This site aims to inform and mobilize Beverly parents to take an active role in all issues related to the funding and operation of the city's schools. It was launched in the spring of 2008, when the city saw its first-ever override attempt fail, followed by the closure of a nearly-new elementary school. Subsequent years have seen further cuts that have led to larger class sizes across the district. While the opening of an impressive new high school and plans to replace the city's aging middle school give us reason to be optimistic, the school community must be ever vigilant in demanding appropriate school funding by city and state governments, and better community communications from the district and School Committee.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Council, Committee OK Middle School Statement

The City Council tonight, following a similar vote last week by the School Committee, unanimously approved a resolution allowing the city to submit a Statement of Interest for a new middle school to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).  While the statement will mention the city's hopes to make the school a 5-8 model, and locate it at the site of the Memorial Building, the vote does not bind the city to any particular structure or timetable. The statement will be worded primarily to discuss the issues with Briscoe that make it unsuitable for sustained use as the city's middle school, and state that the city wishes to work with the MSBA on a plan for its eventual replacement.

Most members of the Council were mainly interested in assuring that this was just the first step in the process, and that it did not lock the city into any particular plan.

Mayor Scanlon, in discussing the process that would occur if the MSBA accepted this initial step, gave a timeline that seemed even more distant than previously stated, saying that if all goes as planned, construction could "begin in 2017, and the school could open in 2019."

The MSBA application period is narrow ending on January 11, and if the city misses this opportunity, it could be years before there is another, further delaying any potential building project.

Both last Wednesday's School Committee meeting, and tonight's City Council meeting where the statement was discussed and voted on were streamed live on BevCam's website, and are available for viewing in their online archive.  BevCam plans to do this for all future City Council and School Committee meetings that are held at City Hall, making it much easier for citizens to view these meetings at their convenience.

12/20 UPDATE: Today's Salem News has more on the vote.

Friday, December 9, 2011

State Weighs in on Middle School Plan

Today's Salem News reports that the state is warning Beverly not to get too far ahead of them in developing a plan for a new middle school:
A state official is warning Beverly not to develop a "wish-list mentality" in its quest to build an expanded new middle school that would include fifth-graders.

Massachusetts School Building Authority Chief of Staff Matthew Donovan said officials should not be pitching a plan to build a more expensive school before they even know if the city qualifies for state aid.

"They come to us and tell us what the problem is, not the solution," Donovan said. "Don't come to us with a whole reconfiguration plan."

Donovan's criticism comes as Beverly is preparing to submit a "statement of interest" to the Massachusetts School Building Authority by a Jan. 11 deadline for communities seeking state aid for school building projects.
Donovan told the News that communities should not be developing their own plans independently, a practice that contributed to massive cost overruns in the past and shut down the state's previous school building assistance program.
"The former program ran up $11 billion in debt," Donovan said. "Cities and towns were doing their own thing and leaving the bill to the state. Now we build the most cost-appropriate schools."
Mayor Scanlon, says he plans to include the concept of a 5-8 school in the city's application to the MSBA but said it is nonbinding.
"To submit a lengthy statement of interest and not express your best current thinking is inappropriate," Scanlon said. "It seems to me they ought to understand as much as they can about our thinking. We're trying to be as informative with the MSBA as possible."
While the Committee has stated that the Statement of Interest can be amended later, its been vague on how specific the description of the school's structure will be in the statement.  The News states that Wednesday's vote will be to "endorse the statement of interest," but quotes Committee President Annemarie Cesa as saying "a vote on whether to officially adopt the fifth-grade middle school plan is still a ways off."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Middle School Model Debated at Forum

Last night in the cafeteria of the 90-year-old Briscoe Middle School, the School Committee held a public forum to present the reasoning behind its proposal to make the eventual replacement to Briscoe a 5-8 school, rather than the current 6-8.

The audience of about 50 included most members of the City Council, who will have to vote later this month on a Statement of Interest to the State for funding a new building.  While the statement will not bind the city to any particular model, it will suggest that 5-8 is the city's preferred direction.

The meeting opened with a presentation by Committee Vice-President Maria Decker, who led the subcommittee that researched and recomended the 5-8 plan.  The presentation provided a thorough summary of the process and research that led them to this model, and the benefits of the plan, as well as discussing all the possible alternative approaches, and why they were rejected.

Today's Salem News has more on the meeting:
The project would cost about $40 million, according to School Committee member Maria Decker, but the price tag would go up 10 or 15 percent if the building were to include fifth-graders.

Decker, who chaired the subcommittee that has recommended the grade five-through-eight model, cited several advantages to moving fifth-graders out of the elementary schools and into the middle school. Fifth-graders would benefit from the technology that would be included in a new building and would have access to more courses and extracurricular activities, she said.

The move would also free up space at the elementary schools, which are so crowded that science rooms are being used for non-science instruction. The change would also create more room for preschool and full-day kindergarten classes and allow some special education students to stay in Beverly rather than being sent to more costly out-of-district programs.

The new middle school would be divided into a lower school for grades five and six and an upper school for grades seven and eight.
After the presentation, members of the audience questioned the committee on various aspects of the plan. The format was less formal, and seemingly more effective, than the usual budget forums where audience members speak at a podium, and the committee listens, but does not respond from the stage.

The committee members sat with the audience and listened to near universal support for a new middle school, but a mix of support and concern for adding 5th graders to the model, and responded to their questions.

Most of the concern centered around mixing 10-year-olds with 14-year-olds.  Even though the plan calls for physical separation of the 5th and 6th graders from the 7th and 8th graders, some still were worried about times when the grades would mix, such as on the bus, and in the cafeteria.

Briscoe Middle School Principal Matthew Poska, who also served on the subcommittee, acknowledged many of the audiences concerns, but suggested that the long window before the school would come online, gives the district plenty of time to work out these types of details.

One audience member spoke strongly against spending additional money for a larger middle school building to alleviate overcrowding at the elementary schools, when a nearly new elementary school (McKeown) a block away sits idle due to budget constraints. The school is currently being leased to the Northshore Education Consortium as an alternative secondary school, and the district now counts on its rental income, as well as seeing it as a way to keep Beverly students that need such services closer to home.

The full committee plans to vote on the proposal at its meeting next Wednesday, and seem likely they will support it. The City Council plans to vote on December 19th.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wednesday Community Meeting on Middle School

Reminder to all parents that there will be a community meeting tomorrow night in the Briscoe cafeteria to discuss the proposed new middle school, specifically the plan to make the new school a grades 5-8 model, rather than the current 6-8. The meeting starts at 7:00 pm.

Those of you who follow this website regularly know most of the details of the plan, (see previous six posts) but it is still news to much of the community. To bring everyone else up to speed, the proposal originally grew out of last year's facilities subcommittee, part of the administration's Strategic Planning Committee.
The report, which was completed last spring recommends the following middle school structure:

The proposed long-term solution is based on where we as a district want to go, with a solid foundation in educational principles. The school committee and administration support the following:
  • One grade 5-8 middle school at expanded, updated Memorial, subdivided into a Lower Middle School of 2-person teams for grades 5 and 6, and an Upper Middle School of 4-person teams for grades 7 and 8.
It was put on the front burner in the past month, as the district began working toward a January deadline to submit a Statement of Interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for funding assistance on the new school. In order to complete the proposal, the district needs to know the approximate size and structure of the school.

