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.

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.

Citizens for Public Schools, 26 April 2016

04262016Lowell-LisaGDriven by an $18 million advertising campaign, those in favor of lifting the current cap on charter school seats have launched an all-out effort to increase the number of seats allocated to charter schools. This ballot initiative is one of several state-driven mandates, ruling, issues – whatever you choose to call them – that is spurring Lowellians to become more vocal advocates for our Lowell Public Schools.

Last Tuesday, Lisa Guisbond (Executive Director) and Alain Jehlen of Citizens for Public Schools led a discussion and information session about about the impact of not only this ballot question, but other state education policies as well. Should it be successful, the “lift the cap” ballot initiative has the potential of transferring funding away from the Lowell Public Schools.  Why does this matter to Lowell and what impact would increasing seats have on school programs and budgets?

Lisa Guisbond began the session by giving an overview of how and why charter schools began. Starting with their inception in 1993, publicly funded charter schools  have morphed over the last 20-plus years from  schools set up to try to impact learning through  innovation to schools often times managed by corporations. In Lowell, we have both models of charter schools – one run independently and another set up as a SABIS school.

While Commonwealth Charter Schools are set up as chartered public schools and receive funding from the local community, there are several concerns. Accountability to the local community and demographics of the student body which often does not represent the traditional public school student body are among two of many concerns.

Most communities have a limit of 9% of the foundation enrollment on charter schools seats; however, some communities – and Lowell falls in this second category – are designated differently and the limit is 18% (double). Lowell currently has 9.2% of its student population attending Commonwealth charter schools so there is room for growth or even new schools to be chartered within the City. 

Lisa’s presentation triggered discussions about who authorizes charter schools (the state Board of Education), the current Commissioner’s role in monitoring, governance (appointed boards which do not include representation from the community’s governing entities). Therefore unlike traditional public schools where the elected School Committee answers to the public on how public monies are spent or how school policy is overseen, Commonwealth Charter Schools, operate with appointed boards that do not answer to the public funding the school. As Lisa pointed out, there is a prevailing sense of pro-charter support by Governor Baker, Secretary of Education (James Peyser) and the Board of Education, all of whom have had or currently have some connection to Charter Schools through their participation in and/or connections to Charter Schools.

Alain Jehlen, a Somerville resident and member of Citizens for Public Schools, presented 25April2016Lowell-Alaininformation regarding how local funding is allocated to charter schools within a district and pointed out that our very own Commonwealth does not always fund (in fact almost never) the state budget adequately to provide the legislated reimbursement to municipal budgets. The trickle down effect of the under-funding is that traditional public school budgets and/or municipalities make up the gap in funds through their own budgets.

Thinking about Lowell’s budget this current year, about $17 million was paid to charter schools for Lowell students and approximately $3 million was reimbursed by the Commonwealth.  That $3 million was about $1.3 million short of the state’s responsibility. When there is a shortfall in the reimbursement funding, the local community must fill the gap between assessed amount and state reimbursement. In other words, a traditional public school program might need to be cut or a municipal service eliminated. Cities and towns often find themselves making difficult financial decisions because the Commonwealth does not live up to its promises.

According to the DESE website, Lowell’s 2016-17 assessment will be based on 1,494 students enrolled in charter schools (15,300 in traditional public schools) which represents 9.8% of the foundation enrollment.  A District payment of $18,430,028 will be assessed with the mythical reimbursement of $3,708,525 from the Commonwealth IF charter reimbursements are fully funded in the state budget. And if not…. well Lowell, already tightening fiscal belts and consolidating programs, will need to find the difference somewhere in the City’s budget.

The Q&A session from the group continued discussion about the impact of the ballot initiative fiscally and educationally. Several raised concerns about increasing charter seats and how that might impact the proposed budget for next fiscal year. There was some surprise to learn that if a student is counted as enrolled in a charter school on October 1, but leaves to return to the city’s public schools after that, the per pupil funding stays at the charter school until the next school year.

There was interest in continuing informational discussions in the near future.

