Sunday, August 30, 2020

What happened at this week's meeting (including a few things that maybe you missed?)

Thursday evening, our Worcester School Committee meeting started at four, and we got out of executive session at close to 11, so forgive, if you would, the delay in posting anything here. I did want to make a few notes here on what happened, as I've generally been behind in posting here, and these are my notes as much as anything. These are not in agenda order, for what it's worth, though the agenda is here


First off, of course, the Committee approved on a 6-1 vote the budget cuts as proposed by administration. Understanding that wrangling with a full agenda can be a bit much, I put just the budget cut memo here so you can see what it is. We can't say this enough:

Friday, August 21, 2020

Why did you vote no on the ELA curriculum?

 because "why did you vote no" is a headline I've used before...

Among the roles of the School Committee in Massachusetts is approving curriculum under MGL Ch. 71 sec.50 (aside: it requires a two-thirds vote). Due to the vote to open the year remotely for the district, there was administrative concern over lack of high school English materials, so we were asked to have a special meeting Thursday evening just to review and approve a proposed curriculum for this year: StudySync from McGraw-Hill. You can read the Telegram & Gazette coverage here.
The request was for a single year of this curriculum at a cost of $256,500.

We received access to the materials Wednesday night for Thursday's meeting. This presentation was given at the meeting.

While it was nineteen years ago this past spring that I taught my last high school English class, if you hand me high school English curriculum, I'm going to approach it as a high school English teacher, as it's what I was trained as. My first question, likewise, was how high school English teachers were involved in the selection of this "modified pilot." They...weren't, is the upshot. The district did pilot three curricula last year in the middle school, and the equivalent curriculum from McGraw-Hill was selected for that, so, it was explained at the meeting, the district decided to use the parallel high school curriculum for this year. 

From my perspective--and this is my perspective--anthologies are there as a resource; they're where the literature is. I strove (did not always succeed, but I tried) not to be the "read the chapter, answer the questions" kind of teacher; you have a short story or a poem, and you read it, and you discuss it, and students write about it. Vocabulary lists and end of chapter assessments and such...they're not the main reason we have the anthology.
Again, that's my perspective.
The first thing I ask, then, is what's here? What's the actual written material that's in the anthology? Does it give the breadth and depth needed for getting students reading and giving them access to good writing and thus get them engaged in why we read and write at all?
And the answer for me is that...this could be better. If you review the presentation, you'll see that there's a chart that measures out how many authors in total, how many are women, and how many are authors of color. At least the question is asked. What I continued to run into as I reviewed, though, was whose voices are emphasized; if long works are still mostly the white men of the classic Western canon, have we made any change? 
There also continue to be works included that trouble me. This does not, please note, mean that I think we bar or ban these books or works. Works, though, need to earn their space in the classroom. When we measure the limited time in a classroom, and the limited dollars we have to get works into the classroom, and we consider what it means to have a work taught, what does it mean that we give time and space to writers of British colonialism, when our seats are filled with children whose family history bore the worst of its exercise of power? Or when the stories of Native Americans or Black families continue to be told through white eyes? There are better uses of the time, space, money, and emphasis.

Don't get me wrong: there is writing from across the spectrum here, and these are not the anthologies they would have been twenty years ago. Part of the job of the Committee, though, as it makes purchases and sends those to the classroom, is to ask given the resources available, if this is the best decision. Can we push harder on this (and, given Worcester's buying power, on the vendors)? 

I think we can, so I voted no. 

If you want to see what I said at the meeting, I'm posted the video below, cued to my questions

Monday, August 17, 2020

on testing and contact tracing

Let me preface this by reminding you that I'm not a doctor, so this is in all of my lay capacities. 

One of the ongoing conversations across the United States this year has been "other countries are reopening schools and some are making it work, so what are they doing differently?"

Setting aside ('though we really shouldn't!) that they had national leadership that actually took it seriously and, also, in many cases, they're countries that have universal health care, something that they did was they got the rates low and then they kept them low with widespread testing and contact tracing.
Now, we don't have any of that, save, in Massachusetts, a fairly low rate. Much of that cannot be controlled by Worcester School Committee vote, either, but one thing we can do as a local government branch is make request of other branches, and so last week we passed this: 

Request the state have ongoing, easily accessible, free testing with a quick turnaround in operation across the state before any district brings students back into session

...which then made news. 

I didn't know it at the time, but this is actually part of L.A.'s plan for reopening this fall. I also was only made aware this morning of this study in the August Lancet, which finds that wide testing and contact tracing would stave off a second wave in the U.K.'s schools' reopening.

This is the sort of thing that works best if lots of people ask for the same thing, so go, thou, and do likewise! 

Friday, August 14, 2020

On the Worcester reopening plan

 I had rather a lot to say and ask last night about our plan. Some of that was captured in Scott O'Connell's coverage; here are the notes I was speaking from (I don't usually write things out in this level of detail, but I thought it was warranted). You'll note that not everything here is what I said.

from my notes

I want to start by saying publicly how much I appreciate the degree to which the School Committee has been looped in periodically (in non quorum groups) to get periodic updates and give feedback. I know of communities in which essentially no one knew anything until the plan was being presented; that is not the case here, and I think the plan is better for it, but also the governance is better for it. Overall, I support what is being proposed here, and that is in part because I feel as though I understand the basis on which decisions were made.
I also think that one of the best things we have done during this term is spend time listening to people. It is an accident of time that the SOA public meetings and the pandemic happened during the same year, and while that is tragic in many ways, it means that we have spent hours and hours as a committee in public session listening. There isn’t always a lot of that. There has been this year.