When it appeared that the School Committee planned to vote on the plan last month, before it was ever reported in the press or widely known in the community, we were able to persuade them to put off the vote for a few weeks in order to hold this community meeting.

There are two documents that give more details of the plan.  The most recent is the officially released  summary of the plan that the district put out two weeks ago. This summary outlines the proposed school structure, and details the rationale and benefits of the plan.

A second more detailed document is the original facilities report. While we were given this report by the School Committee, it has not been officially released by the district, in part because it contains other recommendations, such as the conversion of Hannah School to a Pre-K and Kindergarten school.  The committee and administration have stated that this part of the recommendation is not being considered "at this time."

But this document also details six other structures that were considered before deciding on this one, as well as presenting many more details of the research behind the proposal. We feel it is important information for the public to have in analyzing the proposal.

When the concept of a 5th grade at the middle school was included in last year's survey, less than 40% of the public supported the idea. While we believe that result was largely because the concept was new, and presented with little context, the result underscores how important it is for the public to fully understand, and ask questions about the plan.

While none of these changes are expected to happen for at least five years, parents of current upper elementary and middle school students are in a unique position to offer their persective on how they believe their children, who are that age now, would adapt to such a plan. And parents whose children are just starting their elementary years could be the first group to attend the new school.

If you are in either of these groups, please try to attend Wednesday's meeting.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Press Finally Reports on 5th Grade Plan

Today's Salem News belatedly reports on the plan to move 5th graders to the middle school. The front-page story doesn't add much in the way of new details to what has been reported on this site (see previous 5 posts), or the summary that was posted earlier this week on the district website, but it explains some of what the administration says are the academic and structural benefits of the plan to the community at large.
[Superintendent] Galinski said several Massachusetts school districts have a grade five-to-eight middle school configuration, including Swampscott. She said the move would allow for "more appropriate social/emotional programming" for fifth-graders as they enter puberty, and for sixth-graders to be paired with fifth-graders who are more like them.

"Sixth-graders are not like seventh- and eighth-graders," she said.

School Committee Vice President Maria Decker, who chaired the committee that recommended the proposal, said the change has many advantages, including allowing fifth-graders to participate in extracurricular activities like band and chorus and providing them with daily science instruction.

The move would also free up space at the elementary schools, which Galinski said are "bursting at the seams." That would create room for the expansion of special education programs and allow some students to stay in Beverly rather than being sent to more costly out-of-district programs, she said.

"We'd have to build the building bigger (to accommodate fifth-graders), but in general there would be cost savings if we could bring students back from special education placements," Galinski said.
The plan also has an unlikely supporter in George Binns, a vocal critic of recent city and school district policies including the new high school:
"To my thinking, fifth-graders would do better with subject-oriented teachers than with the generalists you tend to have in the elementary schools,"
Binns, a former teacher and school committee member, served on the subcommittee that drew up the plan.

The story also discusses the other controversial recommendation in the original facilities report—the conversion of Hannah School to an Early Childhood Center (ECC)—but repeats the administration's earlier assurances that this part of the plan is not currently being considered "at this point":
The facilities committee has also recommended turning Hannah School into an early childhood center for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes and redistricting elementary students among the four remaining elementary schools. But Galinski said only the middle school proposal is being considered at this point.

"There are many concerns around closing elementary schools," she said. "That's not even a discussion item right now. We do need a middle school. That's the most imminent project."
Aside from the concerns about the rushed process that we have covered ad nauseam over the last couple weeks, the most often expressed concern we have heard within the community centers around busing of 5th graders with 7th and 8th graders.

There will be a community meeting December 7th at 7:00pm in the Briscoe cafeteria, and the school committee now plans to vote on the plan a week later.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

District Releases "Summary" of Middle School Plan

Nearly a week after the School Committee had planned a vote to approve a grade 5-8 alignment as the future middle school model for the city, the district has released a condensed version of the facilities report, the first public airing of the plan. The 4-page summary outlines the recommendation of the subcommittee, along with the rationale for choosing this model, but lacks the detail into the other models that were examined; any discussion of changes to the lower elementary program; or the frank description of Briscoe's condition that were contained in the original Facilities Subcommitee Report that we posted last week.

In a letter of introduction to the report on the district website, Superintendent Galinski writes:
Although there were recommendations for elementary configurations in the [original] report, the only configuration that is being considered at this time is a middle school configuration for grades 5-8.  The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) has opened a window of opportunity to submit "statements of interest" (SOI) for districts who wish to conduct building projects in the future.  The window will be opened until January.
The report's recommendation reads as follows:
The proposed long-term solution is based on where we as a district want to go, with a solid foundation in educational principles. The school committee and administration support the following:
  • One grade 5-8 middle school at expanded, updated Memorial, subdivided into a Lower Middle School of 2-person teams for grades 5 and 6, and an Upper Middle School of 4-person teams for grades 7 and 8.
The letter also states that the School Committee will hold an informational meeting on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 7:00 PM in the Briscoe cafeteria to give community members a chance to ask questions and share concerns about the plan with the Committee.

While many community members we have spoken with seem inclined to support the plan, most agreed that the speed at which it was being pushed toward a vote with an absence of public notice was troubling, as was the resistance, among some committee members, for allowing the public time to digest and comment on the report. We commend Committee President Annemarie Cesa for hearing our concerns, and slowing down the process enough to allow the public an opportunity to weigh in and understand the reasoning behind the recommendation, and its implications.

The two newspapers that cover the city have yet to mention the plan.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Media Drops the Ball on School Coverage

One of the explanations by the School Committee as to how a plan as consequential as the middle school realignment could have progressed to the brink of a vote with so little public awareness is that the newspapers no longer attend their meetings.

President Annemarie Cesa has stated that she invited both the Salem News and Beverly Citizen to all three committee meetings this week, as well as several earlier Committee of the Whole meetings at which the plan was discussed.  They attended none, and have yet to write a word about the plan.

And while the monthly public meetings at City Hall are televised by BevCam, it's the working Committee of the Whole, and Finance & Facility meetings at which much of the discussion about major initiatives such as this are worked out.  These meetings, while public, are held in a small meeting room at the Memorial Building that isn't at all inviting for public attendance, and are not televised. And the public is rarely aware of the agenda, unless it specifically affects their school or program.

In the past, these meetings were generally covered by the newspapers. Until recently the Salem News had a reporter dedicated to the schools that attended most meetings, and would have followed up on a plan such as this much sooner. That position was eliminated several years ago for budgetary reasons.  Since then the general Beverly reporter (who is reportedly on unpaid furlough himself this week as a cost-savings move) has covered any school stories that come to the paper's attention, as well as just about every other story in the city.

The Citizen's reporting has been spotty for years, sometimes missing stories completely.

The situation is not unique to Beverly. Dan Kennedy, a nationally-recognized media critic and blogger who resides in Danvers has written often of the sorry state of community newspapers, and specifically the repeated cuts by the parent companies of both the Citizen and the Salem News. Just this week, Kennedy posted the story of James Craven, a laid off Gatehouse Media (the Citizen's parent company) reporter, who blogged a farewell diatribe on the newspaper's website that summed up the effects of repeated cuts to local media on public awareness of local government:
The late Philip Meyer put it best when he observed that the decay of newspaper journalism creates problems not just for the business but also for society. The problem is basic: to make democracy work, citizens need information.
The end result, if you will, is that as news staffs are cut, the responsibility for staying informed will fall more to you – the reader. If a reporter cannot be at a Harbor Commission meeting, a Finance Commission meeting or even a meeting of the City Council, then you – Joe Citizen – will have to be there.
No more watching Dancing with the Stars, taking time to read a good book or spending time with the youngsters. After work, you will have to head for those civic meetings where decisions are made that might change your life, because, if you do not go – who will?
But blaming the media or the community for the lack of awareness of this plan is a bit of a dodge on the committee's part.  If they truly wanted broad public input into this plan, there were many methods at their disposal to get it out: district website, connect-ed, or issuing a press release (which some press outlets would have printed verbatim).

