Friday, April 17, 2015

How Do We Fix Our Schools?

Ken O’Brien

With the election for local cities and towns on the horizon, recently conducted interviews with candidates for the Worcester School Committee.

While Worcester is substantially larger than Southbridge, it shares many characteristics with our community.

Both are level IV public school districts.

Median household income in Worcester is $43,492 and per capita income is $22,913. For Southbridge the corresponding numbers are $41,447 and $22,772.

The estimated house or condo value in Worcester is $204,900, in Southbridge it is $185,307. These compare to a Massachusetts average value of $323,800.

Ethnically Worcester is 59.4 White, 20.5 Hispanic and 11.8% African-American. Southbridge is 64.4% White and 31.3% Hispanic.

In terms of student populations Worcester is 33.6% White, 39.6% Hispanic and 14.9% African-American. Southbridge is 51.3% White and 44.7% Hispanic.

However, there are significant differences in how school funds are allocated:

Various candidates emphasized different priorities on addressing Worcester’s problems.

John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee member - Solve Chronic Absenteeism - "We need to address chronic absenteeism in our system for we have over 12% of our students absent over 18 times during the year. All students, but especially students in poverty, benefit the most from being in school.  Thus one of the most effective strategies for providing pathways out of poverty is to do all that it takes to get these students in school every day.  This alone, even without improvements in the American education system will drive up achievement, high school graduation, and college attainment rates."

Nick D'Andrea, Worcester School Committee Candidate -  Involve More Parents and Students - "I would like to get more of a voice from everyone in our schools. I would like the Parent Advisory Council to have a more comprehensive role in the way our schools progress and let them know they are being listened to. I would also like to create a city wide Student/Teacher Advisory Council for the middle school and high school level. Students in the middle and high school age group are more aware of what is happening at their schools than we tend to give them credit."

Nick D'Andrea, Worcester School Committee Candidate -  Revisit Chapter 222 - "The Committee needs to take steps to work with our state legislature on revising Chapter 222, so the students who want to learn are not deprived that opportunity by the ones who don’t." [Chapter 222 is An Act Relative to Student Access to Educational Services and Exclusion from School. For more information, click here: Chapter 222]

Molly McCullough, Worcester School Committee Candidate - Appropriate the Budget - "Appropriating the budget for the Worcester Public Schools is the critical assignment for members of the Worcester School Committee. Committee members must make decisions regarding school safety and discipline, curriculum, professional development, physical plants, personnel, transportation and material resources that would provide optimum learning experiences for all of the students in our system.  There is never enough funding to address all of the needs and wishes of our school system so it is necessary to think critically to provide what is necessary for our students to be prepared for the demands of higher education and the workplace upon graduation."

Cotey Collins, Worcester School Committee Candidate - Offer Career Opportunities - "Some students feel that the public schools don't offer enough career opportunities for them. Offering more career opportunities for high school students will not only decrease the dropout rate of the public schools, but this will also prepare students for college and for the workforce. What works right now is the unlimited learning opportunities some of our teachers provide students."

Brian O'Connell, Worcester School Committee Member - Improve Facilities - "Although we continue to confront an aging infrastructure, we have long taken advantage of the school construction opportunities which have become available to us. We are well-positioned to make significant progress in the years ahead of us. Yet we can, and should, do more, and accomplish more."

Hilda Ramirez, Worcester School Committee Member - Stronger Leadership – “We need strong leadership at the policy level that is working together to support a direction that is good for all students backed by best practices rather than individuals with great ideas.  I would like to see more open dialogue for making difficult decisions that affect 25,000 families"

Brian O'Connell, Worcester School Committee member - Improve Safety Measures - "As developments in recent months have made clear, we must also establish within each school, and maintain, a consistent environment and culture which offer all students a safe, disciplined, well-ordered setting for substantial academic accomplishment. We will achieve this when all schools, and our central administration, encourage and support such standards on a consistent basis."

In addition to these the Editors suggested improving the teacher retention rate and improving the student teacher ratio. The latter stood at 79.2%, one of the lowest in the state, while the former was 17.4 to one, among the highest in the state. Southbridge’s student/teacher ratio in 2013-14 was 13.8 to one.

Another option mentioned by Gary Vecchio, Worcester resident and 35-year educator, was freeing up funds by reducing administration costs. "I have always felt that the Worcester Public Schools has been top heavy with administrators. By reducing the number of administrative positions at Central Administration, we would have more money to hire new teachers. For several years a motion has been made at budget time to reduce these administrative positions by $500,000, but a majority of the school committee has voted against it."

The question remains, what are your opinions on these recommendations? Are they relevant to the situation in Southbridge? Do they constitute little more than election season rhetoric? Are they lacking in specifics as to implementation? What suggestions do you have that are not included among these.

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