Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category

Birds, Beasts and Bragging

June 29th, 2011

Rip ’em up. Tear ’em up. Cocks give ’em hell.

That was by far the most popular cheer when I attended the University of South Carolina. My high school in New Jersey also had a bird (bird?!) as mascot, but not with razor spurs and killer reputation. Instead it was a cardinal.

I confess that I am not a true sports fan. I like the team sports I participated in — wrestling, swimming and water polo. When the Olympics coverage shows those, I may watch.

Gamecocks tee shirtIt should surprise no one that I’m not a big USC Gamecock’s fan. Yet I did become aware last year and this, as the team had a shot at back-to-back college baseball national championships. Last night, they did win the College World Series and did it right. It was an all-SEC final, against Florida. The red Carolina swept the three-game playoff after winning all of its CWS games. Or as Yahoo Sports put it, “South Carolina became the first team to ever go 10-0 in an NCAA tournament and the first since Oregon State in 2007 to go unbeaten in a CWS. The Gamecocks’ streaks of 16 NCAA tournament wins and 11 straight in the CWS are both the longest all-time.”

So, self, I ask you, why when friends were were also jocks or even just alumni go on and on when their alma maters do anything remarkable, are you blasé? I still do athletic things, am a hulking guy, and of course, once a jock, you keep that mindset at some level.

I’m understandably indifferent to a second college, Lesley in Cambridge, where many years after journalism school, I got a management degree. That likely has to do with no longer being a teen, as well as taking the courses at what was then a hotel on Route 1 in Norwood, where the business school shipped its professors one night a week for a long, long session. In fact, we called it Ramada U. As it turns out, I was the only one who had bothered to find out that the few, almost entirely women’s teams had a lynx as their mascot. None of us in our study group or the program ever attended any games.RU

In Columbia, I did attend football games, but to sell programs, which was a money maker for the underfunded swim team. I also wrote news, but mostly opinion pieces for the student newspaper. There I ran afoul of the fowl-loving real fans.

Our football coach/athletic director was the allegedly brilliant Paul Dietzel. He built a shakily assembled (really pissy) record there. Then when he had the double slam of thinking the ACC rules kept him from recruiting enough big dummies for football and the very good basketball team got skunked in the conference tournament, he took Carolina independent. It subsequently ended up in the SEC, which is much, much tougher in football. It took them nearly 20 years to morph into truly competitive teams there.

I found his crybaby exit from the ACC pretty stupid and puerile. One of my paper columns that got the most hateful responses was a satire about it. I suggested that we forgo such pretenses as athletic conferences and instead go directly professional, so we could simply funnel the huge alumni contributions into paying jocks directly. We could buy championships and be done with it. Lo and woe, many students and alumni were mightily offended. In a state where nearly everyone in power had at least one degree from Carolina, many threats and curses came to the board and president. In fact another journalism major told me that when he was crossing the horseshoe in the old campus and hailed President Tom Jones, he told him on being asked that I was gone. He said Jones grinned and said, “Good!”

I surely have robbed myself of frequent simple pleasures in vicarious participation in an alma mater’s successes. That’s odd in that I have many cheap thrills. I revel in our own flowers, herbs and other plants, as I do in those I see as I walk or cycle. When I create a new or I think improved dish, as I do several times weekly, I can be smug. I can even delight in a small square of 72% chocolate or snifter of Lagavulin like it was a sacrament.

Those though are all personal and direct.

I admit it’s great for the young Gamecocks that they won it all in their sport, and two consecutive years. I was never on a team that did anything like that. They’ll have bragging rights for the rest of their lives. I just don’t see how it has much to do with me.

Spitting My Past’s Past

March 3rd, 2011


Surely within a few years (at least in generational terms), people will have easy, understandable access to their genetic information. Through a generous, question-asking/answering gift from #1 son, our family is suddenly immersed in an early version of it.

His Christmas present to his parents and two brothers was a saliva-based analysis of humans we are and our DNA. 23andMe reports what I suspected — I’m a fairly homogenized Northern and Western European type. I seem to have roots many thousands of years ago in what is now Arabia and even Northern Africa, but from way back, my folk populated the British Isles and Scandinavia, no big surprise for someone who grew up blond and pale.

At this nascent point in the science of DNA and related research, the what does all this mean remains sketchy to us relatively low-scientific resource types. The report site shows me as paternal haplogroup R1b1b2a1a1 and on the maternal side J1c3b. Huh?

The many screens of info suggest folk in the probably pretty small customer database who are like 3rd, 4th or so cousins genetically. Other screens and new notices regularly suggest proclivity toward various health conditions, traits and diseases. Again, with my genetics, there’s nothing startling, with slightly decreased or elevated tendencies to this or that. Of the long list, there is literally nothing alarming or even worthy of asking a doc about.

More curious making would be where my ancestor started, traveled and settled. Others are way ahead of me here. There are websites with voluminous related reports and people who have traced migration routes over tens of thousands of years, mostly based on analysis of bones all over Asia and Europe. Amusingly to me is that my paternal line stated a bit late but then mated with everyone in their way, leaving the haplogroup dominating Spain, the Basque region, France, Wales, Ireland, Britain, Denmark and Iceland.  That blew my idea that it was the Norsemen that started the bastardized lineage of what became Britain; instead, it may have been the R1b1b2 and so forth breeders who first became the Norsemen.

Clicking around on the haplogroups, I discovered that Wikipedia has numerous pages on various ones, including mine. These tend to be replete with links to academic studies, with all the data you can eat.

