So first, you can find the plan (by itself) here and the budget accompanying it here.
Also, the video of the meeting is now posted on the district website. The School Committee deliberation starts about 28 minutes in; if you want to listen to me, I start about 45 minutes in.
First, we are actually in the midst of a pandemic that has our children out of school for an unplanned length of time not seen since, as best as I can tell, the 1918 epidemic (when schooling was already disrupted due to the First World War). This closure, plus the ensuing economic downturn, will only compound the educational disparities we already have.
And of course those disparities are what hit most of our kids in Worcester particularly hard. Those disparities are where we live in the Worcester Public Schools, or where we should. I would argue--and I did last night--that we need to consider and reconsider the entirety of the FY21 budget in light of our kids, quite possibly, coming back after being out of school for five months.
I don't think we even know what that looks like yet, but we'd better start thinking about it.
So, while I understand and appreciate my colleagues looking at the looming April 1 still-hasn't-actually-moved deadline and wanting to ensure we have a plan in, I do think that this is the time we take whatever hit we would need to (assuming there would be one; I really think there wouldn't be) to rework the plan for next year in light of kids coming back with a new level of generational trauma and learning gaps.
And I still think we need an actual zero-based budget that does that this year.
To go on to the plan itself:
As you might remember, the way this is supposed to be working is that we're starting with where we want to go--the district targets--and go backwards from there to where we are now. Except, of course, we don't have the targets yet, so...we're not doing that.
We are, though, still going to get targets based on district data, and that's where we start off very weak. The first page of the report, which is to be the presentation of the subgroup needs that must be met, has disturbingly little actual data referenced; there's really only a single sentence that cites actual statistics on how the district is performing on state testing, graduation, dropout or other such measures.
Again, this is the section that is to recognize the myriad gaps we have right now in order to plan to overcome them. And as I have mentioned, we have them!
We really need more comprehensive district data analysis and, more than that, we need to have an administrative understanding of the importance of data analysis.
Then we get into the planned additions. It's important that the state is requiring "evidence-based programs to close gaps"...remember that, as it comes in later.
The first is preschool, which is fine, but it's focused on early literacy, which, you might recall, is a bit of a favorite with the Commissioner and some members of the Board. While, yes, the district has gaps in that, the district also has yet to comprehensively discuss and plan around what it means to be a district in which the majority of students speak a first language other than English. In fact, you'd never know it from reading this plan. The plan adds two classrooms of preschool the first year, one dually lingual, which is the single recognition of the language strengths--and I mean that--of our district.
The number of students cited in the plan as impacted--7000 overall--is entirely based on a $287K early literacy professional development consultancy (I'm guessing), rather than the number of children who will be afford a quality, full-day preschool program.
Quality preK does have long-lasting benefits, though they aren't cited here; it is something for which the community asked. This proposal is constructed such that the children being served though appear secondary to a particular politically popular educational process.
Also, in general, let's write fewer sentences that say things like:
These programmatic and staffing additions will all contribute to a comprehensive, responsive, system-wide teaching model that embodies inquiry, authentic learning, and discovery through a multi-pronged approach that centers on providing high quality, evidence-based, early childhood programming.
The second proposal is expanding early college and innovation pathways.The argument is that this is focused on "underserved WPS students," but so far, there is little evidence that it is. Mr. Foley has asked for the demographics in particular with early college; as WPS has been using PSAT as a means of determining invitations, I would surmise that we aren't being representative of the district, let alone overrepresenting those traditionally underserved. There is not, despite assertions during the meeting to the contrary, evidence from our own program on admission and--more importantly!!--persistence in college from this program. We simply don't know at all that it works
The innovation program is fine--happy to use the vocational space--but again, it is not clear that this is best serving the students who most need it, given the requirements of funding and time.
Also, so long as we thing handing out bus tickets is supporting transportation needs without ever advocating for improved WRTA services, we just demonstrate that many of us don't ever take the bus.
And in both cases, these are high school programs that are not targeted at one of our most urgent needs, which is improving the dropout rate. We were told that students are asking for early college, but that probably isn't those who are in danger of dropping out. Innovation programs may be intended to fill vocational needs, but frequently those programs don't serve the students who we're losing over the course of high school. In both cases, the dropout and persistent rates are not mentioned, in any case.
The third programmatic focus is on diversify our teaching force. I have no disagreement at all with this priority. The plan, though, falls back on two things: the hiring of the Chief Diversity Officer, a position that already has had the authority it needs to do the job properly never invested in it; and "grow your own" pipelines, that don't create nearly as many teachers needed to serve the district. Having our paraprofessionals be offered the chance to get their degrees and teach is wonderful; Worcester received less funding this year than last on the grant we had been using for that program. It also doesn't come close to filling even the needs of teachers we need in an average year, let alone the additions we should be making under additional funding.
We need to fundamentally reconsider how we hire staff, and we should also consider how we hurt the future of education when we don't consider our children's experiences in school to determine their future interest in teaching.
There is also a section in here on "culturally relevant pedagogy" which appears to be---unfunded in the plan?--professional development which continues to dodge the driving need for comprehensive continuing anti-bias professional development in the district.
Those two things are not the same.
Finally, there is a social and emotional section, which is mostly where the need for guidance and school adjustment counselors fit in. In the coming years, though, the administration continues to put more resources into response--trauma teams--than prevention--boosting support staff in schools. That strikes me as a mistake.
The plan then lists outcome metrics and targets, and it's a list of nearly twenty data points, without a goal set. Perhaps the state isn't asking for one to be set. Having that many data sets isn't, though, a strength; it scatters attention, much in the way the funding is being scattered rather than focused.
The final section, asserting "[m]eaningful engagement with families and other community members is a priority of the district, and listing "specific efforts to engage families" currently done, with no reflection on how very many families, as was repeated over and again during the last election, feel cut off from and discouraged from engagement with the district, is particularly discouraging to me. Many of these efforts are not particularly successful. Family engagement varies directly in this district with race, language, and social class. There is here no reflection here by district leadership on the lack of culturally relevant two way communication, as required by the superintendent evaluation rubric, nor the increased family engagement required of the Student Opportunity Act.
There was praise last night for the plan coming together despite the current crisis. The administration knew, however, that the plan was to go to us last week months ago. Many of the themes of the community priorities emerged early on. Data could have--should have--been gathered long ago. To me, with the practiced eye of a high school teacher, this reads like something that was put together quickly and last minute. It shouldn't have been.
A final note here from me: if it seems as if my standards here are high, well, I spent a long and a lot of time fighting for this. It gave me no joy to vote no last night.
Our kids need better than this.