Sunday, November 27, 2005

School Committee Budget Forum

The School Committee meeting of November 14th marked the beginning of the School budget process for FY 2007. The committee invited public comment on the priorities that should be addressed as the budget is put together over the next couple of months. Given that fact, the coverage of the Milton Times and comments they attributed to one school committee member were rather inexplicable. The Milton Times ran a headline that said “SC Discusses Budget With No Numbers”, and the quote of a School Committee member seemed to reinforce that sentiment. But why would you put the numbers together before you received the priorities advocated by parents and the school based administrations? It seems we are doomed to be forever plagued by an almost reflexive negativity when it comes to this one town department. One can almost see the headline and commentary if numbers had been presented and discussed at this meeting. “School Administration Offers Budget Without Hearing Public’s Priorities.”

In any event, about 15-20 citizens showed up for the meeting. Seven shared their budgetary concerns with the committee. The most frequently mentioned priority was to reduce class size. This concern was voiced about all levels of the system, in the French Immersion program, and in the Special Needs classes.

The most interesting comments of the evening were offered by Cheryl McDermott. Ms. McDermott urged the School Committee to approach the achievement gap as something other than just a black student/white student concern, as a gap between actual performance and high achievement for all. In this regard she urged the committee to (1) look at successful schools nationally, (2) use MCAS data to develop individualized plans, (3) find exceptionally motivated teachers who view all students as achievers.

Benchmarking successful systems is a very important idea. The National Center for Educational Accountability promotes increased learning through the acquisition and publication of performance data in American public schools. In addition, they identify high performing schools and are in the process of developing best practices based on assessments of student bodies and performance. For each school, top performing comparable schools, (measured by comparable rates of low income students, English language learners, class size and percentage of students tested) are identified. The NCEA sponsors a website where this information for schools representing a good part of the country can be found.

Additional concerns mentioned by attendees included reducing athletic fees, staffing the library so it can remain open beyond 2:30, more physical education time, and detailed communication about the budgeting process as it progresses so that we are not left in a last minute crisis. Of course that last concern cuts two ways. It places a responsibility on school supporters to monitor activity and attend meetings of the School Committee and the Warrant Committee when the school budget is being discussed. If anything was learned from last year it was that the budget process is in some measure a political one that must be treated as such from the beginning of budget discussions in December right up until March/April when last minute pressures are brought to bear. And this year the topic of an operational override will likely surface early in the deliberations. All of the parental concerns mentioned above take money to solve. It costs about $50,000 to add a teacher to the staff, so reducing class size is an expensive proposition. Energy cost increases will eat up further thousands. When you combine this with the fact that it will take $1.2 million just to maintain current staffing levels, you are looking at a substantial need for the schools.

French Immersion

One concern mentioned at the forum deserves special attention. Long time school supporter and Town Meeting Member Karen Friedman Hanna, after speaking about the class sizes in the French Immersion program, went on to discuss what she described as the “watering down” of the program. She referred to a reduction in the French humanities course at the Middle School.

Now my understanding of the program as it operated during my daughter’s involvement is as follows. First and second graders take virtually all courses in French. In the third and fourth grade about 75% of class time is in French, and by the fifth grade this reduces to 50%. The Middle School years include a French course and a humanities course, representing a further reduction in the percentage of time in French, but still a substantial commitment leading up to inevitable AP classes in High School.

As far as I’m concerned the French Immersion program is the crown jewel of the system. Not only do these students graduate fully bilingual, with all that that entails in an increasingly international world, but their capacity for additional language acquisition is greatly enhanced. Many French Immersion students start Spanish in High School and easily advance to AP levels and are quite fluent by graduation. My daughter will likely complete most of the degree requirements for both French and Spanish at Wellesley College, despite neither of these being her major. A friend of hers from the French Immersion program who attends Tufts is a Pre Med student who will graduate with a minor in Italian, her fourth language.

Beyond fluency in a foreign language, immersion programs leading to bilingualism have long been known to enhance cognitive abilities in students. Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto of Dartmouth College is a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent 3 decades studying the biological factors of language acquisition and how language is organized in the brain.

Her most exciting finding is in the area of cognitive abilities. She summed it up as follows:

“We're finding that these young children who have rich and early exposure to two languages are remarkably -- and this is quite an exciting finding - cognitively more advanced than their monolingual peers on certain highly sophisticated cognitive tasks to do with attention and abstract reasoning. And we think it's because they are switching languages and have access to multiple meanings, have part of their brain massaged like a muscle. Then there's the spillover of that amazing honing of their linguistic abilities, making them more cognitively advanced.”

If changes have been made to this program, we need to know about it. Committee member Laurie Stillman asked the administration to report on the issue raised by Ms. Hanna. The French Immersion Program is a curriculum, not a course. It requires a commitment on the part of the students who enter it. There is a concomitant commitment on the part of the school system to maintain what has been a highly successful program for over 17 years.

The 1909 Wing

The School Committee voted to have the administration proceed with a study of the feasibility of moving all the Collicot and Cunningham students from the 1909 wing in the next academic year. A committee was appointed to assist the study, consisting of 26 members at last count.

I continue to be perplexed at how this issue is being handled. The Superintendent offered a draft of a survey which would have gauged the sentiments of parents before undertaking a study. This was rejected based on reasoning which holds that parents wouldn’t be able to react unless presented with specific alternatives, and we shouldn’t ask parents their views until we have determined a move is possible. Excuse me, but this reasoning is entirely backwards. First of all, a competent researcher could fashion a survey that would measure not only overall feelings about moving, but also garner reaction by grade and by class to moving to every possible location in the system, as well as to leased temporary classrooms. But more importantly, why study a move unless you know the parents want to move? Even on a practical level, does it make sense to undertake a complex and time consuming task when you can determine if such a task is necessary by a simple and relatively quick method?

This is important because it once again burdens a thin central administration that is charged with some very difficult educational challenges. For the School Committee to not first find out if such a burden is even necessary is a mistake.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Mr Mathews

Regarding the french immersion program I can attest that officially in 5th grade french represents only 30 % of the curriculum and that covers French Language art and Science (although because of the MCAS some of science has to be done in english). I am not sure of the official percentages for 3rd and 4rth grade but I can say with quasi certainty that the 75%F 25% english in 3rd grade is no more.
Thank you for your informative vews.

7:37 PM  

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