Friday, September 25, 2009

The BTU school - two weeks in.

The Bulletin newspaper has an article on how teachers and students are settling in at the new Boston Teachers Union pilot school in Jamaica Plain. Sounds good so far.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Menino, Flaherty to compete in general election

Tom Menino garnered 51% of the Boston vote in the race for mayor, while Michael Flaherty received 24%, enough to secure spots in the general election. Yoon came in close behind with 21%, and McCrea scored 4% of the vote. NECN said they'll be hosting a mayoral debate between Menino and Flaherty on October 19.

In the city councilor at-large race, it appears the following candidates will advance to the general election in November: Connolly, Murphy, Arroyo, Pressley, Kenneally, Jackson, Bennett, and Gonzalez.

Boston School Committee meeting agenda

Here is the draft agenda for the Boston School Committee meeting, scheduled for Wed., Sept. 23, at 6 p.m. at 26 Court Street in Boston.

Regarding the Readiness Schools report to be discussed, this summer, Boston received $36,000 from the state to support creating a grade 6-12 school and converting two high schools into Advantage Schools, in which "school faculty and leadership primarily will be responsible for developing the 'innovation plan' and performance contract under which the school operates." The Massachusetts Teachers Association states its position on Readiness Schools here.

Call to Order
I. Pledge of Allegiance
II. Superintendent's Report
III. Public Comment on Action Items
IV. Action Items
· Grants for Approval
V. Reports
· Vocational Requirements Update
· 2009 MCAS Results
· Readiness Schools Update
VI. General Public Comment
VII. New Business

The polls are open. Now go vote!

Boston is holding preliminary municipal elections today. So vote early, but not often. If you’re unsure where the mayoral candidates stand on education in our city, WBUR had a good story. I also linked to the candidates’ education platforms in an earlier post. In addition, the West Roxbury Transcript has a video of all the mayoral candidates talking about the proposal to rezone the BPS assignment zones.

I confess that I’m not as well versed in the positions of the city council candidates. Time to do some cramming before heading to Mozart to vote. There are 15 candidates running for the at-large seats. This election, in which voters can choose up to four candidates, will winnow the field down to eight. The West Roxbury Transcript had most of the at-large candidates answer two questions (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). 

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nut policies

Either my son has been possessed by the Michelin man's spotted cousin, or we now have a tree nut allergy in the family.  I guess I'll have to start paying attention to every school's nut policy. From what I recall last fall, every school handles nuts differently.  Some are peanut free, some just let the kids with allergies eat at a different table in the cafeteria.

A school nurse on site would be a major plus.

New principal at Washington Irving Middle School

The Roslindale Transcript has an article on Arthur Unobskey taking over as principal of the Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale. I know I don't normally write about middle schools, but a lot of the area elementary schools only go to 5th grade and Irving is the closest middle school. Unfortunately, it's been plagued by discipline problems in recent years. I hope the new principal can turn that around.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beacon Hill to consider allowing more charter schools

The state legislature is considering a bill today that would double the cap on charter school in the lowest-performing school districts, according to a piece written by Gov. Deval Patrick and published in the Boston Globe.

“Only charter school operators with successful track records will be allowed to open or expand charter schools in these districts, and they must make meaningful efforts to attract, enroll, and retain low-income students, students scoring sub-proficient on the MCAS, English Language Learners, special-education students, students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out, and other students who are on the short end of our achievement gaps,” Patrick writes.

In addition, the legislature will also consider a bill on Readiness Schools, which will convert low-performing schools into what sound like in-district charter schools. Boston has already received a $36,376 state grant to convert two high schools to “Advantage” Readiness Schools in which school faculty and leadership are mainly responsible for creating the “innovation plan” and performance contract and create a new grade 6-12 “Advantage” school.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

School-by-school MCAS results released. Sigh.

The state Department of Education released the school-by-school results of last spring’s MCAS. It’s hard not to be a little disheartened looking at the results. Sometimes, it feels like it’s a race to the bottom. I’m sure once school preview season kicks off in November, I’ll forget feeling so despondent about our school district.

