Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Op-ed on Socioeconomic Integration

Submitted to Burlington Free Press on October 18, 2006
by Jonathan Kissam

As a parent of two children who are participating in a wonderful educational environment — Lawrence Barnes Elementary School — I am concerned that the School Board is still trying to use “socioeconomic integration” as a cover for closing one or more of Burlington's elementary schools.

The evidence that children from low-income families who attend "socioeconomically integrated" schools do somewhat better on standardized tests than children who attend less "integrated" schools is being put front and center in the public discussion. It is important, however, to remember that socioeconomic integration is not a silver bullet. The supposed gains of socioeconomic integration are modest, and there are other factors which also improve test scores modestly for students from low-income families, for example smaller schools and smaller class sizes. Furthermore, most of the studies of socioeconomic integration measure students' scores on standardized tests, whose relationship to actual education has been widely questioned.

If the Burlington community is going to talk seriously about "socioeconomic integration," then we need to start with the recognition that the Old North End is an economically integrated neighborhood. If families who live in Burlington are choosing private schools or requesting variances we need to find out why and the school board needs to come up with a plan to make all of our elementary schools attractive to all families.

Many of us in the Barnes community, both parents and staff, are more than willing to do the work necessary to make Barnes reflect the "socioeconomic diversity" of the neighborhood it is located in. We are willing to reach out to all parents who are considering whether to send their children to our school, to reassure them that our children receive an excellent education at Barnes, to share the wonderful things happening at our school which are not reflected in standardized test scores, and to identify areas where we and the administration can make our schools better. This is an approach to socioeconomic integration that does not require disruptive change, and would preserve the environmental and health advantages of schools where almost all of the children walk to school.

To do this, we need a guarantee of stability from the school board. No one, whatever their income, is going to want to send their child to a school that is perpetually on the chopping block. If the school board and administration believes that maintaining six elementary schools is financially unsustainable, then they need to be open about that, sooner rather than later. They also need to level with the community about what the real savings and costs of closing an elementary school are and are not. If the board is going to distribute information about how the cost per child of educating students at Barnes and Wheeler is higher than other schools, they need to also tell the public that most of those costs — related to the special education needs of specific children — will follow those children to other schools. Then we can have a public debate about whether closing a neighborhood school really makes financial sense, and whether the social and educational costs are worth the financial savings.

Last year, the school administration and some on the school board repeatedly justified their proposal to close Barnes with the rhetoric of socioeconomic integration, yet when we attended finance committee and board meetings, it was clear that money was the driving force. After all the work of the Task Force and the public forums, it would be tragic if all this talk about socioeconomic integration just turned out to be rhetorical cover for an agenda of balancing the budget by closing one or more schools in the Old North End, a neighborhood that is already socioeconomically integrated.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Lawrence Barnes Mural and Gardens

A slideshow of the mural and gardening projects organized by the Lawrence Barnes community during the summer of 2006.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Statement of the Burlington Coalition for Community Schools on Poverty and Education in Burlington

The problem of poverty in the Burlington Schools is real. Close to 50% of students in the schools live in families who don't earn enough to consistently meet all basic needs. As we have been participating in discussions about poverty and the schools over the past year, it has become clear to us, both from reading numerous studies and from our own experience, that the underlying issues of low wages, poor housing, inability to pay for healthcare, lack of transportation, and insufficient government safety nets make it incredibly difficult for many students to learn in the schools.

We do not believe that any proposals that consist only of reconfiguring the distribution of students from low-income families will address any of these underlying issues. While economic heterogeneity clearly has benefits, we believe that there are ways to accomplish this while maintaining and improving the existing six neighborhood elementary schools.

We do believe that the school district, city and community have an obligation to address the underlying issues of poverty, and therefore we suggest the following approaches:

We call upon the Burlington School District to:

  • Foster PTOs and other forms of parent involvement, recognizing that differences in wealth between schools will require greater resources be invested in fostering parent involvement in some schools;

  • Maintain neighborhood elementary schools, so that all parents have a chance to be involved in their children's school;

  • Working more actively with PTOs from schools in lower-income areas to recruit families who have choices;

  • Encourage schools to be open for parent enrichment and development;

  • Demonstrate a commitment to economic justice by paying livable wages;

  • Play a leadership role in educating parents about the school district's ability to educate all students by taking firm public stands in support of:
    1. Universal Health Care;

    2. Federal spending that adequately funds education and antipoverty efforts;

    3. Repeal of the No Child Left Behind Act

    4. The need to increase the State's per pupil base education grant as enrollment declines state-wide, and move from regressive property taxes to progressive income and wealth taxes as the primary funding source for our schools.

We call upon the City of Burlington to:

  • Continue facilitating the construction of family-friendly affordable housing in Burlington and to increase enforcement and penalties for landlords who do not keep their apartments safe and healthy for families.

  • Play a leadership role in coordinating city, nonprofit and school efforts to
    1. provide after-school and summer learning and enrichment opportunities for all students, regardless of family income;

    2. address underlying issues of poverty.