It also led to something I should have run across before, Doggerland. It was a real-world Atlantis in the sense that it was heavily inhabited 10,000 or so years ago and disappeared slowly at first from rising, post ice-age seas, then suddenly in a huge tsunami 8,000 years ago, give or take.

doggerThe accompanying image is part of one from a site with links to its tale. According to genetic traces still being dredged up, my ancestors heavily populated this land bridge between what became Europe and Britain. Many being washed away by 75-feet of tidal wave didn’t stop the stock.

Last year, I stumbled on a DNA-based series on PBS, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. one Faces of America. As a non-TV watcher, I had read of it but of course missed it. I watched it online and as mildly sensationalized as it is (picking a few celebrities and tracing their genes way back), I was intrigued. Particularly moving too was when they presented Yo-Yo Ma with a copy of centuries of hand-recorded genealogy they discovered in China.

As it turns out, #1 son works for the Broad Institute in Cambridge that did key research for that series. I’m already hoping that folk there can tell him how to compare segments and get the most of the info on us.

As fascinating as I’ve found this stuff now that our family results arrived, I doubt it will consume me or us. Instead, I project to a future where such information becomes widely available and in much more manageable forms. Surely, we’re likely to start getting such testing as part of routine medical profiles. While docs may want to know what problems to watch for and eventually what to treat us preventively with genetic medicine in development or yet only imagined, we typical self-centered humans might rather know where our great-great-great-greats started, visited and stopped.

My father’s mother liked genealogy and had her husband’s side traced. There are some notable folk, but it’s really terribly British and on this continent from early colonial days (excepting the Spanish in Florida and so forth). In fact, that became very obvious to our sons when their Boston schools would have international nights, with pot lucks. The families were told to bring national dishes. That’s fine enough for the many with Latino, Russian, Vietnamese and other backgrounds. What’s a WASP to do and bring, pot roast or bread pudding? The kids wanted to do the right thing, but as a cook-everything guy, I ended up bring something I knew many would enjoy, like the un-English arroz con pollo.

My personal background seems not so much a melting pot as a lump of cheddar.

Friday Update: National Geographic had a Doggerland show, which doesn’t seem to rerun. However, it is available on YouTube.

Earning Poundage

February 25th, 2011


Slogging through the slush today on a CIA tour (as in cooks, not spooks), son #3 got culinary truth from a second set of guides. We previously had toured Johnson & Wales in Providence. Oddly enough, we did so in driving rain there also; we sense a pattern and may do any future cooking-school tours online.

Down in that other Hyde Park (New York this time), I was surprised by the expansion and relative grandeur of the Culinary Institute of America campus. A few friends of mine have gone there — restarting careers. One foundered in liberal arts and decided to get real; she was the first woman to graduate at the head of her class, 1975. Then as she had established herself as a chef in Manhattan died much to0 young of cancer. Another had a successful spin in IT in NY State, raised a kid to college age, divorced and needed to become another person. She is a famous chef in Santa Fe.

I had spent days at a time on the campus back when the main dining facility clearly showed what it used to be, the nave of a Marist chapel. That building is still in use, but there are five high-end restaurants for the public and numerous endowed buildings. For example, we ate at the Catrina de’ Medici, in a few fancy building paid for by the Colavita oil-oil folk. (That meal requires its own post.)

Today’s tour highlight for me was a brief aside conversation by guide Chelsea. She’s about to graduate and go to Cornell for a viniculture concentration.

As the times I have visited over the years, I noticed what is all too obvious — there are a fair number of hefty students. Professors tend to be around for a long time. Some are stocky, and others very thin. I thought of the 1938 Block-Heads, in which Oliver and Hardy are set to cooking on their own.

Chelsea spoke of everyone trying to get to the campus gyms and pool. The students often have to taste what they make all day, and sometimes have homework including 45 different cookies they made. They have to look at, feel, smell, taste and thoroughly describe each, with their reports strictly graded to see they understand the distinctions. Even if you do the wine-tasting equivalent of spitting it out, that’s a lot of butter and sugar.

As we slipped over the pavement in the sleet, I asked her if the national fascination with obesity factored here and whether students hassled each other. She said it was a big issue and chefs as well as students were aware of it. The students didn’t deride each other, she said, but the school added additional nutritional information and courses.

Then when the group caught up, she said that a peril of getting a CIA degree came from the eating. She was a mesomorph and not fat, but not junkie thin as is the underwear model fashion. She announced that she arrived several years before as a size six but was far from that now.

She added that stereotype at typical colleges is that the meal plans and inactivity mean there is a freshman 15, that is students put on 15 pounds in the first year. “Here, we talk about a freshman 45,” she said.

Nothing New Under the Thumbs

November 21st, 2010

About that attention thing…people have not been paying attention to those around them as well as to behavioral literature. The meme that relates appears yet again in today’s NY Times maggy. Researchers are yet again pimping the concept that current technology distorts and ruins the mental abilities of youth.

Some of this seems purely generational. Thirty-something and older scholars decry the intellectual failings of those youngsters. We’ve been seeing this ploy from the origins of the written word.  “When I was your age…”

This time, it is yet again the current technology as a hook. Think, smart phone making kids stupid, truncated Twitter tweets ruining deep thought, and factoids from Wikipedia removing any drive to read and then analyze.

In the defense of those who discover, rediscover and shill this new, improved, exciting scholarship, we can see evidence worldwide. Kids with callouses on their thumbs, folk with wireless headsets chattering away (we hope not just to themselves), and youth who do not read newspapers or have even rudimentary knowledge of human history.

