This past week, the Worcester School Committee began work on its inaugural  “End-of-Cycle Summative Evaluation Report” – a comprehensive evaluation of its Superintendent of Schools. The process is meticulous and precise, but, when conducted thoroughly, thoughtfully and meticulously by the Committee, it provides beneficial feedback to the Superintendent. It is a duty assigned by law to the Committee, and – together with the Committee’s responsibilities for hiring certain key personnel, for approving a budget, and for establishing policy – it is central to the Committee’s oversight of the Worcester Public Schools (“WPS”) and of Worcester children.

The process is more formalized – and standardized – now than in the past. In 2012, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“DESE”) developed a Guide to Rubrics and Model Rubrics for Superintendent, Administrator, and Teacher, and it updated and revised those rubrics in December 2015, “to reflect new resources to support effective implementation.”

The evaluation process is based on a “5-Step Evaluation Cycle.” The Cycle begins with a self-assessment by the Superintendent, used “to identify areas of strength as well as areas requiring further development.” Second, the Superintendent and School Committee agree on the topics which will be the focus of school district initiative during the following year, and they “develop goals for improving professional practice and student learning.” The goals are required to be “specific, measurable, and actionable.” The goals should “include at least one goal for each category: professional practice, student learning, and district improvement.”  

In Worcester this year, the Superintendent’s “professional practice goal” has been to complete “all expectations required in the first year of the New Superintendent’s Induction Program”, which is a three-year program, operated by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents in collaboration with DESE. The program utilizes “successful former superintendents to coach new superintendents … through a series of [eight] cohort-based, day-long workshops.”  

Her “student learning goal” has been to “identify and provide strategic intervention for all third, sixth, and tenth grade students that are at high risk and not meeting expectations for math and reading performance as measured by accountability standards.” Here, the WPS has implemented a wide variety of programs focused on the needs of its most academically challenged students at these grade levels. Elementary students are seeing “differentiated whole and small group instruction as needed in reading, writing and mathematics,” together with tutoring, specialized district-wide common assessments in mathematics, and, in the Burncoat “quadrant” of schools, “strategy instruction for responding to complex text.” A number of curricular programs are utilized to address the needs of these students as well. Teachers collaborate in teams to develop lessons, to review student work, and to analyze assessment data as to the success of their initiatives with the students. Principals meet to share the results of their efforts, and curriculum “coaches” work in groups to spread the most successful practices across the schools of the WPS. The school district also offers varied initiatives in elementary school robotics, in inclusionary practices, in student attendance, and, in middle and high schools, in science clubs. Tenth grade students benefit from MCAS and English language tutoring, PSAT support, advanced placement, and “literacy and numeracy classes”.

The Superintendent has two “district improvement” goals. The first is to “[w]ork collaboratively to create and sustain excellent instruction that improves students’ skills in literacy, critical thinking, collaboration and communication to prepare them for global citizenship.” Here, she seeks to “develop, implement, assess and embed practices/strategies in service to improve student achievement.” A focus on preparation of students for college (advanced placement, PSAT and SAT preparation, “Massachusetts College Application Day”) plays a significant role here. Her second “district improvement goal” is to “[p]rovide a supportive, safe, and orderly learning environment that emphasizes relationships marked by respectful interactions, acceptance, inclusiveness, and our responsibility to one another.”

The evaluation also assesses the performance of the Superintendent as to four “Standards”: instructional leadership, management and operations, family and community engagement, and professional culture. Here, in her own assessment of her progress in this respect, she includes her efforts to combat chronic absenteeism, her appointment of new principals, her outreach to “families, higher education, businesses and community partners to develop and enhance opportunities for all students”, her role at community events, her leadership of current strategic planning initiatives, her attention to professional development, and her focus on Worcester’s “lowest performing” schools. The Superintendent provides her own self-assessment as to the goals and Standards in her End-of-Cycle Progress Report, given to the School Committee last week.

