Category Archives: Press Coverage

In Ashburnham, school cuts have parents taking increased interest

Joe Atmonavage
Sentinel & Enterprise

ASHBURNHAM — In her 13 years on the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District School Committee, Gwen Farley said there was a recent six-year stretch where parents rarely, if ever, asked questions at budget hearings the committee held as the budget season began.

But now as four staff positions, four sports (golf was eventually reinstated after a parent fundraiser) and nine clubs were eliminated in the past year, parents are becoming curious and worried if the school system has short-term solutions and long-term solutions to an issue affecting its youth.

It is what prompted four mothers in the school district, Tiffany Davis, Holly Garlock, Lori Leclair and Natalie Nelson, with students in all grade levels, from elementary school to high school, to form S.O.C.S (Support Our Children and Schools).

“Through working collaboratively and providing community based education on fact, S.O.C.S is committed to finding long-term and short-term solutions to address staff and program cuts currently impacting our school district,” their mission statement reads.

“We believe all children deserve an education that addresses their needs and that the larger community benefits when this optimal education is in place.”

Part of that is creating the dialogue in the community with elected officials, school administration and other community members.

On Monday, more than 25 parents, gathered at Oakmont Regional High School for the second S.O.C.S meeting, which included a question and answer session with Farley and Superintendent Dr. Gary Mazzola.

“We are not in the worst shape, but we are not in great shape” Dr. Mazzola said. “We are in OK shape.”
He said that the lacking of money coming into the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District, as well as many other Central Massachusetts school districts, is “going to be solved on Beacon Hill,” which legislators have yet to do, Mazzola said.

It is part of the reason why S.O.C.S is creating petitions in support of bills that could create more funding for education, while also doing a letter campaign to elected officials in Central Massachusetts, not just the ones who represent their school district.

“We need to connect with other districts that are also falling in the hole of the donut,” Nelson said.
“All of Central Massachusetts has to get together,” Dr. Mazzola said.

But these four parents wanted to get the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District together and then build outwards. Many of the parents who spoke Monday talked about emphasizing “effective communication” so they have a plan of how to attack these budget issues efficiently.

“We are heading in the right direction,” said Holly Garlock, who met with state Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, Monday and reported back to the group their conversation. “It is about trust. It is about collaboration.”

That is why Farley encouraged parents to come to the School Committee tomorrow and ask questions, something that hasn’t been done in years, saying that forces the School Committee to “guess what people want” and assume what the priorities are.

“The best way to get information out, is this group,” Farley said as the more than two-hour meeting ended. “This is where that connection happens.”

Gardner News: School Boss Talks About Priorities

Doneen Durling
The Gardner News

Some question unfunded mandate of new push for social, emotional learning

FITCHBURG People from some of North Central Massachusetts’ most­ challenged school districts met Tuesday at Fitchburg State University with Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, to find ways to ensure that they remain on an upward trajectory when serving students in kindergarten through high school.

The commissioner said he has been to schools throughout North Central Massachusetts and was aware of the “smart things” happening in the districts.
Chester said Massachusetts education is first in the country, and has been first since 2005 in grade 4 and grade 8 assessments in reading and math.

The state is also globally competitive in reading (No. 1), in science (No. 2), and rates No. 11 in math out of 72 countries and educational systems. In science, only Singapore tested higher. The United States came in 45th in reading, 40th in science, and 30th in math. Tested were 15-year-old students across the globe.
Chester credited teachers for the increase over the years in student proficiency.

“These are the fruits of your labor,” he said. “I want to make a point. For me, it is not the test scores. For me it’s what they represent, whether or not students have strong literacy skills or math skills and can use those skills to solve problems in real-world situations.”

Chester said the state should look at educational systems around the globe to see where growth and innovation are occurring. He said we are already seeing the impact of globalization, and it is worrisome.

“We owe it to our students, we owe it to their future, we owe it to the future of the commonwealth not to become complacent in this world where increasingly where you grow up is less and less of a determinant of where your opportunities are going to be.”

He said technology is creating an interconnected world and a shrinking globe.
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System developed in 1993 has shown that the state is narrowing the 10th grade achievement gap. By 2
“Back when we first gave that test, there were a lot of doubters. A lot of people didn’t think our schools were up to delivering better results than that 24 percent and 38 percent proficient (for English language arts and math) People didn’t think our students were capable.”

Chester pointed to the 2015 assessment numbers that showed a 91 percent proficiency statewide in English language arts, and a 79 percent proficiency in math. Also added was a 72 percent proficiency rating in science that was only at 57 percent when the state first began testing in 2007. He said the numbers represented more students reading better, knowing how to apply math and understanding science.

He noted the dropout rate since the beginning of MCAS testing has been cut in half.

“Tremendous progress,” he said.

The state budget last year for K-12 education was $5.2 billion with a little over 88 percent going to local aid.

