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Worcester School Officials Say Governor’s Plan Inadequate

Thursday, January 17, 2013

 

Governor Deval Patrick unveiled his plan to reinvest in the state’s education – a four-year, comprehensive plan that encompasses pre-K through college prep. While this effort does offer some good answers, local officials say the plan could be merely “plugging holes” instead of fixing problems and could possibly push issues back onto local districts.

High Goals

The plan is designed with specific goals in mind, including: universal access to high quality early education for children across the state, from birth through age five; fully funding K-12 education and allowing for extended school days in high-need schools; and making college more affordable and accessible for high school graduates.

The investment package, to be filed with the Governor’s FY14 budget proposal next week, totals approximately $550 million in its first year and increases to nearly $1 billion annually over the next four years.

Patrick hopes this plan will help to invigorate the state’s economy and lay a good foundation for the future.

“This is about creating opportunity and economic growth. After twenty years of good work and experience at reforming education, we know what works,” said Patrick. “If we are going to accelerate our growth and create opportunity, we must invest. This is not only about the students’ social and economic future – it is about ours.”

Where Worcester Benefits

The plan also highlights problems in Massachusetts’ “nation-leading results,” speaking specifically about “deep and persistent achievement and attainment gaps.”

“Gaps show that far too many of our students - particularly students from lower-income families, English language learners, students with disabilities, and many students of color - are being left behind,” according to the Governor's proposals. “These gaps threaten our ability to remain competitive with other states and with other nations in the global marketplace, and undermine our ability to leave behind a stronger Commonwealth for future generations.”

Worcester School Committee member Tracy Novick is hopeful that Patrick’s reinvestment strategy will target areas like the Commonwealth's second-largest city.

“We’ve seen this a lot in Worcester, too – that even before kids are walking through the door these issues are arising,” she said.

When asked whether she thought Worcester would be a target area for this reform, she added, “Judging by the language that the governor is using here, and the fact that some of the information is coming out of gateway cities, that that’s the target. That wouldn’t surprise me.”

Rose Pavlov, founder of the organization Ivy Child International is confident that Patrick's plan can tackle issues across the board.

"While the challenge of customizing a plan for each child in the Commonwealth with a wide array of varying needs seems like a Herculean endeavor, this is precisely what is needed given the reality of the circumstances our children face and that we face as a community. 75% to 80% of children and youth in need of mental health services do not receive them," she said, adding that this could be a "pivotal focus on prevention and much needed change."

Starting Early

While Patrick’s plan may be off the mark in some instances, Novick said that focusing on the early stages of education cannot be ignored.

“Part of what they’re doing that is a good idea, is looking at a kid before age five. We know now from looking at research around on this issue that when kids first develop language, this achievement gap we’re seeing is really a gap going back to even before they’re born,” she said.

Missing the Big Picture

The big issue, Novick said, is about the approach that the reinvestment strategy is taking. She said that without tackling the big picture, the administration could end up putting more strain on individual districts.

“There’s still a lot of need to look at Chapter 70 funding. So often, these types of reform are only plugging holes instead of looking at the overarching problems,” she said. “Something that does worry me is that it seems like this reform is focusing directly on education, when what we need is a more societal conversation.”

Novick added that schools shouldn’t have to face the brunt of these large issues on their own: “I’m worried that these issues continue to be pushed onto schools and not offer a more holistic program.”

“My hope is that instead of just talking about early education, we will also discuss how we talk to parents about their kids and the kinds of ways we’re talking to parents about taking care of their kids,” she said.

Worcester’s Real Advantage

Novick said that there is another area that Patrick’s reinvestment plan doesn’t cover – something that could really help the area.

“In a city where so many are second language learners, we have an unusual advantage if we choose to use it,” she said.

Novick explained that with second language programs, Worcester Public Schools could greatly benefit students, especially in creating better future citizens.

“The earlier you can start that, the better. I’m hoping the governor will adopt something on that issue, especially if he wants to look into urban areas.”

Bigger obstacles stand in the way, however, including how to make sure programs reach the children they’re designed to help.

“One of the conversations we had around Latino education is there are plenty of kids that even if you offer that, they won’t be reached or in those programs. That issue is less here but one that has been raised lately – bilingual education,” she said.

Pavlov said that Worcester may benefit in many ways.

"Enhancing the support network and services for the under served will not only better their chances at overcoming these obstacles, but create opportunities for them to have the ability to break out of these unfortunate cycles and blocks that are a result of scarce or no resources to meet their individual needs," she said. "As a result, our most vulnerable families can overcome their current limitations."

Budget Challenges

Patrick’s reinvestment totals approximately $550 million in its first year and increases to nearly $1 billion annually over the next four years, making it a very complex and costly long-term plan, something Novick said isn’t foolproof.

“That’s the challenge. We had preschool in Worcester for years, but when the funding got cut, we didn’t have a choice. There were also alarm bells ringing earlier this week when pre-K funding was discussed. That would affect what we’re able to offer in terms of how many students are in a class,” she said. “That always bothers me, and is a big problem with school improvement gap funding. Once money goes away, what are we to do?”

Novick added that she is concerned that “problems are being dumped back onto the district.”

“What are we to do then? That would be my concern. Extended day for middle school seems to be the hip thing right now, but again, it depends on how it is implemented and the reasons behind it. If you do that for a year or two and then run out of funding once it’s expected, there’s a problem,” she said.

Budget questions aside, Novick did say that she has been pleased with the administration’s attention to the Chapter 70 funding, but she still thinks they could be missing some of the big picture.

“It has been helpful to see this administration’s continued commitment even when we were having a tough time. They weren’t cutting the Chapter 70 funding, but they could be looking at this holistically instead of in pieces,” she said. “I wish they were talking about it in terms of creating the next generation of citizens.”  

 

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