The School Committee will evaluate her on these performance goals as to whether she met or exceeded each of the goals, or whether she made progress toward them. As to the four Standards, the Committee will assess whether her performance during the year was “exemplary,” “proficient”, “needs improvement”, or “unsatisfactory”. DESE sets a high bar as to the Standards. Thus, “[a] rating of Exemplary is reserved for performance on an Indicator or Standard that is of such a high level that it could serve as a model for educators in the school, district, or state. Few educators – superintendents included – are expected to earn Exemplary ratings on more than a handful of indicators.” Similarly, “[p]roficient is the expected, rigorous level of performance for educators. It is a demanding but attainable level of performance for most educators.” “Needs improvement” is “below the requirements of a Standard but is not considered to be Unsatisfactory at this time. Improvement is necessary and expected.” “Unsatisfactory”, of course, is a major warning sign that a superintendent is “significantly underperforming as compared to the expectations. Unsatisfactory performance requires urgent attention.”

Part-way through the past year, the Committee reviewed a report from the Superintendent as to progress made to date, and offered the feedback of its individual members. Now, after studying and considering her End-of-Cycle Progress Report, and in a public meeting, it “completes a performance review and End-of-Cycle Summative Evaluation Report assessing attainment of the goals and the Superintendent’s performance against the standards.” This public meeting takes place on Thursday, December 21.

This evaluation is pivotal to continued progress in the WPS. The Superintendent having prepared a meticulous summary of her progress during the past year, the Committee’s evaluation must be equally detailed and thorough. As DESE noted in its Implementation Guide for Superintendent Evaluation, “a carefully prepared End-of-Cycle Progress Report and thoughtful development of the school committee’s End-of-Cycle Summative Evaluation Report are keys to ensuring that the dream of continuous improvement becomes a reality.”

A consistent concern of the Worcester School Committee in recent years has been student discipline incidents and practices. The issue can be rather complex. Schools work to maintain a culture and environment which is ordered, mutually respectful, and conducive to academic achievement. Actions which disrupt this environment are often assigned disciplinary consequences. At the same time, though, schools are reluctant to remove an offending student from class instruction, as in doing so they often compromise the academic achievement of the student. As a result, schools try to balance these considerations – a tenuous and delicate task at best.

While School Committees are rarely involved in student discipline proceedings under current Massachusetts law, they are very focused on maintaining a school environment which helps to enable student academic success. The Worcester School Committee is in the forefront here, striving to support policies, procedures and practices which keep students in school, and which focus schools on academic achievement. Thus, last week, the School Committee’s Standing Committee on Accountability and Student Achievement devoted much of its meeting to “a chart indicating the number of school behavioral referrals, by school”, for the previous three school years. The chart is the first comprehensive, multi-year, school-by-school presentation as to disciplinary infractions which the School Committee has received during recent years. It contains a wealth of beneficial information, and it is well-poised to inform the efforts of the School Committee to fashion sound disciplinary policies. It will assist the current strategic planning initiative of the Worcester Public Schools, as to school environment and culture, as well.

The statistics do show significant variations. In 2014-15, for example, Elm Park Community School reported 1729 infractions, which increased to 2787 in 2015-16, before declining to 2494 in 2016-17. West Tatnuck Elementary School, on the other hand, reported three infractions in 2014-15, followed by 18 in 2015-16, and 2 in 2016-17. For Middle Schools, the infractions in 2014-15 ranged from 1574 at Worcester East Middle School to 560 at Forest Grove. In 2015-16, Worcester East Middle offenses had increased to 1689, before declining to 1341 for 2016-17. Forest Grove saw increases to 594 for 2015-16, and to 802 for 2016-17. For Worcester High Schools, North High School saw a three-year trend of 1508, 1514 and 1252 – an ultimately  improving pattern similar to that of Worcester East Middle, its “feeder school.”  Among the large comprehensive high schools throughout this time, South has experienced the fewest infractions, with a three-year pattern of 584, 749 and 456, followed by Burncoat, with a three-year pattern of 1011, 912 and 950. The Technical High School during these years has demonstrated an infraction record of 220, 167 and 295.

