First Days

IMG_1586 (1)It is back-to-school time here in the City in which I taught for nearly 30 years. You can sense the anticipation in the  breezes that flow down the Merrimack. There is  an almost unidentifiable change to the air. We are changing seasons; we are changing routines.

I loved the first day of school when I was teaching. Make no mistake about it, those first days – and oftentimes weeks – are exhausting as teachers and their new students work to find common ground and to build a community. The first day, the day when everyone wears a little vulnerability in anticipation of new things, the first day is special. And for every teacher who starts rebuilding a new community of learners today, I wish you the best.

My mind floods with the memories of some of those wonderfully special students who made the 30 first days that I was privileged to be part of special. So many unique personalities! You kids have enriched my life in ways I could never have imagined.

In 1990, I was returning to the classroom after a summer of health crises. I remember the exhaustion that year was not from teaching, but from treatments. Dragging my sorry self into a classroom filled with second graders was not only teacher-exhausting, it was physically and mentally exhausting. Yet every single morning, one of my bubbly, precious second graders, Anita, would throw her arms into the air and tell me “Mrs. Bisson, you look mahvelous today!” Now I know the reality was, I didn’t look even close to passable most days. Some mornings, Anita’s greeting was the one thing that kept me moving forward. A few years later, this special girl lost her own battle with cancer – and took a piece of my heart with her to heaven.

All of “my” kids whether you are grown with your own children or still in the middle of schooling, I am grateful to every single one of you. You challenged me to do better, to figure it out, and yet, every day you taught me something about making the most of our time here in our classroom community and on this earth. All those times when you thought I was teaching you, you were really teaching me.

Students are meeting their teachers once again today. May you all have a year filled with precious moments and memory-making. Cherish each moment as you build a lifetime of memories.

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

IMG_0794All present

This was a lengthy (2-3/4 hours) meeting due to not only the summer schedule of monthly meetings, but the financial topics that became the focus of discussion. Apologies in advance for the delay in getting notes out; I also presented information about First Book to the Committee (separate post to follow).

Permissions to Enter

Contract ratifications for the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendents were deferred to Executive Session, which followed the public portion this meeting.

Subcommittee Reports:

Mr. Gendron shared findings from the Facilities Subcommittee meeting of 8/11. The recommendation, followed by full School Committee approval, to name the Butler School Auditorium in honor of former administrator Mary Alice Foley was made. (Approved). Additionally Skanska, the Project Manager for the Lowell High School Building Project, presented a quarterly report of the work thus far and listed deadlines and timeline for the projected planning work needed to be accomplished ahead of a May 31, 2017 Mass. School Building Deadline.

While I understood this to be a huge construction project for the City of Lowell, I was unaware that the LHS Building Project is the largest school building project in the Commonwealth. There is a need to get the design “right” (sustainable with adaptability for future needs projected 20-30 years out) and to ensure that the costs are under control throughout all phases of the project.  The Project Manager, Skanska, is charged with this task and will work with the design team.  To view the timeline for the work that is envisioned, Sanska has provided details beginning around page 73 of the School Committee Packet.

Reports of the Superintendent

The Superintendent offered 12 reports to the Committee.  The ones receiving the closest scrutiny were financial in nature, but attention also was given to a facilities report by Mr. Rick Underwood. The Doors Open Lowell Public Schools announcement has been covered in detail by both Amelia Pak-Harvey of the Lowell Sun and through the LPS Website.  I was also wearing my “other hat”, co-coordinator of the Lowell First Book Truck Event in October, and will detail that event this week as we kick-off efforts to bring 40,000 free books to our Lowell Public Schools families.  Sharon LaGasse and Kristina Webber presented an end-of-year report on Food Services and the CEP program in Lowell.

The Purchase Order Report (2016/311), received extended discussion as it addressed some of the expenditures and encumbrances made at the end of the fiscal year. Mr. Gignac requested clarification some June 30 Purchase Orders including rental of the Tsongas Center (graduation) as well as hardware (Apple Laptops and carts).

