Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thanks, and Back to Work

I want to thank the community for giving me the privilege of serving four more years on the Newburyport School Committee. Aside from the Mayor, I was apparently the highest vote-getter of all the candidates- City Council and School Committee. Far from being a personal endorsement by the voters, I interpret that as a strong indication that the community likes where the schools are going, they support the leadership of Dr. Kerble and the team he is assembling. Again, thank you.

There is a tremendous amount of work to do. Of course, we have the two school initiatives to move forward- the Bres and the Nock/Molin. We are fast approaching the point where we will be working on the actual designs with the architects.

I believe that these schools should be among the most community-friendly buildings in the city. To that end, I intend to suggest that we include the most up-to-date library technology, and push for hours to be set-aside for members of the community to access that technology after school hours. I will push for the installation of a fully integrated community access broadcast in one of the two new school projects, to enable the community to see more of what the students are doing- plays, presentations, debates- to allow School Committee meetings to be broadcast live, with audio finally audible. And of course, to enhance community access to innovative and informative programming. This, again, would be open to community use- effectively doubling the capacity of PortMedia to utilize a "second studio" for community access. I will encourage that each school, as part of a new PE initiative, build state of the art, safe, outfitted fitness rooms for use by the students as part of an enhanced PE/Wellness curriculum, and insist that these facilities be available to the community when not being used by students.

We need new buildings, but what is happening inside the buildings matters as well. This budget season, my own priorities, which I expect will coincide with that of PTO's, School Councils, and administration, will be to seek additional funding to restore foreign language to the middle school, restore 3-6 full-time staff at the High School so that we can increase the sections of classes available to students, as well as the number of electives to reach the 990 hours on instruction the state expects for every student. And finally, I will also press for the funding for a second Math Literacy coach to work with pre-k-8th grade.

I look forward to working with the School Committee, with Mr. deKanter, who is returning, and with Audrey McCarthy, who will be joining us in January. And with Dr. Ralph Orlando, whose commitment to placed-based education, the GOMI initiative, and science in the schools has been a driving force for change.

There's more than enough work for the next four years. Through attendance at our School Committee meetings, participation in our rolling array of Ad Hoc study groups, through breaking through those institutional barriers that still exist making community participation inside the schools and classrooms difficult at times, I urge Newburyport to join our efforts to make our good, good schools into greater schools.

Thanks. I am both privileged, and humbled by your confidence in our work.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Election Day Thoughts about Schools and the Charter

Today is Election Day. Although this has been a quiet election in more ways than one, I encourage you to fulfill the obligations of living in a democracy, and vote. I believe that you have had to work a little harder this year to learn about your candidates, to make an informed choice.

For School Committee, there are four of us running for three seats. Mr. deKanter and I are running for re-election, something that rarely happens on the SC these days. You also have a choice of voting for former City Councilor Audrey McCarthy, and Peter McClure, who is running for the first time. Outside of whatever presence in the blogosphere any of us may have had, the general media have pretty much ignored this race; if the Current published anything about who we are or what we stand for, I never saw it. The Daily News ran one piece on each of us. There was no coverage from Port Media, no coverage by WNBP, and the only Candidates Night that allowed the community to see the four of us in one place, and ask any questions was sponsored by me- also unusual. I thank the Kelleher Park Tenants group for inviting us to be part of their Meet the Candidates night.

If it sounds like I am suggesting that the media has not met their threshold obligation in a democracy to inform the community, I am. It is disappointing. Nonetheless, we have an obligation to vote, and I encourage you to do so. I ask for your vote today.

I also wanted to briefly clarify another issue on the ballot, the Charter. I dissented from the document, for what I feel was an inappropriate and uncalled for change in current practices, the decision to prevent elected municipal employees from serving in an office they have been elected to. I won't go into it any further. The more important point I would like to make is this:

There is so much in the proposed Charter that will enhance the ability of Newburyport to do it's business efficiently and transparently, I intend to vote for the Charter today.

There is so much in it that will enable us to better educate our children- from a more rigorous approach to financial planning to the creating of an over-arching human resources function in city government, that I am voting for the Charter, and urge you to do so as well.

Politics is the art of the possible, said Tip O'Neil. I believe that Despite the shortsightedness of the Commission on an issue I felt strongly about, I believe there is much good that will be accomplished under the new Charter. To that end, despite my misgivings on this single issue, I urge you to vote to support this Charter. In the long run, it can be amended to accommodate my concern, or the concerns of others. But the right step is to put it into place, now.