While these statistics are interesting, and while they do provide useful guidance for school principals and those charged with school policy, they offer little real enlightenment as to a comparison among schools. They may reflect best the internal practices as to logging, and processing, infractions – what is handled informally at one school can become a documented incident at another. Also, some schools may define infractions differently than others; approximately one-half of the offenses at Elm Park are documented as “inappropriate behavior”, while for some other schools this is less than 3% of the infractions reported. For some schools, “physical contact” is one-third of reported infractions; for others it is negligible. Here again, schools document similar offenses is different manners.

Some School Committee members are monitoring improper cellphone use in schools closely, especially with a new rule in place that no longer requires that phones be placed in student lockers during the school day. As might be expected, high schools are a primary venue for such infractions. In 2016-17, Burncoat led the secondary schools with 196 reported offenses, followed by the Technical High School (130) and Doherty (120). North reported 57 such infractions, and South reported none! In 2014-15, Doherty had reported 163 such infractions, North 29, Burncoat 92, and the Technical High School one. Here again, it is difficult to determine whether the variation – which is dramatic at Burncoat and Worcester Tech – reflects increased misuse of cellphones, or rather different patterns of vigilance on the part of the staff and administrators.

The Worcester Public Schools, though, are seeing progress as to their most significant offenses – those which lead to long-term suspension hearings. In 2014-15, hearings were held on 59 alleged assaults on school employees; in 2016-17, the number of such hearings had dropped to 32. Weapons hearings had declined during that time from 71 to 38. Drugs/alcohol hearings were reduced from 46 to 32.

In any study of these figures, it is important to recall the advice quoted occasionally by Mark Twain: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  The figures set forth in the report, and in this article, may state more about individual schools’ approaches to discipline than they do about the comparative safety, and orderliness, of the schools themselves.

Last January, the U.S. Department of Education stated, in its guidance on “Rethinking Discipline”, that “[t]eachers and students deserve school environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to teaching and learning. Creating a supportive school climate—and decreasing suspensions and expulsions—requires close attention to the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all students” The Code of Conduct of the Worcester Public Schools echoes this, stating that “[e]very student has a right to an education in a safe, secure and supportive environment, and every teacher has a right to expect respectful, prepared students in his/her classroom.” I suspect that all Worcester schools agree with these comments. Clearly, long-term suspension hearings for assaults on school employees, weapons, and drug and alcohol offenses are diminishing. As the other statistics show, though, schools are addressing other behavioral topics in different ways, some through approaches that record and respond to infractions, others through less formalized means. Ultimately, though, all schools are charged with creating, and preserving, “school environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to teaching and learning”, and this goal will remain a key focus of the schools, and of the Worcester School Committee, in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Worcester School Committee Member Brian O’Connell

As a School Committee member, I have sought to improve the quality of education for Worcester children, and operation of the Worcester Public Schools, in numerous ways, including: (1) extensive school reading and literacy initiatives, such as “summer reading”, (2) expanded sports opportunities, such as crew, lacrosse, swimming, hockey, and elementary / middle school sports, (3) enriched opportunities in language instruction (such as Mandarin Chinese), (4) development of partnerships with colleges and universities, (5) public speaking opportunities, (6) academic competitions, (7) preservation of extended day options, projects fairs, home/health instruction for ill or disabled students, and several art and music programs, (8) enhanced advanced placement courses and opportunities, (9) use of the “Virtual High School” to offer courses by computer, (10) increased use of “e-rate” grant support for technology programs, (11) creation of Junior Honor Societies at many of our elementary schools, (12) increased science instruction at the high school level,  (13) development of a homework policy, (14) preservation of community schools, (15) expansion of the role of  parents / guardians in the Worcester Public Schools (through groups such as the Citywide Parent Planning Advisory Council), and (16) AFJROTC and NJROTC.

