Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Public School Dayboy

My son’s school dates back to 1100 and enrolls 800 boys aged 11 to 18. Less than a quarter of the children board, and those are mostly from Asia, so they are set up for foreign students. There are few, if any, Americans. My English husband was thrilled to see the front lawn was a cricket pitch. The campus quads are arranged around extensive athletic grounds, but the emphasis is firmly on academics. The setting is a market town even older than the school.

A traditional English public (meaning private in American) school, it is known for being academically rigorous. It is a feeder school to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the ivy-league of England. Unlike the ivies, these top universities are heavily subsidized by the state despite the fact that only half of the students come from state (meaning public in American) schools. University entrances are based on examination results and only a few schools claim most of the Oxbridge places, a system that reinforces privilege and class. A recent report revealed that only 100 schools account for a third of Oxbridge undergraduates, most were private.

To apply to his new school, my son sat two days worth of exams that were like LSAT’s crossed with Math SAT’s and an English AP. He had to analyze a poem about a nostalgic father watching his son play cricket that confounded him, but my son must have aced the essay on emerging technology. We depend on him to program our i-pods. The exam had to be “invigilated” by the headmistress of his school.

Back in Maine, we moved our son to private school when his elementary school abandoned ability grouping and had not yet started up a Gifted and Talented program. During his final year, I came in and taught an advanced math group, but I’m no mathematician and his supplemental education left little time to work myself. His small private school in Maine emphasizes academics and the arts with a laid back, welcoming atmosphere.

Before starting school in England, my son had to shed his t-shirts and cargo pants. He couldn’t have called them pants in England anyway – that’s the word for underpants, also called knickers for a girl. We found the campus uniform shop next door to the tuck (snack) shop. My son was outfitted in navy blazer, grey trousers, black lace-up shoes, blue shirt and striped tie, also rugby kit.

Each house has a distinct tie, and his is maroon and grey, reminding me of Gryffindor in Harry Potter. The house system creates community and allows students to compete for more than themselves. Individuality is not encouraged, and the uniform reinforces this message. We wanted our half English son to get a true British experience like his father had at Pangbourne before it went co-ed.

I was worried how the other kids would receive a lone American given how unpopular the war in Iraq is here. No worries. Our 13-year-old son was an instant hit after reassuring the older boys that American cheerleaders do indeed fall for the British accent. In case you’re wondering, I was never a cheerleader.

The school day is 8:30-5:00 Mondays-Fridays and 8:30-1:00 on Saturdays, but the weekdays include an hour of afternoon sports or activities. They all do community service, and my son chose cross-country and chess. He is less than impressed with the long day but is enjoying his new classes like physics and chemistry enormously. The campus is on the opposite side of Oxford from us so he takes the school coach.

If only there was a bus to his sister’s state school, but we are getting very fit biking. We decided to withdraw my daughter’s petition to move to a closer elementary school since she is happy, learning well and has good friends. It is a very small school with only one class per year. Yet another transition would be stressful, and there is nothing wrong with the school itself, just the system that reinforces inequities and results in difficult commutes.

We couldn’t have picked two more different school experiences for my children in England. Between them, we are witnessing the full gamut of British education.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Wall of Inequity

There once was a wall near my daughter’s school in Oxford. It cut off the council housing (low-income housing project) from its more affluent neighbors. Erected in 1934 by a private developer, two walls transected even the road. Following public protest, the walls were demolished in 1959, twenty-five years later. The inequities persist today.

My daughter was placed in the one school that still had openings. As we bike or walk the mile and a half to her school, we pass kids her age from this district going in the opposite direction like rats fleeing a sinking ship. There are no school buses. No city buses travel our route. We have submitted a petition requesting a transfer to our small village school, a short walk away. We have been waiting weeks for a hearing.

An Oxford academic explained that to revitalize the state schools with dwindling enrollments, all schools were open to anyone given space. Preference is given to geographic catchments. Joining late is a disadvantage.

There was no space at all in the large “high school” for her brother. The other option was a long drive away, and we heard of bullying problems there. My children are British citizens so they were not treated differently for being one-year visitors. We were able to send our son to public (ie private) school, but other families don’t have that option.

I find the lack of equity shocking in a system of national education. My daughter’s primary school includes most of the council housing population. There is widespread swearing among the students, and teachers routinely shout for order. Many children are in foster care and have difficult home situations. A large number of students are special needs.