See you all on the other side of the election. Win or lose, it has been a privilege to serve.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What If They Had An Election...

Last Tuesday, October 18th, the one and only Candidates Night for School Committee hopefuls was held at the Newburyport Public Library. 12 people attended, 17 if you counted the moderator, Rob Kaplan, and the four School Committee candidates. Rob did a terrific job ensuring that every question that was intended was asked, and managed to prevent each of us from sucking the oxygen out of the room with windy answers.

You could blame the small turnout on a lot of things. Poor advertising, though every school family was informed, and the Current and the Daily News ran the notices several times. Uninspiring candidates. A lack of burning issues. Voter apathy. Voter happiness with the status quo.

Still, there a few aspects of this Candidates Night that made it unusual. The first was that after talking with a number of groups that usually sponsor these kinds of events, it was clear that while there was some interest in sponsoring a Candidates Night for the City Council at Large race, no one was interested in doing the same for the School Committee. So, I organized it myself. It was a little unusual- a candidate pulling together all of the others running for the seats, giving the opportunity for my fellow candidates to meet the community and respond to questions. No one felt a compelling vested interest in gathering us together and asking us questions. In a democracy, that is troubling.

It leaves me a little puzzled. In the next four years, the School Committee will be bringing two debt questions before the community for renovating the Nock/Molin and building a new Bresnahan. the total of those projects, before reimbursement from the state could exceed fifty million dollars. I would have thought there might be some questions about that. The High School has undergone a schedule change this year, and there are four or maybe five new department heads. A lot of energy is being focused on the Science Department. But there were no questions on that. Our MCAS scores were a mixed bag- real progress in ELA at the Elementary School level, as predicted by Dr. Kerble following our early literacy initiative, and some uneven news about elementary math, and math below the High School. No questions.

I still get comments from people meeting me in the community about my thoughts on PE at the High School, but I had no questions on that issue.

Maybe people haven't started paying attention yet. Maybe people are pre-occupied with the economy. Maybe this election is the calm before the storm.

Regardless, on Tuesday, November 8th, the City of Newburyport will have an election, filling an open School Committee seat, and an open City Council At-Large seat. I'd encourage people to formulate questions, and get them answered. By all of us.

The next four years promise dramatic changes in our schools- curriculum, instructional practices, evaluation, assessment- buildings and grounds. Think about it, and talk with us.


Monday, October 3, 2011

School Committee Candidates Night

Since it doesn't appear that any group in the City will be sponsoring a debate, or even a candidates night for the four of us running for the three School Committee seats, I've decided to do one my self.

Please join me at the Newburyport Public Library on Tuesday, October 18th, from 6:30-8:30pm in the Program Room. I will be inviting the four candidates- Nick deKanter and myself, running for re-election; and Audrey McCarthy and Peter McClure, candidates for election. Although I am still working out the format, it will be an opportunity for the community to meet all of us, and ask us questions about our views.

I suppose it goes against conventional wisdom for the incumbent to create an opportunity for opponents to share the stage. I'm no fan of conventional wisdom; and I am deeply concerned that the voters get the chance to meet and question the candidates. I prefer an informed electorate, engaged, and challenging candidates.

Please join me- us, on the 18th.

A Generation of "Solutionaries"

I continue to be approached by people, every day, about the story in the Daily News about my testimony on waivers and mandatory PE. I am surprised by this; the story was a week ago. More than that, they have been expressing unconditional support for the ideas I have proposed.

One person, Elizabeth Marcus of Transition Newburyport, sent me the embedded link to a talk by Zoe Weill. I found the video eloquent. Actually, it is a lot more than that. It is the first time I have seen someone create a link between those 21st Century Skills that we all talk about for our children and educational system, and civics, ethics and morality. Putting those 21st century skills to a purpose that goes beyond competing in the global market- Weill challenges us to teach our children how to live intentionally in the world they will inhabit.

She suggests some very interesting ideas about how we can organize our curriculum, our systems for educating kids. Food for thought. Thank you Elizabeth. I would encourage Transition Newburyport to hold a workshop on education, soon. Soon.


Monday, September 26, 2011

PE Redux: Further Comments

As a result of a piece in the Boston Globe on the testimony I published in my last post about mandatory PE, it might help to offer some clarifications.