Further in the discussion was the proposal for how to make up the last-minute loss of Kindergarten Grant Funding.  The Kindergarten Grant in Lowell is used in part or in whole to support the services of instructional paraprofessionals at the Kindergartens across the City.  On July 17, Governor Baker’s veto during the Commonwealth’s Budget process created a loss of funding for the Kindergarten Grant – and other budget items as well.  The Lowell School Administration  in attempting to find ways to maintain the paraprofessional positions, has resorted to what I liken to rearranging the deck chairs.  LPS had a budget surplus which seems to have some connection to the “fifth” quarterly circuit breaker payment accounted for in the 2015-16 budget of $2.8 million.  The carryover to 2016-17 is restricted by law to $2.3 million which leaves $548,000 to be returned to the City of Lowell.

Noting the amount needed to make up for the loss of funds triggered by the Governor’s veto, the LPS would request $527,642 once the books are certified by the Commonwealth (December 2016?). The City Manager had been alerted that there might be need for up to $600,000 in supplemental requests to make up for the loss. The trail of transactions as I understand it, would be this:

  • Funds in excess of $2.3 Million returned to City (approximately $547,000)
  • School Committee will request $527,642 supplemental from City Council
  • $527,642 will be placed by City in a Suspense Account (and eventually transferred to the line item needed to pay the salaries of Kindergarten paraprofessionals).

While there is an aversion to using one-time funding sources/payments for on-going expenditures, the Superintendent posited that these transactions will give the LPS a year to plan for how to fund the monies lost by the Governor’s veto on a more permanent basis.  In the end the Committee approved both the motion to request supplemental funding from the City Council and to place such funds in a Suspense Account (6 yeas, 1 absent – Mayor Kennedy).

In a related report, the update to Purchasing Policy (2016/321), an effort to bring the language in the current LPS Purchasing Policy in alignment with both City and DESE/State practice, was referred to the Finance Subcommittee for review.

The updated Hiring Policies (2016/331) giving qualified and certified Lowell residents an interview was passed.

A report on the status of Facilities (2016/326) was made by Mr. Rick Underwood,.  The enormity of maintaining facilities and the near-term end of lifecycle for building components of those schools built during the 1991-1993 school building boom is something for which the LPSD needs to plan. Many of the HVAC plants are reaching the end of life expectancy and are becoming difficult to keep in service. The custodial staff has an enormous amount of work to complete throughout the summer:  thoroughly cleaning buildings, floors, and performing other maintenance tasks (often with community programs in the building AND when temperatures are extremely hot) that are needed while the students and teachers are out of the building. During crunch times, the outside of the building – the landscaping – may not receive the same level of attention.

Mainly what I learned through this discussion is that the custodial staff have performed yeoman’s work to get all the facilities clean and ready for a new academic year. I know that  in the past, when I returned to set up my own classroom, the floors had been stripped, waxed, minor repairs performed – sometimes a new coat of paint, the the overhead lights cleaned. Any surface I didn’t have covered with packed boxes of materials was wiped down. The lockers outside the classroom were cleaned, the halls stripped and waxed and the community spaces maintained as well.

Maintaining the grounds at schools is also a huge undertaking, and of course, the grounds are what the neighbors and public see as they drive by a school building.  Adding landscaping to a custodian’s punch list is sometimes impossible, yet the grounds do need to be taken care of. Mr. Underwood seems quite open to seeking outside-the-box solutions for this, perhaps involving local landscapers in regular maintenance for a courtesy sign or involving community service groups as suggested by Mr. Gendron.

Before moving to Motions, Mayor Kennedy requested an update on when to expect reports for four motions submitted during the July 2016 School Committee meeting. A Report on Graduation Rates  and one on the STEM Program, specific to the High School is expected at the first meeting in September.  The LHS Curriculum Review in light of the building project is expected before December and the Suspension/Expulsion Policy is pending input and action by DESE.

New Business

There were four items under New Business:

  • 2016/310: Update on Business Office Reorganization & District HiringMr. Frisch confirms that the number of bodies remains the same; however, report was very difficult to follow. An Organizational Chart with names would go a long way to clarify what positions are filled and which remain unfilled.
  • 2016/318 Accept a grant award of $2,000 for Wang School
  • 2016/322 Expenditure transfer request (see page 165-172 of Meeting Packet)
  • 2016/325 Budget Transfers (see page 172-211  of Meeting packet). These appear to be the detailed transfers of monies to balance accounts from 2015-16.