The average mother/caretaker at school pick up time is smoking and/or wearing high heels and tight clothing with unevenly dyed hair. I consider myself a young mother, but most of the parents look ten years younger than me and have larger families. Quite a few fathers in work-clothes pick up too, even more than in Brunswick, Maine. The parents at our local school appear to be of a totally different class, age and educational level.

I’ve always considered the economically diverse student body in Maine public schools a benefit. Accepting this high degree of segregation in Oxford is not right. It makes the inequities that parents are rightly protesting in Brunswick pale by comparison. Why don’t parents complain here?

Despite the inequities, there are advantages to my daughter’s school that address our situation. Many foreign students live in the catchment area, and it is the school of choice for the few Japanese families. It has students from over 20 nations and is ethnically diverse. The school had a welcoming reception for foreign parents and does much to promote cultural sharing. They even studied the Jewish high holidays, although my daughter was the only Jew in the class.

Due to a strong national curriculum, all children in state school learn the same material. The school’s test results are the same as our neighborhood’s ones and average for the county. This is quite impressive given the high number of ESL students.

It helps that my daughter is not the only foreign student; there is even another American in her class. There’s a child from Georgia (the country, not the state) as well as several other countries. The girls have been very welcoming to her, and she already has had play dates with two friends whose parents are schoolteachers. All the primary schools are small with only one class per year although the class is large with 30 kids.

Math has been a challenge for my daughter mainly because the notation, term names and the system of learning are different. She was marked down for using commas and not setting her long division work into grids. I had to teach her long multiplication, long division and fraction simplification.

Math is taught sequentially in the US starting with addition then subtraction and not progressing until the basics are mastered. Understanding the concept and showing your work is as important as getting the right answer. This used to plague my son in elementary school who does math in his head and has sloppy writing. The Brits are even more upset by poor penmanship. Even math work is done in special handwriting pens.

My daughter has always done well in math and found it discouraging to have a teacher chastising her for not knowing facts that she “should have learned years ago.” The English system introduces all concepts at an early age through memorization so kindergarteners start work on multiplication but won’t understand that it is built from addition. They learn everything at once at an early age.

It appears that Americans do catch up. My son’s “maths” class is repeating material he learned last year in the advanced math class, but the pace here is twice as fast so he will be learning new stuff by mid-year.

Despite all the challenges of adjustment, my children have settled into school and are enjoying the curriculum and their new friends, if missing old friends from home. My daughter is thrilled to have a teacher who encourages creative writing, and the two girls we had over were delightful. All the children at her school have been polite and helpful when they see me. We know little of our son’s new world.

The biggest drawback of not having children in our local schools is not becoming part of the community. It makes me appreciate the wonderful experience of having my children attend a small elementary school near our house in Maine. I too made many friends and became involved in educational advocacy through that stimulation.

Small neighborhood schools can build community and encourage parental participation, but the ideal is often lost in the reality through poor management. Public/state schools should be all about equity and good education. Americans are not alone in struggling with these issues.

Photograph from Oxfordshire County Council Archive.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Build Consensus before a School

Last Thursday an unofficial straw vote rejected building a big consolidated school at the site of the old Brunswick high school. On Friday the local paper ran my op-ed criticizing the leadership on this issue. Today the superintendent resigned.

This is an opportunity to rally community support for a new, smaller school with a K-5 grade configuration as was the original plan. A second straw vote could ask voters to choose between the two options and help the town find consensus. Below is my op-ed which ran in the Times Record 7/27/07:

Brunswick may lose state funding for a new elementary school. This would be a serious setback because the town needs a new school to replace portable classrooms and accommodate all-day kindergarten.

With a lawsuit pending against the State Department of Education and Brunswick residents criticizing the proposed grade configuration, the 750-student school size as well as the proposed site, it would be a grave mistake to ignore the problems.

The original proposal to build a new, small K-5 elementary school to replace Hawthorne School and the mobile classroom units received broad support. Yet when the school size grew beyond 500 students and Superintendent James Ashe proposed a K-2/3-5 grade configuration, a large number of citizens objected.

Additionally, many have complained that there has been too little public involvement and participation in decision-making. In response, the School Board and the school department have asked the public "to trust the process."

How can there be trust when the "public process" has resulted in the same proposal Ashe offered nearly two years ago?

