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News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective
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Principal shares thoughts before retiring

Below is a letter, dated April 11, from Pamela Simpkins, retiring principal at the McAuliffe elementary school. A graduate of Harvard, Tufts, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Ms. Simpkins has been a principal in the Lowell Public Schools for 18 years. She has graciously given us permission to post her letter: 

Dear Parents and Friends, 

I am very happy to report that Dr. Baehr, superintendent of schools, has announced that the McAulifee School’s current assistant principal, Jason DiCarlo, will become the new principal of the McAuliffe after my retirement in June. I’m looking forward to retirement—being able to sleep late, taking a walk in the sunshine whenever I want, having time to read and write and take art lessons, having time to try out new recipes, having more time to spend with my husband and daughter—but in a way I envy Jason.

You see, I’m very excited about what’s happening at the McAuliffe and other Lowell schools, and I wish I could be a part of their future. I think the programs we are using now to teach reading and math and social interactions are fantastic, and I can see that good things are happening. The McAuliffe students seem smarter to me than they did a few years ago. They seem more reflective, more articulate, and more confident. They seem to understand and believe that if they make the effort, they will achieve. (My daughter Katya, who is now a sophomore at Lowell High, attended the McAuliffe School, and I am sorry that during those years, the programs we are using now were not available.) Staff members seem more confident too, as if they know they have the right tools to help students, and, if they don’t, they know they can work together to find them. Things we talked about doing for years, we’re doing—things like using data to inform instruction, peer coaching, and developing a volunteers-as-tutors program. Don’t get me wrong. We still have a long way to go. If the measurement of success is MCAS scores, we’re not going to have a legion of reporters beating down our doors to ask how we did it. But the quality of teaching and learning is rising, and it’s clear to me that the momentum is there to continue the excitement, to continue the rise. 

Recently an article in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine named Lowell as one of the five hot places in the Boston area’s housing market. It stated that although the Lowell special education program excels, the schools are considered troubled by some and suggested that parents might consider Dracut or a parochial school as an alternative. I disagree. The Lowell schools are excellent. I’m not putting down any neighboring systems or private schools, yet I know most of them are jealous more »

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Opera opinions

I would love to hear what others thought of the Cambodian opera that premiered in Lowell this weekend.

 I loved the opening scene when the monk says “you must listen to my story” and describes Cambodia in 1963, peaceful and tolerant, then ties it in with the murder of JFK. For my generation, it is almost a cliche to ask someone where you were when JFK was killed. It was the first significant event of my life. I was in first grade and my teacher was crying!  That makes a huge impression on a 6 year-old.  When the monk mentions the day that the Khmer Rouge fell upon Cambodia, in April of 1975, then falls to his knees, no more needs to be said about the horrors that followed.

Some of my favorite moments were:  the song about having “no mothers” and the accompanying dance where a mother is teaching her daughter the intricate Cambodian dance forms; the recurring song “That’s the way love goes”; the moment at the end, when Dara reappears in a monk’s saffron robes and embraces Sam; the scene between Bopha, her sister and Khan, where we see how the family dynamics have evolved out of the horrors of the past; the older monk, and what he is able to teach the younger generation about compassion. I felt like the opera hinged on memory:  some of the most poignant moments were when Sam remembered his father playing the buffalo horn, or when Dara reminded Sam of when they were in the refugee camps together. And yet, there is the sense of how much memory has been lost because of the Khmer Rouge.

While the love story was not that compelling and some of the character motivations were not easily understood, these problems seemed less important as the story progressed.  

posted in Art | 1 Comment

Last two chances to catch Cambodian opera

Last night, I attended the opening-night performance of Where Elephants Weep, a contemporary Cambodian opera held at the Cyrus W. Irish Theatre at Lowell High School. The last two performances of the opera are tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.and believe me, you don’t want to miss this incredible experience that in many ways mirrors our own community. (See Margaret’s earlier post, dated 4/27 for a more detailed review.)  The opera is intense, an incredible mix of traditional Cambodian dance and music, with rock n roll and rap. At some moments, I laughed out loud and at others, I cried–such as when the lovers sang No Mothers, a song about motherless children. I can only imagine how much more intense it must have been for the older Cambodians in the audience who had experienced this history first hand. I can also imagine how the opera epitomizes what our Cambodian-American youth experience every day as they try to make sense of their new culture with that of their families’; at times, the language in the opera (such as the use of a few F words) startles as it yanks the audience back to modern America. Speaking of the audience, the auditorium was packed — every seat taken by a mixture of ages and races that truly is our city, so was the after party at the Mogan Cultural Center. It was also great to see so many people from the Lowell schools there, including teachers, principals and administrators, and to realize how art and opera, in this case, informs our understanding of each other. To see everyone together, enjoying the music, dance, and history of this story was very cool. The audience’s enthusiasum was evident by the standing ovation they gave the performers at the end. One of the greatest strengths of our city (and our public schools) is the diversity of people here, and that was the overwhelming feeling I had as I laughed, cried, and was moved along with fellow members of our mixed community. Also, two of the dancers in the show are LHS graduates!