All passed.

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.

What Defines A “Good” School?

2016-Mar-01_0051Recently, the Boston Globe published a letter from Joy Robinson-Lynch positing that if Boston needs more available spots in classical education schools (like Boston Latin), the school department might consider creating them.  After all, Boston Public Schools certainly know how to run a successful classical education institution – they’ve had years to practice and refine that.

Framing that thought in terms of Lowell’s local school issues, I wonder if in Lowell the same thought should apply. Looking at the Wait Lists for our Lowell Public Schools also indicate that some schools in Lowell are more sought after than others. If there is an abundance of students waiting to attend a middle school like the Daley Middle School, shouldn’t there be some thought into why that one school is in high demand? What is it that makes the Daley so desirable? Is the the leadership at the school? The culture? The academics? The staff?  Or is it something else?

I taught for 5 years at the Cardinal O’Connell School when it was a Pre-K to Grade 4 elementary school. As an older school, the building itself had some charming quirks, but it also had a great leadership team and a caring faculty who, because of the small size of the school, really knew each and every student. What it didn’t have was a cafeteria.  Sometimes when a family left for the (new-at-the-time) Lincoln School, that would be the reason given for transferring. Fortunately, not everyone valued separate lunch space as a deciding factor in a child’s educational success.

Is it just a perception or is there something tangibly identifiable that sets apart the schools perceived to be desirable? That’s something that may be explored further under a new assessment model being considered by a consortium of school districts from across Massachusetts. Measuring positivity in a school’s culture may be more difficult to quantify, but it is equally important to the overall picture of whether or not a school is a success. What are those factors that families value that fall outside of numbers and test scores?

Are we ready to use more measures to define good schools? I hope so!




IMG_0200The New York Times carried an interesting story about Kansas conservatives and the effort to demonize education even further through linguistics. The article “Public Schools? To Kansas Conservatives They’re ‘Government’ Schools“, really confused me for a bit. Don’t most schools – unless we’re talking about private schools, have some government oversight and funding?

As it turns out, Kansas conservatives, and I would suppose others throughout the United States who are like-minded, do have a deeper purpose for referencing schools as “government” schools.

In Kansas, the legislature and the court system have been engaged in a battle royale over funding inequities. There is little to no desire to raise taxes to support schools; in fact, the current governor is quite proud of budget cuts which resulted in income tax cuts. Under a court-threat to close the schools due to funding inequities, the Kansas legislature seems to have come up with a way to satisfy the courts for the time-being, but the ill-will generated in this bloodbath isn’t over.

Referring to public schools as “government schools” in Kansas is not simply a matter of linguistic semantics. No, it is rebranding a public institution to create negative reactions which, in the final accounting, could very well result in less public funding and less support for the public school system.

But the question I had when I first heard the term “government” schools is this:  If the goal is to rid a municipality, a state, or a country of publicly supported and funded schools, then which institutions will be immune?

Here in Lowell many parochial schools receive some support from Title I. Some parochial school students are transported to their school-of-choice via public school bus.  Government funding? I think so. Charter Schools also receive public funding in the per-pupil assessment coming from the City.  And in parts of the United States, some homeschooled students participate in extracurricular activities or school sports funded through… public funding.  Are all of these school “government” schools too?

I believe the purposeful substitution of the term “government” for “public” leaves an intentionally negative connotation, one that is meant to lessen financial support for schools that serve everyone. It is meant to paint hard-working educators as slackers with hands out. It is meant to further the notion that our public school system is irreparably broken and only serves those who are too lazy to go elsewhere.

And what exactly would be the alternative to a “government” school?  How about a corporately run school? Do you know of any of those? It’s pretty clear that the issue is not just that the government is spending money, it also is who controls where that money is spent. The people making the funding decisions couldn’t possibly want control of education funding for their own personal benefit could they?