First, and foremost, my testimony was offered as that of a single member of the School Committee, in point of fact the Vice Chair, and I took great pains to make sure that was clear- that it did not reflect the School Committee as a whole, and did not reflect the opinions of any one else on the SC. The Globe did not make that clear, much as I appreciate their coverage. If you'd like to know if our School Committee, or any for that matter, feel the idea I proposed has merit, ask them. Ask Superintendents, as well.

I have.

However, there are other important things to clarify.

I am not opposed to PE, and certainly not opposed to wellness classes. In fact, I've long been an advocate for an expanded wellness curriculum, and have long publicly lamented the gradual erosion of curriculum/options in the PE classes themselves- so much of what we offered when I went to school is no longer a part of the PE curriculum- wrestling and gymnastics, for example. When given the one opportunity to support the addition of a new sport to be offered at the High School, Lacrosse, I voted to support it. Enthusiastically.

In encouraging the legislature to block mandatory PE in grades K-12, I offered an alternative that is a win-win for everyone- students, parents faculty. It is simply this. Allowing school systems to develop sharply proscribed high school level waivers that allow students participating in school sports at the high school to waive out of the PE requirement (not the wellness requirement), we would potentially open up a "hole" in the schedule of eligible students. Again, my proposal was that the waiver be limited to students who participate in school sports- which currently at Newburyport High School adds up to about 60% of the student body. Although a number of students participate vigorously and successfully in organized physical activity outside of school that exceeds the proposed statutory requirement within the school day - martial arts, swimming, and dance come to mind- I would need to see some way to measure the rigor and supervision of those activities before I would agree to make them criteria for waivers.

I see two critical values in doing this. First and foremost, it would allow schools to offer more sections of classes, and in fact, more electives for students at no additional cost. Increasingly, I am hearing from parents whose children are unable to take an academic elective like AP Physics or Honors Chemistry because neither the staff, the schedule, or the current PE requirements allow that to happen; in effect, we substitute 30 minutes of volleyball for those classes.

The second value intentionally reflected in my testimony was that the waiver, and potential reduction in traditional PE classes would free up the PE teachers to offer more health and wellness courses as electives. They could explore ideas like conditioning, or Yoga, meditation or Tai Chi. Better yet, it might be a way to offer as electives those sports that have all but disappeared from schools- fencing, dance, wrestling, gymnastics. A waiver system, limited but allowing those kids who are already getting their 30 minutes of physical activity a day through school sports, would potentially offer a broader array of academic, health and wellness, and physical education courses to choose from during the school day.

That seems to me to closer to a 21st century approach to education, than an arbitrary locking in of mandatory PE, without refining the options available for teachers and students.

This isn't about cutting teacher jobs, it's about expanding options in curriculum, health, wellness and physical education; it is about doing it in a way that doesn't cost school systems any more money.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Physical Education- Thinking Outside the Box

After being alerted to a couple of bills being considered by the MA Legislature this week about making Physical Education mandatory from K-12, I was able to put together some testimony for submission, and delivered it both in person and in writing.

Before I cut and paste it, a few caveats.

First and foremost, I strongly support PE, and it's larger context, health and wellness, as critical items in our curricula and in the lives of our students. I have voted numerous times over the past ten years to ensure that our PE, Health and Wellness offerings are expanded at every level, and become an integral part of our student life and academic trajectory.

Secondly, the proposed bills did not allow for a waiver process through which students participating in school organized sports could "waive out" of the PE requirements, by dint of their efforts in the sport. In reality, the amount of physical activity involved in training for any of the sports offered at the High School far exceeds the minimum mandated by these bills. If we are to face the 21st Century with anything approaching a competitive attitude, we need to find ways to celebrate what our kids are doing at times and in places that go beyond the walls of the school. We have kids who are putting in 12 hours a week training for cross country, we have kids competing at the state level in activities like martial arts, fencing, dance- all without
getting any real credit from the schools.

Thirdly, the offering of a waiver for participating in school-sponsored sports, which could potentially affect the 60% of Nbpt High School kids doing sports, would free up time in the schedule to allow them to take more classes, especially at the AP and Honors level; it would free up PE teacher time to offer a broader range of electives in areas not currently being offered. In short, it makes great sense.

My testimony:
Testimony on H 1053, S 216
September 20, 2011
Bruce Menin, Vice Chair Newburyport School Committee

I want to thank you for the opportunity to offer testimony on the Bills before you, H 1053 and S 216. I appreciate the effort that has gone into addressing many of the issues contained in those bills.

