A few days ago a reader pointed me to a Boston Globe article with the headline: "Fall River and Holyoke schools may face takeover".
I had, in fact, already read the article and I've thought a lot about it, talked to others about it, and read the follow-up stories in the local paper. The first thing that hit me is another article, one that I blogged about that stated that most people in Fall River give the school system high marks. I didn't get any reaction which kind of surprised me because I think most people think the school system has issues. The second thing I thought was the superintendent had the right take on this; Fall River has made progress but needs to continue to make progress if it wants to avoid takeover. One of the things that really surprised me in the article was that the issues mentioned for Fall River seemed to be things we were aware of and working on. It also seemed that Holyoke had far more severe issues than we do.
I think Fall River has some troubling issues. I believe the move to larger schools was a mistake. I have talked to teachers and parents and hear disheartening things about some of our schools. The city's largest elementary, the Carlton Viveiros, particularly concerns me and the news that it is currently without a principal does nothing to make me think what I have heard is an exaggeration. I think we pat ourselves on the back for too much for maintaining level funding year after year. Level funding means making do with the same amount of money, however it does nothing to cap costs. So when the price of heat and electricity goes up that means somewhere you have to spend less. I can tell you I try to level fund my household budget and lately it hasn't worked. The reality is you have to spend MORE just to maintain. I have concerns that we have moved to this philosophy of inclusion. This concept that we should put all kids together regardless of their ability. I think when we do this we hamper our brightest and frustrate those who simply need more help.
Yes, there are things here in Fall River that absolutely could be run better. There are changes that have to be made. However overall I'm not convinced the issues in the district are enough to prevent a child from getting a quality education. Don't get me wrong I'm sure we could dig up individual examples but overall I think the tools are there for a child in this city to get a great education and go on to better and brighter things. I'm also not convinced the DESE could step in and do a better job.
So if kids have the opportunity to get a great education why is Fall River at risk for state takeover? Well, I think it's simply because of the test scores and a few other benchmarks that get used to define a failing district. Really if our kids got great scores the DESE wouldn't be looking at issues with management, the school committee and so-on. The way these test scores get used has always amused me. 'The 8th grade in Lefty Elementary improved it's math test scores over last years' but last years 8th grade is now in high school! It would be much more interesting to track a class or a student and see if there is improvement from year to year. I think it would also be interesting to breakdown the scores by economic indicators and follow those year from year.
Why is our is school system under performing? Certainly there are some house cleaning issues that need to be addressed. However one of the big reasons Fall River struggles and will continue to struggle is demographics. There are all sorts of studies that show that the poorer a community is the less successful its children are in school. If we want to see real improvement in our schools we have got to find ways to get parents involved and make them more accountable. There are some parents who view school as nothing more than daycare. The problem is that attitude not only harms their child but yours too. If their kid doesn't want to be there and becomes a distraction it's your child that suffers for it. But it's not all bad parenting you also have single parents who struggle to find the time to be involved. You have parents who for one reason or another don't promote the importance of education to their children. Whatever the causes I believe it's the biggest obstacle we face in improving our school system. Children must come to school believing in their ability to succeed and prepared to do so. Ask any educator, the children who are backed by involved parents do better. We must find ways to make it easier for parents to be part of their child's education. We also need to better fund, not level fund our schools. And if that means we can't find ways to give our schools more money we have to find ways for them to save money so the savings can be put back into the classroom. This might mean a top to bottom review to see where there is waste. But it could also mean regionalization for purchasing supplies. It could mean sharing services. Certainly long term there has to be some review of health insurances and pensions which just seem to be crippling local communities.
Are there things we could be doing to improve education attainment in Fall River? I'm no expert so this is all just opinion. I've already said the biggest challenge is reaching children where education hasn't been reinforced as a priority. I personally, would like to see the Expanded Day program put into each middle school. Expanded Day can offer students enrichment opportunities, culinary arts, music, theater, dance, karate, that they might not get otherwise. These enrichments can really keep kids interested and engaged in school. At the same time there is also more time for traditional academics and the enrichment classes can be used to reinforce what goes on in the classroom. I would like to see Expanded Day dropped from the elementary schools and the concept of looping introduced. Looping is where one teacher works with one classroom over multiple years (usually 2-3). From what I've read the results are very positive and elementary seems the perfect place to have it. Most elementary teachers teach all or the majority of the subjects anyway, versus middle and high school where kids have different teachers for every class. The benefits include stronger bonds between teacher and student, better familiarity with teachers and parents, and the ability for a teacher to cover more ground in subsequent years because he or she already knows the students and their strengths and weaknesses. I think we need to expand mentoring programs focusing on elementary schools. Every child can benefit from the addition of another caring & supportive adult in their lives. Sometimes all it takes to make a difference in a child's life is to have that one adult who says "I believe in you".
Come to think of it, sometimes a little bit of praise is all anyone needs to succeed. That's something Commissioner Chester should keep in mind for future reference.