Going forward, the Committee needs to acknowledge that the mainstream media no longer has the resources to cover the schools as they once did, and find their own methods to better communicate to the public.

The story got out when we posted it, because this website is well connected to the community's social media structure.  We post a story, share it with our network and on Twitter, and within hours, those sources have shared it further, and it is public knowledge. But we never aimed to be the voice of the school district or a breaking news source, but rather a way for the community's views on school issues to be shared.

At Wednesday's School Committee meeting, Cesa brought up our suggestion of a committee or district Facebook page, and most committee members seemed resistant to the idea. But we were pleased to hear Assistantant Superintendent Maryellen Duffy later state that the Boston Public Schools were having good results with their Facebook page.  They use the site for sharing, not just school committee news, agendas, and meeting times, but all type of information about the district and its schools.

Beverly has a high school that is aspiring to be a technological leader, and doing a pretty good job of it. The school's athletic department has made very effective use of social media over the past year, sharing game information, scores, and photos. The high school administration is embracing it as well. There is no reason the school committee and district administration can't too.

Many in this community care deeply about our school system and want to be involved. But we don't always have the time to ferret out information or attend every working school committee meeting. In the age of social media, and with a diminished mainstream press, the district needs to embrace the technology that exists for getting news out, and encouraging public awareness.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Council Also Questions Transparency of Process

At a sparsely attended (estimated at less than 20 people) joint City Council/School Committee meeting last night at the high school, Council members appeared as surprised as we were about the 5-8 middle school plan they were handed. Council President Mike Cahill sharply criticized the openness of the process; Pat Grimes seemed incredulous that they were just finding out about this report now when it was completed last Spring; and Jim Latter focused on the additional cost of building a four-grade middle school vs. a three-grade building, asking "will this increase capital costs by 33%?"

Prior to the meeting, School Committee President Annemarie Cesa informed us that she would delay tonight's vote by a couple weeks in order to allow the public a chance to digest the proposal, and schedule a public forum or focus group. She stated last night that a focus group would be tentatively scheduled for December 6, and a vote a week later.

Score one for the power of social media, and thanks to everyone who shared yesterday's post, and helped convince the Committee to slow down and open up the process. Based on the City Council's reaction last night, we think they may have put the brakes on any rushed vote, anyways.

The poor attendance last night was due in large part to the fact that there was virtually no public notice of the meeting by either the School Committee or the City Council.  It was on the School Committee's meeting list, which is on a PDF three levels deep on the district website and often inaccurate (no mention of this past Monday's meeting). And we could find no mention of it on the City's website at all. There were also at least two PTO meetings that conflicted, and a meeting at City Hall about the downtown parking garage that some councilors attended instead.

We look forward to having at least two new City Council members, Brett Schetzsle @BrettWard6 and Jason Silva @JaSizz, who are adept at social media to teach city government some better methods of communications.

11/17 UPDATE: At Wednesday night's School Committee meeting, the middle school plan was  discussed some more.  It's clear that the committee has backed off a bit from their aggressive timetable, and will include time for community input, although they still want to meet the January deadline for submission to the MSBA.

President Cesa and Superintendent Galinski also attempted to clarify the elementary school aspects of the plan that we posted last week. They say that the Early Education Center is not on the table at this point, if ever.  While it was part of the discussion and recommendation of the subcommittee, it was not "moved forward" by the administration as a proposal. The current discussion, and vote, will look solely at changes to the middle school model. There will be benefits to the elementary schools from this part of the plan, they say,  by freeing up space in each of the elementary buildings.  But any restructuring of the Pre-K-K grades is not under consideration.

Still, many in the community feel that to fully weigh the benefits and risks of changing the middle school structure, any future changes proposed to the entire Pre-K-8 model must be considered at the same time.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Committee Set to Vote on 5-8 Middle School Model

After discussing the proposed 5th-8th grade middle school model before about 15 audience members at last night's monthly working meeting, the School Committee seems intent on voting to approve the plan at its public meeting this Wednesday.

Discussion of the plan, which was proposed by the Strategic Planning Facilities Subcommittee last Spring, has become more urgent as Mayor Scanlon has begun to work toward a January deadline to submit a "statement of interest" to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

While Scanlon says that the statement is not the final word on what the school's structure will be, he says that the committee should aim to get "as close as possible" to what they think they want the school to be.

Two of the members of the subcommitteee, Briscoe Principal Matt Poska, and Ayers Principal Susan Charochak  answered some of the committee's questions about the academic and social benefits and/or risks of moving 5th graders to a middle school environment.

Poska explained that the plan would be to separate the 5th & 6th grades from the 7th & 8th grades in two smaller school environments within a single building. He pointed to his hometown of Swampscott as an example of another local community that uses the 5-8 model.

From the report:
With four grades, the larger middle school is more cost effective, while the smaller school aspect (lower and upper divisions) allows for academic, social, and behavioral benefits.  The upper/lower configuration allows for improved social/emotional support for adolescent students; it enables them to be in daily contact with adults who know the pre-teen/teenaged student well, take an interest in them, and provide them with both academic and emotional support.  This model provides a balance between a nurturing environment and academic rigor.
Superintendent Galinski said she believes that 5th graders have more in common with 6th graders than they do with 4th graders.

Vice President Maria Decker, who led the subcommittee that proposed it, was the most aggressive in pushing for the plan's quick approval. David Manzi also stated that he had heard enough, and was "ready to vote."

But while most other members seemed generally supportive of the plan, they were a bit more cautious. Kris Silverstein and Karen Fogarty said they wanted to be sure that all the other options had been fully considered, and that the relevant academic and social questions had been asked.

They wondered about teacher certification, loss of unstructured time (recess) for 5th graders, the loss of the Elementary Enrichment Center for 5th graders, and the general adaptability of 10 year-olds transitioning to this environment.

Paul Manzo and Mayor Scanlon discussed the added benefits of freeing up space in the elementary schools, which have become maxed out since the closing of McKeown in 2008, and suggested that it would make it easier to equalize class sizes and other perceived inequities across the district. And Committee President Annemarie Cesa reminded members that they needed to be mindful of the community's involvement in the plan.

But Decker seemed dismissive to other members of the committee or the audience who questioned any of the report's findings, asked to discuss how the structure of the elementary schools would figure in, or suggested that the community was not fully aware of the plan.

Silverstein attempted to tie together the other aspects of the overall report, which also recommended converting one of the elementary schools (most likely Hannah) to an early education center.  She was rebuffed by Decker, who stated that "only the middle school is on the table tonight."

Decker said that the plan had been discussed at PTO meetings since last winter, so it should not be a surprise to the community. Early on in the meeting, she stated that this was the "final" meeting to discuss the plan.

