News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Schools in the news

We learned today that a public service announcement (PSA) video produced by students at Lowell High School has been selected for the Middlesex District Attorney’s Teen Impaired Driving PSA Award. This recognition will be announced on Fox News at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow. More details and a link to the PSA will follow (if I can get it). 

Other local school news includes a letter in today’s Sun from Superintendent Chris Scott regarding an anticipated shortfall in next year’s school budget, and the district’s attempt to cut costs yet again while maintaining programming and staffing to ensure a decent education for our children. The superintendent will present her budget to the school committee at its meeting tomorrow night, and budget hearings will be held May 27 and June 1. Given the degree of cuts required if the shortfall reaches $6-$9 million as some fear, the only responsible thing to do is fight for the resources to adequately educate our children, so where is the outcry from the community?

Also in the news, today’s Boston Globe reports that Rhode Island teachers due to lose their jobs at Central Falls High School have reached a tentative agreement with school administrators to reform the school together, including longer hours, more professional development, and new accountability measures. On the same page, columnist Kevin Cullen writes about Boston’s own efforts at turning around an underperforming school (Burke High School in Dorchester) from the students’ perspective. Cullen and the students he gives voice make a valid point that blaming teachers and staff for poor student achievement is fundamentally unfair when you consider the tremendous role other factors play in learning, such as poverty, student apathy, and bad parenting. As one student notes, “…they can’t reassign the parents, so they reassign the teachers.” These, as well as limited English proficiency, are just some of the issues most urban districts face, and yet, there are schools where students make tremendous gains in learning despite the socio-economic challenges. We have those schools in Lowell. We also have a Level IV (underperforming) school. So if the student demographics are similar, what’s the difference between those schools? We need to identify and model those best practices, and yes, hold everyone accountable to student learning, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be so punitive to one group.

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Schools in distress

In Kendall Wallace’s chat yesterday, he sounds a warning alarm regarding the level of cuts the Lowell Public Schools are exploring to meet a projected shortfall of $6-9 million in next year’s budget. Wallace and I have been known to disagree on many things, especially if I am critical of the high school, but on this issue we are steadfastly aligned: Cuts this deep will devastate our public school system.

Perhaps that sounds like a familiar tune to you. Since 2003, when I was prompted to run for school committee because of shrinking school resources, we have continued to reduce programs, eliminate positions and close schools (about 500 positions since 2002). Many of those positions in the early years were absorbed through attrition, but those days are long behind us. Layoffs have become necessary, and last year the district spent about $750K on unemployment costs, which says nothing about the impact on the education of our children.  Lowell is not alone in facing draconian cuts, an example of which is this article about Brockton in yesterday’s Boston Globe.  And while, to varying degrees, other districts are facing fiscal concerns, the solution for Lowell rests with our community. The school committee cannot cut its way out of this crisis without severe consequences to the gains we have made in student performance. Our state legislators must provide the reform tools to save costs without impacting student learning; our city council must allocate the funds necessary to protect one of the city’s most important assets, its schools; our unions must make concessions to save jobs; and yes, the school committee must explore every potential cost savings and efficiency with laser-sharp focus on maintaining student learning. (More on all this in later posts.) In the meantime, please pay attention and be involved because we all have a stake in solving this fiscal crisis without devastating our schools.

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Mixed views on new anti-bullying law

You can’t legislate kindness, despite the state’s new anti-bullying law. It’s not that I don’t support the law or realize the harm bullying inflicts, or that I’m worried about another unfunded mandate the law requires for schools: “train all staff, report all incidents.” We should insist schools deal with bullying. In Lowell, we have had bully-prevention programs and policies in place for years, but are they effective and will the law help?

No doubt, the new law and recent tragedies (the Globe reports one from Alabama today) have raised awareness that bullying can be deadly and that schools must make prevention a priority. This is a huge improvement from shrugging it off as simply a rite of passage. A very long time ago, when I was bullied in the seventh grade, I hid it from my parents and teachers (something many kids still do) because of shame. I finally confided in my older sister, who advised me to stand up to the ringleader, a big, tough girl with mean friends. My days of being bullied ended with a fistfight after school, not the advice given to today’s victims, but one that worked for me. Standing up to that girl changed me. And although I have not had to put my hands on another since, I have remained a fighter in other ways.

Times have changed, and violence is not the prescribed approach for school bullies. Last week, the Lowell Public Schools in conjunction with the Lowell Police Department and the Middlesex District Attorney’s office hosted a community meeting on “Bullying and Violence in the Wired World.” (Dick wrote about it here on his blog.)  The cyber-bullying event explored the role technology has played in making bullying more pervasive, damaging, and deadly.  (View the taped meeting at Lowell Educational TV‘s website.) The day before the Lowell event, Boston Globe Magazine published an article on the topic that raised some sobering concerns about these programs. According to the report, there is little evidence the programs are effective: “…here’s what has gotten lost amid all the legislation and finger-pointing: None of the current anti-bullying programs, despite their fanfare, have been successful in reducing actual bullying among American students in any meaningful way.”

