Tuesday, September 17, 2013

WSC 2013 Q & A: Tracy O'Connell Novick

The Worcester Public School System currently serves nearly 25,000 students in grades Pre-K through 12 in its 45 schools. One of the 10 Commissioner's Districts, WPS has a population that is 44% First Language not English, 73.1% Low Income and 20.7% Special Education. In 2010, the district was designated Level 4 when two of its schools, Chandler Elementary and Union Hill School, became Level 4 schools as determined by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Burncoat Street Elementary was added to the Level 4 school list in 2011. On the flip side, Worcester also has seven Level 1 schools including Worcester Technical High School whose principal was just named  the MetLife/NASSP National Principal of the Year, the first ever from the state of Massachusetts.

Tracy O'Connell Novick was elected to the Worcester School Committee in 2009 and is currently running for re-election in this year's municipal race. Here Novick answers a few questions regarding her thoughts about the current state of WPS. 

The Worcester Public School is currently a Level 4 school system. How would you describe the current state of the school system overall in terms of its educational quality and academic performance? Do you think that WPS is ‘failing’ overall?

No, the Worcester Public Schools are certainly not failing overall. That's part of why I find this classification fairly worthless, as it really doesn't give anyone a clear picture on how a school or a district actually is doing. I was at a PTO meeting earlier this week in which the principal mentioned that next month, they'd release the MCAS results; one parent's first question was if the school had gone up a level. The levels, though, tell you so little about what is going on in the buildings or with the students, and that parent--and all parents--have a much better picture on that than either a chart or a number can tell you by going to PTO meetings and by seeing what is happening in their children's classrooms.

There are really amazing things happening in our schools every day. Much like every district, how that works out varies from school to school, but there is great educational quality in Worcester.

As of the last school year, the WPS student population was just over one-third English Language Learner. What sorts of challenges has this presented for the school system? Alternatively, what are some of the positive attributes that immigrant students bring to your student population?

The first place that we've seen that as a challenge is in our budget: we've needed to increase services for ELL students and increase translation services for their families. That makes the budget that much tighter. Because there are so many students who are in the process of learning English, they are in nearly every classroom in the district, as well, which makes us early (and necessary) adopters of training all teachers in reaching those students. We haven't done that yet, but we're working on it.

The amazing breadth of lived experience of our students who come from all over the world from all walks of life and all over the world brings a richness to our system and to our city that can't be replicated. We've also taken advantage of the language diversity to bring dual language immersion to three of our city schools, in which the classes are made up of students, half of whom are native English speakers, half of whom are native Spanish speakers, who spend the day learning half in each language. It's a program that had great success in other cities, and it's very promising here in Worcester.

One striking statistic is the percentage of WPS students with more than 9 unexcused absences (29.2% in 2011-12). Why do you believe this figure to be so high? What are some potential solutions to address the attendance issue? 

You've hit on why Worcester has joined the national attendance initiative, and is working on everything from increasing rates of students walking to school to piloting a program with UMass for students with chronic asthma. There are lots of reasons for the high rate, some due to illness (and some illnesses associated with poverty, like those associated with asthma) and some due to awareness. The awareness is what the current push is around. We've also these past few years finally gotten a nurse in every school (which we did not have for many years), and we are watching for the impact of that as well. Like much in education, it's a mix of causes to be sorted out and dealt with as we can, with community support.

Over the last 5 years, Worcester's student population has increased by nearly 1,900 students. Is overcrowding an issue/concern?

I would say that it is a concern, but not yet an issue. Worcester closed eight schools about a decade ago, and we now have more students than we did when we closed those buildings and consolidated those student bodies into other buildings. This year, we have rented space for the fifth and sixth grade of one elementary school, and I fully expect that we'll see more expansions in the next few years. It is very much on our minds.

Ideally, where would you like to see the Worcester Public School System in 5 years? What are some of the major issues that will need to be confronted in that time frame?  

In the next five years, I'd like to see us build on what we do well and bring back things that we've lost. (I'd also like to see us deal with our space crunch!) 

Elementary librarians were cut over a decade ago, and, while, we've gotten them back part-time in our level 4 schools, it's not nearly enough. Likewise, there is a richness to the curriculum that has faded as NCLB has made too much about math and reading scores. Worcester also had a number of magnet programs running across the city. We've retained a few, but ideally, I would love to see us running more that really expand the options for parents and the education opportunities for kids. I'd also like to see us build on, strengthen, and expand our dual language (English/Spanish) program that we've now got up to grade 4; we haven't yet created the path for those students into middle and high school. 

All of that of course means money, which brings me to the primary thing I'd like to see in five years: I'd like to see the Worcester Public Schools funded by the city at a rate significantly over the minimum required by the foundation budget. 

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