But most in the audience, many among the most active members of the school community, said they were surprised that the plan was this close to being voted on and becoming the official direction of the district. And several active PTO members (including two PTO presidents) have said that they had either not heard about the plan at their meetings at all, or in a very cursory manner, not as any type of accepted action plan.

While the plans for a new middle school became a major topic during the recent election, to our knowledge there was never any discussion of the school's structure. And press reports on the middle school plan have made no mention of any change from the current 6-8 model.

The report has not even been officially released by the district, and the first glimpse most members of the community had of it, was when we posted it last Friday on this website.

Despite this, Cesa says the Committee plans to vote on the plan at their meeting this Wednesday (7pm at City Hall, and televised live on BevCam). The City Council would also need to vote on the matter before the proposal is submitted to the state.

The plan will be discussed at tonight's joint City Council/School Committtee meeting at the high school at 7pm, which will be televised live on BevCam. Community members may have an opportunity to ask questions.

The report itself is well documented and the plan may indeed be the most sustainable and academically beneficial structure for the district moving forward. But some members' view that discussion of the plan among themselves, and within the limited audience of a few PTO meetings is the same as broad notice to the community is troubling.

Please take some time to read and become familiar with the report, and if you have any questions or concerns about the plan,  contact your school committee representative right away.

11/15/11 UPDATE: Annemarie Cesa has informed us that she will delay the vote in order to allow time to organize a focus group or other opportunity for the community to discuss the proposal.  She has tentatively scheduled that for December 6th with a vote planned for the following week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

District Considering 5-8 Middle School Structure

The district is reportedly looking closer at a plan that would ultimately move 5th graders to the middle school, when a replacement for Briscoe is built.

The proposal originally grew out of the facilities subcommittee recomendation [READ THE REPORT], which was part of the Strategic Planning initiative. It was also the subject of one of the questions in last year's Budget Shortfall Survey.

The discussion is being fast-tracked now, as the city is looking at a January deadline for submission of a "statement of intererst" to the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authoriy) to get on the list for state funding for the project. In order to put together the statement, the school's configuration and size must be determined. Mayor Scanlon has estimated that the project could begin in as soon as 4 years

The topic will be discussed in detail at Monday night's School Committee of the Whole meeting at Memorial at 7pm.  The middle school project will also be a topic at Tuesday night's Joint School Committee/City Council meeting that will take place at the BHS auditorium at 7pm. 

As this is a potentially major restructuring, we urge community members to take an early interest in the discussions to assure that the move is academically—as well as fiscally—sound.

Here is some research on various middle school models, including the proposed 5-8.

11/11 UPDATE:  We have just posted the full Strategic Planning Committee Facilities Usage report that was completed last spring.  This is the report that will be discussed at Monday night's meeting, and recommends the 5-8 middle school model in addition to other structural changes that include the long talked-about Early Childhood Center for preK-K.  Its an interesting and well-documented report, but contains some frank and troubling details about the condition of Briscoe.  Take some time to read it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Scanlon Holds On; Kavanagh Takes Ward 4

Mayor Scanlon beat off his toughest challenge in years to beat City Council President Mike Cahill by just over 350 votes tonight.

The final tally was Scanlon 5468, Cahill 5115.  The margin of victory of 52% to 48% was nearly identical to the results of the poll we conducted over the past two weeks, indicating that the school community's views were very much in line with the city as a whole.

In the other closely watched race for Ward 4 School Committee, Matt Kavanagh, who was heavily favored by school activists, soundly defeated Michael Gendre 1140 to 698.

And the City Council will have a dramatic new look this year, with several promising newcomers. The new council looks like this:

Council President: Paul Guanci
At Large: Jason Silva and Scott Dullea [both new members]
Ward 1: Maureen Troubetaris
Ward 2: Wes Slate
Ward 3: Jim Latter
Ward 4: Scott Houseman [new member]
Ward 5: Don Martin
Ward 6: Brett Schetzsle [new member]

The Beverly Citizen has the full numbers and details here.

Congratulations to Mayor Scanlon on his victory, and to Mike Cahill and his campaign manager Julie DeSilva, a great friend of this website, for running a positive and inspiring challenge.

11/9 UPDATE: Today's Salem News has more election coverage on the Mayor's race and City Council races and the Citizen has a full report.

Friday, November 4, 2011

School Community Still Split Over Mayor's Race

With the election only four days away, the campaign for Mayor between incumbent Bill Scanlon and challenger Mike Cahill has taken on a decidedly more combative tone. The race is also pitting some well known figures in the school community against each other, and many of the contributors to this website find themselves in opposing camps. (Disclosure: my business created the Cahill for Mayor website, and has assisted his campaign with communications and social media.)

The primary campaign was mostly cordial and the candidates often agreed on the issues and respectfully presented their differing management styles and visions of the office of Mayor. The general election, however, has turned more heated as Scanlon, who trailed Cahill in the primary voting, has attempted to define his opponent. His campaign has put out almost daily 4-color mailers touting his accomplishments (many of which we acknowledge), but also belittling Cahill's record, work ethic, and experience in often snarky tones reminiscent of some of his previous campaigns.

One particular charge that Scanlon and his supporters on the School Committee have attempted to make an issue of relates to Cahill's less than stellar attendance record at School Committee Finance and Facilities meetings, which they say Cahill appointed himself a member of.  

When asked to respond to this charge, Cahill explained to the Salem News that he "appointed himself to the committee when only one other councilor, Wes Slate, volunteered to serve. Cahill said his role was to cover for Slate when Slate could not attend." Cahill added that he has a near perfect attendance record in his primary responsibility as City Council President.
Much of the establishment within city government seems to be coalescing around Scanlon, with many actively campaigning for him. In a letter sent to both local newspapers as well as to Save Beverly Schools last week, four members each of the City Council and School Committee (Annemarie Cesa, Maria Decker, Karen Fogarty, David Manzi, Paul Guanci, Wes Slate, Maureen Troubetaris , and Kevin Hobin) endorsed Scanlon stating:
As elected members of the Beverly City Council and School Committee we have had the unique opportunity to work closely with both Mayoral candidates. We have been able to experience and see firsthand their work ethic, ability to work collaboratively, and their vision, drive, and tenacity. By far Mayor Bill Scanlon far exceeds his opponent in all of these areas.
Scanlon also received the endorsement of both the Salem News and Beverly Citizen.

But at least one School Committee member, Kris Silverstein, is on the record as supporting Cahill, saying:
"I am convinced that he will be able to carry Beverly into the future. He is collaborative and willing to harness the talent of those who have ideas that they are willing to put into action.  My experience with Mike is that even if we both don't agree with each other, we can engage in dialogue that is meaningful and leads us both to explore a situation more thoroughly. ... I believe that Mike's vision is inspiring and will bring Beverly the new energy we deserve."
Cahill also seems to have strong grass roots support, as evidenced by the lawn sign count across the city.

Both candidates have many supporters within the school community, some officially or unofficially working for one side or the other.

Given the personal involvement and split among our contributors and the school community, this website does not plan to endorse either candidate this year, as we did in the last election cycle.  We believe both men have made significant contributions to the city and its schools, and that both have strong plans for guiding the city for the next two years. The biggest difference we see is in management style and vision of the role of Mayor. We leave it up to our readers to weigh the pros and cons of each candidate, and come to an informed decision.

Below are videos, provided by BevCam of the two candidates' interviews from their Conversations with the Candidates series.