I’m providing the rankings of West Zone schools (plus three charter schools) culled from what the Globe published today. I’m listing only 3rd grade results because in 4th grade, some students transfer to schools with advanced work programs, which may skew the results a bit. (Note: I originally listed 4th grade results because I mistakenly thought AWC started in 5th grade.)

Based on the results presented here, some schools are consistently toward the top, some are consistently toward the bottom, and some are all over the place. So I don’t know what the take-home message is. Maybe it’s don’t rely on the MCAS and ignore everything in this post?

[Edited to add: as some other parents have kindly pointed out, it's important not to look at MCAS results in isolation. What I've provided here isn't a very good representation of the quality of a lot of schools because some students take on more students with special needs and English language learners. The Department of Education website does a better job of breaking out the performance of subgroups, which might be a better barometer of a school's performance. Also, if a family declines to take the test, that child is counted as failing. Sometimes it takes a village to write a blog.]

In these charts, first number is state rank. The last number is the percentage of students scoring “Advanced” or “Proficient.”

3rd grade English (out of 979 schools statewide)
105 Boston Renaissance Charter School, 79
303 Lyndon, 69
325 Kilmer, 68
407 Edward Brooke Charter School, 64
407 Dickerman (now part of King K-8), 64
487 Conservatory Lab Charter School, 60
506 Beethoven, 59
532 Manning, 58
532 Mozart, 58
719 Hale, 46
749 Curley, 43
779 Mendell, 40
779 Conley, 40
831 Agassiz, 35
831 Haley, 35
841 Philbrick, 34
857 Ellis, 31
857 Higginson, 31
857 Hernandez, 31
870 Sumner, 30
876 Ohrenberger, 29
908 Bates, 24
954 Hennigan, 14

3rd grade math (out of 981 schools)
185 Kilmer, 78
224 Mozart, 75
245 Edward Brooke Charter School, 74
245 Conservatory Lab Charter School, 74
404 Boston Renaissance Charter, 66
460 Beethoven, 63
673 Lyndon, 51
681 Mendell, 50
681 Hale, 50
772 Curley, 43
803 Dickerman (now part of King K-8), 40
821 Philbrick, 38
879 Agassiz, 30
879 Hernandez, 30
879 Ohrenberger, 30
898 Conley, 27
898 Bates, 27
905 Sumner, 26
905 Ellis, 26
905 Haley, 26
905 Manning, 26
924 Higginson, 23
961 Hennigan,13

I tried to get all the schools, but I may have skipped over some in my haste. Please let me know if you see omissions.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Agassiz air quality investigated

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is expected to release a report sometime this month on the quality of air at the Louis Agassiz elementary school in JP, according to the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

There are questions as to whether there are above-normal levels of mold in the building, and if so, whether this is contributing to respiratory problems in students and teachers at the school. This school environmental inspection report from 2007-2008 indicates that air quality levels were all within the normal range.

Teachers, students, and city officials addressed the issue in a June hearing of the city council’s Committee on Education. At the time, City Councilor John Tobin speculated that poor air quality be part of the reason that only half of the schools seats are filled. School officials denied that assertion.

While looking into this issue, I found this interesting report from DPH that was released in April. It lists the asthma prevalence in every K-8 school, public or private, in the state from the 2006-2007 school year. In Agassiz (if I’m looking at the correct Agassiz school), 19% of the students had a known diagnosis of asthma. This was statistically higher than the state average (10.8%). Certainly, Agassiz was not alone in these high levels. Here are the other West Zone schools that were statistically higher than the state average (I may have missed some):
  • Young Achievers (*I know it’s no longer a West Zone school, but at the time, it was): 20.54%
  • Haley: 24.4%
  • Philbrick: 22.2%
  • Ellis: 17.7%
  • Higginson: 19.4%
  • Hale: 22.5%
Naturally, we don't know how these students developed asthma. I don't want to be seen as saying that these school facilities are sick. I'm just throwing out the numbers for your consideration. By the way, there were also a lot of West Zone schools that had rates lower than the state average. I'll let you dig through the report to find those.