Chester revealed that students not reaching potential are oftentimes from low-income households, from racial or ethnic minorities, or students with disabilities or with language barriers.

“Those gaps exist, and they are not trivial. The good news is a lot of places are proving that those gaps don’t have to exist, and are making tremendous progress in that regard.”

Chester said that a concern is that more than one third of students who enter the state’s public campuses are placed in remedial classes.

“More than one in three students that have done what we have asked to get a high school diploma get to college and are told, ‘you are not ready.’ When you break that down to our two- and four-year campuses, it’s shocking.”

One of the Department of Education’s priority areas to support teaching and learning includes the social, emotional and health needs of students and families.
Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale said supporting the initiative was “quite a challenge.” He asked if the state was addressing that initiative in the budget.

“That is certainly a real issue in the Fitchburg Public Schools, and I am sure that there are similar issues in other school districts as well,” he told Chester.

Chester said that the governor has released his budget. It will move to the House of Representatives which will produce its own budget in March. It will then move to the Senate. They will have a sense of the revenue flow, and then the House and Senate will have to reconcile the differences. The budget is then sent back to the governor. He can accept some things and veto or change others and will send it back for a couple more rounds.

Chester noted that the mainstream educational community has become more accepting of schools addressing the issue of social and emotional health.
“We’re committed to supporting it. How it will play out in the budget is not clear at this point,” said Chester. “I’ll be the last one to let us rest on our laurels. I’ll be the guy that will cheerlead everything I put up there and showed you about the system. But I also know that there are too many kids that are not enjoying the success. I am bound and determined to get us to where everybody is.”

Parent Sheila Tallamraju said she has been watching the federal Senate hearings to appoint Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

“I am questioning how she is going to be a support system to the public schools,” said Tallamraju.

Chester said the Senate would have to confirm DeVos.

“I try to be as opened-minded as possible. I do not know Secretary DeVos. She is not someone I have interacted with over time. I read a lot of press about her. A lot of that press raises concerns. The good thing is that we have a federalist system of government. Education is not mentioned in the United States Constitution. What happens to things that are not mentioned in the Constitution? They are the purview of the states. So we have this interesting tension between the federal government wanting to have a role in education, with no Constitutional mandate.”

Chester said money is received by the states as they agree to mandates for students with disabilities.

Winchendon School Committee member Larry Murphy asked how the district could close the gap between students at risk in low income communities so the district could reach a level one rating.

“I am interested in fairness and equity for all and what I am concerned about is that I think the competition that has been created between public schools, vocational schools, charter schools, school choice…the competition that has been created has created an un-level playing field. I want to get your opinion about how we can…instead of competing, collaborating.”

Chester seized on Murphy’s suggestion of collaboration and said that Murphy put a thorny issue on the table. He applauded Winchendon for their success in increasing their student scores.

He said he was aware of the dynamics that play in the area. Chester said that there have been discussions on how to access high level technical vocational programs without students having to make a decision to leave the district. He said he is also encouraging superintendents to have conversations with charter schools that might be able to help with the performance of the lower performing schools. He said in Lawrence they brought in three charter schools to take over the lowest performing schools.

“You have to keep exploring ways to think about how to collaborate while getting the most out of it. There are no easy answers,” said Chester.

Natalie Nelson, parent and organizer of the Ashburnham Westminster parent group said that the area is a forgotten zone past Route 495. Her concern is the mandates including regional transportation.

“They cut into the budget and are not sufficiently funded at the state level so we have been facing budget cuts consistently and have had no growth in budget.”

Nelson gave a list of recent cuts and impacts on the students’ social and emotional well-being. She did not want to seek who was at fault, but felt it would take collaboration to make a difference. She asked how they could have a voice in Boston.

Chester encouraged her to work with legislators, and said that Western Mass has advocacy people high up in state government that are tuned into the needs of what is beyond Route 495.

Worcester Telegram: Mass. education chief says state is ‘in charge’ regardless of secretary nominee

Scott O’Connell
Telegram & Gazette Staff

FITCHBURG – The state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education said Tuesday night he is trying to be “open-minded” to President Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos.

Commissioner Mitchell Chester, speaking at an education forum at Fitchburg State University, said he hadn’t had much interaction with Ms. DeVos, who cleared a major hurdle toward confirmation Tuesday when the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions gave her its approval.

“I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible,” he said. “I have read a lot of press about her – certainly the press has raised some concerns.”

But Mr. Chester also reminded an audience of several dozen educators, parents, and school committee members at Tuesday’s forum, which was aimed at school systems in northern Central Massachusetts, that the fate of Massachusetts schools still largely rests in the state’s hands.

“The great thing is, we’re in charge of our own education in Massachusetts, and we’ve proven we can do a pretty darn good job at it,” he said. “And we’ll continue to be in charge of it.”