Ahem, go back one or two generations and see the same simple-minded fallacy. Back in the 1950s and 60s, it was TV. By cracky, boys and girls today sit with their mouths open, wasting their lives on cartoons and dumb programs; when I was their age, I knew how to read!

In the next generation, it was the internet, rather the World Wide Web, to those of us who, by cracky, used the net before browsers with text search and online message (bulletin boards). Now it’s iPhones, Facebook and such for the next generation.

For the attention weak, the Times puts the punchline near the top:

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

That simply reeks of the same smelly sensationalism as previous super-generational hoo-ha.

If you’d like to see the living roots of such criticism, consider multitasking and look to boomer only children or firstborns. On the former, I’ve noted repeatedly (like here) Bill Gates is going to have to do considerable atoning for his foisting that belief on us to sell his Office software. Humans almost to a one are not capable of multitasking. Setting that expectation makes managers and workers alike inefficient and set up for failure. You can be sure that as nearly everyone says, “I’m a people person,” that everyone is sure he or she is a multitasker.

Second, for the special kids in any given family, the anecdotal evidence is powerful that the performance pressures are strongest for the firstborn and for an only child. That is particularly true, regardless of gender, if dad or both parents are overachievers.

We see a great sense of competitiveness. It often comes with doting parents and even teachers telling Master or Miss Special how superior everything they do and the people they are are.

The corollary effect is constant rewarding of the quick response. (Sound familiar today?) At home and in school and even among classmates, they learn to blurt an acceptable answer or interpretation before anyone else. Much praise follows and reinforces this behavior.

What they and everyone around lose is an emphasis on or drive to insight, completeness, analysis and even wisdom.  These, if you pardon, intellectual premature ejaculators become wired for shouting out the OK answers.

Thus, we presaged the meme of digital kids. We already have behavioral mechanisms in place to ruin thinking. We’ve done it for who knows how long…and without the need of technology.

Niggles and Memes

Of course, the sad truth of most academic research is that many perform it and few add appreciably to the body of their area’s lore.

Think of young Talmudic students. They may sit or stand in pairs or larger groups in yeshiva debating a passage or even a phrase. They may alternate debate positions, vigorously contradicting themselves in succession. The idea here repeats in much of secular scholarship. Attempt to worry ideas or facts beyond intellectual death and resurrection, with the idea that doing so brings you closer and closer to truth and knowledge.

Much of academic work and writing does the same, only without the give and take. Typically a scholar has a solid idea or realization and publishes it. Others already working in the field may defensively say and write, in effect, that this position is crap. Mostly they’ll take a detail and claim to refute it with the implication, in an Ayn Rand sort of way, that the whole paper is therefore unworthy junk. This inability to judge larger ideas and works again is the short-attention-span meme.

Most often, the critics are tired and effete. Without their own big ideas or innovations, they are reduced to finding holes or stains in the intellectual garments of others. There are, after all, many scholars and seemingly relatively few ideas and breakthroughs.

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Gaping Maw of School Cuts

March 12th, 2010

Color me skeptical. At last night’s Boston schools budget hearing, the big shots weren’t talking and ranting or begging students and parents may have been bellowing into the wilderness.

As City Councilor John Connolly so candidly described it, the details of the school budget are fungible. He is in his third year of the messiest job on Council, chair of the education committee.  He admitted he didn’t get the big and small pictures on his first go and that he was too gentle and accommodating on the second. He thinks he may get it right this time. He’d better — this year and at least the next two are ones of triage.

We’re in the middle of a seven-week sprint. The Boston School Committee must present a balanced budget by the last Wednesday in March, working with figures their bank, that being the city, provides. At about a third of Boston’s budget, schools are the biggest chunk and get the most attention and hearings.

The City presents its budget to the Council, in theory for an up or down vote. Along the way in both processes, there are numerous public hearings and a few votes. Apparently, there’s much politicking and dickering.

Very Personal Experiences

I’ve been knocked around by the BPS for 25 years, from when our first of three sons headed to the Quincy School. He and his next brother were whittled into advanced work kids and jammed through BLS. The youngest is finishing BLA.

Along the way, my wife and I struggled mightily and frequently to get them in decent schools in a system that had from terrible to superb. We worked through the quirks and arrogance of numerous iterations of elected or appointed school committees and the often meaningless bluster and promises of yet another superintendent. Worst was dealing with Court Street to discover the current set of tricks required for the right school assignments. We had to move repeatedly in the early years for placement; no parent should ever have to do that.

We would hear how equitable assignments are, how this school was as good as that, and other lies. We would call Court Street for information, such as when assignments would be decided, only to get radically different dates, apparently on the whim of who was answering the phones.

We heard repeatedly from Court Street employees we knew as well as activist parents at one school or another that it was whom you knew. If you were involved in volunteering and the school parent council, you had an in for assignments. The Committee swore that was impossible, but we could see who got the assignments.

I earned my cynicism about the BPS system.

End Game(s)

The schools and city budgets aren’t finalized. It’s likely that it will be the last week of June before deadline on the 30th that the nits and grits are done. The pot is fixed but who gets what is not.

In the meanwhile, two more school hearings are on tap. Monday, 3/15, at 6 p.m. at Madison Park High will be a public hearing like the one I went to yesterday at Boston English. Then on Wednesday, 3/24, at Court Street, at 5 p.m. will be another short one before the 6 p.m. Committee meeting.