During the next term, the Worcester Public Schools must continue to move forward as to many of the accomplishments set forth above, and in the following areas as well:

(1) reallocate some of our fiscal resources, reducing the number of administrative positions based in the Central Administration Building, and using those funds to hire additional classroom teachers,

(2)  consider adoption of different grade configuration models in certain schools, such as a “kindergarten through grade 8” elementary school, and an additional small “satellite middle school” affiliated with a public high school,

(3) increase the number of schools which can offer additional instructional time, through extended days, especially for students who need supplemental instructional time to succeed,

(4) expand summer programs, to help students to retain the knowledge and skills they mastered during the school year,

(5) strengthen and expand our community school programs, especially for our inner city students,

(6) maintain for our students an ambitious and challenging curriculum, setting aggressive but achievable expectations of student mastery,

(7) increase the number of students who qualify for “advanced placement” in college,

(8) expand the number and variety of “occupational education” courses offered at our comprehensive high schools,

(9) continue to develop six-year high school – associate degree programs,

(10) increase the number of students who can take courses at our area colleges, for college credit, while in high school, at no cost,

and (11) expand our “School Choice” recruitment of non-Worcester residents, to increase revenues available to the WPS. I fought for years to have the WPS implement this program, and it is now a major funding source for us: for this academic year, we will spend $482,036 from our “School Choice” revenues, for instructional purposes for our staff and students!

I ask for your vote as we expand fine educational opportunities for our young people!

 

For most of us, the devastation wrought by the hurricanes of this autumn has been visible primarily from a distance – on the news, in social media, and through conversations with friends and relatives in impacted areas. It is hard to appreciate, fully, the scope of destruction the hurricanes have caused. In a particularly sad irony, the storms have largely destroyed the fragile infrastructure, the homes and livelihoods, of the residents of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, many of whom struggle for the necessities of life under the best of circumstances.

Worcester is now experiencing the effect of the hurricanes first-hand, as families relocate from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, especially, to Massachusetts, in search of a new beginning. As of last Thursday, fifty-one Puerto Rican students had moved to Worcester with their families since the storms and had enrolled in the Worcester Public Schools (“WPS”). These families face immediate challenges in obtaining the housing and food they need – Worcester agencies have taken decisive steps to try to help here – and they reach out promptly in most instances to enroll their children in school. Fortunately, Worcester has a comprehensive range of services to place these children promptly. They currently attend nineteen public schools across Worcester. The students confront a range of challenges they could never have anticipated a month ago – a new home, a different culture with for many a new primary language, colder weather, new teachers and prospective friends, and a significantly different curriculum. Many have special education programmatic needs as well.  

The WPS will address all of these challenges. The children are extraordinarily adaptable, and they should ultimately thrive here. Short-term, the most significant challenge for the WPS will be financial – meeting the needs of these students within the confines of a budget for this school year which could not have anticipated the students or their needs when it was prepared.

The Worcester School Committee has taken the lead in requesting state support for the education of these new students. On my motion, the Committee voted unanimously to urge “that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and secondary Education (“DESE”) extend its October 1 enrollment reporting calculation deadline for students arriving in Massachusetts from Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas, Florida and other hurricane-damaged regions to permit them to be included in the foundation budget.”

The “October 1 enrollment reporting calculation deadline” is pivotal. Normally, Massachusetts bases its general support for education in a community or school district – “Chapter 70 aid” – in part on the number of students enrolled in the public schools of that community or district as of October 1. Generally, this is logical, as it permits enrollments to stabilize during the first month of the school year before a definitive count is made. This year, however, the students impacted by the hurricanes are all arriving here after October 1. If the state extends the deadline, the fifty-one new Worcester students will all be taken into account for Chapter 70 state aid purposes. Otherwise, they are not.

