Good schools a shared responsibility
Op-ed by Jackie Doherty published in The Lowell Sun, March 18, 2005
As a member of this community, I am overwhelmed and discouraged by the venomous criticism that consistently spews forth from this newspaper regarding the education of our children. Here in Lowell, 65% of our public school children come from families that are at the federal poverty level, 23% of our children are not yet fluent in English, and most of our classrooms hold upwards of 25 students. These facts are not an excuse: they are our reality.
This reality makes providing an excellent education not only challenging but critical to our future. It is critical for those children who attend our schools; their ability to become productive members of society is directly impacted by the education we provide them. They will become the leaders of tomorrow, or not. Either way, they are among us. Our failure or success to teach them will be felt mutually.
In addition to children, good schools are vital for every person who lives, works, and visits Lowell because the schools impact all areas of our lives–safe streets, property values, our ability to provide a competent workforce, and whether or not people will live and locate businesses here.
Talk about economic vision. Praise development of blighted areas. Extol the virtues of public-private partnerships. These have all been important factors in Lowell’s ability to re-invent itself from its days as a tired mill city. That continued success hinges on our ability to put the same emphasis and vision into educating our wonderfully diverse, creative, athletic, bright, and yes even struggling, students.
But how do we do it? How do we work together for better schools? I’m reminded of a recent editorial in this paper that lambasted Lowell teachers as being paid in the top 20% of the state while our students performed in the lower 15% on state tests.
It’s true: Our teachers are paid competitively. It took about 12 years to get their salaries up to par with their colleagues. Who would argue that they shouldn’t be? Why teach larger classrooms with more challenging students for less money? We need to recruit the best teachers. One way to do that is offer a decent wage along with programs to improve instruction and keep good teachers here. As our teachers retire (40% in the next five years), that need becomes even more vital.
In terms of scores, Lowell students as a whole perform at the lower end on statewide tests, alongside our sister cities. All urban districts struggle to educate needier students amid rising expectations and diminishing resources, but in Lowell, we are making progress.
Under Supt. Baehr’s leadership, Lowell students are improving due to her focus on curriculum and instruction. Because math scores were stagnant, the district overhauled math instruction, investing a million dollars in a new math program and teacher training. The district also made sure “best practices” in literacy instruction were being used in all classrooms. Lowell schools also improved programs for English Language Learners, and the DOE recognized our staff for outstanding accomplishment in this area.
Lowell schools continue to make progress despite rising costs and four years of budget cuts. These cuts reduced staff by 12% and slashed after school and MCAS tutoring programs to name a few. Meanwhile, the city contributes $10 million LESS to the school budget than it did in 1992. (Any city revenue from tax increases over the last dozen years has not gone to the schools.) Like changing the direction of an ocean liner, improving our schools takes time. It also takes resources and community support.
Providing a good education for our children is a responsibility we all share. Whether they are teens on our streets or preschoolers in our classrooms, our children belong to us all. That means parents must be involved advocates, business leaders must be part of the solution, and local officials must make education a priority. Our media outlets, especially, must provide fair coverage instead of relentless attacks that undermine school progress and divert attention from the important, very real challenges we face.
As we “look at the big picture” to quote from a recent editorial, we must not lose sight of what’s at stake: our children’s future and our own.