There my skepticism fairly hoots. The 3/24 meeting is when the Committee votes on the budget. So tell me on a scale of 1,000 whether it is likely to change at all in the last hour, on say a level of 1 or 2 of that 1,0000. Horse feathers!

At his gutsy BLA parent-council presentation, Connolly was frank about the process. Several of the parents there noted how disparate the individual schools’ budgets and cuts were, hitting BLA much harder than many. Connolly said there were lots of tweaks within the amounts proposed in the seven-week process. He noted that the best chance a school’s parents had was to go to the hearings and testify, ideally en masse or a long sequence (think 25 parents).

He also told me that both district and at-large councilors form alliances and cut deals for various programs and schools. He didn’t say it, but likewise it sounds like a lot of action takes place in city-hall offices, coffee shops and small meetings.

That is the way of politics everywhere and we should not delude ourselves into thinking an academic tie changes that.

I recall much worse years ago in South Carolina. At the state house there, it was amusing to see the school groups making their class trips, back in the day when kids got civics classes. They’d come into a chamber or a combined session to see government in action. When there was a big bill with heavy political or economic consequences, they wanted to see orators at the best. Invariably, the bill would get a quick, often unanimous, vote one way or the other. The kids were stunned, leaving with their what-just-happened faces.

Truth be told, the bills were decided at backyard pig roasts and other private venues. It was a done deal before the gavel hit the brass plate on the wooden block.

This is moderately cleaner here and now, but not all that different from what I see. At the very least, the proposed budget, as well as the hearings and other key dates appear on the Committee site.

Grim Choices

BPS Chief Financial Officer John (Jack) McDonough sprinted through a shortened version of the budget last evening. The previous day, he had gone into more detail at a presentation at the Committee’s regular meeting.

He’s not quite as flat in delivery as the cartoon Droopy, but McDonough has the stereotypical CPA’s monotone down pat. He also looks like he could be a mortician as well, which adds to the measured effect.

The facts include, as Connolly told the BLA group, the schools are screwed financially short and mid term. Yes, the city, state, federal and foundation contributions are down. Moreover, we have spent over half the federal stimulus money last fiscal year and will do the rest in FY2011 in the works.

This year, a balanced budget will only be within reach because of accommodations. At the state level, Gov. Deval Patrick pledged level funding for education. Likewise, Boston Mayor Tom Menino rolled back a demand that BPS cut over 1% of its budget (about $8.2 million) this year.

Apparently, the Committee is always a bit of a Henny Penny, squawking about falling skies and huge deficits…only to miraculously come up with a salvaged budget through great effort. Unfortunately, last year, that did catch up to numerous schools.

At BLA for example, they lost five teachers and one administrator.  Among other fallout is the loss of the creative-writing program, a hallmark of the school, which has climbed to some of the nation’s best English test scores. It also means that 8th and 10th graders generally have two study (no classes, kiddies) periods out of seven classes a day — a lot less education for the bucks.

The big question now is when the Committee is going to shut down schools. Hyde Park Councilor Rob Consalvo said that would be too negative, too disruptive. Don’t count on that.

The Committee works with a figure of 4,500 “empty seats” in the system. At the same time, many classes are at their maximum of 30 students, a level a lot of teachers said is too high to do the job right. Yet, the idea is that each seat costs the BPS $4,000 a year, so moving folk around would solve that, and by implication necessarily require closing schools, canning staff and saving all around.

Last evening, Committee Member Mary Tamer said it was time to talk about closings and get the process in the works. Otherwise those on the dais didn’t say much meaningful.

Superintendent Carol Johnson directed a couple of speakers, students and parents, to some staff in the room, but made no policy statements nor answered any of the tricky questions presented. Her solution might address individual concern ( or not) but did not get into the hard topics or reveal any policy. That was a finger in the dike.

Committee Chair Gregory Groover likewise was very politic and close mouthed. He did do something meaningful, which those attending Monday’s hearing may get the benefit from — asked CFO McDonough to produce an addition cut at the proposed budget that shows what real people and plant impacts the cuts will have per school and line item.

Surprisingly after all the hoo-ha yesterday, the hearing was sparsely attended. The only other Committee member was Michael O’Neill. The only politicians represented were Councilor Chuck Turner, and staff from Rep. Liz Malia and Connolly. Perhaps 100 parents and students were in the audience.The large auditorium looked like a scattered room where people were afraid to catch flu from each other.

By the bye, the education committee comprises Chair Connolly, Vice Chair Turner, Consalvo, Ayanna Pressley, Steve Murphy, Sal LaMattina, and John Tobin. I figured all should have been there or had minions present.

More Equal than Others

Backing up what the BLA parents complained about last week, the detailed proposed budget by department and school showed those disparities. (I don’t see that online, but I picked up a copy at yesterday’s meeting.)

On the face of it, BLA parent council representative Christopher Carter nailed it. He said there was no rhyme or reason to the inequities among schools. Some have already been hit hard and will be again. Others are untouched or augmented.

Connolly noted in his presentation to BLA that some schools have a lot more ELL (English language learner) and SPED (special education) students, among other high-cost populations. Federal mandates mean more per-public costs there. However, to me, even accounting for that, some schools seem better plugged into the politics and finances than others.

Even after last year’s cuts, consider a sampling of those projected by percentage this time:

  • Adams Elementary, plus 9%
  • Blackstone Elementary, -5%
  • BTU Pilot, plus 18%
  • Hale Elementary, -6%
  • Hennigan Elementary, -1%
  • Mozart Elementary, level
  • Murphy Elementary, -5%
  • Boston Middle School Academy, -13%
  • Boston Latin School, -1%
  • Boston Latin Academy, -6%
  • West Roxbury High, level

You can see from these and similar figures why many parents are angry and are skeptical about Committee claims of fairness and shared sacrifice.