Mike Cahill

Bill Scanlon

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beverly Honored for Advanced Placement Program

Beverly High School was one of only 367 public schools in the nation to be selected by the College Board for inclusion on its second annual honor roll.  The list honors public school districts that have increased participation in AP courses while maintaining or improving scores.

Local, Beverly shares the honor with only two other districts: Marblehead and Masconomet, two of the areas most highly respected school systems.

Today's Salem News has more on the award:
The Beverly, Marblehead and Masconomet districts were all named to the second annual AP Honor Roll issued this week by the College Board, a not-for-profit organization that runs the AP program, which enables high school students to take college-level courses.

The honor roll is made up of districts that simultaneously get more students to take AP courses and improve or maintain test scores.

According to the College Board, Beverly has increased the number of students taking AP courses from 125 to 179 since 2009 while maintaining the percentage of students earning AP test scores of 3 or higher at 72 percent. That's down from 78 percent in 2009, but the College Board says a decline in scores can be expected if a program attracts a broader cross-section of students.

Districts that increase participation but still have more than 70 percent of AP students scoring a 3 or higher qualify for the honor roll. Most colleges in the United States give college credit or advanced placement for a score of 3 or above, according to the College Board.
The College Board is a not-for-profit membership organization committed to excellence and equity in education, whose mission is to connect students to college success and opportunity.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Focus on Ward 4 School Committee Race

In an election season that features Beverly's most competitive Mayor's race in recent memory, and a large slate of candidates for City Council, the one contested School Committee race, in Ward 4, has received scant attention in the press.

The race to fill the seat of retiring member Karen Fogarty features two newcomers, Matt Kavanagh and Michael Gendre.

Kavanagh is a Beverly attorney with three daughters in the Beverly schools, who previously served on the Beverly High School site council.

Gendre is a philosophy teacher at Middlesex Community College, and a member of Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, the group that was founded in 2008 to oppose the override. He has no children in the schools.

The two candidates recently sat down with BevCam's Conversation with the Candidates series. Both interviews are posted below, and provide a good introduction to the two candidates, and their views on the issues facing the schools over the next two years.  Take some time to watch.

Both candidates, as well as the City Council and Mayoral candidates will also appear this Wednesday night at the Candidate Night at the Cove Community Center. Click here for more information or to submit a question.

10/27 UPDATE: This week's Beverly Citizen has Q&A's with both Matt Kavanagh and Michael Gendre, and today's Salem News also profiles the race.

Matt Kavanagh

Michael Gendre

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Funding, Communications Focus of Survey

The district has posted what it calls a climate survey that it says "is part of an overall comprehensive plan to engage the Beverly community."

The survey, in many ways, seems to be leading to a new conversation about the level of financial support for the schools from the city. Some examples:
  • Increased funding to ensure quality education is important to me.
  • I understand that property values depend on the reputation of our schools.
  • Are you aware that more students are choosing to stay in Beverly schools for middle and high school. In 6th grade there are about 30 more students than in 7th or 8th grade. In 9th grade, there are 60 more students than in grades 10 to 12. More teachers will need to be hired to prevent increasing class sizes.
The survey then asks point-blank if you believe "the current funding level is adequate to meet this community's education needs."

The survey also asks about how well certain changes that were made over the past year were communicated to the public. Some examples:
  • The high school schedule was changed to a 4x4 Block.  Students take 4 classes on one day and 4 different classes on the next day.  This allows for more uninterrupted instructional time for each class. 
  • All 9th grade students now participate in a Freshman Academy.  This arranges students in teams like at the middle school to help them be successful in their first year in high school.
  • Food Services will continue to be provided in house.  Turning food services over to another provider would not have resulted in sufficient cost savings.
Please take the time to complete the survey, and if you get much of your information about the schools from this website, please give us a write-in vote in that category.

Friday, October 14, 2011

City to Formally Start Process to Replace Briscoe

Today's Salem News reports that the city will file a "statement of interest" with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), the first step in a process that Mayor Scanlon says will replace Briscoe Middle School with "the middle school of the future" at the site of the former Memorial Middle School on Cabot Street.

The middle school has been a major topic throughout the Mayoral campaign, with both Scanlon, and challenger Mike Cahill, agreeing that the project should be at the top of major initiatives for the city.

According to the News report:
Mayor Bill Scanlon told the School Committee Wednesday night that he will file a "statement of interest" with the Massachusetts School Building Authority seeking a state grant to help pay for the project, which has been estimated at $33 million.

The plans call for the expansion and renovation of the Memorial Building on Cabot Street into what Scanlon called "the middle school of the future." Scanlon said the MSBA began accepting new applications for school building projects on Oct. 3, and the city plans to submit its statement by the Jan. 11 deadline. 
The Memorial site is seen as the preferable location for the renovated school, not just because the existing building is newer than Briscoe, but because the overall site encompasses 17-acres compared to Briscoe's six, allowing for a much more expansive "campus." 

When the city's two middle schools were combined as a cost-cutting move in 2005, Briscoe was chosen because it was the larger of the two buildings. But the move was seen as temporary because the 100-year old building is, according to school committee member Paul Manzo, "a building that's way beyond its use."

In addition to whatever money can be secured from MSBA, Scanlon says that the city can now afford to finance its share of the project because it is close to retiring the debt from the elementary school renovation projects that were completed in the '90s.

Friday, September 23, 2011

MCAS Scores a Mixed Bag

The local media this week chose to look at the good news contained in the just released 2011 MCAS results: higher scores, and a narrowing of the achievement gap for high-needs students in 10th grade:

From the Salem News:
...Beverly High and North Shore Technical High in Middleton were commended for "narrowing proficiency gaps for high-needs students...

...Beverly Assistant Superintendent Maryellen Duffy said the state commended Beverly High for making strides in math with low-income students. Schools that were commended by the state had to meet certain improvement targets for low-income students for the past two years in math. 

"We have always met it in English/language arts," Duffy said. ...
Overall the progress at the high school looks good, with scores improving, and the school meeting AYP (adequate yearly progress) in all 4 categories (English & Math Aggregate and Subgroups).

But a closer look at the scores shows that the rest of the city's schools didn't fare as well, some showing lower scores than in 2010, particularly at the elementary level.

Briscoe improved scores slightly in all categories, but only rated AYP in English Aggregate, and is still rated as "Restructuring" in both English and Math.

All of the elementary schools missed AYP in multiple categories: Ayers missed all 4, and is listed as "Restructuring" for English; Centerville missed both Math categories for the 3rd straight year and is listed for "Corrective Action"; Cove also missed both Math categories for the 2nd straight year; North Beverly missed all 4 categories and its scores dropped in several categories.  It's listed as "Corrective Action" in English and "Restructuring" for Math. And Hannah, which had been the only school in the district to meet AYP in every category every year going back to 2004, not only missed AYP in all categories this year, but showed significant drops in scores compared to 2010 in aggregate and all subgroups.

Specific reports on the schools are shown here:

Ayers/Ryal Side
North Beverly
Briscoe Middle School
Beverly High School

Beverly is certainly not alone in its plight. A story in yesterday's Boston Globe stated that 82% of state schools missed the increasingly unrealistic targets, and it is a generally accepted view that the AYP targets, which require 100% of students to be proficient by 2014, are unachievable. The Federal Government has even begun to issue waivers from the targets to many states. [Note: Just this morning, President Obama announced a plan to exempt districts from some of the more unrealistic aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act, such as the AYP standard.]
That so many schools missed their targets for No Child Left Behind frustrated state education officials, who emphasized that the vast majority of the schools are doing a good job of educating the state’s children. Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, pointed out that MCAS scores at the majority of the schools this past spring either held steady or showed improvement.