People are as frustrated about the process as the results. Trust needs to be earned not demanded.

Last November Kathy Thorson, running on a platform of small K-5 schools and equity, beat the incumbent, a proponent of trusting "the process." She won the at-large School Board seat by a significant margin in every single district in Brunswick. We have no better indicator of what would happen if a large grade 3-5 school were put to a town vote, the final step in the state-mandated process.

At the April 30 public hearing, an overwhelming majority of citizens spoke against the Educational Specification Committee Report's recommendation for K-2/3-5 configuration and called for more discussion and public input. Without any further deliberation, the School Board on May 9 voted 5-3 to accept the reconfiguration.

In June the Elementary School Building Committee voted to build a 750-student "double school" for grades 3-5 at the site of the old high school. The architects recommended replacing the old structure. In response, 71 residents have filed suit against the State Department of Education. Some object to the need for a new school, others to tearing down the old high school.

Even if these citizens fail to halt new school construction, this suit indicates public dissatisfaction with the new school proposal. Add this suit to a number of critical opinion pieces in The Times Record, to the public hearing testimonies and to the last at-large School Board election, and it would be foolish to conclude that the new school would easily pass a townwide vote.

Those who have voiced dissent in the past have been labeled "a special interest group." There have been claims that "a silent majority" supports a new grade 3-5 school. Yet there has been little evidence of broad public support, and such dismissive comments do not build consensus.

The lack of consensus and a grab bag of objections to a big public project bring to mind the public safety building that was voted down by a townwide vote in 2003. People had a broad range of reasons to object to the plan, but it was an up-or-down vote.

We need a new school just like we need a new public safety building, but the need itself will not be enough to guarantee passage of a project that has consistently ignored the public's concerns.

How do we build consensus?

The first step is opening the process to public input. We have an opportunity on Election Day in November to add a nonbinding ballot question on the new elementary school proposal. The question could ask whether the voter supports the new school proposal, and, if not, to check off the reasons such as grade configuration, school size, site, etc.

The ballot responses could help the town re-examine the new elementary school proposal and make necessary changes to ensure broader public support. Ideally, the school department and the Elementary School Building Committee would have already asked these questions of the public. It is not too late to ask them now.

The danger of plowing ahead without consultation and consensus is that we will forgo a new school and fail to meet the needs of the children. Brunswick has good schools, involved parents, dedicated teachers and staff and many civic-minded citizens. Let us pool our great resources to bring our town together and reach consensus. We have so much to gain and even more to lose. Ground has yet to be broken on the new school.

To read more of my op-eds and political letters search the archives section:opinions and keyword:Sarah Laurence and Sarah W. Laurence. Click on the tag below for more information on small schools.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Building Values or Buildings?

"Brunswick School Plan Hits a Snag" is today's headline, front page in the Portland Press Herald, the largest newspaper in Maine. The Brunswick Times Record has a similar article: "Elementary Grade Level Regrouping Criticized" as does the weekly Forecaster: "School Reconfiguration Draws Angry Response." Click blue titles for links to articles.

On Monday night April 30th the Brunswick School Board held a televised public hearing on the Educational Specification Report’s recommendation to build a large consolidated intermediate school for grades 3-5. The state will only fund one new building, but the town can pay to renovate the old, small schools as well.

By June 2008 the town must vote through public referendum to accept or to reject the new school due to open in 2010. My children are too old to be affected although they attended one of the old small schools due to shut.

Twenty-eight community members from all 4 elementary school districts testified before a packed room. Almost all criticized the lack of public involvement and information. Most questioned grade reconfiguration and urged the town to build instead a new small K-5 school with state funding, as was originally proposed, or to analyze more options with less bias.

For more information read Size Matters.

Below is my testimony:

The proposal to build a new elementary school in Brunswick with full state funding is a wonderful opportunity for our community to discuss what we value about education and to be involved in the decision making process. This town has a tradition of not only encouraging but also seeking out public opinion and participation. Sadly, compared to other big town projects like the Open Space Plan, the Comprehensive Plan, the Maine Street Station and the land reuse of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, this process has allowed for barely minimal public input.

