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.

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.