This will make a significant difference to Worcester financially. For the current fiscal year, the Worcester foundation budget per pupil is $12,356. The foundation budget – the state’s definition of an adequate spending level for a school district, upon which state aid and mandated local spending for education depend – takes into account by special calculations students who are English language learners, or who are “economically disadvantaged”, or who receive special education services, or who attend a vocational school program. All of these factors may result in an increase in the sums the school district is expected to spend per pupil. If DESE can simply increase Worcester enrollment by fifty-one students, and then add the sum of $12,356 per pupil to the foundation budget, Worcester will have, at minimum, an additional $630,156 to spend on its newest students. The figure is likely to be greater than that, as the number of new students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands increases, and as additional foundation budget funds related to increased English language learner, vocational education, “economically disadvantaged” status, and special education services are taken into account.

Yet these students will bring more than educational needs to our school district. On that account, the School Committee unanimously approved my second proposal – that the WPS “modify the McKinney-Vento grant to the Worcester Public Schools to permit access to funding to address the immediate needs of students from hurricane impacted areas.” The purpose of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant, as summarized by DESE, “is to provide funding for programs that ensure homeless students enroll in school, attend school, and have the opportunity to succeed in school.” Worcester will ask DESE to permit it to reallocate its funding under this grant to meet some of the varied needs Worcester’s new students have upon their arrival here, to allow them to focus their attention more constructively on school and on academics.

Finally, a number of professional educators are among the individuals who have relocated from the hurricane impacted areas to Massachusetts. Many bring to our region a variety of instructional and language skills which could benefit our students, but they face a variety of time-consuming hurdles before they can be awarded licenses to teach in Massachusetts. Thus, the School Committee voted, again unanimously, “to investigate options for licensure for educators who arrive in the Worcester area from Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas, Florida, and other hurricane-impacted regions.” If DESE permits these teachers to seek employment under a waiver, while they complete the requirements for licensure in Massachusetts, they will be able to practice their profession here, and thus to earn a living, while sharing their skills with school systems that will truly benefit from them.

Our Committee is optimistic that DESE will consider these requests thoughtfully. If and when it implements them, Worcester, and the other communities of residence of these young people, will be well-situated to provide to them the opportunities which will help them to achieve their best prospect of success, in school, and in whatever paths their future lives will take as well.

Last week’s tragedy in Las Vegas brings to mind the emotionally devastating history of shootings within our schools – ironically, the environment in which we all like to believe that our children are guarded and protected. Sadly, though, we now have a roster of events within our schools, ever since the deaths in Columbine High School in 1999, at Virginia Tech in 2007, and in Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, which show all too graphically why a comprehensive response initiative for such incidents is vital for every school.

Prior to Columbine, the common “lockdown” strategy was passive in nature, securing doors, closing  blinds, turning off lights, huddling students and staff in the corners of classrooms, against walls or under desks, and hoping not to attract an intruder’s attention. Unfortunately, this strategy left students and staff highly vulnerable, and defenseless, once their locations were discovered.

Columbine led Greg Crane, an experienced law enforcement officer and security consultant, to rethink the entire school security strategy. He focused on the elementary school headed by his wife, and determined how best to protect its staff and students in event of an incident. He concluded, first, that the passive “lockdown” system most commonly in use was counter-productive. He thus designed a security strategy which was its exact opposite in several key respects – an active response model with a range of varied options. He later founded Response Options, which offered training in a new active model, and, in 2013, he established the ALICE Training Institute, to offer his program to schools on a more extensive basis.

ALICE is an acronym for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate”. It recognizes that most school shootings begin and end quickly. A 2015 FBI study found that 60% of such incidents conclude before the police are able to reach the school. Thus, an effective response needs to be in place immediately, to thwart the attack until law enforcement officials are able to intervene. ALICE states that “[s]pecifically, if contact is made … people of all ages are trained to the limit of their age- and physical-capability in counter strategies. We do not teach any fighting strategies. Counter strategies consist of the simple actions of Noise, Movement, Distance, and Distractions in order to make the intended targets much more difficult, and require a much higher skill set on behalf of the shooter. We also teach when appropriate and applicable, [that] by using overwhelming numbers potential victims can take back control of the situation.”