Tonight is only the second School Department public hearing on the new school proposal in a year and a half. The only forum that openly debated the merits of various options was organized by parents, not by the school department. Building Committee meetings are open to the public, but no time is allotted for public comment. The Educational Specification Report we are discussing tonight is based on single visits to the elementary schools, which were, with one or two exceptions, poorly attended. The lack of public involvement is dangerous because a disenfranchised public might just vote down a new school in frustration when this town desperately needs more space to deal with crowding and new programming.

In order to win public support, we need a new school that reflects our values, yet the Educational Specification Report, despite its title, spent many more pages on building specifications than on educational values. Although many participants voiced support for small K-5 schools, the report concludes that school size and configuration does not matter and what matters is small learning communities. Then the report makes the leap to recommending a K-2/3-5 configuration that would, given our student population, necessitate building a large 800 student intermediate school. This conclusion does not follow from the data if educational philosophy were the driving force instead of building and administrative efficiency.

What are our educational values? For decades this town has had a system of small K-5 schools producing excellent academic results. The original proposal to build a new 350-500 student K-5 school to eliminate decades old portable classrooms created no controversy. By a large majority, the letters and Op-Ed’s in the Times Record were in support of small K-5 schools and equity. The newest member of our school board, Kathy Thorson at-Large won the majority of votes in every single district last November campaigning on a platform of small K-5 schools and equity.

Some people have said that a big consolidated school would solve our equity problems, but buildings don’t solve problems. The visible equity problems between our elementary schools will still exist inside the walls of a big consolidated school, only they will be less obvious to detect. There is concurrence in the academic literature that educational results decline, especially among children at risk, as school size increases. Who will find those lost children in the long halls?

I urge the School Board to vote against grade reconfiguration. Build two small K-5’s within one school building if indeed Longfellow School is too expensive to renovate. We need to start with educational values and design a building to fit our philosophy rather than change our philosophy to fit a building.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Children's Author Cynthia Lord

“It must be something in the water,” Cynthia Lord surmised. Cindy’s first children’s book, Rules, just won a Newbery Honor Medal and the Schneider Family Book Award. We both live on the same street as Charlotte Agell who has published eleven children’s books. I guess I should drink more water.

Rules is fiction, but it rings true. Twelve-year-old Catherine tries to teach her autistic younger brother the rules of life. David has to be told that it’s okay to take his shirt off to swim but not his pants. Catherine creates the words to communicate with her paraplegic friend, Jason, and struggles to get her busy parents to listen to her needs too. The characters have challenges that restrict their lives but don’t define them. They find happiness on their own terms without a miracle cure.

When I read Rules aloud to my children, it made us laugh and almost cry. It was quite an accomplishment to create a book that would appeal to both a nine-year-old girl and a twelve-year-old boy, not to mention their mother. The book was flawlessly well written.

“Most books about autism are so sad,” Cindy said, “but a family has to learn how to laugh or they’re not going to make it.”


Is there a true story behind your story?

When my son was first diagnosed with autism, I spent forty hours a week on Behavior Modification Treatment because Maine didn’t offer it. The state flew up experts from New York and paid for the student helpers I trained. It was worth it to see my son recover the words he had lost at eighteen months.

Now my fourteen-year-old son attends the junior high for special classes like cooking and art. It’s too noisy there for him to concentrate in such a big school, so he does his schoolwork at home. His seventeen-year-old sister attends the high school.

How did you find the time to write Rules when your son was only five?

I realized I would have to make time for writing or not want it anymore. I set my alarm for 4am and wrote every morning until my family got up at 7am. In four months I finished the first draft and then spent a year revising it with help from readers.

Was the road to publication as short?

The first two publishers rejected Rules but sent the manuscript back with helpful comments. I rewrote it and sent out a query letter and two sample chapters to four more publishers. One rejected it with a form letter, but the other three asked for the complete manuscript.

I loved the Scholastic Book Club as a child, so I granted Scholastic an exclusive read. Then September 11th happened, and everything ground to a halt. After eight months, I finally got a call from the editor saying they would be running some numbers and planned to acquire it. I realized that I needed an agent to negotiate the contract, so I called Tracey Adams in New York. We had met at a conference.

So why did the book not come out until 2006 – almost five years later?

As a first time author, I was put on the slow track. The manuscript went from one over-committed editor to a second one. There were revisions to add more drama. Even when the manuscript was ready, I was bumped off the list by established authors. New authors were the first to be cut when the list had to shrink for financial problems.

How did you deal with the long wait?