posted in Art, Youth | 2 Comments

Lt. Governor answers to Lowell fifth graders

Back in town today for the third time in just over a week, Lt. Governor Tim Murray started his morning by taking calls on WCAP, Lowell’s local talk radio show. He then traveled to city hall where he met with City Manager Bernie Lynch, Mayor Bill Martin, City Councilor Jim Milinazzo, Supt. Karla Brooks Baehr, Assistant Supt. Jay Lang, school committee member Connie Martin and me, as well as other members of Lynch’s staff. It was an informal meeting over coffee and donuts where discussion focused on the Hamilton Canal project, state support for housing initiatives, the proposed school building projects in Lowell, and the governor’s municipal aid proposal.

It was, however, at the Lt. Governor’s next stop that his skills were really put to the test when he had to answer questions from fifth graders at the Rogers middle school. After about 20 minutes of questions from these future voters, he read the children a book about the American Revolution. As an observer who happens to live with a fifth grader, I was impressed by the students’ thoughtful questions and polite attention to his answers. They were also an excellent audience as the Lt. Governor read the lengthy book, interjecting some questions of his own. The students and their teacher, Mrs. Erin Rourke, are a shining example of the quality and caliber of people of all ages in the Lowell Public Schools. Below are some of the students’ questions and his answers: 

What made you want to be lieutenant governor?  As mayor of Worcester, the second biggest city in the state and similar in a lot of ways to Lowell, I was frustrated with the executive branch of state government not doing everything they could to have better relations between local, state, and federal governments, and not doing more to help cities and towns. 

What was the hardest obstacle you had to overcome to be Lt. Governor? I am the first person from Worcester to get elected to a statewide office in more than 50 years, so I needed to convince people that I could do the job, and I needed to raise one million dollars. Do you know how much a 30-second television ad costs? It costs about $1,500. As much as I travelled all over the state and met people, I was not able to meet six million people—I had to use TV and radio.

What will you do to help immigrants become citizens? more »

posted in Education, Local Politics, Youth | 1 Comment

Sneak preview

I just got back from one of the final dress rehearsals before this weekend’s premier of the Cambodian Rock Opera, Where Elephants WeepIf you read any of the extensive Globe coverage  in Sunday’s paper, you know this is a blending of East and West, past and present, young and old, set loosely to a Cambodian folktale, Turn Teav. I get the impression this story is somewhat like Romeo and Juliet and certainly there are similar elements in the plot. But, as in all operas, the plot is the least interesting part of the production, and there is much more going on in this story than the fate of the star-crossed lovers. I was particularly impressed with the layering of different themes and emotions; at one point I thought, they are trying to do too much, trying to encompass genocide, the feelings of orphans, the loss of country, spirituality versus the secular world, ties of family versus the rights of the individual, all tied up in the agony of Sam (reflecting that of his country) as he tries to come to terms with his past and find his future path.   I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded, the opera soon transcends the simple love story and does full justice to its many important themes.

The opera is sung in English and Khmer with subtitles in both languages. The stage is shared by a traditional Cambodian orchestra, with instruments such as the haunting buffalo horn and a Angkor-era xylophone that had to be fitted with extra notes in order to integrate Western style octaves and harmonies into the music. The other half of the stage features a modern rock band. The music works; the singers, especially Sam, Dara and the older monk who tries to guide them, are wonderful; and the bits of dance, whether modern, hip-hop, or traditional Cambodian that are interspersed into the show add to the drama.