To me, what is happening in Kansas bears a close watch because it could happen anywhere. Even here in Massachusetts.


What If Miss Parker Hadn’t

I was in the seventh grade when Miss Parker told me, “Donovan, we could put all your excess energy to good use.” And she introduced me to the sound of my own voice.

In five minutes, Donovan Livingston the Student speaker at Harvard Graduate School of Education 2016 Convocation and Ed.M. candidate uses his voice to remind all of us of why education is powerful. His voice reminds us that equity in access to education and educational possibilities cannot and should not be restricted.

The reason to be an educator is embedded in his poetry.  A number on a test does not define a person’s worth. Invest in five minutes that can reaffirm your resolve to be an educator.

Use this link from Harvard GSE to link to the text.

School Committee Meeting, 04 May 2016

School Committee Meeting, 04 May 2016

Finance Subcommittee Meeting, 04 May 2016

All members present

12022015ClockThis was a marathon session, especially for School Committee members present for both the regular meeting and finance subcommittee Q&A session, as well as the school department personnel.  An executive session was sandwiched in between the two public meetings – three and a half hours. 

Meeting opened with recognition for the LHS Air Force Junior ROTC Drill Team (AFJROTC).

Public Participation

Stephanie Sodre, Daley School teacher and parent of a preschool student, spoke in advocacy for Motion 2016/172, policy for placement of students within Lowell Schools for school personnel residing out of district.

Paul Georges, President of United Teachers of Lowell (UTL), speaks on two motions to be presented: 2016/180 (career pathways for paraprofessionals) and 2016/186 (offering a contract to Dr. Khelfaoui).  In the first instance, Mr. Georges reminds the school committee of the successful paraprofessional program which resulted in training and hiring new Special Education Teachers. This opportunity has been in existence for a number of years. He respectfully suggests that the new motion consider amending the language to include other school personnel who may wish to pursue licensure such as the custodians and/or cafeteria staff.

Mr. Georges also spoke in support of offering the Superintendent a contract as opposed to the current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). He reminds the school committee that the position of Superintendent was originally advertised as having a 3-year contract, but at the time of final interviews, the candidates were publicly asked if they would work “without a contract”. Mr. Georges reminds the committee that to do so was not only unfair, but ethically questionable and may, in the future, result in fewer candidates for advertised administrators such as superintendents.


There were five motions presented; one, the motion to offer the Superintendent a 3-year contract, generated the longest discussion.

  • 2016/160 (Ms. Doherty) – request for information/report on the Lowell School’s civics curriculum.
  • 2016/180 (Ms. Doherty) – career path for paraprofessions (See notes following)
  • 2016/185 (Mr. Hoey) – policy mandating that Lowell residents are guaranteed interviews when applying for positions.
  • 2016/186 (Mr. Hoey) – negotiation of a 3-year contract for the Superintendent
  • 2016/187 (Ms. Martin) – report to full committee regarding evaluations (in aggregate) of LPS principals and staff using the Massachusetts Evaluation system protocols.

Ms. Doherty’s second motion (2016/180) re-emphasized and expanded on a valuable resource within the Lowell Schools – the paraprofessional staff (see Public Participation comment by Mr. Georges suggesting that this benefit should be extended to include other support staff).  This motion asks the the administration continue to tap into that resource by developing a diverse teaching staff through a partnership with Middlesex Community College, University of Massachusetts Lowell and Lowell Public Schools. It expands on this idea by including potential for development from our high school students considering education as a career and Middlesex Community College students enrolled in one of MCC’s education programs (Early Childhood Education, Early Childhood Education Transfer, and Elementary Education Transfer majors).