Mr. Chester led off the forum with a presentation on just how successful the state has been in that area compared to the rest of the country. He pointed to national and international test results showing Massachusetts students have some of the top scores in the world, as well as state-level data showing schools have made progress toward closing achievement gaps and getting more students to graduate.

One of his main points was that the state’s high standing has escaped the notice of a majority of its own residents, which was “stunning to us” in the education department, he said. According to a poll he cited, only one-third of Massachusetts residents knew the state’s students excelled compared to their peers in other states. “Two-thirds thought we were somewhere in the middle of the pack,” Mr. Chester said.

“We do have a plan around that,” he said. “We’re much more aware about leading with that (the state’s success) in our messaging.”

However, the question-and-answer portion of Tuesday’s forum demonstrated there are still many problems facing the state’s public education system, especially a lack of funding for schools. Natalie Nelson, a parent of students in the Ashburnham-Westminster schools, said she and other parents have formed a group to advocate on behalf of their system, which has had to cut teachers, sports teams and other extracurricular programs.

“I’m tired of the finger-pointing,” she said. “We believe, in our little community, it will take collaboration to make a difference.”

Larry Murphy, a member of the Winchendon School Committee, lamented that the state’s various publicly funded educational sectors, including regular public schools, vocational districts and charter schools, have been pitted against each other for scant resources.

“I think the competition that’s been created … has created an unlevel playing field,” he said.

They and others in the audience asked Mr. Chester for guidance as well as reassurance that the state will address their and other regions’ challenges. The commissioner responded by pointing out that despite a general funding shortage in the state, the education department, as well as the governor and Legislature, have tried to dedicate more money to the state’s education needs, from identifying funds to begin rectifying the state’s school funding formula inequities, to starting a new fund to help districts afford more classroom technology.

He also admitted the state has a lot more work to do to make sure students are receiving a sufficient education, pointing out that around one-third of high school graduates arriving at public college campuses are not ready for college-level classes.

“I want to make sure we can celebrate tonight, first and foremost,” Mr. Chester said. “But I also want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the challenges still in front of us.”

Original article: http://www.telegram.com/news/20170131/mass-education-chief-says-state-is-in-charge-regardless-of-secretary-nominee

Sentinel & Enterprise: Concerns expressed at education town hall

Elizabeth Dobbins
Sentinel & Enterprise

FITCHBURG — Massachusetts schools are among the top performing in the nation, according to figures cited by Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester at a town hall Tuesday night.

But according to audience members, there is still work to be done.

Parents and administrators discussed school choice, state funding and emotional learning with Chester during the meeting at Fitchburg State University.

For Natalie Nelson, a parent in the Ashburnham Westminster School District, the meeting was a chance to ask how to get more attention for districts in western and central Massachusetts.

“How can we get central Massachusetts back onto the floor at the state level?” she asked, raising concerns about budget cuts impacting school buses, librarians and other services in the region.

Ashburnham Westminster School Committee member Ellen Holmes was also concerned about state funding, particularly technology.

“There has been an overwhelming presumption that the schools have adequate technology,” she said. While it may look that way on paper, she said the district is struggling to meet demand.

Chester suggested speaking to state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and said state grants are available to cover much of schools’ technology needs.

Of the about $18 billion spent on public elementary and secondary education in Massachusetts each year, $5.2 billion is funded by the state, he said. Close to 90 percent of the state’s elementary and secondary education funding goes directly to school districts with the remainder funding grants, special education and administrative costs.

Winchendon School Committee member Larry Murphy, a former teacher and principal, said public schools are competing for these dollars with charter and vocational schools, because the district loses funding for each student who opts for these schools. He asked how these schools can work together instead of compete for students.

“As the money leaves we have to cut back on programs, but if we’re going to be competitive we have to expand our programs,” he said.

School choice is a “thorny” issue and the state is exploring how to make the best out of it, Chester said.

The U.S. Senate hearings for school choice advocate and education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, were on the mind of Fitchburg mother Sheela Vadrevu.

“I’m really questioning how she is going to be supportive (to state and local education systems),” she said.

Chester said the news he has heard about DeVos raises concerns, but he trying to be open-minded. Ultimately the federal government’s power over education in individual states is limited by the constitution, he said.

“We’re in charge of our own education in Massachusetts and we have demonstrated we can do a pretty darn good job,” he said.

Though the majority of the public and even teachers are not aware of how well Massachusetts schools stack up against other states, according to a study he came across about a year ago he said.

For over 10 years Massachusetts has consistently ranked top in the nation for grade 4 and grade 8 reading and math scores, he told the audience. The state education system also places competitively worldwide, which is important in an increasingly globalized world, he said.

A 2015 survey of 72 countries and educational systems ranked Massachusetts top in reading, second in science and 12th in math proficiency.