It was demoralizing, but I kept writing. Scholastic bought my picture book; it’s waiting for illustration. My second middle reader (grades 4-8) was pending senior editorial approval when Rules won the Newbury Honor Medal. Scholastic immediately made an offer on that book and another one I have yet to write.

What is the next book about?

Halfway Between Hope and Hurricane takes place on an island off the coast of Maine with a protagonist whose mother teaches at the school. I drew from both my own experience as a teacher on Chebeague Island and an historical incident on another island. In the 1960’s Frenchboro Island tried to head off closure of their school by bringing in foster children from the mainland. For me the ethical question is the most important part. Do the means justify the end?

You won’t have to wait too long to find out. Halfway Between Hope and Hurricane is projected for a fall 2008 release. Since the Newbury Honor, Rules has spent 10 weeks on the NYT bestseller list and is in its fourth run. Cynthia Lord is on the fast track!

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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Size Matters

The whimsical playground at Longfellow School
(due to shut?)

The Walmartization of our nation is bad enough without it spreading to public education as consolidated big-box schools. There are hidden costs to so-called economies of scale. The academic literature over the past decade concurs that small schools work better in terms of academic achievement, attendance, behavior problems, graduation rates, parent involvement and teacher/staff job satisfaction. Small schools are even cost effective.

The students most at risk are hurt more as school size increases. They are lost in the cavernous halls and in the tunnels of bureaucracy. The achievement gap between the well off and the lower income/minorities only increases and is harder to track. There has also been a large rise in attention deficit disorders and autism, and these students cannot bear commotion and distraction. Children at risk are the canaries in the coalmine, and what is dangerous for them is challenging for most children.

As the rest of the nation struggles to break down large schools into smaller units, Maine marches in the opposite direction. Small towns mean small schools, and some can be too costly to run for cash-strapped communities. There is, however, a huge difference between consolidating 80 student rural schools to the ideal 350-500 student size and consolidating ideal size schools into a 800 student school as my town of Brunswick is contemplating. The damage can be mitigated by building two schools-within-a-school, but why go there at all?

Brunswick does need a new school to deal with crowding and has a long-standing problem of inequity. All four K-5 elementary schools are old, cramped and have systems in need of updating. The two newer schools have been housing students in “temporary” mobile units for decades. The kindergarteners have to put on coats to use the bathroom. A teacher fell through the floor one year. Add to that, the two older schools are not adequately accessible for the handicapped and lack space for new special programming and even a cafeteria. Worst of all, the districting among the schools is not equal in terms of income or special needs.

Despite these problems, Brunswick still produces excellent academic results on a tight budget. Much of that credit is due to dedicated staff, teachers and parent volunteers, but a small learning community facilitates this dynamic. The principal at my daughter’s school knows the name of every student. Classrooms team up for multi-age mentoring, and teachers stay connected with their students throughout the formative K-5 years. Many parents and even neighbors volunteer. It is a warm and cozy place for a child. The good spirit spills outside school walls into the neighborhood, engendering a special feeling of community.

So why not just build a new small K-5 school to deal with crowding and make the old schools accessible? Equity issues between the schools could be dealt through informed redistricting. The problem is that the state will only pay for new construction; hence the pressure is on the town to build a big new school and shut the two oldest schools (pictured) despite their lovely old architecture and valued place in the community.

A shiny, new mega-school may prove to be a Trojan horse should educational quality decline. It hurts not only the children but the entire community. A remote, poor state like Maine needs to attract professionals and equip the next generation for the future, and for that good schools are key. In addition to building a new school with state funds, it might be worth renovating or adding onto existing structures to maintain a system of small schools. Investing local dollars in quality education will pay off in the long run.

It’s the school board’s responsibility to start with clear educational goals and insist that the building be designed to facilitate programming instead of fitting the programming into the building. The architects are artists and technicians but not policy makers nor experts in education. Without guidance from the building committee, the design may limit the programming options. If the town wants small K-5 schools, then the architects need to start figuring out the most cost-effective way to make this happen. Policy must precede blueprints.

The public should be invited to participate throughout the process well before the town votes to accept or to reject the new school. The school building committee needs to launch a public information campaign with all the facts and figures. It’s hard to trust a process that almost appears to be happening behind closed doors. Where’s the time for public comment? Transparency allows for informed decision-making and better public policy. Whatever the outcome, it must reflect the will of the people through true civic discourse.

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