News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

The Power of One

Talk about being creative and doing more with less: My eighth grader came home with a letter from the Daley School yesterday about a new program called The Power of One. The program solicits parents to donate one hour of their time to make a difference in their child’s school. Think about it. How many of us could donate an hour, and what kind of difference would it make if 500 parents did at one school? The program requires interested parents to complete a CORI form (policy of Lowell Schools for anyone working with our children). The letter also included a list of potential volunteer opportunities, such as Election Day bake sale, dance chaperone, literacy night, teacher appreciation luncheon, and student of the month. The best part is the Daley School is making a concerted effort to reach out to all parents and officially invite them to be part of their child’s education community. And they’re asking for a one-hour commitment only; even busy parents may be able to find an hour during the school year if they’re asked and made to feel welcome. As someone involved with the Citywide Parent Council and school PTOs for 12 years, I can tell you, the first step is being invited. It will be interesting to see the response they get, the number of new faces, and the difference, if any, one letter can make in parent involvement.

posted in Education | 4 Comments

Whistler weekend

My first stop while in DC last weekend, was the Freer Gallery, which intrigued me because of a connection with our own native son, James McNeil Whistler (I believe Whistler only lived in Lowell for the first two years of his life and, as a Bohemian artist, always denied his industrial revolution roots; however, he was born here, so we get to claim him). As an aside, his birthplace, the Whistler House Museum in Lowell, features a copy of his most famous painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black”, also known as “Whistler’s Mother” as well as some charming contemporary art work and many of his etchings, and tidbits of Lowell history. What I was particularly interested in at the Freer though, was “The Peacock Room.” This was a dining room that Whistler took over decorating for a wealthy friend and patron, Frederick Leyland. Whistler got carried away and, while the businessman was absent, painted the walls a beautiful rich blue-green, gilded the shelves, painted golden Peacock motifs on the panels and changed the entire look of the room. The two had a falling out over the cost, as well as the artist’s presumption, and Whistler added two fighting peacocks on one of the walls. After Leyland’s death, the entire room was purchased by a wealthy American businessman, Charles Lang Freer, another friend and patron of Whistler’s who also collected Asian art, along with Whistler’s paintings and etchings. Freer had the room installed in the DC mansion that he was having built to house his art collection. In addition to the dining room, we viewed a range of Whistler’s paintings and etchings (he was ranked right up with Rembrandt in etching), and gained a new appreciation of his art. At my next stop, the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art, we saw a few more Whistler’s, including the rather strange “Symphony in White, No 1.” I’m sure there are more Whistlers to be viewed in DC, but all in all, it turned out to be quite a Whistler weekend in Washington!

posted in Art, Local People, Travel | 0 Comments

Choice voting too complex for Lowell?

On Thursday, The Sun featured an article in its news section, claiming that Gail Cenik, office manager for the Election and Census Commission, didn’t understand choice voting: It’s certainly not rocket science, but it may as well be for all the confusion swirling around proportional-representation voting these days,” began the article. “Even the head of the city’s election department doesn’t fully understand it. ‘If it passes, good luck to us. We’ll just have to figure it out,’ said Gail Cenik…” Well, I called Cenik on Friday regarding the story’s accuracy. Her response: “The article really didn’t convey what I said,” she noted, adding that it was taken out of context. “I’m not stupid. I understand the concepts and the reasons why people support it (choice voting). I don’t fully know how the tabulation works and that’s where I have to do my homework.” Cenik explained that getting those details has not been a priority since her office, which includes herself and two assistants, has had to verify the 8,000-plus signatures needed to put choice voting on the ballot; verify all other signatures required for the upcoming municipal election, including council, school committee and vocational seats; as well as prepare for upcoming special senate elections.

Apparently the complexity issue has cropped up in other arenas from those opposing a switch to a priority voting system. According to today’s Column regarding a debate on the issue on WCAP: “Former Lowell and Cambridge City Manager James Sullivan, who opposes the charter change, said it works in Cambridge because they are more “philosophical…When Fahlberg (Victoria Fahlberg, a lead proponent of choice voting) tried to challenge Sullivan’s comments, asking if he felt Lowell people were not able to comprehend the plan as well as Cambridge voters, host Warren Shaw, who was supposed to be an impartial moderator, shut her off.”