Developing future educators by identifying students in high school who may be interested in a career in education, and encouraging those students in community college programs such as ones offered by Middlesex Community College, seems like a terrific idea for recruiting locally committed people to a career in education. While University of Massachusetts Lowell’s College of Education has offered Masters Degree level programming, Ms. Doherty suggested that a Bachelor’s education degree program is under consideration for the future.  If so, that would complete the Initial Certification pathway for Lowell residents starting with Pre-K through Grade 12, to Associates degree (MCC) to Bachelor’s degree (UML).  An additional enticement for potential education majors is that Middlesex Community will participate in the tuition-rebate program announced last week by Governor Baker. (link here)

To clarify, however, our current paraprofessionals are highly qualified and must meet some exacting credentials already (2010 No Child Left Behind Highly Qualified).  These include:

  • a high school diploma or equivalent AND
  • an Associates Degree OR 48 credit hours at an institute of higher learning OR successful completion of the Para-Pro or WorkKeys test

Ms. Doherty’s motion will need to include the above requirements mandated by NCLB; however, it is both interesting and creative and should help Lowell continue to locate and hire quality candidates for teaching.

The motion receiving the longest discussion was Mr. Hoey’s suggestion that the Mayor enter into negotiation with Dr. Khelfaoui. Some clarification was offered that made the language and intent of the motion fit better with negotiation process, namely, to replace the wording so that the full School Committee, and not just the Mayor, would participate in negotiations (as is their obligation and duty) and to replace the specifics of number of years with a more flexible term, “multi-year”.  By way of clarification, Dr. Khelfaoui repeated last night that contract or no contract really made no real impact on his superintendency – he was more interested in doing his job well.

It seemed to come as a surprise to some Committee members that the Superintendent of Schools also has a regulated/mandated evaluation cycle (see the whole complicated Massachusetts Educator Evaluation on DESE website) just as teachers and principals do.  The cycle is a two-year cycle. 

Section II of the Educator Evaluation Framework applies to Superintendents and can be found in this link which includes the rubric to be applied. Throughout year 1 of the cycle, the superintendent collects evidence toward his/her goals; those goals were developed at the start of the cycle in conjunction with the School Committee.  At the end of year 1, a formative assessment of the Superintendent is made listing areas where goals have been met, are on the way to being met, or need additional work. This gives the superintendent (or educator, as teachers are subject to the same process) time to make mid-cycle corrections as needed.

During year 2, the Superintendent continues to work toward goals and collect evidence of reaching them. At the end of year 2 a summative evaluation report of performance is made by the School Committee using the Educator Evaluation Framework rubric. Continuation of service or contracts are thought to be a natural fit at this point.  Currently in year 1 of his evaluation cycle, Dr. Khelfaoui suggested that contract negotiations might be better served if tied to the Evaluation process mandated by the Commonwealth.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were five reports from the Superintendent’s office:

  • 2016/172 Policy for Admission of Non-Resident School Employees (see packet). Referred to Policy Subcommittee. There was some discussion during the meeting about the legalities of requiring Special Education services to become out-of-pocket expenses paid by the employee should the sending district not pay (whether or not a sending district pays for student is tied to School Choice, currently proposed only for Grades 9-12).
  • 2016/178 Response to 7/15/15 motion for Lincoln School Community Garden
  • 2016/182 Community Service Day projects. Accepted as Report of Progress.
  • 2016/183 STEM Update. Ongoing meetings have taken place in order to extend STEM programs through High School. Community resources are being included (such as Makerspace). Training for LHS personnel will take place over summer in anticipation of roll-out to incoming Freshmen in Fall 2016.
  • 2016/174 Personnel Report. To date, 29 retirees, 11 resignations, 1 new hire (Mr. Frisch).

New Business

2016/136, District School Choice: Dr. Khelfaoui is proposing School Choice be in effect for high school grades 9-12 only in 2016-17. 30 seats possibly available. Public Hearing on 5/18 at 6:30 pm . The date would indicate this discussion will be included in the May 18 regular School Committee meeting.

2016/184, Permission to post Coordinator of Early Childhood Education

After approval of Convention/Conference Requests and Professional Personnel requests, the Committee went into Executive Session.

Regular School Committee Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Finance Subcommittee followed.

Meeting packet for regular School Committee is here.

Finance Subcommittee Meeting (begins at approximately 9 pm)

Members: Robert Gignac (chair), Jackie Doherty, Steve Gendron

The School Committee had made several requests for additional budget information during the Superintendent’s Budget Presentation of April 25. A copy of the proposed budget is found here.