But the federal law requires a more robust increase in scores, as all schools work toward a federal requirement of having all students — regardless of a learning disability or inability to speak English fluently — proficient by 2014.

“The federal [standard] is not helping us to distinguish who we should be the most concerned about,” Chester said in an interview before the results were released this afternoon at Lowell’s Murkland Elementary School.
But the significant drop in scores at Hannah and the lesser drop at North Beverly is particularly concerning, and underscores what many parents see as a connection between class size and MCAS scores. Last year was the first year that students in two of the grades tested at Hannah (3rd and 4th) had been compressed from 3 classes into 2, resulting in class sizes in the upper 20s. North Beverly's 5th grade was third in size projections (27) among the elementary schools that year.

Is it just a coincidence that these two schools saw the largest drop in scores the year after this consolidation? It's a question that parents bring up every Spring, but something the administration and school committee seem unwilling to acknowledge when putting together budgets.

9/24 UPDATE:  Here's another very interesting breakdown, provided by the Boston Globe, that shows grade by grade and school by school rankings compared to all other schools in the state.

9/29 UPDATE: The Beverly Citizen has more on the district's MCAS scores.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's Scanlon vs Cahill in November

In a somewhat surprising result, City Council President Mike Cahill finished ahead of Mayor Scanlon in today's primary election for Mayor, setting up a showdown between the two in November.  Tim Flaherty finished well back in third place.

The final vote tally was as follows:

Cahill: 2467
Scanlon: 2273
Flaherty: 1856
Marciano: 145

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mayoral Candidates Meet Again in Forum

For the second time in less than a week, and the final time before next Tuesday's primary, the candidates for Mayor met to debate the issues, including the state of the schools.  The questions this time were posed by  30 & Main, a group of future leaders (under age 40) formed recently by Beverly Main Streets.

The questions were thoughtful, and somewhat deeper than last week's newspaper sponsored debate. Again the candidates differed more on style than on substance. Both major challengers, Mike Cahill and Tim Flaherty vow to run a more open and transparent Mayor's office, but don't differ a great deal from Mayor Scanlon on priorities.

The toughest question on education concerned a recent Boston Magazine survey that rated Beverly schools 89th out of 135 Boston-area districts, hardly a resounding endorsement. The candidates were asked to "sell us on why Beverly public schools are the right choice for our children."

While not dismissing the results outright, the candidates attempted to put them in context, and agreed that we have a good school system, but must aim to make it better.

Scanlon suggested that as a city, Beverly has a steeper challenge in these types of surveys than smaller, more affluent towns, but said we still should strive to do better overall:
Within the sample that you cited, the city of Beverly is within the top third of the cities. Most of communities on there of course are towns. I’ve often said that Beverly is a city that thinks it’s a town, and I think pretty much everyone in Beverly wants to rank well against any of the towns. I think the impact of [the high school], now nearly complete, will help because it’s a better place for learning. And I think the project to do the middle school will certainly help because right now that school is very crowded.
Flaherty, who has four children in the Beverly schools, said that the curriculum could be improved, but that overall he thinks the schools are excellent and improving:
Speaking from experience, I know that they’re saying we’re 89th out of so many schools, while Manchester and Hamilton-Wenham are at 4 and 5 [actually 6th and 9th respectively this year], but to tell you the truth, I’d rather send my kids to Beverly public schools than Manchester or Hamilton-Wenham because I think that we have more to offer.
Cahill, a former teacher, said the Mayor needs to take a more active roll, and be a presence in the schools, and work better and more collaboratively with the Superintendent and School Committee:
What we need from our mayor is to be in there learning and celebrating what we are doing right because there is a lot of greatness in our schools. But then where we do fall short, we need to be honest with ourselves and we need to roll up our sleeves and we need to move towards greatness. 
The two debates, and the overall tone of the campaign, has been refreshing. The candidates and the sponsors of the debates have raised the level of discourse exponentially since previous election cycles. While there is not a great deal of difference in their positions, the ability for the community to hear an open and intelligent discussion of the range of issues facing the city has been welcome.

Yesterday's Salem News has a report on the Forum, and today's Beverly Citizen has a transcript of some of the questions and answers. The video, provided by BevCam is posted below in two parts.

Make sure you get out and vote in next Tuesday's primary.  Polls are open from 7am to 8pm.

Disclosure: my business created the Cahill for Mayor website, and has informally advised his campaign on communications and social media.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Candidates Agree on Need for New Middle School

Compared to recent Mayoral campaigns in this city, last night's debate was a polite affair. Only fringe candidate Rick Marciano stood in opposition to the majority of Mayor Scanlon's record. For challengers Mike Cahill and Tim Flaherty it was more a debate about management style, and each candidate's vision of where we go from here as a city.

On education, much of the talk centered on the need for a new middle school. Scanlon, who has already begun the early stages of planning to refurbish the Memorial Building as the city's middle school of the future, stated that "we're four years away from putting bricks and mortar down." Cahill and Flaherty agreed that the school should be the city's next major priority, but Flaherty seemed the more cautious of the three on that "aggressive" a timetable, and cautioned that the city must pay attention to the poor condition of Briscoe in the mean time. Cahill said that the city must aggressively pursue new growth to support the project.

On other education issues, Flaherty said we need to focus more on building maintenance and professional development for teachers and administrators, and worried that the schools were passing too many fees onto families: "Are we a public education or are we a private institution?"

Cahill said that he wanted to be a presence in the schools, and take an active roll in understanding where we were succeeding, and where we were falling short. He also stated that we have a wealth of opportunities to tap the "people power" of the city's private and secondary schools and our business community to expand learning opportunities in science, technology, and literacy.

Another candidates forum, sponsored by the group 30 & Main will be held next Tuesday at the high school, and also televised live by BevCam.

The primary election, which will narrow the field to two, is September 20th.

Below is the full video of the debate, courtesy of BevCam. Questions about the schools are toward the beginning. Today's Salem News has a wrapup of the debate.

Monday, September 5, 2011

School Community Divided on Mayor's Race

Local school activists appear divided over the upcoming Mayor's race, with support spilt among the three major candidates, incumbent Bill Scanlon, and challengers Mike Cahill and Tim Flaherty.  The primary on September 20th will eliminate one of these candidates, and set up a showdown in November. (disclosure: my business created the Cahill for Mayor website, and has informally advised his campaign on communications and social media.) 

While many in the community are not fans of Scanlon's management style, and would like to see a more open city government, the current Mayor is given much of the credit for the successful high school project, and for securing a large reimbursement from the State.  Sources say he has recently started to push more aggressively for a new middle school as well. His most recent term has been relatively free of some of the skirmishes with the schools that marked previous terms.

But Cahill and Flaherty are both well-known, and generally well-regarded figures in the community, having both served as council presidents, as well as on many boards and associations in the city. Cahill was also State Representative for ten years, and his connections on Beacon Hill could be a plus were he to be elected Mayor.

The candidates, along with a fourth candidate, perennial long-shot Rick Marciano, will participate in two upcoming debates. The first, sponsored by BevCam and the Salem News, will be held at 7pm on September 8th at Beverly High School and televised live on BevCam. And on September 13th the group 30 & Main will sponsor a candidates forum, also at the high school focusing on issues of interest to younger citizens in the city.