Is ranking your votes too complicated?? Check here for some details and stay tuned for more on this issue from me. On another note regarding media inaccuracy, check Mimi’s post at LiL today regarding a misleading Sun article on council candidate Ray Weicker’s recent vote on the Licensing Commission.

posted in In the News, Local Politics | 6 Comments

Include the Friends in your weekend plans

There’s a lot going on around the city this weekend with the Lowell Open Studios and Arts Festival beginning tonight and running through Sunday. This year’s event will also feature a Youth Arts Recognition ceremony in honor of all the young people who participated in the festival. In addition, the Friends of Lowell High School will host a party on Saturday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the group. Along with great music by LHS alumnus Ralph Funaro, delicious desserts, and a chance to thank founding members for an astounding three decades of supporting one of the best urban high schools in the state, attendees will get to participate in a fabulous silent auction featuring more than 50 items. Money raised from the event will go toward the FLHS Scholarship Fund. Tickets are $30 each or $50 per couple, and can be purchased at the door Saturday evening, Sept. 26, at Long Meadow Golf Club, 165 Havilah Street, Lowell, 7-11 pm. Earlier this week, The Sun published an article about the group’s history and current role at the high school. Saturday’s anniversary celebration will not only mark the group’s longevity and impact on decades of high school students, but should also be a rocking good time.

posted in Art, City Life, Education, Local Groups, Lowell High, Youth | 0 Comments

Council candidates go another round

Last night’s forum offered a tense moment when challenger Fred Doyle, during his opening remarks, accused Councillor Milinazzo of misrepresenting the numbers on the Early Garage at the last candidates’ forum. Doyle was animated and speaking loudly, and the time for his three-minute opening remarks seemed to fly by as audience and fellow candidates watched with rapt attention. Unfortunately, I could only stay for the opening remarks of the remaining candidates, so I don’t know if there was any further discussion regarding his accusations. Today’s Sun reports on the evening, but doesn’t mention his outburst. The Sun article, however, mentions that two more councilors, Jim Milinazzo and Rodney Elliot, are on record as not supporting the meals tax. (Armand Mercier stated at Monday’s forum that he would not support it.) According to The Sun, last night Elliott said: “I know it is included in the budget, but we will have to go back to the drawing board … to make adjustments and reductions somewhere else.” Milinazzo’s plan for the deficit without revenue from a meals tax: more furloughs for city employees.

Last June, when councilors unanimously approved the city budget, $2 million in revenue was based on the meals tax, and 20% of that, or $400,000, went towards the city’s contribution to its schools. Since then, those numbers have changed due to the state raising the sales tax (more on that in a later post). From the perspective of the schools, we will be in a difficult bind if the city reduces its contribution now. Obviously, removing teachers from classrooms or staff furloughs are not viable options in the middle of a school year. The comments may play well as political sound bites, but the practical impacts are much more complex.

posted in Local Politics | 0 Comments

My slant on candidates forum

The Centralville Neighborhood Action Group (CNAG) did a good job hosting tonight’s City Council Candidates Forum, with decent turnout, plenty of snacks, and a quality sound system. Dick Howe’s blog has some impressions from Mark, and I’m sure LiL and The Sun will also cover the event (both a reporter and photographer were present). Because I have my own forum here, I’m going to post about one moment that got to me.

That moment was when Armand Mercier responded “No” to the question about whether he would support the meals tax, adding that he felt it would not bring in significant revenue. There was no follow-up question asking Councilor Mercier what further cuts he planned to make to city government since the budget he approved a few months ago was based on revenue from that tax. (City funding for the schools was also based on that revenue, so without it, the schools also will have to cut more—about $400,000 more!) Earlier this evening, Mercier described himself as a voice of reason with a common sense approach, yet his reason for not supporting a meals tax (not enough revenue generated) and his reason for voting NOT to hold a primary (to save a measly $40K) don’t sound like common sense or even remotely reasonable to me.