Monday, September 14, 2009

L-minus one year and counting…

Today marks the first day of kindergarten for Boston Public School students. If things go well, around this time next year, I’ll be seeing my son off for his first day of K1 (kindergarten for 4-year-olds). As the school buses have invaded our neighborhood, my son is very excited about the prospect of potentially getting to ride one EVERY DAY.

I did a lot of early school visits last year, but there are still many in the West Zone that I need to see (Conley, Sumner, Haley, among others) and others that I need to revisit because things may have changed (BTU) or I had my son along with me during the tour and wasn’t able to focus well (Lyndon, Curley, Beethoven).

Countdown to Kindergarten says there are more than 2100 K1 seats in the city. But BPS doesn’t guarantee children a K1 spot, only K2. That can leave a lot of parents in a pickle.

West Roxbury Transcript had an article in May about the predicament parents face when trying to get their children a K-1 spot. They’re really West Roxbury/Roslindale-centric, which isn’t exactly fair since students could be assigned anywhere in the West Zone, which also encompasses JP and parts of Roxbury and Dorchester. (The article says it includes Mattapan and Hyde Park… maybe they were relying on the proposed rezoning, which has since been dropped). Anyway, here’s what they said about K1 seats in Westie/Rozzie this past year:

“There are 222 K-1 seats through eight [West Roxbury/Roslindale] schools for this September’s class. All 222 seats were filled after seat assignments went out. The two most desired schools in the Parkway -- the Kilmer and the Lyndon -- had waiting lists of 154 and 152, respectively, for September 2009.

“To put that in context, the Kilmer and Lyndon have only 44 K-1 seats each. Also, 123 of the students had the Kilmer as their first choice, and 107 had the Lyndon as their first choice.

“But the Bates and Sumner elementary schools had waiting lists of 13 and 14 for their K-1 programs. The Bates has only eight K-1 seats and the Sumner has 22. The Bates K-1 grade is an integrated special needs program, and all the others mentioned are kindergarten extended day programs.”

I’m not about to judge the family mentioned in the article for the choices they made for their children. We all have to make decisions we’re comfortable with and do what we think is best for each child.

I think one of our strategies in the coming year will be to cast a wide net and list all the schools that we’re happy with on our registration form. If the lottery doesn’t go well for us, we’ll just reset the countdown clock and try again the following year for K2.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

First day of school for most BPS students; BTU pilot school opens its doors

Most BPS students were back at school today. Among those were children attending the new Boston Teachers Union pilot school in Jamaica Plain.

This year, the BTU school will have 150 students in grades K1, K2, 1, and 2, a Primary Transition Class for special needs children, and two classrooms for grade 6. They’ll expand year-by-year.
The school is unusual in that it won’t have a principal. They’re using two teacher co-leaders instead. The school day will be 30 minutes longer than most BPS schools, the Globe reports. Teachers were recruited from within the district, and most are in their 30s.

The BTU (or as it’s known in our house, British Thermal Units) school will also teach Spanish. They had planned to offer Mandarin Chinese, but I guess they decided Spanish would be a better fit.

I wish them luck. I visited last year when Young Achievers was still in the Parkman building. It was kind of hard to gauge their approach since they hadn’t hired any teachers yet and didn’t have a curriculum in place. I’m going to try to visit during school preview time this year to see if I can get a better sense of the school in its infancy (rather than the prenatal period).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Globe editorial on Menino & education

The Globe has an editorial today on Mayor Tom Menino and the state of public education in Boston. I'll let it speak for itself.

Structured activities during recess better than "just a pole"

It must be back-to-school time (and election season). The Boston news outlets seem to have more stories than usual on public schools.

The latest Globe story is about taking advantage of what little time kids have left for recess. Some area schools hire a coach through Playworks, formerly Sports4Kids, who organizes recess activities, rather than just letting kids spending their freetime chatting. They usually have four or five activities students can choose from.

The story revolves around the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, but many schools in the West Zone have also adopted this program, including the Hale, Mozart, Hennigan, Manning, Haley, and Ohrenberger schools.