In addition, even before getting to school-closing conversations, other budget measures include severely cutting custodial staff, deferring physical plant maintenance,  and outsourcing food service. Already, administrators have forgone raises.

Another nasty wild card to hit the table will be teachers’ union deals. Collective bargaining will occur this summer, after the budget starts. That promises to be rougher than this budget process. Teachers can match Committee and superintendent whining note for note. This could be the battle of the drama queens, each singing that she only has the best interest of the students at heart.

I think back to Connolly. I sure don’t envy his chairing the education committee. Yet, I spoke with his policy director, Jamie Langowski, last evening before the hearing. She iterated what he had told me several times, he loves this. He understands how important education in general and this budgeting in crisis in particular are. He wants to be part of making it the best we can get under the circumstances. Good on him.

Cross-Post: This has gone over the rim. I’ll also put in on Marry in Massachusetts.

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School Whirlpools

March 4th, 2010

CharybdisSelf-defensively, I avoid non-profit boards. Experience informs me they are the Charybdis, the crushing whirlpools of public life. In his goodhearted, youthful enthusiasm, Boston City Councilor John Connolly steers yet again, for the third time, through and past the whirlpool of the school budget.

Last evening, he was at the parent council  meeting at Boston Latin Academy, candidly answering those difficult questions about the bad, worse, worst money realities of our schools. He’s been through this twice in his first term as at-large councilor and chair of the education committee. He told me a couple of months ago that he was pleased to get the chair again. From here, it looks like the toughest, most demanding spot on the council.

After many years of serving on and chairing non-profit boards and committees, I had avoided the BLA council meetings. Such groups suck in and assimilate those who express even the mildest interest. Yet, yesterday I knew that John would discuss the schools’ budget and wanted to hear that.

John Connolly

As he has been every time I have heard him speaking publicly or one-to-one, John was straight ahead. (You can hear him on our schools in our Left Ahead! podcast from October.)

I’ll follow the school budget and post more on it here. A key message from last evening is that things were grim last year, will be worse this time (FY2011) and even worse for the next couple of years at least. He strongly urged parents who think their kids and schools are getting short shrift to speak up now during the budget hearings to have any chance of making the best of the situation.

Regular readers know I’ve been a Gov. Deval Patrick supporter from when he first ran for office. He likes to do the hard, progressive thing of going to the underlying problems and solutions. Yet he seemed disingenuous when he seemed to announce that schools funding was just fine in the new commonwealth budget, as in, “Provides a record high $4.048 billion in Chapter 70 funding, ensuring that no school district receives less funding than it did in FY10 and fully funding foundation.”

Of course, the unamusing joke here is that federal and local money are integral to the local schools’ funds. Moreover, the federal stimulus money was over half gone last fiscal year and will totally disappear in FY2011.

At a train of library tables, Connolly came into a frenzied group of perhaps 20 parents with Interim Headmaster Emilia Pastor. She had been long-term Headmaster Maria Garcia-Aaronson’s lieutenant before the latter retired last year.

Disclaimer: My youngest is a BLA student.

While keeping similar policies and making a few silly changes (like no posting of student notices on the brick interior walls), Pastor is favorably regarded and may take over the permanent position. At the meeting though, she was no dynamo, seeming to enjoy her long hair more than the discussions.

In fairness, those discussions were brutal and bristly though. John walked into a continuation of the big issue for the parents’ council — the inequity of funding. A couple of parents returned to numbers like $4,000-plus funding per BLA student per year, with some other schools getting nearly three times as much. Why and what can we do, they asked any and all.

It turns out that none of this, including funding formulae and numbers, was simple. While not defending city and school committee budget proposals, John  agreed that there were inequities. He noted that some of this results from the higher needs of special-education (SPED) and English language learner (ELL) non-native English speakers. After all, big cities invariably play the role of staging ground for immigrant and special-needs students.

Pastor previously noted that smaller school had larger nuts, such as fixed costs for minimal administration and maintenance. This pushes up the per-student costs.

However, there seemed no doubt to anyone that the effects of inequities fell more heavily on BLA than other schools. Last year, for example, the budget was down over 1%. That translated into, among other mandates, a requirement that each school in the system cut about $400 expenses per student.

Those around the table last night pointed out that for BLA with a $4,000+ share per student this was about 10% gross. That meant practically the loss of 5 teachers and 2 administrators. Pastor had set the stage by saying that two grades already had up to two studies per day out of seven classes as a result. In practical terms, the loss of one teacher means five fewer classes, which the school basically must replace with studies, thus less instruction. Also, the cuts meant that the school known for turning out great writers and concentrating on creative writing had to eliminate that program entirely. It had ranked at the top of the nation in English language skills and surely won’t now.

By the time Connolly arrived, the parents were stoked and related his budget summary to the unfairness of higher per-pupil schools. For example, one that had to cut $400 per student from $11,000 per-student per year would be far less hard hit in real terms.

After walking through the budget process (a future post here), John was blunt about their options. There would be fewer dollars in real and relative terms this year and next and next. He suggested those who wanted greater equity and the best for BLA attend the school-committee hearings on March 11 and 15 at English and Madison Park at 6 p.m. “If 25 BLA parents  (testify about the effects of the cuts), that’s the best chance you’ve got (of influencing the budget).

