Wednesday, September 16, 2009

First, take a look at what I wrote in my current newspaper column:

So just what were school officials in Longmeadow and Hampden fearful the president would tell students during his education speech last week?

Urging young people to be responsible and stay in school is a time-honored and a tad clich d standard theme for American politicians. Obama didn't say anything radically different than many other elected officials.

Could it be because Barack Obama is the most feared president since Franklin Roosevelt that local school officials decided it was safer not to potentially anger any parents?

If President Bush had made a speech with the same message would his words have been banned?

For me this was disgraceful.

Just like Roosevelt, Obama has inspired great admiration and great hatred and fear and in just the few months in which he has served as president.

There are people who want to believe that Obama isn't a citizen still. There are those who cling to the notion he advocates "death panels." There are those who think he is a Muslim dedicated to the destruction of the United States.

Oh yes and he's a black man. There are still a lot of white people who don't like the idea of a man of color guiding America.

While I don't see the president as a saint as many Depression era Americans viewed Roosevelt I certainly don't understand all of the blind hate he has inspired, except that his election has challenged the status quo of some of the nation's citizens.

The school kids were indeed taught a lesson that day, but I doubt it was a positive one.

These statements earned me a nasty e-mail; and a nastier anonymous phone call. Par for the course around here.

Now here is what I received from the Superintendent of Longmeadow Schools:

Dear Editor:
We would like to take this opportunity to explain to the general public the Longmeadow Public School’s decision to tape President Barack Obama’s national education address on Tuesday, Sept. 8 for future viewing, after review by the principals and their staff to determine the appropriate venue and logistical arrangements for sharing the speech with students. The stated purpose of the message to speak to the nation’s children and youth about persisting and succeeding in school is, of course, one that we support and value.

Evidently there are a number of folks who felt that the decision to delay airing the speech was incorrect and that we could have surmounted all obstacles to make that happen. While we recognize that the District could have done a better job communicating with parents regarding the reasons for the delay, the local media presented neither accurate nor complete information about Longmeadow’s decision.

These are the facts:

Most area districts left the decision of whether to air the speech up to principals or teachers. As a result, a large number of those schools did not air the speech or showed the speech to only a segment of the student population. In addition, one-third of all districts in the state, as confirmed by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, taped the speech for later viewing, as we did.

The decision to postpone the airing of the speech was not a policy decision by the School Committee, but an operational decision by the administration. The reasons for that decision involved much more than a reaction to concerns about the message and were guided by a desire to provide the very best educational setting for our students to receive the message. Here are the multiple logistical challenges that faced our schools:

1. The late communication about this speech from Secretary of Education Duncan allowed less than 2 days for our schools to make all of the necessary preparations and to communicate with parents about opt-out provisions for their children.

2. Commissioner Chester, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, sent a message midday on the Friday before Labor Day weekend that noted the challenges of the timing of the speech and suggested that the speech be aired if it worked with school schedules and if arrangements could be made to allow students to view the speech. He added that schools should “respect the requests of any parents who ask that their child not participate.”

3. The President's speech was intended to be part of a larger classroom activity that involved writing and discussion. None of our schools has the capability to air the speech in every classroom at the same time. It would need to be viewed in larger group settings that would not support such learning activities.

4. Our teachers had not received the suggested classroom activities, which were proposed for grades pre-k – 6 and grades 7 – 12, and had not had an opportunity to thoughtfully integrate the speech into their curriculum - by grade level and subject area.

5. Most of our schools are not equipped for instant, live viewing of broadcasts in large group settings. When we made arrangements for viewing the Presidential Inauguration, we had almost 2 months to accommodate our technology and logistical needs.

6. This event occurred during the noon lunch time. Had the Longmeadow schools aired the speech live on Tuesday at noon, only a small percentage of our students would have been able to view it, and most of the viewing would not have occurred in the context of an instructional lesson.

7. Since many parents requested that their children not view the live broadcast, we would have had to make arrangements for those students to be identified and separated from their peers into another location, supervised by adults and engaged in an alternate activity.
After learning of these many obstacles, the administration concluded that reviewing the speech would allow our principals and teachers to determine the best settings for using the message in the classroom to integrate with curriculum - by grade level and subject area and would allow us to plan the most appropriate and respectful venue for those lessons.

Also, our teachers would have an opportunity to modify the recommended lesson plans as appropriate by age and for alignment with curriculum. In addition, we would be able to manage the technology requirements for viewing. Thus, the speech was taped, thanks to assistance from LCTV, for later viewing.

This approach ensured that more students would be able to view and participate in guided discussion about the speech than would have occurred at noon on September 8th.

Our principals met with the Superintendent on September 9, to determine the process by which they would collaborate with their teachers to integrate the viewing of the speech with curriculum - by grade level and subject area. Each principal consulted with their staff and then contacted parents of the students in their school to notify them of the plans for viewing and discussing the speech. The first such activity took place at the high school.

On Friday, September 11th, the Longmeadow High School Social Studies department arranged for their students to view the President’s speech in the auditorium during their regular social studies block. Throughout the entire school day, students were engaged in discussions that were facilitated by our teachers and that involved reflection about both the content of the speech and the politics which surrounded it. Students who did not want to participate were able to engage in an alternative assignment. The Superintendent of Schools attended one of the class sessions in the auditorium and was highly impressed with the level of sophistication of both the student’s questions and their comments about the speech. As they discussed the value of the President’s message, some students praised the relevance of the message about persistence, practice, and learning from mistakes. One freshman stood up and said how inspiring President Obama’s message was for her. She briefly shared her personal history and her plans to become the first member of her family to become a high school graduate. Everyone in the auditorium applauded.

We are convinced that taking the time to plan viewing of the speech in a thoughtful instructional setting guided by our professional educators was a better and more respectful decision than to air the speech to a small random segment of the student population during lunch in a non-instructional environment.

We hope this clarifies for the Longmeadow community the decision that was made by the Longmeadow Public Schools to delay viewing of the President’s speech in order to provide thoughtful, relevant discussion in an academic setting.

E. Jahn Hart Mary Vogel
Superintendent Chairperson, School Committee

Now, I was glad to get this letter as it does explain what took place. What I'm concerned about, though, is the lack of communication about what the school district was planning to do. It cast a negative tone on the actions.

No comments: