a task force in collaboration with City Administration to review, revise and recommend a new Maintenance of Efforts Agreement (Indirect Costs).

7.II (Jacqueline Doherty): Request the Superintendent provide the committee with a report that compares the district’s performance on state-required standardized tests over the last 3 years with similar urban communities. The report should highlight Lowell’s areas of particular growth and weakness, as well as specify efforts and goals for improvement.

For the packet which includes the budget, click here and navigate to the School Committee subsection.

Return to Sender

Leafmatter5

Educators, if you received a free and unsolicited book in the mail, would you read it? That’s what a conservative “climate realist” group by the name of Heartland Institute wants you to do. In fact, it would be really swell if teachers would do a little more than just read their free book(s). If you would also start teaching some of their conceptions and beliefs, that would be great.

Here’s an introduction to this Heartland Institute courtesy of Dean Reynolds’ report on April 22 CBS News.  There among the reported 97% of scientists who believe global warming is real, is non-scientist Joseph Bast claiming that global warming is not only part of the cycle of life on Planet Earth, but actually desirable for us humans (see video link above).

Bast, CEO and President of Heartland Institute, is admittedly not a scientist; what he claims to be is a “climate realist”. Here are some of the ideas Heartland Institute champions:

  • Second hand smoke, smoking, and lung cancer have no connections
  • Global warming is not a “thing” – it is more like a cycle of nature and “cold weather kills more people than warm weather does.” (refer to clip at 1:15 mark)
  • In Education, the group supports the increasing charter schools, providing education tax credits for private school students, vouchers and the group supported the parent “trigger” reform started in California.
  • Health care saving accounts and a “free market” health care system, and (finally)
  • Hydraulic fracking

Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, Heartland Institute is engaged in a concerted effort to influence science educators in Grades K-12. As such, this group has committed to mailing 25,000 copies of a free book (Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming authored by Craig Idso, PhD; Robert M. Carter, PhD; and S. Fred Singer, PhD) and DVD every two weeks until every single K-12 Science teacher in the United States has a copy (reported total 200,000 copies). Lennie Jarrett, who manages Heartland Institute’s Center for Transforming Education, includes a cover letter (please read it here).

Now everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if one is going to flood schools with science materials, shouldn’t those materials be…. scientific? As in something that is based upon proven and replicable fact and not on opinion? Bast and Heartland Institute hope that science educators will have some doubts about that. After all, 3% of the scientific community don’t agree on the cause(s) for climate change.

From time to time, entities offer curriculum and materials to schools and educators for free or reduced costs. The utilities companies used to send Lenny Lightbulb coloring books to elementary school teachers who requested them. Apple Computers became prevalent technology in schools because Apple targeted the education market and offered deep discounts.

 

As a teacher, presenting opposing opinions on issues should be part of the educational process. When proven and science-based facts are replaced by flimsy opinions of “think tanks” with a political agenda, that is not science. Here’s a second viewpoint detailing why the Heartland Institutes’ effort is alarming written by NY Times Op-Ed writer, Curt Stager.

That’s a gift that should be returned to sender.

On Homework

10012015FrenchStThis morning, the New York Times carried the story of the decision by several Public Schools in New York City to suspend traditional homework. The disagreements that have ensued have largely been by parents of students with very different viewpoints on this topic.  This is definitely worth a read if only to broaden the lens with which one views this topic because, as I read, two things came to mind:

  • in some families, providing meaningful after school activities is frequently limited by economics, time and money/resources, and
  • parent input into broad ideas is a key to change.

As a parent, I would have loved the idea of no homework for my own child, who by the end of a school day had had just about enough with sitting still and completing paperwork. One assignment, burned in my memory, is of him sitting at our dining room table attempting to fill in the remaining (empty) pages of a spelling workbook, assigned for the night’s homework ostensibly because it was the end of a school year and all pages must be completed. Did anyone “learn” anything from that exercise?

In the Times article, the attempts to move away from mindless drill-and-kill worksheets is something I would applaud. Suggested replacements for traditional homework include reading and finding other exploratory pursuits.  These are all great ideas. Most students have library books from school or the public library that can be accessed if a personal library is not within reach.

However, I would suggest that the ability to find and fund those “other” resources for explorations – mentioned were additional software products or for-fee activities and programs – is problematic for parents who don’t have the same monetary resources found in privileged, middle-class homes.  Yes, Khan Academy is a free resource, but if your family doesn’t have internet access or a workable computer device, that free resource is not available. I worry that under the current federal administration how long programs like 21st Century School grants will continue. How this impacts a community with a large number of students from lower socio-economic means remains to be seen.

