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Sad day for schools

Last night, as I listened to nearly three hours of impassioned pleas from parents, students and staff to save our “sports, fine arts, librarians, clubs…” I couldn’t help but feel dangerously close to tears of frustration and sadness. Here we are again, trying to provide a high-quality education for our children in the face of declining revenues. When the speeches were done, the committee stood united and voted to reduce the budget by $4 million, woefully shy of the projected $7-$9 million shortfall, and yet, our best attempt to meet a continuing crisis in funding without decimating our school system.  (The line-by-line discussion and cuts will occur at Tuesday’s budget hearing, June 1, which begins at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers.) We absolutely cannot go further than $4 million in cuts without doing lasting damage, which is why I am preparing for battle with the same-old players: city, state, staff, so stay tuned for more in a later post.

An article in today’s Sun gives some specifics about what the $4 million in cuts entail, based on the superintendent’s recommendations, with one major exception at the high school level: the cuts of $249,000 for athletics, $71,000 for clubs, and 13 full-time teachers do not address specific programs or staff, but simply state the amount to be reduced. The specific teacher cuts will be determined based on student course selection, which will  happen before June 15 to meet our contractual obligation regarding layoff notification. The club and sports cuts will be made based on discussions through the summer with the teachers’ union regarding stipends, as well as information regarding parity in funding for these programs. As much as I loved the passionate speeches of our students, in particular, it was a truly sad way to spend  a Thursday evening, knowing the revenue just wasn’t there.

posted in Education, Money Matters, school committee | 0 Comments

Lincoln, Lowell – loved it!

I went down to the Pollard Memorial Library this evening to join the Lowell Reads Lincoln discussion group, led by fellow-blogger, Richard Howe. This was an ambitious program with three books under discussion, but as it turned out, reading the book(s) was not a requirement to enjoying and participating in the conversation (due to frantic busyness, I was only halfway through one of the books). It seems that everyone has some set idea, some cherished notion or opinion, about Lincoln; perhaps, he is like our Shakespeare, just part of the air we breathe. In any case, digging down a bit beneath the folktales, legends and preconceptions made for a lively discussion, which I’m sure will be continued over on richardhowe.com. A highlight for me, besides sitting in a room with lots of historically-minded and knowledgeable folks, was the tour of the library given by one of the trustees, Rosemary Noon. I’ve been in the library tons of times, but seriously had never really noticed the portrait of George Washington hanging in the grand staircase, nor the portraits by Tarbell on the main floor (the frames are worth even more than the paintings). It was inspiring to hear how the trustees fought to retain the old building, despite pressure to move to a more efficient and convenient location. Memorial Hall on the second floor was viewed with new eyes, as we learned how it used to be before the fire (the grand chandelier, Pompeiian red walls, artwork) and how it got to be the way it is now. Learning about the Civil War murals was instructive (they came from a traveling circus!). There is a nice exhibit about Lincoln that should be seen as well as a newly restored portrait of the 16th president, positioned so he can glance over at that of the first. All in all, a great evening!

posted in Books | 0 Comments

Doing one’s civic duty

I spent the day at the World Trade Center in Woburn yesterday as I was called for Jury Duty. The last time I had to show up was several years ago, and the experience this time was quite a bit different. Previously, I had to drive to Cambridge, pay for parking and be shuffled around through tiny, antiquated rooms by a seemingly incompetent guard or bailiff. It got to be a bit of a joke as our group was sent here and there as if they didn’t quite know what to do with us–finally, they just sent us home. The new courthouse in Woburn is modern and comfortable and they seem to have the system well-calibrated as groups are called to courtrooms, then returned to the pool if not selected for a case. The parking is ample and free and there is easy access from route 128. One flaw is that there is no cafeteria in the building so we had to go in and out of security to go to the one cafe for lunch. My other complaint is the air-conditioning; it was freezing in the courtroom. They now show a video about how important it is to be there with Chief Justice Marshall assuring us that we were not wasting our day! Since Massachusetts has adopted the “one day, one trial” system, those not chosen for a case had satisfied their obligation for the next three years.