If you, or someone you know would like to continue to be informed about this issue, we invite you to email the local group at lowellcps@gmail.com to be added to the email list. Additional information about Citizens for Public Schools and their advocacy efforts can be found on either their Facebook page or on the web at http://www.citizensforpublicschools.org.





Defining the term “furlough”

The public hearings on the 2010-2011 school budgets begin tonight in Lowell. No one thinks that there is any way the schools will be able to get through the next fiscal year without massive cuts of programs, services and teachers. The last several years the budgets have been decreased and belt-tightening measures have been put in place. Optional services and programs have already been cut or consolidated so that, for this next massive round of cutting – or more accurately, unfunding – the cuts are to the bone. Teachers and paraprofessional staff  have been hearing about the possibility of job loss for the last month and now those murmurs are reality.

One idea being floated is the idea of teachers taking “furlough” days – unpaid leave. As you can imagine, the unthinking masses who hate spending a dime on educating “those people” are frothing at the thought of those “lazy teachers” who work only part of a full day (see my previous posting) earning less money.

Hold on here folks. If you assign a particular day to me as a “furlough” does that mean you expect me to still show up for work because that seems to be the popular belief?

When a public works employee takes a furlough day, he or she stays home and the work just does not get done. If I stay home from work, the plans for the day and the preparation to implement those plans, still get done – on my own time – and the City hires a sub at the tune of $75-$90 per day. The school day just doesn’t disappear because I’m present or not.  How is that a budget saver?

Here’s what I would be willing to do: I would be willing to work partial days at strategic times throughout the school year. For example, the first 3 days of school and/or the Friday before a vacation week. In return, the students would be dismissed at lunch time similar to what happens on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break. The day would count as a school day so that would not impact the state’s requirement for 180 school days, the afternoon would be left to my discretion, and the City would not have to pay anyone for the balance of the day.

And in return? If I’m willing to reduce my pay and potentially impact my retirement, I’d like to see some of those 90 teaching positions restored. Our students get little enough without massively cutting technology teachers, music teachers, tutors, or paraprofessionals who are essential in helping teachers reach every student.

And if you have a better idea? Attend the budget meetings. Call your School Committee. Call the City Council. Our children’s futures depend on you.

The Rich Get Richer…..

and the poor keep getting poorer.  Today’s rant comes courtesy of Scholastic, that megaconglomerate of student book publishing.

Having just submitted a book order for my class (a rarity), I am struck by the advantages of working in a more middle-class socio economic school district.  Yes, it is true no one is holding a gun to my head to teach in an urban school district where family finances are not so flush. Scholastic’s website is currently promoting online ordering for parents. Now that is indeed wonderful and saves the teacher (no parent volunteers) the work of balancing out an order before submitting it.  I certainly don’t fault the more affluent the advantages of ordering online, but I do find the promotion from Scholastic — get a free classroom book for every submitted online order — a bit of a slap. The downside for a teacher who works with a disadvantaged population should be clear:  parents without computers/internet connectivity (and there are many here) can’t do this.  No online orders means no free books for a classroom that could dearly use them. Teachers like me, working in an urban environments where much of the classroom literacy library comes from the teacher’s own finances, cannot take advantage of such a perk.  This aggravates me.

As I checked out of my Scholastic order, I noticed another banner promotion from Scholastic: schoolstop.com.  Apparently through this website, teachers can post a list of supplies for a classroom and parents can choose to fulfill the list. And, for every fulfillment on the list, a teacher will receive more Scholastic Book Club Bonus Points (used for more free books and materials).  Sounds great, doesn’t it? In a school district where my 2009-2010 supply budget was cut by 25% this year — and finances don’t look good for next year, getting donations from parents to cover the gap in the supply budget would be great — in fact getting a box of tissues would be super. However, parents who are struggling to keep food on the table and the rent up to date, are probably not in the frame of mind to donate supplies to their child’s classroom. Once again, my counterparts in more affluent communities get advantages that I can only wish for.

Yes, I know that there are other donation sites — and I’m already all over them. I just wish Scholastic with their monopoly and ensuing great big profits, might have had a little less of a middle-class mindset when promoting freebies for teachers — because many teachers will not be able to take advantage of these freebies.  Believe me, I would greatly have appreciated more books for my class library and needed supplies that don’t come out of my personal funds.