It is a fascinating zero-sum game today. The school committee huddles to produce its budget request. The mayor’s people produce a massive budget, which the city council gets on 4/14 this year. On paper at least, the city council votes it up or down by the end of 6/30.

The school committee holds several public hearings and appears up to 10 times before the city council to explain their proposals and rationales. Connolly told me that while in theory the mayor’s budget is fixed, there’s lots of concession and dickering in those two-plus months. While the council doesn’t have line-item power to delete or augment, councils banding together can have a big influence on individual lines and departments.

The schools represent the largest area of the budget — over one third. Of course it gets the most attention. Yet, it has been reduced year upon year. John made it plain that we can expect at least several more years of reductions, likely 1% or more this year on top of last budget’s drop.

He spooked the parents a bit by listing some of the proposals that have begun to appear in the local papers and city hall rumors. Each is a shocker to some constituency — think stopping free transportation for private and parochial students, dropping free T passes for high-school students, shrinking school walk zones to minimize bus costs, and shifting school capacities to equalize class sizes and reduce costs. He doesn’t know which of these will appear in the budget, but was sure these and others would be incendiary.

The schools have already give up and cut quite a bit, not without gamesmanship and theatrics.  Administrators and other have foregone raises for example. Yet, we have negotiations in the works for a new teacher’s contract, which won’t be finalized until after the budget passes. It’s a wild ride ahead, sure to leave many dissatisfied.

Oddly enough, John is not jaded nor exhausted. He’s into his third go at this. While he promises not to be as nice a guy as he was in previous budget processes, Connolly is up for another round in this most trying period.

I don’t envy him the job, particularly this year.

More posts on this to follow.

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Rip ’em Up

November 20th, 2009

Tear ’em up. Cocks give ’em hell.

That was the common cheer when I was at University of South Carolina football games. I heard the cheer exhorting the team, the Gamecocks, many times. It wasn’t so much that I liked football. Rather the swim team, of which I was a member, had rights to sell programs and funnel the money to the underfunded sport.USC logo

As a journalism student, I was a reporter and editor on the newspaper. Of course it was The Gamecock. It is now a daily during the regular school year. My class expanded it from a weekly to three issues a week. When I arrived, the most popular feature was a Greek-society-oriented gossip column, Cock Tales. Yuk, yuk.

The  illegal cockfighting is apparently clandestine still occasionally happening and not just down South. This year, a bust in Connecticut was in the news. Just a few days ago, the more stereotypical version in rural South Carolina got the bad attention of state and federal police.

This goes back to the original European colonization in this hemisphere. The Spanish brought cockfighting to Mexico, New Mexico and California. While the Puritans banned it in New England as their like-minded chums did in England (but for the sin of gambling not animal cruelty), the other original colonies condoned or ignored it. Supposedly both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson bet on and otherwise participated in it, what was then considered a sport for gentlemen.

Not long after, in the first couple years of the 19th Century, South Carolina began and quickly adopted the gamecock as mascot and symbol. While the Confederate battle flag no longer flies officially there, the, well, cocky little bird remains ubiquitous. As well as on the university papers and anything of the sports teams, you can find that mascot on everything from beach towels to golf balls to cheese dip.

By law, cockfighting is illegal in this country except for the equivalent of colonies — Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Mariana Islands. However, the criminal nature varies widely, from felonies at the federal level and in 33 states to a misdemeanor likely to bring a fine…assuming a conviction. In Louisiana, the last state to outlaw it, cockfighting can bring $1,000 fine and six months in prison. In South Carolina, the maximum penalty for a first time is $100 and 30 days — not exactly a terrifying deterrent, rooster lovers.

Here in Massachusetts, cockfighting was outlawed in 1836, the first such formal ban n this country. Presently a detailed law (Chapter 272) lists such penalties as up to five years and $1,000 for owning fighting birds, a month in jail and a $250 fine for watching a cockfight, and loss of all birds and equipment of a fighting facility.

Gamecocks tee shirtAt least when I was there, locals and students had little interest in cockfighting. They did though enjoy the cheap related puns. Even now, I guess I never really got over it. I like wearing my tee shirt with eight-inch letters spelling COCKS.

Not everyone shares the humor of Carolina students. Consider PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), which eight years ago tried to get the two schools with gamecock mascots (Alabama’s Jacksonville State being the other) to get the colleges to pick a less blood-sport symbol.

According to a piece in the State (S.C.’s biggest newspaper) at the time, PETA’s Kristie Phelps said, “It’s a safe bet that officials at the University of South Carolina would never dream of calling their athletic teams the Dogfighters, the Wifebeaters, the Looters or the Road-Ragers.” Predictably, the administrations said there was no interest in the change. Phelps may not have bolstered PETA’s stance with her response for alternatives:

The Gym Socks or the Pet Rocks or anything that doesn’t perpetuate animal cruelty. The Gamecocks can score points for kindness; they can be champions of compassion.

That may not be quite as absurd and baseless as it seems coming from that source. We should note that the Carolina motto is from Ovid [a widely used selection from his Letters from the Black Sea (Epistulae ex Ponto)].  He wrote concerning a liberal education:

Adde quod ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes
emollit mores nec sinit esse feros.

Many others, including Napoleon, used that as well. In South Carolina’s case, the literal translation, (liberal education) humanizes character and does not allow it to become fierce, has a vernacular definition — we make gentlemen out of roughnecks.The roughnecks, or rednecks as we Yankees are wont to call anyone south of New Jersey, aren’t much for cockfighting anymore. On the other hand, they aren’t much for being told from afar what’s proper for them.