The “quality” of homework is cited in the article. This, too, needs investigation. What are the elements that constitute “quality” homework?  I know how I would answer that, but maybe I don’t know how a parent who is working 2 consecutive shifts and still living below poverty would answer.

Which brings me to Point 2. Parents need to be a big part of this conversation. Schools and Districts considering the change from a traditional homework model to something else, whatever that might be, have to engage all – and I mean all – the parents, not just those who find it convenient to come to meetings and presentations between 8:30 am and 3 pm. The educators have the expertise to make these changes, but the parents bring viewpoints to the discussion that not only need to be considered, those views must be considered.

Read the article. Learn from it. And let’s move forward in making homework something more than a mindless and epic after school battle.

You have to show up

Yoga serves.

But you have to show up.

-Adriene Mishler Yoga with Adriene

There is something both beautifully simple and truthful in that statement.

 

What are you invested in? Physically, mentally, intellectually. Show up for that. It really is that simple.

After a year of some minor, mainly annoying, challenges that come with the advancement of growing older, I decided that I now had the time to invest in my own well-being. And so I embarked on some physical training (who starts a running program after age 60?) and an exploration of centering myself through yoga. I’ve been well-served by both running and yoga. But in order to reap the benefits of not running out of breath by simply walking uphill or a more steady, balanced foundation, the commitment to doing one or both of these on a daily basis has been a challenge. It is easy to become distracted or to allow appointments and meetings to become an excuse to skip.

As a former educator, I think the act of showing up has to apply as well, particularly in times when public education is under daily attack. Purposeful underfunding of the Commonwealth’s obligation to fund schools, over-reliance on high-stakes testing, an education that is at once developmentally appropriate and flexible, valuing humanities as well as science and technology.

These are just a few of the issues that I feel strongly about. This is why I worry that educational opportunity, that great equalizer, may not be much of an opportunity for our young citizens.

And this is why I will continue to show up – because just like yoga, education serves. But you have to show up.

 

05 April 2017: School Committee Meeting

10012015FrenchStSchool Committee Meeting 05 April 2017

7 Members Present, Student representative: Cole Conlin

 

 

Spotlight on Excellence & Permissions to Enter.

  • Science and Engineering Fair.
  • Bartlett Community Partnership School
  • LHS Ice Hockey Team

Public Hearing for Interdistrict Choice: No comments from the public.  2016-17 had 30 open slots, 15 were filled.  Decision to continue the School Choice decision is made annually. Motion to recommend continued participation for grades 9-12 (30 students within grades 9-12). 7 yeas approved.

Motions

There were 8 new motions presented tonight:

  • 7.I. [By Robert Gigac]: Request the Superintendent work with the City Administration to develop a plan and/or update on the capital improvement funds that were allocated for the schools. City RFP process, repairs that were determined will proceed in May.  Mr. Gignac requests looking into roof repairs and AC/Boiler repairs. Motion passes.
  • 7.II. [By Connie Martin]: Requesting an update on the plan for recruiting and hiring a new Head of School for Lowell High School, including a proposed timeline for assembling the interviewing committee and any public sessions that will be part of the process. 

Registered Jonathan Richmond. Begins by speaking about LRTA passes and then proceeds to enumerate his thoughts concerning the hiring requirements and qualifications for new Head of School. Registered speaker Daniel Ouk speaks about suggestions for chosing LHS Head of School.

In my opinion, the acrimonious and abrasive nature of this segment of the meeting was unnecessary and distracting from the importance of the process of selecting a new LHS Head of School. It is worth viewing this for yourself on LTC’s posting of the meeting video when that occurs. Move about 40 minutes in to the video to view this for yourself.

Ms. Martin questions the process and the timeline. Superintendent Khelfaoui clarifies that there is a plan and a timeline and that the taskforce is in process. Should a person be interested in becoming part of this taskforce (approximately 15 members), that person should apply via email or snail mail to either Superintendent Khelfaoui or Anne Sheehy, Director of Human Resources, Personnel & Recruitment. Ms. Doherty is absolutely on point in suggesting the importance of including stakeholders representative of the population of Lowell High School in the taskforce. 

  • 7.III. [By Steve Gendron] Request the Superintendent form a task force to interview Lowell High School Head of School applicants.
  • 7.IV. [By Connie Martin] Requesting an update on the staff plans for Principals and Assistant Principals for the fy17 and fy18.
  • 7.V [By Jacqueline Doherty] Request the Superintendent provide the committee with the DESE School Climate Survey along with recommendations as to whether we should implement the survey or some other instrument. The recommendations should also include timelines for beginning to collect baseline data about school climate, family involvement, or other aspects that address the education of the whole child.