This week's Beverly Citizen features interviews with the candidates on a variety of topics.  Here are some of their statements with regard to the schools:

Bill Scanlon:
Most recently we moved forward with the major High School project that saved our accreditation. Even in these difficult financial times, this project, like many of the others, is on time and within budget. ...
If re-elected, I will immediately pursue the Middle School project by generating a Statement of Interest with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, necessary to ensure State funding for the project. For our most recent experience (the High School project), we were able to get State funding for more than 58 percent of allowable costs. We would use the state funds, new growth, and the sale of the current Briscoe School to pay for this project. In addition to securing funding, we would also complete design of the Memorial School improvements and develop construction plans and specifications during this time.
Mike Cahill:
Our schools educate thousands of our children each year. In partnership with school leaders, I’ll regularly spend time in the schools, meeting with staff, observing classes, and learning more about the delivery of our educational programs. We’ll celebrate the ongoing greatness in our schools. As we identify areas of need, we’ll be honest with ourselves, work together, and constantly improve. Every parent will be proud to send their child to the Beverly Public Schools. Every taxpayer will be confident the schools they support are truly outstanding.
Tim Flaherty:
Investment in our public schools is another top issue facing our city. With unfunded mandates and declining revenues we must continue to provide our children (I have four currently in BPS) the same educational services generations before them were afforded. Therefore, I will serve as a proud, active, and invested member of the School Committee.
Our school’s students, administration, and faculty need to continue to build upon a foundation of excellence in efforts to meet and exceed their own potential and our expectations. To accomplish this, I will ensure that our teachers have opportunities for professional development that meet the needs of our children in the classroom.
Marciano has not much to say about education, other than this claim about the new high school: 
It is my understanding that our new 50 percent smaller high school compared to the 1965 school is already falling apart which includes cracking walls. This needs to be inspected immediately and not covered up. Also before the school is signed off releasing the contractor the soil around the school needs to be professionally tested for contamination.
The primary election will be held on Tuesday, September 20th.

Above photos from WickedLocal:Beverly used under Creative Commons licence.

9/9 UPDATE: Today Salem News has a wrapup of the first debate.

Friday, August 19, 2011

New BHS Programs Get Front Page Attention

Two progressive new programs at Beverly High School were featured this week on the front page of the Salem News.

On Wednesday, the paper reported on students picking up their Macbooks for the first year of the school's much trumpeted one-to-one laptop initiative, the first of its kind in the area.
Principal Sean Gallagher said that about 1,000 of the high school's 1,250 students have signed up for the program, which allows students to rent a laptop for the equivalent of $28 per month and to use the computer in the classroom and at home. 
Those who don't agree to pay will be loaned a laptop but will not be allowed to take it home. 
"We're really excited," Gallagher said as he stood in the cafeteria, where Apple representatives in red polo shirts handed out the laptops in black carrying cases.

"That's a great amount of students involved already, and once the program is up and running, we're sure more will become involved," Gallagher said. "No one will be without the technology." 
School officials have touted the program as the wave of the future in an increasingly technological society. Students who picked up their computers yesterday seemed generally excited about the idea.

Then on Thursday, the paper again featured BHS on page 1, this time covering the new Freshman Academy, a program made possible in part by the school's winning of a Smaller Learning Communities Grant last year.
More than 220 of the school's 350 incoming freshmen showed up yesterday for an orientation designed to introduce them to what school officials are calling Freshman Academy. 
Under the new arrangement, freshmen will take most of their classes on the top floor of the new four-story high school. They will be divided into four teams of about 90 students each. Each team — which the students have named Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics — will include teachers for English, math, science and social studies, as well as a special education teacher. 
Guidance counselors, school adjustment counselors and a group of "peer mentor" upperclassmen will also be assigned to the teams. Each team will have its own Moodle page, an online course management system that students and parents can access. 
"We're very excited about it," said Assistant Principal Elizabeth Taylor, who will oversee the Freshman Academy. "Freshman year is a tough year for kids. It's a big transition. Beverly has been pretty good at rescuing them, but we want to be proactive instead of reactive."... 
Taylor said the team teaching, peer mentoring and grouping of ninth-graders on one floor are all geared to creating an environment in which each student is well-known by four or five people in the building, from teachers to counselors to peer mentors 
"It's the personalization of learning," she said. "'We know who you are. You're important. The work here is important, and we're going to help you.'"
Its great to see the press catching on to some of the progressive thinking happening at BHS and in the Beverly schools.

8/29 UPDATE:  Sunday's Boston Globe also focused on the high school's laptop program.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Candidates Needed for Ward 4 School Committee

With the deadline to take out papers little more than a month away there are still no candidates to fill the seat of retiring Ward 4 School Committee member Karen Fogarty. School activists are actively searching for a candidate.

As the Salem News reported last week, there is a great deal of action in the City Council and Mayor's races, but absolutely none for the School Committee. In addition to the lack of any candidate for Ward 4, all the other ward members are currently unopposed.

If you have any interest in serving on this board that has a hand in making all the important decisions on the direction of our schools, now is the time to step up-especially if you live in Ward 4.

The deadline to take out papers is July 29. For more information, contact Joanna Murphy Scott or Julie DeSilva.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Galinski Discusses FY12 Budget in Detail

BevCam has posted the most recent edition of its Focus on Education series, in which host Muriel Zaginailoff discusses the FY12 budget with Superintendent Galinski is detail.  The video is embedded below.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Committee Approves FY12 Budget

Without further debate over the specifics, the School Committee tonight approved the FY12 school budget in a series of unanimous votes on each school and cost center. There were no significant changes from the budget that was presented at the public hearing earlier in the month.

Following the vote, there was debate over which items to include in a restoration list, which would prioritize cut items to be reinstated if more money is found in the budget before the start of the next school year.

The restoration list previously suggested by Superintendent Galinski is as follows:
  • Elementary Teachers to Centerville grade 3 and Hannah grade 5
  • TLC teachers to 5 elementary schools
  • Reading coach for Hannah & North Beverly
  • Guidance Counselor at BHS
  • Add to the special education contingency
  • Add administrative support for HR
The committee debated this list with the intention of voting on an official list of priorities.  

President Annemarie Cesa pushed for the elementary teachers, but Karen Fogarty asked whether the committee wanted to set a precedent of adding back teachers when a class is within the district guidelines.  Paul Manzo suggested putting the money for the teachers in a contingency fund to be added back only if a class rises above the district maximum of 30 before September.

Kris Silversteen argued for adding back teachers to the TLC program as a more pressing priority. Such a move would be trickier, however, because unless enough money was found to add back all 5 that were cut (one from each elementary school), a choice would need to be made as to which school had the greater need.

In the end, the committee declined to vote on an official list, instead instructing Superintendent Galinski to consult with each building principal for their list priorities for restoration at their school.

So ends another budget season that saw further cuts to school programs, and more class size concerns, but one that fell far short of the dire situation many expected, and lacked much of the drama of recent years.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

School Committee to Vote on Budget Wednesday

The School Committee will take a final vote on the FY12 budget tomorrow evening at 7:30 in the meeting room at Memorial.  They will also create a final restoration list of priorities to be reinstated if additional money is freed up before the start of the school year.

