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Who’s thinking about the kids?

By Parlee Jones

I am not a political person by nature, but that has been changing over the last couple of years. I have come to see that attention to Worcester’s elected officials is needed if I hope to offer the best opportunities for my children. Most would consider me to be a very active parent. You can find me at parent’s night and PTO’s.

I can sit with my children every day after school and help them with their homework, meet with the teachers to discuss teaching strategy and plans for next year, but I continue to find road blocks along the way.

I joined a community organizing group called Black Legacy almost two years ago. The group was just starting. We came together to talk about the health of the community, and the disparities that exist. We wondered why members of Worcester’s Black community were becoming sicker, more often, and more severely than our White counter parts in so many areas including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, various cancers, and infant mortality. What was going on? What we realized is that all of these health issues are related to socio-economic income, which is largely dependent on the quality of education someone has. When we looked at the data, we found that there was a major income gap in the city of Worcester by race and ethnicity, and indeed this gap is found in our public education. So, as folks committed to making as big an impact as possible, we decided to focus on closing the academic achievement gap knowing this will help close the gaps in income and finally overall health.

This past September, we held our second Black Families for Education Conference, intending to raise awareness of the school-to-prison pipeline. This pipeline is a national problem which recognizes that failures in education have a direct link to the likelihood that a person might find themselves in prison. By exploring the pipeline, some communities are making major changes that increase student success and stop that path.

• Uneven disciplinary practices
• Low expectations of students
• Under resourced schools

When we put all three of these issues together, it is easy to see why we have achievement gaps. It also becomes relatively easy to see what needs to happen to close those gaps.

• Eliminate disparities in disciplinary action that is the result of unintended bias
• Increase expectations for all students for high academic achievement
• Increase a more equitable distribution of resources in the schools and neighborhoods so that all children are able to be in strong schools, not just the ones in wealthier communities.

You can learn more about the school to prison pipeline at www.blacklegacynow.org.

What has become clear is that many on our current school committee are not committed to these goals. In fact, some school committee member’s like Ms. Tracy Novick campaigned against high expectations for all students, and not expectations for teachers. Her cry’s against MCAS seem, on it’s surface to be a concern for unequal negative impact on poor students and students of color, but in reality it is a strategy to save teachers from being subjected to the same high stakes evaluation as high school students are. Again, on it’s surface, this looks good. Most of us agree that MCAS should not be a score that can keep a student with passing grades from graduating from high school. That seems completely unfair. We do want to be able to have multiple measures of what students are learning, but it shouldn’t be used in the way it is.

But in reality, her organizing is not to eliminate MCAS as a high stakes test for students. Her organizing is to stop MCAS from being a criteria for teacher evaluation. The state and feds are revisiting how teachers are evaluated and they think one of the measures of a teachers success should include how much students learn. I agree. Should it be the only measure? No. But it should be one. And MCAS doesn’t need to be the measure.

Actions speak louder than words.

The current discussions about the extension of the superintendents contract is a place we can see where candidates values lay. Again, the primary role of the school committee is to hire, oversee, and collaborate with a superintendant that is able to support strong education of students in Worcester Public Schools. Our current superintendant has demonstrated a list of accomplishments for the district that outshines any recent superintendants including the ability to maintain 100% of programming during such dire economic times. In fact, she’s been able to bring more programming to the district.

I support:

• John Monfredo
• Jack Foley
• John Trobaugh

They have shown that, in addition to their personal agendas and perspectives that they will bring to their work, they understand that the bottom line is a strong leader who is able to show growth and improvements across the district. A leader who is able to balance the needs of the neediest students with the needs of the most advantaged and gifted students. I know that Dr. Boone is taking this school system in the direction we need to go in, and there’s proof to show it. I am concerned about the intention of those that would rally so hard to remove a proven successful leader, such as Tracy Novick. What direction does she want the schools to go in? I believe she would love to see it go back to the old system where the superintendent wasn’t focused on all students, only those students who’s parents voted and voiced their opinions through school committee members. Ms. Novick, Ms. Biancheria, and Mr. O’Connell who are elected to represent all the families of WPS’s have demonstrated again and again that they are committed to the constituents that voted them in, not the needs of the student body they were elected to shepherd.

Ms. Dianna Biancheria is proud of her role in bringing new programming to North High. She should be. However she seems completely apathetic to the fact that the policies for those programs are biased against poor white students and students of color.