Graduation rates have also improved by almost 7 percent since 2006, he said.

Schools have been closing the performance gaps between students in poverty and not in poverty as well as between white students and racial minorities. In this area, he said more progress still needs to be made.

“Those gaps exist and they’re not trivial,” he said. “A lot of school districts, including a lot of schools in this room are proving they don’t have to exist.”

Original article: http://www.sentinelandenterprise.com/news/ci_30765903/concerns-expressed-at-education-town-hall

Gardner News: New Group to Support Schools

Doneen Durling
The Gardner News

There is a grassroots effort, as the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School budget is being built, to reach out to town and state leaders to find a way to bridge the tremendous budget gap experienced by the district that lead to debilitating cuts in the 2016 – 2017 budget.

A group has formed called Support Our Children and Schools whose mission is to find solutions to address the teacher and program cuts within the district. Three members came before the Westminster Board of Selectmen on Monday to introduce themselves.

The Support Our Children and Schools group also sought advice on here they should begin. Support Our Children member Tiffany Davis, a teacher and parent with a child in the district, said the group was concerned by cuts that have taken place in the past 10 to 12 years. She said the group was aware that the selectmen have worked long and hard on the school issue.
Davis talked about four goals that are the main focus of the group. The first is to educate themselves and other parents on how school funding works in Massachusetts and in the individual towns. The second goal is to work collaboratively and respectably with town officials and district administrators to take effective action based on current information. The third goal is to advocate at the state level for changes in state funding for schools.

“We very much believe this is a structural problem at the state level,” said Davis.

“That’s a correct presumption,” said Board of Selectmen Chairman Wayne Walker.

The fourth goal is to reach out to districts with a similar profile to work together in advocacy at the state level because there is more strength in numbers.

Support Our Children member Lori Leclair said there have been concerns expressed over large class sizes that they feel not only affect children academically, but also socially and emotionally.
“Children are not as excited about school, and feel lost and disconnected in large classes.”
Leclair said students also experience behavioral issues in larger classes.

She said the high school in particular has suffered impactful cuts. She said the reduction in classes offered have left students with open blocks that become overly long study periods held in the library.
“It’s challenging because the kids just don’t have a class to go to. Also the fees that people have to pay so the kids can participate in athletics and the marching band, and just the general cuts in extracurricular activities. One thing that is especially concerning to most parents and the faculty is that there is no librarian anymore at Oakmont, in fact there is no librarian in the district. There hasn’t been one in Westminster Elementary for years. It is completely staffed by volunteers which is a shame. It is great that we have some great volunteers to help and staff the library, but at Oakmont it’s really concerning because it will affect their accreditation if they don’t get a librarian.”
Support Our Children member Ina Carey said the cuts have affected everyone.

“We are just frustrated,” she said.

“That’s understandable,” said Walker. “A lot of people are frustrated. We are aware of that.”

Davis said there are 140 parents that have signed up for a Support Our Children mailing list. She asked for guidance on how they could move forward.

“We are willing to learn. We are willing to do the work. We know you have a lot of experience. What can we do to help you to help our school?”

Walker said the group has identified the most critical part which is advocating to the School Committee.

“After all, they are responsible for preparing the school budget and we look to them for their guidance. I know it is sometimes difficult for parents to understand why they do things, and quite frankly it is difficult for us to understand why they do things, but it is the school budget and the school superintendent and the School Committee that puts it together, so that’s what we have to react to.”

Walker said the board relies on the School Committee to provide logical and rational answers as to why they formulate the budget each year. He advised that the group advocate with local state representatives.

“School funding at the state level has been all over the map for more than 10 years and we are always talking to our local representatives and ask them to advocate on our behalf. That is the key to it.”

Davis reminded the board of forums held in the past where the school budget was discussed between leaders in Ashburnham and Westminster. She asked if it was possible to bring such forums back.

Walker said that the board would welcome a forum with Ashburnham and representatives from the district and has offered in the past to participate, but has yet to hear from a business manager or other representative of the school district.

Walker pointed out that last year the school was able to recoup two teachers after teachers in the district allowed for health insurance option changes.

Davis told Walker the budget solution teachers helped to bridge was a one-shot-deal.

The group asked if there was anything else that could be done at a state level.

Walker said they have been asking for the state to help the district any way they can.
“If they are hearing it through more than one voice, that’s always helpful. It would be difficult to advocate to the department of education because they are supposed to be looking at all school districts. We find they are not all that inclined to listen to us. Our local representative I think are the best.”

The group left a list of last year’s cuts with the board. The cuts included teachers, paraprofessionals, programs, co-curricular activities, interventionists, librarians, late buses, custodians and materials.

Support Our Children and Schools is seeking more parents and citizens that wish to advocate for the school district.

For more information, contact tiffanydavis80@comcast.net