The most recent budget can be read here; the overview that Dr. Galinski presented at the public hearing is here; and you can view the full public hearing, including presentations by Galinski and School Committee President Annemarie Cesa here.

Most of the elements that have figured into the budget up to this point are detailed in previous posts and links to news reports on this page.  We are not aware of any specific changes that have been made to the proposed cuts since the public hearing on May 11.

Strategic Plan Finalized

The new 5-year strategic plan for the district, which has been in the works for the past 9 months, was approved by the School Committee at last week's meeting, and is now posted on the district website.

The detailed plan is the work of dozens of parents, community members, staff, and administrators. It builds a framework of strategies, actions steps, and measurable objectives to achieve three strategic goals of the district:
  • Provide engaging and equitable opportunities to enhance & sustain learning.
  • Prepare students for higher education and the 21st Century Workforce.
  • Increase sustainable and productive community partnerships to maximize educational opportunities.
These goals, in turn, are intended to support the district's mission:
To maximize academic achievement and personal growth for every student.
and its top level vision:
To produce the Nation’s best!
The document itemizes detailed strategies, assigns responsibilities for their implementation, and identifies a method of measuring the success of programs at all educational levels in support of these goals.

It states the following, as its "theory of action:"
If we focus on strengthening the relationship between teachers, content, and students, design and implement high quality instruction that engages and interests students, and build strong community partnerships, we will raise student achievement and prepare students adequately for higher education and the 21st Century workforce.
While the plan doesn't answer some of the specific visible concerns of parents such as "is there a restructing plan for the elementary schools coming?" "will class sizes continue to creep upward?" and "what about Briscoe?," it does lay out a detailed and forward-thinking roadmap for the educational mission of the district, and will be used to make decisions on those issues in the future.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Young Fresh Fellows

Today's Salem News takes an in-depth look at the Merrimack College Fellows Program, which the district is planning to participate in next year.  The fellows will be used to support classroom teachers in the 6th grade at Briscoe, 5th grade at Hannah, and 3rd grade at Centerville, all classes with projected class sizes of 29 or above.  A second fellow will also be used at Centerville to staff the TLC intervention program, which lost one teacher due to the loss of federal ARRA dollars. 
Unlike more traditional programs that place student teachers for only a few weeks or months, the Merrimack students will work in the Beverly schools full time for the entire school year...

...[Superintendent] Galinski said the graduate students are more experienced than traditional student teachers, who are undergraduates and work in the schools for only a few weeks, and some teacher's aides, who only need two years of college.

"These are people that have a bachelor's degree and are working sometimes toward certification in two areas," she said. "It's a nice opportunity for the fellow and for us."...
...Galinski said the fellows will be co-teaching with experienced teachers and providing small group instruction.
"It's not replacing teachers," she said. "It's providing support because we have a larger number of students."
Most community members we have spoken with support the concept as a creative way of dealing with today's budget realities, although some wonder how much say school administrators will have in choosing specific fellows for their schools.

The News also visits the Riverside Elementary School in Danvers, which became one of the first schools in the area to take part in the program which began this year.
Emily Janakas has spent the school year as a fellow at Riverside Elementary School in Danvers, where she helps out as a special education aide. Janakas, a 22-year-old Lynnfield resident, enrolled in the fellowship program after earning her undergraduate degree in elementary education last June.

"It's definitely been an intense year," she said. "It's been challenging, but I have an excellent support system at Riverside and at Merrimack. I've learned so much this year I can't even describe it. It's furthered my passion for teaching."
[Note: Kudos to any readers who get the post title reference.]

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Video of FY12 Budget Hearing

BevCam has posted the full video of Wednesday's public hearing on, which allows us to embed it here. It's also available on BevCam's new Facebook page. Go there and "like" them.

Also, Dr. Galinski's presentation is posted here and our summary of the meeting is in the post below.

Thanks BevCam, not only for recording and airing these meetings, but now for presenting them in a more convenient format.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

This Year, Centerville Speaks for Smaller Classes

For the past several years, the public hearing on the school budget has become an annual parade of parents speaking out against the district's class size policies.  The speakers are generally from whatever class has been newly "compressed," that is, squeezed from three classes to two in order to eliminate a teacher.  Last year, it was mostly Hannah parents, who were seeing their third and fourth grade children squeezed into what they saw as excessively large classes.

This year, it was Centerville 3rd grade parents who picked up the torch, and spoke out against the administration's decision to squeeze next year's third grade into two classes with an average of 29.5 kids in a class.  The majority of tonight's speakers were Centerville parents, many echoing the exact words of previous years' speakers.

An added element to Centerville's case that many parents spoke about was the school's designation as home to the SSP program for social, behavioral, and emotional disabilities, as well as the school with the most free-and-reduced lunch students (one measure of students most at-risk).  Further, the school has failed to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) in the MCAS ratings for two straight years.  Many parents said that it is especially unfair to expect the school to meet those challenges with classes approaching 30 students in the third grade.

A few speakers also spoke about similar class size issues with Briscoe's incoming 6th grade, which is projected at 29.4. Others expressed concern over the loss of the TLC program, an intervention program for elementary students with social-emotional needs that had been funded by an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant, which runs out this year.

It should be noted that Hannah's 5th grade, which last year was compressed to two classes, also has a projected class size of 29 for next year. While no Hannah parents (including this writer) chose to speak last night, this illustrates the point of several Centerville parents who said that once a class is compressed, it is likely to remain so for the remainder of those students' elementary years.

Many speakers did commend the administration's creative approach to mitigate the large classes with full-time graduate students from the Merrimack College Fellows program, but questioned whether that was enough to offset the loss of a full-time teacher, and others wondered how much say school administrators would have in choosing the most qualified student teachers.

Prior to opening up the microphone to the audience, School Committee President Annemarie Cesa and Superintendent Marie Galinski gave an overview of the budget.  While acknowledging that there were some areas that were far from ideal, Cesa also stressed the positives, such as being able to again hold onto nearly all district programming such as four languages at the high school, which Cesa contrasted with many neighboring communities, [including, we believe, the much-heralded Hamilton-Wenham district] that have only one.

Cesa also announced that next year there will be NO students in study halls at the high school, an important milestone. And she stated that as many as 40 Beverly students who previously had choiced out or attended private schools, had recently chosen to return to Beverly schools.

Galinski presented this overview that itemized some of the key points in the budget, including key challenges, decisions, and items on a restoration list that will be reinstated if additional funds are freed up prior to the start of the school year.

If past years are any guide, it is unlikely that anything that was said tonight will have much impact on this year's budget, but the Committee will meet at least one more time to discuss the budget before it is finalized.  That meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 25th at 7:30 in the meeting room at Memorial.

One note on the format of these meetings: We've heard from many, especially those who take the time to speak, who find the lack of any acknowledgment or response from the Committee to be very frustrating.  As has been the case for the past several years, the members sit on the stage as the parade of parents come to the microphone. Then the night ends abruptly, with no more than a "thank-you for coming." Absolutely no response is made to any of the issues brought up.  Even direct questions to the Committee are answered with silence.

One speaker asked if it would again be only the school department that is required to make significant cuts, or if the city side would also be required to make equal cuts.  There was no answer or even acknowledgment of the question from the Committee (including the Mayor).  We'd like to know the answer to this question as well, as the final comparison of job cuts last year, clearly showed a large discrepancy between school side cuts and city side cuts.

5/12 UPDATE: Here is the Salem News report on last night's hearing.