My favorite part of the video accompanying this story was the assistant principal saying that before Playworks came to their school, there used to be a pole on the blacktop, "just a pole, and the kids would run around the pole all day long at recess."  I had to laugh because my son would definitely be among those running around the pole nonstop.  But I can see how structured activities are probably better than "just a pole."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Since we’re on the subject of West Zone principals…

The West Roxbury Bulletin had more information on Steve Zrike leaving as principal of Ohrenberger and Eileen Nash becoming principal of both Ohrenberger and Beethoven schools, which are forming a new K-8 partnership this year.

Each school will have their respective vice-principal, and Nash will alternate between both schools. Mornings at one, afternoons at the other.

Globe article on Bates principal

We’re back from a camping trip. So after being snug in a tent for three days, members of my family have retired to their own respective corners of the house. And I’m back at the computer.

I return to find that the Boston Globe has a trend piece on young principals. The story is really based around one principal, Kelly Hung, 33, who is entering her second year as principal of the Bates school. According to the article:

“One of the first lessons Hung learned on the job was that the first key decision every new principal faces is determining: What’s the issue here? Is it building maintenance? Teacher morale? Parental indifference?

“She quickly pinpointed her school’s issue. ‘We really focused on reading and literacy,’ she said. ‘Even in kindergarten, we have kids read aloud and ask comprehension questions. We stay away from yes and no. I worked on a solid writing curriculum that we all use in the same way. Before, it was not taught consistently.’”

From the parents’ perspective, the jury is still out on the new principal’s performance. The article says, “Jennifer Burg, who heads the parents council, which, among other things, fund-raises for Bates, is pleased with Hung’s performance. A survey of parents at the end of year, she said, suggested that some are very positive about Hung, a few negative, while the majority have taken a 'wait to see what happens' attitude. To be sure, there are skeptics. One teacher said Hung started off well, but began to isolate herself as the year progressed. Burg said she had heard that, too, so everyone is watching closely how the young principal does this year.”

The school certainly has its challenges, as the article notes. It didn’t meet its Annual Yearly Progress goals last year.

But this just might be an up-and-coming school. The article says, “Boston parents chose K1 at Bates for this fall in the city lottery system at double the rate of last year. And K2? That was up 50 percent.” (I’m not quite sure what “chose” means in this context. Were placed and then accepted a seat? Ranked it high on their registration list?)

I visited the Bates last year during school preview time. At the time, Hung was saying that they were hoping to increase physical education classes from once a week to twice a week. I hope they're able to follow through on that.

Since last year, the Bates become our neighborhood playground of choice. My son likes using the green path painted on the playground as a race track.

I wish Principal Hung lots of luck as she begins her second year.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Diving into Twitter

I'm experimenting with Twitter as a way to alert people of new posts here. Or maybe just to point people to news articles on Boston education that don't merit a full blog post. I haven't quite figured how I'm going to use it yet.

In any case, if you care to follow me, you can search for my username, "BravingBPS".  The full name of the blog wouldn't fit in the tiny space. That's Twitter for you -- all about the tiny space.

I don't plan on posting much in the coming days, but I hope to pick it up again next week.

Radio Boston talks charter schools

Radio Boston had a fantastic show today on the debate over charter schools. If you’re considering charter schools or are just confused about the whole thing (like why is there all this talk about lifting the charter school cap?), this show clears it up.  There are apparently 9000 students attending charter schools in Boston.

They interviewed Mayor Tom Menino about how he’s now supporting in-district charter schools, a change from his earlier stance. They also had BPS Superintendant Carol Johnson on, along with several others. Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman declined to come on the show, but the unions’ position was represented by the Massachusetts Teachers Association. BTU does not end up looking good on this show.

There was a lot in there about pilot vs. charter schools. If you’re considering sending your child to a traditional public school, a pilot school, or a charter school in Boston, I’d really recommend giving it a listen.

Globe looks into McCrea's claim of school preference for offspring of politicians

The Boston Globe has a short story on mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea's claim that the children/grandchildren of the other three candidates all got into their first-choice public school. In short, the Globe says, the facts don't check out.

Sam Yoon's two children did get into their first-choice school, Lee Academy, but that was before he was officially a candidate for city councilor.

Michael Flaherty's 11-year-old got into his first-choice school, the Richard J. Murphy School. But the 8-year-old twins didn't at first. They eventually transferred to the same school as the 11-year-old due to the sibling preference rule.