I agree that any animal fighting for sport and gambling is cruel and should remain illegal. I don’t think that a legacy mascot will inspire a resurgence of it though.

It reminds me of my minor embarrassment of my high-school days at our mascot, a pretty but not very butch cardinal. A fighting rooster may also be just a bird, but it least it had an air of strength about it, an attitude that it could tackle more than a sunflower seed. As a member of the wrestling and swimming teams and sports editor, I rather envied the jungle cats and such mascots. …a cardinal?

For South Carolina, I’m pleased it turned its traditional sport into a crime. It should go all the way and make it a felony, but there’s time for that.

Thanksgiving Plus 2: Funny stuff for someone who cares little about football…Carolina did rip archrival Clemson today in their long-term T’day week battle (34-17).  The aggy school up in the hills was 15th in the nation, so it’s sort of too bad, but the folk in Columbia are likely callin’  “Give ’em hell!”

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Immortality, Boston Style

October 8th, 2009

Elihu Greenwood mugshotRelative immortality in these parts used to cling to landowners. Consider two artifacts — Paul’s Bridge and the Greenwood School.

In what seemed a period with a dearth of imagination, locals settled here with the titular trappings of their old digs. Boston, for an obvious example, and many settlements were English town names familiar to the newcomers. Then by the 18th and 19 Centuries, they progressed slightly to naming places and even objects for their own.

However, despite the assertion that in these parts it was what you know, not whom you know, it was in fact the wealthy landowner who got the honors. Imagine.

Down on what is now the Milton/Hyde Park line,  by 1784, the artfully constructed Paul’s Bridge had that name. It was not from some Revolutionary War hero with that first name. Rather, the nearby farming family with that last name owned the most land in the area. In the British tradition of kissing up to the wealthy, that family got this wee honor.

The Greenwood naming orgy (streets, squares, schools and more) was similar but had greater justification.  The 19th Century Elihu Greenwood (1807-71) was likewise a farmer, but a civic-minded one. He did part with tracts of land to advance the commonweal. A grateful then Dorchester, then Hyde Park and now Boston named this and that for him.

On the face of it, he appears in tiny bios in old books in the Boston Public Library social-sciences area only as a Dorchester school board member. However, the very helpful research librarian (I wish they had name tags; I must ask her to ID herself), knew where to find those bios, is herself from Roslindale and a student of that neighborhood’s history, and knew where the real goodies are online.

She pointed me to PDF files of The Hyde Park Historical Record. Wherein, Elihu’s sole child, Herbert wrote up a charming account of his dad in Vol. VI on pages 54 and 55. I lifted the mug above from the included plate image.

Elihu, I would note, is Hebrew for He is my God. Befitting such piety, the Elihu in question did not hoard his gold. As Herbert wrote:

He was a public-spirited man, especially in his actions. He, and a friend of his, Mr. John Weld, of Jamaica Plain, were instrumental in having the County Commissioners lay out what is now known as Harvard and Hyde Park avenues from Fairmount avenue to Forest Hills ; in order that this should not fail, he gave all the land required for this across his farm from Westminster street to the brook this side of Clarendon Hills. He also gave one-half the land for Metropolitan avenue from East River street to Greenwood Square. He donated fifteen hundred dollars toward the erection of the Baptist church, and was one of the building committee of the same. A few years after his death his widow donated eighteen hundred dollars to the Methodist Church. The Greenwood School, Greenwood Avenue, and Greenwood Square, were all named in honor of him.

So, we can probably infer that if you want relative immortality around here, amass some property and then give a good portion of it for the public good.

So remember though that even the finest monuments have real tenures of only hundreds or thousands of years. You’ll be long gone…but immortality?

Better we should recall Shelley’s most famous sonnet, Ozymandias, which includes:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

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Boston School Fire and Fry Pan

February 25th, 2009

Let’s be plain, our nation’s hope for egalitarianism and fairness lives in the soil of public education. Boston was early in this effort, but has yet to commit to high-quality or even adequate free schooling.

For example, the newish schools superintendent, Carol Johnson, shamelessly waved her new zoning plan. The certain result will be relegate many students who need good school to the city’s worst.

Emotional Baggage

In my house, we’re vets on the zone wars. We have adapted to, researched, fought against, and survived multiple versions of dictates of where our boys could go to school.It is no exaggeration that the rules have totally changed multiple times. We also have the unusual perspective of time. There were 11 years between our first and second sons and three before the third.Boston residents know well enough that missing street signs ridicule the ignorant rather than reflect on the city’s incompetence and indifference. Likewise, for schools, selecting them can be a gamble or long and arduous gaming of the system.

What you read and see out of the School Committee is either not honest reality or at least not full reality. Perhaps the newer lottery-style, rank-your-top-choices schools request is better than the first way we learned. We quite literally had to move twice to be positive we were in the zone for good schools of the right grade.

Despite cost center one being very bright, that guaranteed virtually nothing.We got him in the Quincy Elementary in Chinatown for primary grades. The committee had zoned that for Beacon Hill and Chinatown, with the seemingly accurate perception that parents from the Wasp/yuppie and Asian-American cultures would ensure that their issue worked hard and reflected well on the system.

We got condo’ed out a couple of apartments in the realty frenzy. That ended up with our moving specifically to see that he was in the right zone for the then high-performing middle school, the Timilty.