My name is Bruce Menin, and I’ve served as an elected member of the Newburyport School Committee for ten years, the last two as Vice Chair. Please note that this testimony is not offered as the “official position” of the School Committee as a whole; neither does it reflect the opinion of any other School Committee member. I do believe, however, that my tenure on the Committee, my experience as a teacher, and my role as the parent of two students in the public school system give me a level of practical experience, some clarity and hopefully wisdom on the substance of the bill.

I urge you to oppose the statutory mandate of Physical Education courses as part of the curriculum for students; better yet, I encourage you to amend the bill to allow school systems to grant PE waivers in the high school if a student is participating in organized scholastic sports.

In my ten years as a School Committee member, I have always strongly supported wellness curricula at every grade level, and fully endorse the value of vigorous physical activity at every grade level. My concern with this bill stems from what I see as a growing problem- and has become an “on-the-ground” reality for parents and students. The current requirements for PE at the High School prevent a growing number of students from taking additional courses that would better prepare them for college, and for competing in the global economy. Locking in the mandate suggested by this bill will only compound that problem for us, and society. We teach to each student according to their gifts and challenges, and yet we have had to tell more students every year that because of the stagnant Chapter 70 reimbursement formula, and the burden that places on cities like Newburyport to either find new money every year, or make cuts in our school budgets, we cannot staff and cannot fit into their schedule courses like AP Chemistry or AP Physics. Already, existing requirements for PE make scheduling very difficult; the mandate imposed by this bill compounds that problem. In Newburyport, 60% of students at our High School participate in inter-scholastic sports, so we are talking about a significant number of students impacted by this bill.

There is a very bittersweet irony here. Parents in Newburyport, and other communities now pay to have their kids participate in sports. If we were willing to value those sports as a substitute for a token Physical Education requirement of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, we would enable students to put together an academic schedule that offers greater challenge and rigor.

We have also found that the scheduling intricacies of accommodating these PE courses in High School often results in the insertion of a study hall in a preceding or succeeding semester so that the gym requirement is met. In effect, we limit the academic choices some of our students can make so that they can play volleyball during the school day, and then further compound that problem by giving them a study hall so that their schedule aligns with a gym class the following semester. And, we essentially ignore the clear value of those sports that they are doing, whether they are sanctioned or not.

A way to address this would be to allow School systems to offer Physical Education waivers in those circumstances where students participate in a school sanctioned or organized sport. While that wouldn’t begin to address an ancillary problem- we have students who are competing at the highest levels in non-school sanctioned sports or physical activities- swimming, martial arts, dancing- who receive no credit for that, yet are still required to fit Physical Education into a High School schedule.

My best guess, after ten years on the School Committee, is that a waiver would not only free up critical schedule time for academic courses, but it would also enable current PE teachers to offer a wider range of wellness electives as part of the overall curriculum at the high school. I believe those courses will be as critical as anything else we do during the school day. In fact, it might free up PE instructors to offer more diverse PE courses during the day as electives- fencing, or wrestling, yoga or dance. Allowing waivers for student athletes actually encourages the kind of physical activity this bill purports to value. It builds on what is already a strength in many school systems.

Telling a student athlete, who works out 2 hours a day to compete at a school sponsored sport, or a non-sponsored sport, that we can’t work AP physics into their schedule because they are required to take PE so that we can ensure they get 30 minutes of physical activity per day is simply not the way to prepare MA students for the future. Offering them half a credit for that participation, with a mandated requirement that they also take a full HS PE load along with it is not a courageous step into the 21 Century.

In the ten years I have been on the school committee, we’ve gone from offering a free public education, to one that is forced to charge fees for participation in virtually every extra-curricular activity, including organized school sports. That is also not a constructive direction to be going in. To essentially ignore the value of that sport as part of the academic record of a student makes little sense; it misses an opportunity to build a well-rounded student taking a more rigorous and flexible schedule.

The idea of a waiver around Physical Education for High School students, contingent on meeting a clearly proscribed set of alternative options, has been a part of the California State Board of Education Statutes for several years.