A.L.I.C.E. Training

An incident earlier this year at West Liberty High School, in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, demonstrates the effectiveness of ALICE training. There, early in the school day, a shotgun-wielding student targeted students in the school. The students promptly utilized a variety of ALICE strategies, running in multiple directions (the ALICE strategy of “movement”), entering rooms and barricading doors (“enhanced lockdown”), and breaking out windows to evacuate. While this was taking place, staff members used their superiority in numbers to overwhelm the attacker, and to use their body weight to pin him to the floor.   When police arrived at the school, five minutes after the incident had begun, the shooter was subdued and under control. The vital role of unarmed teachers is pivotal here, but not unique; the FBI notes that, during the past fifteen years, about 15% of shooter stoppages are credited to unarmed civilians.

ALICE describes its successful strategy as follows: “Counter strategies work. Proven. Period. And they work with no intent to harm the attacker. And they require no special skill set or tools to do them. Passive, static response must become a strategy of the past. Just like Women’s Self-Defense training, kids’ Stranger Danger training, and the expectation of airline passengers these days, citizens must understand they can survive the Active Shooter. ALICE makes training easy and comprehensive through the use of web-based training of concepts and strategies, and kinesthetic practice of skills. Readiness requires preparation. Preparation requires being trained. Trained requires practice.”

Certain school personnel can be certified as ALICE instructors, and they, in turn, can train staff members in ALICE practices. Internet instruction from ALICE is feasible as well, through interactive courses, and it can be blended with on-site training.

Some aspects of ALICE do provoke scrutiny and require flexibility, especially as to the ability of students to confront perpetrators. National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based consulting firm, urges a multi-faceted approach to school security. As it notes, other options warrant consideration as well:

“A few of the many examples include having trained, armed school resource officers (SROs) and school police department officers on campuses, employing trained and professional security staff, utilizing proactive security measures including physical security and violence prevention practices, training school staff and crisis teams on emergency response procedures, having evacuation and lockdown plans that are practiced regularly, training students on drills and common sense security measures such as not opening doors for strangers and to report strangers in the building and on campus, providing blueprints and floor plans to first responders and having them train using school facilities, improving prevention and support programs for students, and a host of many other measures.”

Robert Pezzella, the Director of Safety of the Worcester Public Schools, is a strong proponent of ALICE, and he has been instrumental in bringing the program and strategy to Worcester. As he has emphasized, “bringing ALICE to the Worcester Public Schools is the next step in empowering staff and students to make difficult but common sense decisions during times of crisis.”

Clearly, as staff members and students are educated in the principles and practices of ALICE, Worcester will have a new, multi-faceted response system in place in event of an incident within any of its schools. We hope it will never be needed, but it will be one vital ingredient in a comprehensive network of strategies designed to keep WPS students safe and secure throughout their years in Worcester schools.

During October – within the first forty days of the school year – every Massachusetts public school is required to convene a meeting of its school council. The council – known in Worcester as the “school site council” – is one of the more distinctive innovations introduced in Massachusetts public schools by the Education Reform Act of 1993.

This law mandated that every public elementary, secondary, and “independent vocational” school have such a council, consisting of the school principal (who serves as co-chair), parents of children in the school, teachers elected by their colleagues, and community representatives.

Up to half of the council membership “shall be non-school members”, and the number of parents and of educational personnel on the council are to be equal.

Shortly after enactment of the Education Reform Act, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education highlighted the vital role of the school council in school governance. It emphasized, insightfully, that “[t]eachers, parents, and community members can become more committed to improving the schools and more supportive of the public school system when they enjoy the opportunity to serve or be represented on a school council that has a role in shaping the policies and programs of the school.”

One Massachusetts school system, which instituted site-based decision making and school councils prior to the statewide mandate, includes the following preamble in its guidelines for councils:

Values behind site-based decision making through councils: [the council] improves student outcomes by uniting, in responsible participation, those closest to the teaching-learning relationship; [the council] creates through the development of a shared vision and planning a school environment which unites all members of the school community in a sense of belonging, commitment and growth.”