The article also noted that programs should focus on bystanders rather than bullies and victims. Many of Lowell’s programs address bystanders as key players, with tools such as “kindness walls” and “bully boxes” as ways to sensitize and empower students who stand on the sidelines. Yesterday, the Globe published another story about how communities are using the law to jumpstart discussions and policies around bullying. Even if you can’t make meanness a criminal offense and you can’t eliminate bullying behavior completely, these efforts should heighten awareness, impact the way we deal with these issues, and ultimately improve our school communities—hopefully no fistfights needed.

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Controversial agenda for LHS subcommittee meeting

Tomorrow night, April 13, the LHS subcommittee will meet at the Rogers School, starting at 7 p.m., with a short, yet controversial agenda. First up is clarification regarding the decision to use half of the proceeds from this year’s annual golf tournament to restore Alumni Field instead of the full amount going toward student scholarships as in previous years. The second agenda item is a review of a report on student scores on advanced placement tests over the last three years: how the scores compare to course grades, and how last year’s students did compared to their peers nationally. Finally, the third agenda item is a discussion of the course weighting issue as it relates to the Latin Lyceum, particularly freshmen year. Yesterday’s Sun published an article on the program, which based on the many comments on its website, certainly stirred strong feelings from students, parents, teachers and others. As always, Lowell School Committee meetings are open to the public, and the community is welcome to attend.

posted in Education, Lowell High | 0 Comments

State not awarded federal education funding

Today’s breaking news in the Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts was not named as one of the recipients for the first round of federal education money under Race To-The Top (RTTT) funding. Many folks were surprised to discover that Massachusetts, considered to have the best public schools in the nation based on national test scores, was not included in this first round of awards. The Commonwealth had been selected as one of 16 finalists among 40 state applications; yet, according to the Globe report, only Delaware ($100 million) and Tennessee ($500 million) won in the first round, with another $3.4 billion remaining to be awarded in June.

With the Massachusetts legislature indicating cuts in state aid for schools, the federal money is highly coveted. Lowell has been told it could see a four percent reduction in chapter 70 funds, state aid for education, which means the district will face an additional $7.5 million shortfall for next year. This on the heels of more than $8 million in cuts last year as well as eight years of consistently reducing positions (about 400 less positions) as revenue has not kept pace with costs.

posted in Education, Money Matters, National issues | 0 Comments

The end of public school as we know it…

It was too surreal: First thing I heard this morning is that Kansas City is closing half their public schools due to budget woes; a few hours later, I learned that Hawaii cut its school year short by 17 days to save money. All this is on top of news earlier in the week that a Rhode Island superintendent fired all 93 teachers and the principal of the high school.  At this point, twisting the above-mentioned R.E.M. song to make a point isn’t being overly dramatic, it’s too true. If the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), with its unreachable goal (100% at grade level by 2014), punitive approach to accountability, and lack of funding, was the beginning of the end of public schools, the recent economic crisis appears to be the final note.  For a national perspective on this issue, check out today’s NPR interview with Diane Ravitch, author and former assistant secretary of education under President Bush.  A NCLB supporter now converted, Ravitch argues that punishing schools under the mantra of accountability while pushing for privatizing our educational system is not good for kids, communities, or democracy. She claims her research shows that charter schools have not outperformed public schools.

 In Massachusetts, where our public schools enjoy national recognition as leaders in student achievement, our state Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools (DESE) has determined 35 failing schools (level  4) have not made adequate progress in student learning.  All 35 schools are from urban districts. (In Lowell, we have one, level 4 school, the Murkland, which will undergo various punitive/restructuring options such as described here in the Sun .)  As Joan Vennochi mentions in today’s Boston Globe, the problem with these supposedly bold reforms is their limited success in actually improving student learning. She cites Chicago’s Draconian measures as having mixed results and compares it to other cities whose students made greater gains without the turmoil.  According to Vennochi, the problem is more complex than redistributing students and staff: “How to improve learning in public schools, especially those located in poor, urban neighborhoods, is worthy of debate. The problem is that even the staunchest reform advocates can change their mind about what really works up against the cumulative effects of poverty.”  Perhaps the problems of poverty are just too hard to fix:  much easier to blame it on the schools.

posted in Education, In the News, NCLB | 0 Comments

Making a splash for Lowell High

According to Coach Batt (Battistini), five years ago the LHS boys swim team didn’t even have a parent representative on the Friends of Lowell High School and winning a meet was as likely as finding a shark in the pool. Fast forward to last Friday when the Lowell High Boys Swim and Dive Team, fresh off a 10-1 season that included a first ever win against Chelmsford, placed seventh in the State Division I competition held at Harvard University.  If you exclude the private school winners, such as St. John’s Prep which took first place for the fifth consecutive year, and Boston College High School, which took sixth; LHS placed fifth overall for public schools (beating Chelmsford again by 12 points). The top ten Division I teams were:  St. John’s Prep, Lincoln Sudbury Regional, Minnechaug Regional, Lexington,  Andover, BC, LHS, Chelmsford, Westford, and Amherst Pelham Regional.