We can do much better than this, by allowing school systems to grant waivers from the traditional PE courses to those students who often exceed the minimal standards of 30 minutes of activity by participating in inter-scholastic sports. A PE waiver for student athletes is sensible, it celebrates their accomplishments on the field and in the gyms while enhancing their ability to take the kinds of courses that will change their lives, and probably our own, in the future. Please consider amending this bill to allow for waivers, or not sending this bill as constituted to the full legislature for consideration. I ask this as the parent of a student athlete- celebrate her achievements on cross country fields, and allow her to take the classes she feels will give her the future she wants. Allow our school system to offer those classes. A simple waiver crediting her for the work she has done after-school- work which requires her to exceed the minimal expectation of 30 minutes of activity a day by 400%, six days a week throughout the school year, would accomplish both.

Thank you.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Let's Play Two- Running for Re-Election

That was what Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cubs legend used to say at the beginning of each baseball game. It reflected his love for the game, his appreciation for being able play baseball for a living.

I'd like to play two- or actually, four. I am running for re-election. If the voters approve, I would be starting my fourth term. When I first joined the School Committee ten years ago, I didn't expect that I would be sticking around. The majority of School Committee members have been "four and out" over the last decade- up until this year, Steve Cole and I have been the only two SC members to seek re-election. That small club has one more member this year, Mr. de Kanter.

In 2000, I ran as a "reformer"- as an advocate for the students, for the staff- for the schools. I believed then that we had a lot of work to do- some of it structural, some of it cultural. Change takes time. Changing institutional culture takes a lot of time. I know that now. When people have asked me how I might characterize my experience on the School Committee, over the years, I've often jokingly said it's been like riding shotgun on a glacier.

However, I remain optimistic about our future. About the quickening pace of change. About the renewed energy I see, the thoughtfulness and intention and commitment I see from the staff at the schools, the growing engagement of parents. I want to continue to be part of what I have called "this conversation about who we are as a city, as a society" that is reflected in the schools we offer to our children.

I think consistency is important, and that continuity has a value. But even though I believe they are good words to describe my experience on the School Committee, those aren't the reasons I am asking people to vote for me. I would like to return to the SC because I still believe there is much to do, and much to accomplish. I believe I have the energy and aptitude to remain part of that process.

In the ten years I've been privileged to serve on the School Committee, I've worked with five principals at the High School. Five Superintendents. Four Mayors. That is no way to cultivate leadership, to encourage innovation, to reward creativity. To my way of thinking, it is a rationale for complacency. Don't like what this principal wants me to do, or what this Superintendent thinks we should prioritize? Let's just wait. There'll be another one here soon enough- this one will be gone, and we'll still be here. You've heard it before, and not just about the schools- you've heard city employees saying it about the two-year Mayors.

But things are changing. The influence of our new Superintendent, Dr. Marc Kerble, is being felt at every level of our schools, and across the community. I was part of negotiating three consecutive one-year contracts with the teachers- within 5 weeks of Dr. Kerble's arrival, the SC and the Teacher's Union had agreed to a reasonable three-year deal. That isn't a coincidence.

Dr. Kerble has helped us to focus on student achievement, and challenged us to find the resources to improve in that area. But he didn't go hat-in hand to the Mayor and City Council during the last budget process. He encouraged our staff to rethink how we do our business, Dr. Kerble was able to find additional savings in the budget as it existed.

A person who encouraged me to run for another term reminded me that if I am re-elected, I will have served long enough to have been part of the renovation at the High School, the Nock-Molin, and the rebuilding of the Bres. They suggested that would be a marvelous legacy.

I don't see that as my "legacy."

My "legacy" includes voting to remove our world language program from the elementary school, and then the middle school- and coincidentally, both votes literally took the program away from own daughter. My legacy is cutting teachers at the High School, it is serving on the Committee that was forced to reorganize and close a building to ensure that the system survived.

Right now, that's the work to be done. I don't want to minimize the importance of the two building projects coming up, but the prize that my eyes are on has to do with moving our schools, teachers, administrators, students, parents and community into the 21st century. That work has just begun.

I ask you to allow me to continue to rebuild what the economy, my own votes, have forced our schools to become- places that offer the best education possible, but have significant challenges ahead keeping up with the demands of the 21st Century.

I'm still motivated. I am still jazzed by the work. I don't see the School Committee as a step towards any other elective office. It is the work I want to do, that I feel best suited for.

Over the coming weeks, I will be writing more on this blog- looking at the issues we face, and sharing my own thinking on how to approach them. Those of you who know, understand I will not shy away from taking positions I believe to in the best interest of our students and the schools.

I ask for your vote on election day.

Thanks. It has been an honor, and a privilege to serve.