Mr. O’Connell has admitted that Dr. Boone has been very successful in the past two years, yet says he would not want to renew the Superintendents contract for the standard 3 years to “send a message.” He has said that he thinks there are some areas he’d like her to focus more on, so holding back and suggesting only a two-year extension would make his point. What kind of a message is that? The school committee should not be a place where individual committee members play with peoples contracts because they are not willing to bend to individual whims. The school committee is supposed to set policy collectively, through the democratic process as part of a shared agenda. Enough with the personal agendas.

In fact, some school committee members have been much more concerned with the teachers than they have been of the students. I feel we have to care about both, but when it’s time to make decisions, the bottom line has to be “what is in the best interest of the students?” When we ask that question, we get answers that include strong teachers, happy teachers, teachers that have the resources needed for instruction, well trained teachers, and so much more that is pro-teacher.

The current school committee began two years ago with a newly hired Superintendent. Now, not everyone was pleased at this new hire. Maybe it was because she isn’t from Worcester, or because she’s a woman, or because she’s a person of color, or just because it wasn’t the guy most thought was a shoe-in… the one that was part of the same old network. On top of that, Worcester was identified as having two underperforming schools that the state was requiring immediate drastic action on. The state was basically telling us that we weren’t making the necessary improvements and, we needed to choose from a small array of choices for change or they might come in and take over the schools themselves. The tough decision needed to be made and our new Superintendant make the recommendations and lead the transformation of those two schools which included the removal of the principals at both schools.

I attended to school committee forums and was the first place I saw how different some of the school committee members views were from mine and those of my community. The conversations were primarily focused on the teachers and the terrible conditions they had to work under in “those” schools with “those” kids who had “those” parents. There was a lot of code speak but it was clear that there was an assumption that teachers and principal should not be held accountable because there was no way to do any better with “those” kids. The forums were not focused on what needed to happen to improve the student outcomes of the “those” kids.

Dr. Boone has walked her talk of high expectations for students, teachers, administrators, and the community.

During that same time, I have come to have a greater appreciation for some of the school committee members that are willing to learn about the student body and their families, in order to recommend policies that they think will benefit all WPS students.

The biggest job of the school committee is to hire, evaluate, and collaborate with the superintendant of schools. That’s pretty much it. To make sure they hire a qualified individual that can demonstrate continuous movement toward strong student achievement.

What I’ve come to learn is that all of the committee members are not focused on student achievement at all. At least, not for all students. For example, Tracy Novick has spent the last two years fighting against the superintendants focus on student achievement. That has been Ms. Novick’s platform. She has wasted hours on hours of school committee time on soap box rants against the MCAS. Why do I say wasted? Well, I think most of us believe that the MCAS test used as a high stakes exam has been bad policy, but it is a state requirement and more than 60% of the WPS’s funding is tied to the state. Unless Ms. Novick plans on telling the state “no thanks” to its funding, the school committee meeting is not the place for her personal opinion. What’s worse is she has twisted this contractual obligation as an assault on the superintendent, who has done an amazing job meeting those obligations and surpassing statewide improvements.

As I listen to the politicians speak over the last two years and during the current forums, it has become abundantly clear that the big difference is who the candidates are most focused on. It is my opinion that some have their priorities wrong given their role in the city.

There are seven committee members that include six elected, plus the mayor. Of the six elected, more than half come from the West Side of the city. Including the mayor, all of the members are White and have middle – upper income levels. So, what does this have to do with anything? Well, the school committee is responsible for setting policy and they also work with the Superintendent to identify priorities for the cities schools. That means, what they think is important… what is important in their lives and the lives of their family and friends is typically going to be what is at the forefront of their minds to focus on… to set as priorities. This is where perspective can come into play.

Mr. Foley has worked at Clark University in Main South for many, many years. From these experiences, and others, I can see that he has a deeper understanding of the students of the Worcester Public Schools.

Mr. Monfredo was a principal for 20 years. He always had a full parent room and his teaching staff enjoyed working with him.

Mr. Trobaugh wants to work with the present administration to bring positive changes. Also supporting real parent involvement.

It is the responsibility of us to choose the school committee that will work for our children. All children in Worcester, regardless where they live or where they go to school. We must work together as a community to keep all children out of the school to prison pipeline.