Aside from the importance of winning, which IS important, most folks know there are many benefits to participating in athletics, and Lowell’s swimmers were no exception. The varsity team met the MIAA’s gold standard for grade point average (3.00-4.00), and equally impressive, nearly every Lowell swimmer who participated in the state meet improved his best-ever high school time, and isn’t that what it’s all about—doing our own personal best. (For details on some records broken, see this Sun article.) Congrats to the team, coaches, parents, and the high school for its support of student athletics. On another note, all 11 winter varsity sports at LHS achieved the MIAA’s GPA gold standard with a combined average of 3.15. Go Red Raiders! (Full disclosure: My son swims on the team.)

posted in Lowell High, Sports | 0 Comments

LHS crew team in Madrid

As I sit here in cool weather under cloudy skies, a group of Lowell High School students are enjoying an exciting and educational adventure in Madrid. (See here for their day-by-day account of the experience.) The students, who row in the school’s highly successful crew program, are participating in the trip under the guidance of LHS teachers and coaches, and with full approval of the Lowell School Committee. As required under the travel policy, the committee approved the trip before any funds were collected; also per the policy, the request for that approval (which provides insurance coverage) included written explanation of the learning outcomes to justify two days missed from school. Congratulations to the studentssounds like they’re having a wonderful experienceand muchos gracias to the teachers/coaches for making it happen!

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Check school travel policy yourself

Like most folks, I take my news with a grain of salt; this learned response was strengthened since getting elected to the school committee and having seen, on occasion, my own words taken out of context, misrepresented, or used loosely to support some agenda in the newspaper. But even before running for office, as an active member of the Citywide Parent Council involved in issues reported in the press, I had experienced slanted coverage firsthand. Recently, a number of examples of this come to mind—perhaps the most blatant is the headmaster search stories which focused on one candidate, implied a political choice that devalued the work of the search committee and its process, and ignored comments to the contrary. (I can only attest to what I said that did not make it into print regarding confidence in the process and the superintendent.) That agenda seems to have taken a back seat now that the search committee has released the candidates for interviews. Another recent example is this story faulting the school committee travel policy (“Policy change chills Lowell school trips”). If you read to the end of the article, you’ll see the intent of the policy is consistent with other districts. Also, it’s worth reminding folks that the two most important changes to the policy, approved unanimously one year ago, were: 1. Receive school committee approval of a trip before any money is collected; and 2. Require written notice of the learning standards and justification when students will miss school. As I posted here then, the policy is not meant to detract from student trips, but to make sure money is not collected without approval and any sanctioned absence from school is with good reason. The policy is not excessive, nor is it contradictory to what other school districts expect–despite the story’s slant.

posted in Education, school committee | 0 Comments

Fighting video does not represent our youth

Ask any cop and he’ll tell you, most citizens obey the law. The same for students: most behave and are good kids. The majority of Lowell students are diverse, talented, and energetic young people who accept each other’s differences and behave well at school and sporting events. Yet, my first reaction to Tuesday’s front-page Sun article about Lowell kids fighting on YouTube was horror and dismay that our society had truly reached a new low. Schoolyard brawling, unfortunately, goes back centuries and is not a new phenomenon. Technology enables this brutality to be shared easily with the wider community and brings the viciousness into our homes. Fighting is not taken lightly in Lowell as education leaders work with police to identify culprits and stop them. In our schools, we have extensive policies to thwart bullying in all forms because this behavior is absolutely not acceptable. Even knowing that, the story disturbed me and I needed a perspective check, so yesterday I attended the Lincoln Elementary School’s annual show, and I wasn’t disappointed. Those beautiful, singing, dancing fourth graders reminded me who are children are. They performed wonderful skits they had researched about the environment as well as songs amid a colorful set they designed under the leadership of director and art teacher Erin Noonan. The songs were uplifting, snappy, and educational, with the focus on everyone doing their part to save the environment, and the kids were great.

Of course we also have troubled students, like any community, and we do not ignore the need to address these issues (which is one of our strengths), but we must also remember that the majority of our youngsters are good kids, working hard to learn and contribute to the world around them. On a final note, here are some songs from the Lincoln School show: Driving Miss Lazy “Grab a bike or take a hike, call somebody up you like, you know it’s the right thing to do,” or Turn It Off! “Yeah, turn it off when you brush, it’s a five gallon rush, turn it off (running water), turn it off (save the power), turn it off. Yeah, catch the lights and tv, don’t forget the cd, turn it off!” and It’s Our World “It’s our world and we’ll do what we can to be part of the plan…” These horrible fight videos involve a smaller number of troubled teens and must be dealt with; they do not, however, represent the majority of our kids.

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