We, as a local government, be remiss to vote this evening without noting in the strongest possible terms: we have been let down by every other branch of the government.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Worcester: what we know so far

Let me just say up front: this is not going to be exhaustive, it is still going to abide by the ban on direct dealing, and things may well change this week.
A path forward?

The plan as proposed so far: Most students start the year remote for at least the first quarter (mid-November). Students with the highest amount of need have the opportunity for in-person learning. The district then shifts or phases into a hybrid model (of 1/4 students each one day a week) sometime after the first quarter.

What needs to be decided now by families: The district is asking families to fill out a form to denote if they will switch from fully remote to hybrid when that becomes available, which at the earliest will be in November, in the district proposal. That does not change what will happen on September 15. The following Connect-Ed is going out to families this week: 

This is Superintendent Binienda. I am calling this afternoon, to let you know it is time for you to select your choice of learning plan for Quarter 2 for each of your children who attend the WPS.  Although we are beginning the school year with 100% remote, we need a count of each child's selection for Quarter 2 to effectively plan for any transitions. There will be a process for you to change your response as we progress into the Fall semester.  Please go to the WPS website  click on the yellow ribbon, then click on the Educational Model Selection Form. You will need to use your child’s WPS ID and date of birth to fill out the form. If you do not know your child’s student number, call Coralys at 774-303-9719 or Michelle at 508-799-3115.  

Please fill out this form by Monday, August 17.

Yes, the form still has what was to be the original due date of Friday. Don't let that throw you off.

What happens this week: There is a meeting for Spanish-speaking families Tuesday evening at 5:30.

The Worcester School Committee meets and votes Thursday evening starting at 5:30. Yes, this is mostly still pending Committee vote (we won’t, for example, be changing to send everyone back into buildings, as we have already made clear, but this is subject to deliberation and further amendment). Entirely unsolicited opinion? Fill the form out Friday or over the weekend. 

Will the remote learning be taught by WPS teachers? Yes, for the entire year. 
Even after the hybrid kicks in? Yes.
Can we switch our answer later? Yes (see Superintendent Binienda's Connect-ed above)
Will my child still be in the school or program they currently are in if they choose to be remote this year? Yes, they will.

This will be updated as there is more to say or things change.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Remembering Mary

Today was the funeral Mass for Mary Enyonam Xatse, and I will miss her.

Mary's husband and mine went through the Worcester Roman Catholic diocese deaconal training program together, and so we were essentially classmates. 
Whenever Mary would see me somewhere, after she gave me a hug, she would draw back, take my arm, look me in the eye, and ask, "And how are the girls." It always seemed like a statement rather than a question, but one never spoke of anything else with Mary until how the children were had been established.
I was thinking of this today at her funeral mass, as the considerations of the week weigh (as they do for so many) heavily on my mind.
The story of the traditional greeting of the Masai being "and how are the children?" of course rings in my head (it's not clear this means quite what it's been presented as, incidentally), and I am hardly the first to observe that the one thing that the United States has not done during this is put the needs of our children first. 
I was asked yesterday if parents were right to feel angry; not only are they, but students and educators, and frankly all of us should, too.
But we should be angry not at our local school committees (even mine!), but at the leadership lacks at other levels. Yesterday's example was a  scolding by Governor Baker here in Massachusetts, at the same press conference at which he both was telling folks not to have family pool parties but was refusing to roll back business openings, and was announcing that the state's major response to the higher rates was, as best as I can understand, increased policing.
We do not have widespread testing.
We do not have widespread contact tracing.
There is no statewide standards on rolling back reopening schools should we get there.
I've proposed some things he could do that would actually be useful, instead of the weekly edition of the Commissioner scares the superintendents on one of their phone calls that he'll take away district funding or cut sports for remote learning and we all have to spend the rest of the week chasing that down. This is not a good use of our time and energy.
And that goes double for the federal government, about which I highly recommend this Atlantic piece.

If the children are the priority, that means we don't take lightly what the past number of months have done to children with special needs, or to children's mental health, or to childhood hunger, or to children's wellbeing. It also means we recognize the disease's actual impacts on them, including the racial disparities within that. It even means recognizing that not having school as we have had has been good for some children.

The operations of districts are underfunded, the capital needs of districts have been underresourced for generations, and, on the federal level, it looks like funding may be falling apart.

These aren't the actions of a federal and state government that prioritizes children's well being. 

But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:24

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Yes, if you decide to homeschool, it will hit your district's budget (but next year, and maybe?)

I've gotten this question often enough where I thought I should put it somewhere:

A family deciding to withdraw their family from the district and homeschool their children will impact that district's budget, but for the following year. 
Each October, districts submit their enrollment to the state. It is those enrollments (by grade, but also by everything else: English learning, poverty, program) that determine the next year's foundation budget, which in turn is what is used to calculate state aid.
Thus a family withdrawing a child this August (2020) won't be counted this October (2020) which hits the FY22 budget, calculated in January 2021 (remember, we're in FY21 now!).

HOWEVER: the state has a "hold harmless" provision in Chapter 70 aid, now written into the Student Opportunity Act, which prevents a district from losing state aid due to loss of enrollment.
Would the state still do that if there were a massive exit from districts? I don't know.

Further HOWEVER, a family deciding to participate in a district's remote learning option does not have this impact. You can choose to keep your child home, have them do the district's remote learning, and you'll still count as enrolled and won't hit the budget. It is only if you are fully homeschooling your child--determining curriculum, grading, and the like--that causes a child not to count in the district enrollment.

Every district in Massachusetts is required to have a remote learning program this year.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Worcester superintendent is evaluated this week: how does it work?

The Worcester School Committee evaluates Superintendent Binienda this week, so it seemed a good chance to talk about how this works.