The councils have, at minimum, the following five key roles under state law:

  • They “shall assist in the review of the annual school budget.” This is particularly important is defining the priorities of the school for allocation of the resources available to it.

 

  • They shall assist “in the formulation of a school improvement plan.” This “plan for “improving student performance” is required to contain specific “student performance goals” adopted by the principal “in consultation with the school council.” It shall “assess the needs of the school in light of those goals and formulate a school plan to advance such goals and improve student performance.” The plans are reviewed and approved by the superintendent, “after consultation with the school committee.”

 

  • The council shall “make recommendations to the principal for the development, implementation and assessment of the curriculum accommodation plan.” This plan is designed “to assist principals in ensuring that all efforts have been made to meet students’ needs in regular education.” This plan can be particularly significant for staff, as it “shall be designed to assist the regular education teacher in analyzing and accommodating diverse learning styles of all children in the regular classroom and in providing appropriate services and support within the regular education program … The curriculum accommodation plan shall include provisions encouraging teacher mentoring and collaboration and parental involvement,” and the school council, with its parent membership, is ideally situated to ensure a vibrant substantive role for parents through the plan.

 

  • The council in each school containing grades 9 through 12 “shall review the student handbook each spring to consider changes in disciplinary policy to take effect in September of the following school year, but may consider policy changes at anytime. The annual review shall cover all areas of student conduct.” The entire handbook shall be prepared by the principal “in consultation with the school council.”

 

  • Finally, the school committee has the authority to grant to school councils “additional authority in the area of educational policy.” This is perhaps the most intriguing option as to councils, but school committees rarely exercise it.

Clearly, school councils should be deeply immersed in key areas of school policy and practice, within their statutory mandate. They are required to meet “regularly”. Thus, it is vital that councils begin their work early in the school year, devoting time and effort to each of their responsibilities as detailed above.

Councils must have significant active parent and community membership. Properly – one of my major concerns – they should convene at times when parents and community members are able to attend the meetings. Those who work regular “nine to five” schedules will find it difficult if not impossible to be at meetings held during their typical work day, and schools should acknowledge this in planning their meetings for hours reasonably convenient to them.

Successful schools – those with holistic teacher, parent and community involvement – welcome the advice and participation of their councils to strengthen the education of their students. This is “site based decision making” at its best, and, to succeed, it needs the active, enthusiastic and engaged involvement of our schools, and of all key segments of our community.

If you have an opportunity to serve on such a council, please do so. If your school’s council is not actively exercising all of its proper roles, work with your school, and with its principal, to strengthen it, and to make the promise of its mission, as enshrined in law almost a quarter century ago, a reality.

WORCESTER – Last week, the Massachusetts legislature held hearings as to a number of education-related bills pending before it.

While all are receiving some attention on Beacon Hill, none have a greater potential impact on education, and on the public school children of Massachusetts, than implementation of the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which was the topic of a hearing during July.  

The work of the Commission – which took place during 2014-2015 – addressed the key formula used to ensure adequate funding for public education throughout the Commonwealth.

Worcester School Committee Member Brian O’Connell

The formula was implemented through the Education Reform Act of 1993 – the same year the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled, in McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, “that the Commonwealth was not providing to children in less affluent communities the education to which Part II, Chapter 5, Section 2, of the Massachusetts Constitution entitled them.”

Twenty-two years later, the Commission concluded that “some of the assumptions contained in the formula for calculating the foundation budget have become outdated” in critical areas.  In these areas, the gap between actual spending by districts statewide, and the sums calculated as sufficient by the foundation budget, had grown to as much as $2.1 billion. The gap arose in the following five key categories:

Employee Health Insurance. The Commission found that district spending on this insurance “exceeds the foundation budget allotment by more than 140%. This is primarily due to the dramatic growth in health insurance costs nationwide and the fact that such costs have increased at a significantly higher rate than the rate of inflation used to adjust the foundation budget.”  In Worcester, for example, the public schools spend almost twice the amount for employee health insurance included in the foundation budget – a gap of $29.1 million as of 2015-16! The Commission recommended adjustment of the formula to reflect the average rates of the Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission (GIC) – the state agency which offers health insurance to the employees and retirees of the Commonwealth – and use of an inflation factor in the future which tracks increases in the GIC rates as well. It also proposed inclusion of an additional component for retired employee health insurance – a component not currently recognized in the foundation budget.  