Boston has retained an atavistic one-year school transition joke. Elementaries  run through fifth grade, middle schools can be three years or maybe a combo with high. The three exam schools —Latin School, Latin Academy and O’Bryant — start at seventh.

That queer year allegedly is for preparing the smarter kids for the rigors of the exam schools. For our first son though, when he went to Timilty, then a six-day-a-week school, and got to Latin School, he asked, “Where’s the work?”

Perils of Passivity

To our amazement, many parents are either ignorant of the game and its possible outcomes or simply so busy with the necessary duties of their lives that they took what they got. In our visits to potential schools, we met quite a few who said a neighborhood school was their top or only priority.We looked at the test results, spoke with parents and teachers and read the papers. The difference among education among city schools here astonished. Yet, if knowing your kid can walk to school outweighs lifelong effects, you’re not going to be shopping opportunities.For cost centers two and three, the formalized zone system changed everything. Residence alone did not give you a seat. We learned from other parents, including one who worked for the committee, that making a regular pain of yourself by phone and if possible in person helped tremendously, as did knowing or being related to those in the selection process.

We ended up with three boys through good schools, with diverse activities as well as high-quality teachers, and all three in exam schools. It was exhausting!

Harder, Better Way

The goal would be clear and the primary method obvious as well. Accomplishing that is far from it. Quite simply, if all the schools here are from good to great, we can stop the games. Those who benefit most of public education would get enough to offer them the chance of careers, higher education, and steps toward economic equality.Since Horace Mann became Massachusetts’ first secretary of education in 1837, the method has been before us. He had fallen in with Unitarians on moving to Boston, thus honing his unusually keen sense of social justice.

Mann proposed:

  1. that the public should no longer remain ignorant and free
  2. that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public
  3. that this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children of all diversities
  4. that this education must be free of religious influence
  5. that this education must be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society
  6. and that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers

So, there’s the progressive agenda yet again. In this area, it requires money and brain commitment to high-quality universal public education. While the rough infrastructure, physical as well as employee, is in place, much, much work must happen to elevate the lowest schools and retrain or eliminate the inadequate teachers and administrators. Yet, we are far more than half way to this goal.

Our current Gov. Deval Patrick claims he’ll be about that business. Even before the 2008 financial chaos, he was beset by severe budget constraints. Particularly, legislators had pushed off education and other essential expenses under some pretense that we’d be just fine without higher taxes. Liars.

Of course such real public education includes the risk of intense shock to the comfortable. The privileged can pass along their fortunes through favorable tax and real-estate laws and they can ensure their offspring go to schools that provide lifelong connections.

Even those without malice for the less favored by birth have no reason to campaign for true egalitarianism. It is only natural to watch out for your own. No matter how short and wide the dunghill, there may be only so much room at the top. There can be peril in elevating others.

Yet, the laws and regulations favor efforts for better schools. We have our informal aristocracy, but that conflicts with our long-held and Constitutionally defined ideal of fairness and equality.

I do believe a city first and then a state with all-good schools is possible. When that happens, Mann’s mandates could be much more real than they are.

Surely, were Boston to do that and the whole state to go about the same, the rest of the nation could not pretend it is impossible. They would have to act. The alternative would be endless explaining of failure to their voters.

Mann put it simply in words that work well nearly 200 years later, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

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A Teen’s Worst Days

January 20th, 2009

To my 9th grader, parental cruelty seems both innovative and relentless. On Saturday, for just one example, he had a new most-hated activity — snowshoes.

He is recently at a numerical disadvantage. There’s one of him and two of us. He goes on more arbitrary and abusive trips with his evil parents than before his closest brother went to college at the end of last summer.

That was long the fate of the elder of his two brothers, who was an only child for 11 years, outnumbered the whole time.  That one accompanied us to restaurants, theater and more in Manhattan and Boston. Our behavior with and expectations of him were such that he was well behaved from toddlerhood, speaking as a peer with adults and never disrupting.

My sister had warned me that having more than one child in the house at a time changed the dynamics, shifting power to the children. Too, too true. They want to cut a deal or even strike against plans. Wheedling can give way to yelling and worse.

Let’s consider three of our tortures.

  • Snowshoes. Tromping around shin-high snow in abutting Forest Hills Cemetery should be a bucolic and pacific prolonged moment. There’s stillness, abounding nature from the trees to snow to hawks, and there’s the joy of using your body. Or, there’s boredom, discomfort from toe to hip, an open-ended chore when there’s Guitar Hero awaiting, only parents to relate to, and always and ever the lifting of one metal flipper after another. Take-away, “I hate this more than anything I’ve ever done!”
  • Opera. The son of my wife’s college girlfriend was finishing his cello degree at Juillard and we converged to attend Aida at the Met. Not only do I love opera, but it was a weekend in my old (and favorite) town. To our youngest, it was four hours of inconceivable agony. For four hours, not even the little translating screen on the seat-back amused him. The elephants may as well be paper cutouts. Take-away, “Why would anyway pay to listen to that screaming!”
  • Ballet. When the Kirov came to town, you can be sure we were there. Our youngest had been one of the lucky students given free lessons by the Boston Ballet; recommended by his teachers for his physical skills, he had learned and enjoyed — until peers teased  him out of taking ballet lessons. We had gotten him to agree to the course and when it was over, it was over. I mistakenly thought that a few sword fights, some intense masks and lots of jumping about would work for him. Take-away, “This was the worst night of my life!”

So, there you have it. He already knows what he hates most. He’s already experienced the nadir of his life. It can only be up from here.

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