  • Play a leadership role in educating citizens about the school district's ability to educate all students by taking firm public stands in support of:
    1. Universal Health Care;

    2. Federal spending that adequately funds education and antipoverty efforts;

    3. Repeal of the No Child Left Behind Act;

    4. The need to increase the State's per pupil base education grant as enrollment declines state-wide, and move from regressive property taxes to progressive income and wealth taxes as the primary funding source for our schools.

As the Coalition, we recognize that the involvement of parents and community members is critical to the success of any effort, and we are committed to integrating our schools more into the community, fostering greater parent involvement, and working with parents district-wide, nonprofit organizations, and the city and school administration to address the underlying issues of poverty in our community.

PTO Goals: Attached is a list of goals developed by members of the Barnes community. We believe that pursuing such goals in the context of broader commitments by the city and school district will make all of our schools attractive to families who live in the neighborhood. We believe that attempts to increase economic heterogeneity of the schools will not be successful if mandated from above, but only if the schools, parents and city work together to make every neighborhood school a place of learning and community.

Lawrence Barnes School PTO Goals

To improve academic achievement for all of our students, we, the members of the Lawrence Barnes School PTO, assert that we will strive to identify and access the resources needed to strengthen Barnes’ learning environment by meeting with parents, teachers, administrators, staff, after-school staff and other school PTO leaders to review our existing PTO and school activities and plan the upcoming year's events and activities, such as:

  • Provide on site, free parenting classes.

  • Form a partnership and share resources with a PTO from a more economically-mixed school.

  • Sponsor ongoing neighborhood community and cultural events jointly with Wheeler, or other schools.

  • Work towards goal of having at least one PTO parent leader in each classroom.

  • Ensure vital teacher participation at all PTO meetings and school events by circulating a sign up sheet prior to the event.

  • Survey teachers to better identify ways that parents can be involved in the classroom

  • Survey parents to better identify ways that they would like to be more involved in school

  • Coordinate trainings for parents interested in volunteering in the classroom.

  • Coordinate “How to” sessions, for parents wanting guidance in helping their child with homework

  • Organize and implement a culturally-sensitive “Welcome Baskets” program for new families and families with preschool aged children in the neighborhood, which would include:
    • Welcome to the neighborhood brochure
    • Information on the Barnes School
    • Coupons & freebies from downtown and ONE businesses
    • Free passes to ECHO, the movies, or local museums
    • Handout of upcoming community events
    • Personal invitation to Barnes’ next Open House and PTO meeting

  • Coordinate Barnes Open House for new neighborhood families

  • Make the necessary connections to ensure that Barnes students have the opportunity to participate in a school play or chorus

  • Work closely with Somali Bantu liaison and VRRP to ensure that all events are adequately promoted throughout our ESL population.

  • Collaborate with After School Program Coordinator to expand upon enrichment programs offered and to explore possibility of offering late-afternoon activities that parents and children can participate in together.

  • Organize and implement Family Reading Nights, and other special events focusing on academic achievement.

  • Work with local businesses to offer incentives for those parents committing to become more involved in their child’s schooling.

  • Organize possible speakers for Barnes student assemblies.

  • Coordinate summer programming on site at Barnes, promoting food gardening, music, good nutrition, and the arts.

  • Coordinate at least one PTO meeting over the summer, to oversee summer programming and to plan for strong showing in September ONE parade.

  • Actively seek out Big Brother/Sister mentoring opportunities for students.

  • Coordinate on site job fairs for families.

  • Coordinate Health & Wellness fair for families, showcasing local resources and services.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Please consider a donation to help us cover costs

Thanks to everyone who signed onto our Open Letter to the School Board. On Tuesday, January 10th, the School Board voted to restore funding for the Barnes principal and social worker into the proposed school budget for next year.

The Coalition placed the open letter in the Burlington Free Press on the morning of the 10th, which cost us a fair amount of money. The PTO fronted the money for the ad, and is consequently now accepting donations to cover this expense. If you are interested in helping out, please mail a check made out to "Lawrence Barnes School" to Lawrence Barnes PTO, Attention Melissa Parker, PTO President, 123 North Street, Burlington, VT 05401. Thank you!

Monday, January 9, 2006

School Board Finance Committee Proposal, January 9th

Our understanding is that the School Board Finance Committee, on Monday, January 9th, recommended to the full board a new budget proposal which retains funding for a full-time principal at both Lawrence Barnes and H.O. Wheeler, and for full social worker services for both schools. We encourage folks to come to the School Board meeting on Tuesday, January 10th, at 7pm at the Ira Allen Building (150 Colchester Ave.), to encourage the board to adopt this proposal.

This proposal includes an increase in the Burlington tax rate; for us to preserve our neighborhood, community schools, it is important to pass the school budget in March. Please contact us if you are willing to get involved in efforts to make sure the school budget passes.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Coalition Delivers Full List of Signatures on Open Letter

At the school board budget hearing on January 3rd, 2005, the Coalition delivered the school board with a final list of signatories to our Open Letter to the Burlington School Board, which included numerous state legislators, the President of the Burlington City Council, religious leaders, social service and medical professionals, and academics.

The School Board will be holding a final vote on their budget proposal on Tuesday, January 10th. Please contact members of the school board and let them know you support the position expressed in the letter.