In short, go see it. There are only three performances in Lowell, all at Lowell High’s Cyrus W. Irish Auditorium, this Friday at 7 pm, Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. Admission is $20, $10 for students, seniors or groups of 10 or more. To add to your evening’s enjoyment, attend the Fifth Annual Taste of Culture on Saturday, from 5:30-7:30, at the Hellenic Center on Broadway. For a $5 donation (children are free), you can try many types of ethnic food and watch performers from different cultures demonstrating traditional dances (if you’ve never seen Capoeira, the Brazilian dancing/fighting art, this will be your chance).  For a $20 donation, you can receive a free ticket to the opera!

posted in Art | 1 Comment

Rally for children draws hundreds to State House

Hundreds of people representing more than 60 communities descended on Beacon Hill today as Stand for Children held its second annual rally for support of public school funding and programs for children. Members representing communities as diverse as Worcester, Gloucester, Lowell, Arlington, and Winthrop joined forces to lobby legislators and gather in front of the State House to give voice to the unmet needs of our children.  

Whether they came from urban, rural or suburban communities, one theme consistent with all the speakers was the need for further investment in the education of our children. Speakers included Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Governor Deval Patrick, who campaigned heavily on more funding for public schools, but speakers also included regular folks–parents from Worcester and Lexington, teens from Boston and Winchester high schools, a Boston teacher, and a representative from Lowell’s African Assistance Center.

Edelman, who is also on the board of Stand and has been often quoted as saying, “If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much,” spoke to the crowd about the government’s responsibility to our children and our collective future. “We don’t have a money problem,” said Edelman. “We have a priorities problem.” (This seems particularly poignant considering a National School Board Association assertion that less than one percent of the entire federal budget is spent on education.) Governor Patrick, who also spoke at last year’s Stand rally, emphasized the need for continued citizen involvement—“not only on election day, not only at rallies, but every day,” and that it would only be through the persistent efforts of groups like Stand and its members that we will see the change our children’s futures demand. “I look forward to working with you on the issues that we both care about so deeply—improving the quality of schools in Massachusetts,” said the governor. The most compelling speeches, however, were from the regular folks, young and old from across the state, who shared their frustrations with years of cuts more »

posted in Education, Local Groups, Youth | 0 Comments

Lt. Governor at GLAD

Photo: Lt. Governor Tim Murray addresses Greater Lowell Area Democrats (GLAD) at a breakfast meeting at Skips Restaurant on Saturday, April 21, 2007.

For a second time in a week, Lt. Governor Tim Murray traveled to the Lowell area. (He was in town earlier to assess flood damages caused by the recent storm.) On Saturday, he met with members of the Greater Lowell Area Democrats (GLAD) and spoke briefly about the administration’s efforts during its first 100+ days in office. As someone who was an early supporter of both Patrick’s and Murray’s candidacies, I was interested to hear his perspective on their work since taking office.  Not surprisingly, Murray took a defensive posture on some of the issues that drew the most media attention, saying, “This administration has not been about drapes and Cadillacs. Our governor is spending his time on things that matter–education, jobs, the environment, and healthcare.” He went on to address specific areas, such as solar renewable energy and the potential this industry holds for jobs and the commonwealth’s future. He also mentioned the governor’s Municipal Partnership Act, which is a way for local governments to generate revenue without relying solely on property taxes through savings in healthcare, closing telecommunications loopholes, and allowing local communities to add up to 2% in meals and hotel taxes.  The timing for his pitch is appropriate because the House budget as it currently exists does not include some of the resources the governor’s budget had allocated for new police officers, expanding extended learning time and full-day kindergarten programs for the public schools, or his proposal for resources to fight property taxes. It’s also important to note that the House budget does include additional chapter 70 monies, which is how public schools are funded, and that neither budget has funding for the Shannon Grants, an important gang prevention program for at-risk kids. It will be interesting to see how the Senate weighs in on all this—now that we have democrats running the whole show and trying to deliver on astounding needs with limited resources. It’s certainly not a situation that enables a quick-fix or one in which you can please everyone—please get involved and let your representatives know your priority concerns. The Lt. Governor will be back in Lowell on Friday, April 27, for a gathering in the mayor’s reception room.    


posted in Local Politics | 0 Comments

Chelmsford reads and listens

A few years ago, I was involved with the “Lowell Reads” project, where we tried to get the community reading and discussing one book. In our case, it was Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. Chelmsford has been doing the same type of thing this year with Empire Falls, by Richard Russo.  I personally disliked that book , but the HBO movie was pretty good, with Ed Harris (has he ever done a bad movie?) as the main character. Anyway, the Chelmsford committee had a coffee-shop concert Friday night at the library as a tie-in with the book, featuring Lowell musician, Bob Martin and local talent, Sandy Spence. The main room of the library with comfy chairs, couches and stools was filled to capacity as the audience sipped coffee and enjoyed the show.

Sandy Spence did some great covers and a few original pieces from her CD (Not Without Looking Back). Sandy remembers going to Lowell as a kid, back when it was the place to go – to shop, to meet friends and listen to music. She sang the sixties-hit Dowtown in tribute to that vibrant memory of Lowell.  Bob Martin’s gritty, folk-style music evokes the downside of capitalism, people living on the street or just scraping by on the minimum wage. Each song unfolds like a short story, drawing you in to the lives he describes.  His tightly-woven lyrics, down-to-earth vocals and intricate guitar playing just get better the more you listen. On top of that, he’s a pretty funny guy and kept the audience laughing in between some of his more serious songs.

The evening of music fit in well with Lowell’s history and with the chosen book, which is about a failed mill town in Maine and the lives left behind when the corporations move on.

posted in Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Allow immigrants an education for $ sake

No big surprise in yesterday’s Lowell Sun to read that “tuition plan may bring in $2.5M”; the in-state tuition bill made sense economically last year, but still the legislature soundly defeated it in January 2006. What we knew then is true today: the state’s schools want these students—most of whom have worked very hard to overcome language and poverty obstacles to become college ready. Their presence “would likely result in extra revenue to the schools and the commonwealth,” according to a Board of Higher Education document released Thursday. But because their documentation is not in order—through no fault of their own—they are currently denied access to attend our state schools at the in-state rate. 

I know—what about fairness? What about all those immigrants who are here legally and have the proper documentation? What about the students who are citizens—will it deny them access? The schools welcome more qualified applicants, and how is it fair to penalize children for the behavior of their parents? (That’s like arresting the bank robber and his three-year-old son for stealing.) 

Last year’s adjustments to the bill, which required three years residency and a path to citizenship, made sense—ultimately these students must achieve legal status. But to me, the most important issue in this whole debate is the long-term impact on our community. After all, these children are with us; they are our children. In June 2005, MassINC, a non-partisan think tank, released a report “The Changing Face of Massachusetts” that showed the state actually lost population except for its immigrants. According to the report, “The average earnings of an immigrant college graduate are $40,179 compared with $20,216 for an immigrant high school graduate and $14,687 for an immigrant dropout.” So how does it make sense to deny these talented, hard-working students the opportunity to earn a degree and become fully engaged, tax paying, home buying, contributing consumers to our economy? It doesn’t make sense.   

If you still have concerns about the economic wisdom of this move, consider some of the states with similar programs: Texas, Utah, New Mexico, New York, Kansas, Oklahoma, and California—states with large immigrant populations and vastly different ideologies. The one thing they do share is the understanding that allowing qualified residents to attend their state colleges—irregardless of their immigrant status—is not only the right thing to do, it’s the financially smart thing to do.    

posted in Education, Youth | 0 Comments

Truancy issue: Half the job is showing up

Yesterday’s Boston Globe ran a full-length article on the issue of chronic truancy in Lowell schools and what one agency is doing to help. The article focused on One Lowell, an immigrant advocacy group here in the city that has been working with our schools to help reduce student truancy. Currently, One Lowell receives about $75,000 from Lowell schools which is funded by the Shannon Grant (a grant, by the way, which is not in the House or Governor’s budgets for next year) to provide support to at-risk students and their families. (Funds from the Shannon Grant also support Lowell police, youth groups, park recreation services, and other school programs geared toward preventing students from getting involved with gangs.) 

In Lowell, we have a problem with student attendance. Our rate is higher than the state’s, especially at the high school level, where we have made minimal progress despite a variety of efforts: We have the laptop for seniors program, which rewards those students who have excellent attendance with the possibility of winning a laptop computer at the end of the year. (This program has been successful but its focus tends to be with students who already have decent attendance.) We also have Operation Attendance, where school staff call families at night to inform parents of their child’s excessive absences. We even send uniformed police officers to visit homes of chronically absent children, and we have strengthened our policies regarding attendance as a requirement for receiving class credit. But it seems this problem will not be easily or cheaply solved. 

One Lowell has helped tremendously with the students it serves, primarily because of its ability to send bi-lingual staff to work with students and their families. The group’s recent focus on middle school students makes sense as we try to combat these negative behaviors before too much is lost. But with limited resources to attack this complex problem, many of our truant high school students end up as drop outs–and that is a loss for us all. 

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