Special Education. The Commission concluded “that the foundation budget understates the number of in-district special education students and the cost of out-of-district special education”.  Here again, the Worcester Public Schools spends almost twice the amount included in the foundation budget for special education – an additional gap (2015-2016) of $29.8 million!  The Commission proposed increases in the number of assumed in-district special education students to a figure reflecting current reality, and it urged that the formula “increase the out-of-district special education cost rate to capture the total costs that districts bear before circuit breaker reimbursement [state partial reimbursement for these costs] is triggered.”

English Language Learners (ELL). The Commission noted that many such students “have serious social and emotional needs, and arrive at school with little to no formal education for school districts to build upon.” It suggested a new increment to the foundation budget to account for the increased funds needed to educate these students, and it proposed application of this increment to ELL students in vocational programs as well. These recommendations would provide Worcester, cumulatively, at least $5 million in additional support.

Low Income Students. The Worcester Public Schools, joined by other districts, testified to the Commission as to the increased costs of educating students from economically challenged backgrounds. “Worcester school officials presented evidence that their successful efforts at turning around [a] Level 4 [academically struggling] school cost about $2000 more per student than other schools in the district received.” Were this $2,000 increment factored into the formula, for economically disadvantaged students, the Worcester Public Schools could receive approximately $20 million in additional support. The Commission recommended a significant increase in “the increment for districts with high concentrations of low income students”, and it urged that the new increment “should provide high poverty school districts with enough funding to pursue several turnaround strategies at once.” The Commission noted that the methods used to determine “economically disadvantaged” students should “properly and accurately count all economically needful students.”

Inflation Factors. The Commission found that, during the “Great Recession” (the 2010 fiscal year), the state had applied an inflation factor which was from a different quarter – with a lower factor – than that required by statute. This exacerbated the gap between funds needed by school districts and funds provided them through the foundation budget as applied. An inflation factor adjustment could provide the Worcester Public Schools with up to $9 million in additional support.

Implementation of all of the Commission’s recommendations could add approximately $93 million to the resources available to the Worcester Public Schools to educate its children. The cumulative cost is obviously the major obstacle to full adoption of the Commission recommendations by the Commonwealth. As Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Senate Chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee of Education (and a co-chair of the Commission), concluded, many assumptions behind the formula “are now outdated, hampering districts’ efforts to provide students with a quality, well-rounded education.” However, the passage of time creates a risk that the report – a truly thoughtful and realistic analysis of the costs inherent in educating Massachusetts children – may be marginalized, neglected, forgotten or ignored. Yet, during the two years since issuance of the report, the discrepancies between the current funding formula, and the economic reality of education costs, continue to grow.  The Worcester School Committee has taken a lead here in Massachusetts, proposing a resolution urging implementation of the Commission report, which will be presented to the Board of Delegates of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees in November.  

Senator Chang-Diaz has introduced as lead sponsor – joined by the entire Worcester legislative delegation – Senate Bill 223 (Senate Docket 1905) – “An Act Modernizing the Foundation Budget for the 21st Century” – which would lead to development of an “implementation schedule” for key recommendations of the Commission over several years. The schedule would be open to review and revision, and it would be “subject to appropriation”. It makes no binding fiscal promises. However, her bill seeks to start a process to bring the Commission’s recommendations into effect, ultimately, through creation of a revisable timetable which takes into account the fiscal challenges confronted now by the Commonwealth and by many of its residents.  

Clearly, those concerned about the well-being of public education students, in Worcester and throughout the Commonwealth, have a critical interest in this topic as legislative discussion of educational proposals continues.