And Mayor Tom Menino's grandchildren did not all get their first-choice schools.

That clears that up.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cafeteria food

The Chefs in Schools program is expanding to the King K-8 school in Dorchester, according to the Boston Public Health Commission (It’s a note on their Facebook page. You might have to be signed in to FB to see it. I’m not sure.)

Through this program, chef Kirk Conrad, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, creates healthy, cost-effective, kid-friendly meals for a handful of BPS schools. The meals limit high fat, high sodium, and processed foods, and include more whole grains, vegetables, and fruits -- you know, the good stuff.

Among the West Zone schools, Higginson/Lewis K-8 and Curley K-8 already have this program in place.

The Globe ran a story on Chefs in Schools two years ago. Conrad's fare includes whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies, burgers on whole-grain buns, corn sautéed with onions and peppers, and vegetable-and-egg burritos.

Round-up of first mayoral debate

The four candidates for Boston mayor held their first debate last night, and the state of Boston Public Schools (and what to do about them) was brought up several times.

The moderator, Jon Keller, introduced the education issue halfway into the debate by noting that 8000 Boston families are currently on wait lists for charter schools. So should the cap for charter schools be lifted?

City Councilor Sam Yoon supported lifting the cap, although he said that charter schools “will not be a magic bullet for education in our city.” He said that charter schools with a record of success should be allowed to expand.

City Councilor Michael Flaherty also called for lifting the charter cap. He said he wasn’t just embracing charters. He was embracing good charters schools. He also said principals should be given more autonomy and schools should have appropriate-sized budgets, not a one-sized-fits-all approach..

Contractor Kevin McCrea said that the other candidates use “charter schools” as the latest buzzword to pretend that they care what’s going on in BPS. He’s against raising the charter school cap. “We know what works – longer school days, longer school years, and greater parental involvement.” He promised not to cut the school budget and to visit every school in the district.

Mayor Tom Menino said he supports the idea of turning underperforming schools into in-district charter schools, which would be controlled by BPS, unlike traditional charter schools, which have more autonomy.

At the end of the education discussion, McCrea said that Flaherty, Menino, and Yoon all got their kids into their first-choice schools in Boston. Whaaaat? Is this true? WBZ had to go to commercial break, so no one could rebut this point and I’m not sure they would have addressed it anyway, since it’s kind of gossipy and deals with their families. I can’t even think of three families who got their first-choice schools this year.

Now, everything I’ve heard says that everyone (even politicians) are in the same boat when it comes to the lottery. Am I wrong?

Separately, all four contenders also answered questions about food and restaurants for the blog Where to Eat. The final question was about food policy. Menino and Yoon provided answers about local food. All laudable. Flaherty did the same, but in the context of school food. He said, “School cafeterias will have healthy, locally-sourced products and nutrition-based curriculum will be folded into all academic disciplines.”

Are many of the school cafeterias even equipped to deal with a lot of fresh food? It seems like some of them are so tiny that they could only be used to serve food, not prepare it. It’s an admirable goal though. And having nutrition added to the curriculum would be great. (Will that be on the MCAS?)

The first round of the election will be held Sept. 22. The last two candidates standing will then compete for the mayor in the November elections. In future debates, I'd like to see them focus more on BPS and less on charter schools.

Here is the Globe’s story on the debate.
For links to the candidates’ education platforms, see my earlier post.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Boston School Committee's draft agenda - Sept. 2

Call to Order
I. Pledge of Allegiance
II. Superintendent's Report
III. Public Comment on Action Items
IV. Action Items
· Grants for Approval
· School Renaming Proposal: Health Careers Academy
V. Reports
· Welcome Services Update
· H1N1 Update
· Vocational Requirements Update
· English Language Learners
VI. General Public Comment
VII. New Business
*Note: This agenda is subject to change.

Radio Boston show on charter schools rescheduled for Friday

Radio Boston on WBUR has rescheduled its show on charter schools for this Friday at 1 p.m. They switched their programming around last week to do a show on the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy. I'd imagine you can't do a show on charter schools without discussing the state of public schools in the city. I'll be tuning in.