Jeannine Durkin (Asst. Superintendet Student Support Services) and Jennifer McCrystal (Director of Special Education) clarified and explained their thinking in generating the budget amount for both out-of-district student SpED placements and the consolidation plan for bringing more out-of-district placed Special Education students within Lowell Schools.  The concept of the state’s Circuit Breaker  accounting and contribution was explained. Ms. McCrystal also provided a detailed explanation of the need and request to fund additional Behavioral Analysts (1 currently serves 296 students; this is way beyond reasonable and the proposal is for a certified Behavioral Analyst or BCBA to be shared between an elementary-middle school.)

Consideration of revising the Organizational Chart to reflect the responsibilities of an Assistant Business Manager as more complex than supervision of payroll personnel was made by Mr. Gignac. There were also questions about including Public Relations duties in the position of Assistant Human Resources Manager.

The consolidation of the Bridge Program (alternative education for at-risk Middle School-aged students currently administered by Middlesex Community College) and the Alternative Education program at the Cardinal O’Connell has been modified in the revised budget to include a one-year transition. The slower roll-out is highly recommended so that a transition period for students, staff and families can be made.

The impact of losing teachers at Lowell High (due to unreplaced retirements) was discussed relative to changes in class sizes.

CBOs (Community Based Organizations such as CTI or YMCA) was explained as minimal costs incurred due to pass-through contributions.

Handling the impact of the 2016-17 Grade 5 bubble was discussed. Once the budget is approved, there will be an effort to “recruit” families to fill two Grade 5 classrooms at the STEM school; Wang (2 additional classrooms) will be no problem to fill. John Descoteaux from Central Office offers that there will be minimal impact on bus costs. The rest of the bubble class will be absorbed (class sizes will range between 27 and 32).

Meeting adjourned. Next budget hearing and discussion, with opportunity for Public Input, is scheduled for MONDAY, May 9 at 7:15 pm, Rogers School Television Studio. Final Budget Meeting (adoption) is scheduled for WEDNESDAY, May 11 at 7:15 pm, Rogers School Television Studio

Link to Amelia Pak-Harvey’s coverage is here.

Summer Pay, Explained

How would you like it if your employer said “you absolutely have done the work, but I’m not going to be able to be able to finish paying you?” Basically, that is what is happening to teachers in the Detroit Public Schools this week. And to emphasize and publicize this ridiculous predicament, the teachers in Detroit had a sick-out (teacher strikes are as illegal in Michigan as they are here in Massachusetts).

CBS News broadcast a story last evening that did not make clear why not paying teachers over the summer months is an ethical as well as practical problem. This morning’s Boston Globe did a slightly better job. The issue here is not about paying teachers all year long – it’s about paying for services that were completed as of the end of a school year. In other words: deferred or back pay.

When the Detroit Public Schools runs out of money on June 30, it will not only mean cancelling Summer School or other educational programs that take place over the 10-week summer break. It will mean that Detroit will break its promise to finish paying teachers for 2015-16.

How is that? It most likely works the way things work here in Lowell.  At the beginning of a school year, a teacher can elect to receive contractual salary in one of three ways:

  1. Divide the contracted pay over the 42-week school year,
  2. Divide the contracted pay for the 42-week year over 52 weeks (a calendar year) and receive a lump sum for the balance on week 42, or
  3. Divide the contracted pay for the 42-week year over 52 weeks (deferring a set aside amount so checks arrive regularly over the summer).

Deferring or setting aside part of contracted pay is a convenience and benefit for teachers. When Detroit’s funds run out on June 30, the staff that selected Option 1 will have been paid in full for a full year’s work. [Updated to include detail from NYTimes article: Detroit uses 44 week year; same principle for options 1 and 3.]. Those teachers who deferred pay (Option 3) will not receive the 10 weeks of deferred salary. So, one group of educators will have received full pay for 2015-16, but another will not. Group 2, no soup for you.

I’d be upset too if money that I’d purposefully set aside to live on during a break just vaporized through no fault of my own. I’d expect most employees in any business sector would be as well.

Sometimes the devil is in the details.