Most of the time, I don’t get so irritated at the advantage-disadvantage thing. I know life isn’t fair. I just wish once in a while that there was a bit of equity between the haves and the have nots.

Lies and Damned Lies

This past week, the  local paper featured several “news” articles about the school where I formerly taught. The principal at the school was given notice recently that his contract would not be renewed due to MCAS, our state educational yardstick. There is no equivocating that the Superintendent of schools has a right to do this: principals work without contract in this state.  However, the aftermath of this sad moment in a school’s history made me wonder what in heck is wrong with people today.

The local paper carried a page 2 article which, in summary, stated that when the above-referenced principal announced to his staff that he would not be returning for the 2010-2011 school year, he did so by lambasting the staff for failing to get the MCAS scores where they would need to be.  When I read this “account”, it seemed rather curious. Only a moron would further demoralize a teaching staff already on edge because the administration was changing by such unprofessional behavior. I was acquainted with the principal in question, having worked at the school during his first year’s assignment there. Such an outburst truly seemed out of character — yet there it was in black and white for all to see. It was in the paper — it must be the truth. Newspaper reporters fact check, don’t they?

Later the same week, the current staff — the very people who would have been sitting in the meeting during the alleged lambasting — categorically and without prompting denied that the reported events happened. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The principal complemented his staff for their efforts and received a standing ovation.  How could the newspaper report have been so inaccurate? To date, there has been no retraction. The only way the accurate accounting of events has become known is through word of mouth. Not gossip. People who were actually sitting in the room and who are now trying to correct inaccuracies one ear at a time.

Well, I do have a few thoughts about such phenomena  — plural, because who knows how often such blatant, mean-spirited misrepresentations occur and no one hears the truth.  Educators work in a profession that no longer carries any respect. It used to; but now it is much more convenient to blame educators for the evils of our society.  We’re easy targets – too busy to make a big stink and  out there sucking up tax dollars,. Or so it would seem to those who would like to ignore the common good or their responsibilities in a democratic society.

When it comes to spending public money, no one wants to spend much on public schools. It’s much more easy to cut or withhold desperately needed funding by vilifying public education and the people who are dedicated to it. The press around public education says nothing about what really goes on in a classroom.  I can’t actually recall much positive press unless of course you count the feel good sports stories after the Thanksgiving Day football games.

Some of our elected officials would be better informed if they actually set foot inside classrooms and stopped relying on agendas put out by small-minded publishers supported by sloppy reporting. It would force those in a position to champion public schools to abandon efforts to dismantle public education — the education that is available to all.

However, it’s much more  convenient to read and believe misrepresentations reported as truths. This week’s local news article is just one more example of such.

Into the frying pan…..

In Massachusetts, there is a bill before the General Court to eliminate or increase the cap on Charter Schools.  I don’t know how things go in other parts of the country, but in Massachusetts, Charter Schools pull their funding from the local budget.  The currently proposed bill lifts the cap on Charters — further privatizing public education.  The following is a letter originally written to my State Representative and State Senator, but truly, it is an open letter to those who are considering this legislation.

Charter Schools

Dear Legislator,

I am a citizen of the Commonwealth, and I am asking you NOT to support lifting caps on Charter Schools.

I am a public educator in the Lowell Public Schools. My students are a diverse group from many different native languages, they come from hard-working families and they come from families experiencing social, emotional and financial traumas.  Five of the 18 students in my classroom are identified as having special needs.  Within this diverse population, there is exciting learning taking place.  And here is one of the reasons why I CHOOSE to teach in a public school:  unlike a charter, public schools have the mission of educating every student.  Shouldn’t education be a right, a given, for our children? We do not hold lotteries to decide who is accepted into our school — we meet the students — all students, not just a selection — wherever they are and move forward.  And we are doing this important work with less and less financial resources; resources that are drained by charter schools.

Academic growth, no matter how it is measured is slowly and steadily taking place. I am proud of my school, my colleagues, and my students. They all deserve your support of public education by the defeat of this attack on public education.


Amy E. Bisson