My randomly-generated juror number was relatively high, so I wasn’t chosen for a case until late in the morning. Then, it was complex case that was projected to last awhile. People chosen for the case looked glum. The juror selection process went on for the whole day. At the last minute, I was let go. I guess I’m glad, but I think it would be interesting to be a juror–maybe in another three years…

posted in Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Link to LHS student’s award-winning video

As mentioned in an earlier post, here is the link to the award-winning public service announcement about the dangers of driving impaired created by Ryan Palmer, a student at Lowell High School. The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, Middlesex Partnerships for Youth, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving sponsored the competition. Palmer was announced the winner in a presentation with Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone on Fox25 news yesterday morning.

posted in Education, In the News, Lowell High | 0 Comments

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.

posted in Education, In the News | 0 Comments

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.

posted in Education, Money Matters | 0 Comments

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.

posted in Education, In the News | 0 Comments

What I love about the MRT

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, that is. Well, besides the fact that its close to home, parking is easy, and there are now some restaurants open late for after-show dining, they are so accomodating. I’ve been a subscriber for over 10 years, and it pretty much never fails that I can’t make it on the night I’m supposed to go. They always cheerfully reschedule my tickets, even at the last minute. Yesterday, for example, after waiting on hold for awhile, I sent an email to the box office, explaining my problem, hoping I would be able to use my tickets for tonight’s performance of The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. It’s the last weekend of the show and the last show of the season, and I know they’ve been selling out, so I wasn’t that confident that I could get in; however, Sean emailed me back, letting me know that I had two seats for the show (and in the orchestra, which is my preference). Now, that’s great service!

A word about live theatre: you do take your chances when you go to a play. more »

posted in Theater | 0 Comments

Excuses, excuses

Since Jackie relayed the story of the family wedding at her house as a reason for not writing, I thought I would offer my excuse for being a lax blogger. Not that excuses mean much in the blogosphere – as in academia, it is strictly “publish or perish,” but we’re hoping that we can be more dedicated going forward. My excuse is that I decided to try to resolve my ongoing midlife crisis (what do I want to do with myself?) and go back to school by taking two challenging and radically different classes – one, an online course in Legal Research Methods which involved many hours at the law library and the other a graduate class in Literary Theory which was literally the most difficult and challenging class I’ve ever taken. (I’m actually not quite done with the theory class as I’m still writing my final paper and am only about a third into it.) Between reading cases at the law library and reading dense, scholarly journal articles three or four times each, plus writing law memoranda and theoretical response papers, I’ve been putting in a good 6-10 hours a day, including weekends. So, all of my blogging had to be put aside, along with house cleaning, yard work, socializing, etc. Well, I hope I don’t sound like I’m complaining – I love taking classes and feel rather lucky to be doing so. If nothing else, I’m too busy to worry about what I “should” be doing. Okay, back to that paper….

posted in Just life | 4 Comments

Wedding reception at my house

Okay, I know I’ve been out of the loop for weeks, violating the golden rule of blogging: that is, to post regularly. Enough people have emailed or called asking when we were going back online that I was prompted to start again, realizing that some folks are still interested in what we have to say. Even when I’m overwhelmingly busy, I feel better about myself and my life when I’m writing. This is especially true during difficult times when my tendency toward strong opinions on just about everything (ask how I feel about artichokes) is heightened. Lowell schools, in particular, are facing a financial crisis as the committee must deal with devastating cuts to meet revenue shortfalls, so it’s not that I don’t have anything to write about. Once I get over the inertia and procrastination that comes with getting out of the habit, there are a lot of posts percolating in my mind. I am, however, inclined to reveal the reason for my hiatus, as an excuse and explanation:

On May 1, we hosted a wedding reception for 75 family members and close friends at our home. As you can imagine, I spent the many weeks preceding the event doing major cleanup and renovation work. Thankfully, May 1 was a beautiful day, so all our efforts at gardening, edging and mulching paid off because even in a big old house like ours, 75 is a good crowd and you need to have the yard and deck available. My nephew Matthew and his bride Jessica were able to spend time with the family and receive our blessings before heading back to Lake Tahoe for their new life together. And I, finally, am ready to get back to writing.

posted in Just life | 1 Comment

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