A final note on the meals tax: a .75 increase on a $50 dinner bill would cost a diner an additional 38 cents—spare change when dining out—yet revenue sorely needed to fund local services like schools, police and fire. Postcript: I’m hearing there are many councilors taking Mercier’s position, which, given today’s economy, I can understand not wanting another tax, but then why did they vote for a budget based on revenue from it?

posted in Local Groups, Local Politics | 0 Comments

Thanks to Sun editors

It’s no secret that over the years I have clashed with The Sun (and them with me) on various issues. In fact, here is a perma-link to a piece I wrote in October 2003long before I ever imagined running for school committee. Since I’ve been on the school board, of course, our disagreements have continued in frequency and intensity—at times bordering on obsessive (on their part, not mine). Either they were unhappy regarding a particular vote I took and slammed me about it repeatedly, or I was chastising them for some issue regarding their coverage of Lowell schools. One thing, however, has remained constant: No matter how harsh my words, The Sun editors have always given me space and published my criticisms in a timely manner. As I link to my op-ed in today’s Sun, I want to formally acknowledge and thank them for that. It has not been my experience with other print media, such as the Worcester Telegram and the Boston Globe, who also have prompted me to write at times, but who have not been as generous with space. Honestly, thanks for giving me ink to share my views with your readers.

If interested, this page contains a collection of published op-eds and speeches. Of course, since starting a blog, most of my views have been expressed electronically here.

posted in In the News, Local Groups | 0 Comments

MCAS, AYP and the Governor

What does it mean when more than half the schools in Massachusetts fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) as the Globe reported yesterday? How about when schools in Acton, Billerica, Dracut and Wilmington join the list, as noted in The Sun? Perhaps it means all the schools are terrible and should be punished, as some would have us think; or maybe it means the standards are unrealistic—that most schools will fall short inevitably given our current system of measurement. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires all students achieve proficiency by 2014. For example, if a school is at 85 percent proficiency today, each year three percent more students must achieve proficiency to reach 100 percent in five years. If the three percent isn’t reached for two consecutive years, the school has not made AYP. Subgroups (race, English learners, special education) must also make required progress, depending on their starting points, to get to 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Not only is this goal a difficult, moving target, each year different kids are tested and compared, and individual student progress is not tracked.

Consider these results in light of Governor Patrick’s recent education proposals, one of which is to lift the cap on charter schools. Aside from the fact that his plan does nothing to remedy charter-school funding inequities, more than half the state’s charter schools also have not made AYP for two consecutive years even though they have the advantages of “choosiness” regarding students and union-free staffing. In his plan to increase their number, the governor claims: “Only charter school operators with successful track records will be allowed to open or expand…and they must make meaningful efforts to attract, enroll, and retain low-income students, students scoring sub-proficient on the MCAS, English Language Learners, special-education students…” etc (my bold). As a school board member in an urban district where everyone is welcome, not due to “meaningful efforts” but because it’s the law, the language requiring charter schools make an effort to accept the same challenge is just too namby-pamby for me.

More on Patrick’s other plan, Readiness Schools, and Lowell student improvement in later posts.

posted in Education, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Lowell recycling highlighted in Globe North

Great news in the Boston Globe today regarding Lowell’s recycling program although you wouldn’t know it by the headline (Recycling doubles, but many left out). Yes, there are still many households, particularly apartment and condominium dwellers, that have been unable to participate in Lowell’s new recycling program, but the statistics from those who can participate are truly impressive: “Compared with the same six-month period last year, paper recycling has increased by 41.5 percent since March, while recycling of tin, aluminum, and plastic products increased by 53.2 percent…” Those are huge increases in a short time period and clearly demonstrate that the majority of Lowellians want to recycle.

The article focuses, however, on tenants who are not able to participate in the city’s program. One example shows how tenants had their private trash hauler include recycling as part of its disposal contract, which resulted in reducing waste by a third and ultimately saved money on disposal fees. This could be a solution for many of the multi-unit buildings left out of the city’s solid waste and recycling program. Overall, the city’s renewed focus on recycling is economically and environmentally smart, and kudos to all involved in continuing efforts to improve the program.

posted in City Life | 0 Comments

School Committee meets tonight

Tonight, the Lowell School Committee meets in Council Chambers, beginning at 7 p.m. and televised live on LTC cable station 10. The agenda includes two motions by me and two by Committee Member John Leahy. My motions are: 1. Request the Superintendent provide a report on the use of early-release time at Lowell High School, including specific activities, objectives and measureable results from last year as well as plans for the upcoming year. 2. Request the Superintendent provide a report updating the committee on the status of development of a new instrument for evaluating teachers, including copies of both the proposed and current evaluation instruments in the report.

John Leahy’s motions are: 1. Request that the Committee block off all Wednesdays for School Committee business whether it be a regularly scheduled School Committee meeting or a Subcommittee meeting. 2. Ask the Superintendent to set up a meeting with the appropriate department/departments for discussion on the hiring of a school maintenance position.

posted in school committee | 0 Comments

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