Last evening more than 120 people gathered at the Lowell Senior Center in an ongoing effort to improve public education in Lowell. This event, named “Your Voice Matters: Community Action Forum on Issues in 21st Century Education,” was part of a year-long process to obtain ideas and opinions from the community on ways to improve education for Lowell students and their families. The project is co-sponsored by the Lowell Public Schools, Project Learn, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
Over the past year, representatives from these groups have joined with parents, community members, and community partners to participate in a series of Community Circles. Each circle consisted of two sessions with the following objectives:
Session 1: We set the time and place, and we bring the food, childcare and interpreters. You come ready to brainstorm! We will focus on getting to know your fellow participants, discussing our overall impressions of education in Lowell, and starting to identify some areas of concern.
Session 2: The time/date is scheduled based on the Circle’s preferences. Want to host it at a local restaurant? Great! Someone’s home? Sounds perfect! Our facilitators will work with the Circle to plan out the second session. Session 2 will bring the Circle together to identify specific issues and action items to be taken to a community forum
With the circles completed, the next step was to hold a community forum to review the findings on the circle groups and begin crafting action plans to address the issues identified. That forum happened last night.
After introductory remarks by Lowell Deputy School Superintendent Jeannine Durkin and Project Learn Executive Director LZ Nunn, the entire group reviewed the issues identified by the previously-held community circles. Many things were mentioned, but the following are the items that caught my attention:
- Transportation challenges, both to and from school during the day, but also for meetings and after hours events. Also there are challenges for those who walk to school;
- Extracurricular programs, especially those in the summer and after school should be better publicized by the schools, whoever the provider of the program may be;
- Immigrant parents have a steep learning curve when it comes to interacting with the school system because many come from countries where the culture of education is quite different;
- Improve communications with parents and the community by using all the communication tools available to us in 2017;
- Some feel that the PTOs in their schools are like a club, and some parents aren’t sure how to become members;
- Cyber and physical bullying, especially outside of school is a big problem. Schools should try to address this and provide kids with strategies of addressing it, even if the bullying originates outside of school;
- School staff should have more diversity training. Many think they are culturally sensitive and aware but really are not;
- The school system needs better strategies for diversifying the workforce;
- It’s tough for many parents to get to school meetings, so the schools should try to bring the meetings to where parents are, like at neighborhood community centers;
- First impressions are very important. Schools need the right resources and the right attitude when interacting with parents, especially for the first time.
After this review, everyone broke into five work groups that each suggested and discussed strategies for addressing these issues. Each group reported on its top two priorities:
The “Learning” group
- Develop researched-based policies on homework (the amount and type)
- Provide more leadership roles for students in grades K-8 to develop student leaders before high school.
The “Afterschool/Summer program” group
- Investigate the experience of those who have used existing programs, especially how well communications worked;
- Compile a comprehensive, citywide list of afterschool and summer programs.
The “Cultural Competency/Language/Diversity” group
- Provide better diversity training to current staff and hire a more diverse staff;
- Make current resources better known and accessible to all parents.
The “Parent and Community Involvement” group
- Create a “buddy” program for new families who would be teamed up with an existing school family when they first arrive in the district;
- The Family Resource Center should be more visible at community events and should have longer hours and host resource nights.
The “Logistics/Facilities” group
- Streamline communications across the board;
- Have equitable facilities throughout the district
That brought the evening to an end although each of these five groups also set a date, time and place for their next meetings. At some time after that, the entire group will convene again.
Even though this effort has been underway for some time, everyone in the community is welcome to jump in and participate at any time. For more information about how to get involved, visit the Your Voice Matters Lowell website.