Mitchell Chester (DESE Commissioner) has announced (link here) that, following MCAS 2.0 testing this year, students in Grades 5, 8, and 10 will be asked to complete a survey about school climate. DESE claims that the results will not be disaggregated nor used in any significant manner, so my question is WHY subject students to this “optional” survey right after the completion of a high-stakes and draining academic test? According the Dr. Chester’s update, parents and students can refuse to complete the survey; in fact, some entire districts have already decided not to administer this DESE survey. It doesn’t sound like LPS is going to do that. Also, according to DESE’s update reference above, parents can request that principals and/or superintendent show the survey questions to them.

What was confusing throughout the discussion is that Lowell Public Schools is part of a consortium of school districts developing a more thorough and valid survey of community education stakeholders that will hopefully become part of a more thorough and thoughtful analysis of the public school system.  This consortium survey is in draft form and not yet ready for administration to student from what I understand.

  • 7.VI [By Steve Gendron] Request the Superintendent work with the City and the LRTA to develop a program to provide free bus passes to Lowell High School students based on financial need.
  • 7.VII [By Connie Martin] Requesting that the administration provide the committee with an update on plans to accommodate the middle school bubble for the FY17-18 school year.
  • 7.VIII [By Robert J. Hoey] Request Superintendent conduct a review of safety and security in our schools.

Joint Finance and Student Support Services Subcommittee report on meeting 3/29/17. John Descoteaux presented a draft plan for a 5-zone system (eliminating city-wide). The current desegregation order would stay in place. The issue is complicated by costs for busing (the Cawley option for LHS would need 26 additional buses or a projected $3.2 million plus additional amounts for future years). Start/dismissal times would need adjustment as well. The endeavor needs further study, which was the recommendation from the subcommittees. Mayor Kennedy notes the cost of busing is going to increase substantially over time and that some of the proposed zones will be unfair to 2 neighborhoods. The K-8 model being proposed to accommodate a 5-zone system will necessitate additional teachers. Mayor Kennedy supports a more thorough look at how the schools provide transportation in order to potentially increase efficiency. Motion to accept.

There were 3 Reports from the Superintendent and 2 items under New Business:

  • Report: Tutoring Services offered by Dharma Center
  • Report: Community Service Update
  • Report: Quarterly Report on Motions
  • New Business: Interdistrict Choice (Voted on previously)
  • New Business: Farm to School Research Project

For anyone looking for the full meeting packet and agenda, please navigate to the City of Lowell’s Agenda/Minutes website.

Lost Things

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone

IMG_1929_edited-1I was thinking about Joni Mitchell’s lyrics to Big Yellow Taxi this morning because, I think a lot of what has disappeared in classrooms has happened so gradually that even educators don’t realize the value of what has gone missing.

During last Friday’s middle segment on Beat The Press, Adam Riley asked if the panel believed viewers could tell the difference between fact and opinion. Here’s the link to the segment which is definitely worth the five minutes viewing time.

If as an adult, knowing the difference between fact and opinion is an important skill, do educators have opportunities to explicitly teach students to distinguish between opinion and news/facts? I would suggest that in this era of time-on-task we do not. I think teaching and practicing critical thinking has been replaced by test preparation and test strategy sessions.

As a high school student, one of the courses I took to fulfill the English requirements was a course called Propaganda and Prejudice.  We started out examining marketing materials and ended up dissecting political discourse to better understand opinions and how facts can be manipulated to prove a point. Those lessons of examination and questioning have stayed with me my entire adult life.

As a teacher of elementary students in 1987, one of the PBS programs that we employed to encourage students to think deeply about issues was called (I think) Think About It. Think About It was a 15-minute, current events based program for middle-elementary and junior high students and broadcast each week on the local PBS airwaves. We watched it together every Friday afternoon. Students were enjoined to dive deeply into a current issue and engage in opinion writing or discourse based on facts they could uncover throughout the upcoming week. I underscore based on facts, because, as the panel from Beat The Press points out, our current conversations seem mainly based on beliefs and perception and not necessarily on researched or proven fact.

Why these anecdotes are important is the action of thinking about whether or not a statement is true or verifiable or even plausible seems to be a missing skill. In our divisive political conversation, proveable facts are in very short supply and thinking about whether a statement is reasonable or truthful is often even more scarce. Case in point would be the Comet Pizza shootings in DC.

When the focus is on test preparation and standardized testing, something has to go. Honestly, until I started to think about the question posed by the Beat The Press panel and wonder more about why our grown up and adult students don’t necessarily discern between fact and opinion, I didn’t realize the full extent to which teaching critical thought has been omitted. Is one of those “things” educators let go in favor of prepping students for test success explicit teaching and practice with critical thinking?

I wonder, if result of 20 years of education “reform” and focus on standardized high stakes testing, is a cohort of adults who cannot critically question and discern opinion from fact?

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?