Written remarks offered at Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s school year kick off on August 29, 2022. (I cut them a bit on the spot for time!)
So honored to be invited.
Thank you so much for inviting me to join you this morning.
As it happens, my wife Ann, who teaches social studies at Chicopee High, is doing the same thing you – and so many other dedicated educators and staff are doing today – convening with colleagues to launch another school year as powerfully, buoyantly, and effectively as possible.
You have my gratitude, admiration, and heartfelt thanks for your dedicated service.
But let’s be honest and frank.
You had that BEFORE COVID. Now…well…you have all that in triplicate.
I know these last years have been brutal.
You flipped from in person to virtual to hybrid. And you created new lessons with every new context.
You dealt with absences, anxiety, tech issues (which also provoke anxiety), and capricious state policy – not to mention a historic, global pandemic.
You called home when kids were having challenges engaging. You tried to get your students services when none were available.
You incorporated testing and mask mandates.
You hauled in sanitizer, wipes, Kleenex, masks, and snacks.
When school was all virtual, you taught as compassionately and creatively as possible to a lot of dreaded blank screens. And sometimes on students’ screen you had a window into some complicated and painful realities at home.
When we returned in person, you helped students remember to keep those masks above their noses and sometimes their chins.
And you let them know that things would be OK. That they’d catch up on what we all missed. That they’d remember how to be social. That it wouldn’t be so hard forever.
And. So. Much. More.
Thank you. You are heroes to me. Then and now.
In thinking about speaking with you this morning, I’ve been flooded with memories of the educators and staff who recognized who I was as a young person and urged me along.
I was an awkward kid. I mean truly awkward. My second grade teacher was Miss Salerno and she was SO GLAMOROUS. It was 1970. An icy day. And I slipped on the sidewalk on my way to a portable classroom. My book bag opened and everything went flying. The kids laughed. I thought about just lying there. Very still. So maybe they’d go away. But then Miss Salerno’s hand came out of nowhere scooping me up. Whisking me to my desk. And from that day, all the way through elementary school, it seemed that she was only a glance away.
Mr. Stalone was my music teacher in 5th grade. He created a new part in the school musical, “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” because he recognized that – as the tallest student in the school and regularly called the Green Giant – I couldn’t play any of the Schultz characters as written or that teasing would have known no end.
In 9th grade, Mr. Connolly – my algebra teacher – cracked open math in such a way that I could see it, feel it, understand it for the first time – and in doing so, he opened the door to all my other subjects – challenging me to love them as much as I loved math.
Senior year, my mom struggled, and it had an affect on our family. Mr. Titan – who was the funniest and most tenacious guidance counselor – would look for me as I walked toward school. It seemed he always knew if things were rough at home. Always knew if I needed a little nap in the very kind nurse’s office. And was quick with a hall pass to get me there.
I could go on, but I think you’ve gotten my meaning.
These teachers – and all of you – do more than teach. You see your students in all their beauty and complexities and possibilities and promise. You propel them forward with love and understanding. You never look away.
I know that you teach the whole child.
And every single day – amid the 1500 educational decisions you make – you nurture, lift up, and fight for, and challenge your students to excel in academics, to engage in our community, to solve problems and transform conflict, to develop as curious, compassionate humans.
It’s my honor to work for you in the State Senate. I’m just going to talk very briefly about four of the issues I’ve been working on that affect you and your schools.
The first: Among the issues I’ve focused on has been the particular assets and the real challenges faced by rural schools.
Low and declining enrollment, combined with an aging community population, combined with slow economic growth present massive challenges for school districts. The Student Opportunity Act which the legislature passed in 2019, recognized that the state must close aching equity gaps in education funding but fell painfully short when it came to rural schools.
That’s why I supported the work of a commission, led by great colleagues, which took on issues like wage parity and per-student spending.
The commission underscored what you all already know: That we have to increase rural school aid, fully fund regional school transportation, and get honest about the impact of school choice, charter schools, and spiking health care costs.
My own work with the commission focused on the second issue I’ll share: Special education which I have taken up personally.
As opposed to other parts of the Chapter 70 school funding formula, which rely on actual enrollments, special education funding is distributed based upon assumed enrollments. Right now, within the 24 cities and towns of our Senate district only one school district has special education numbers below the assumed state threshold. Every other school district has far, far more students on IEPs that the state assumes they should.
That means the municipality must make up the cost differential, stretching their budgets even further.
And as you know, rural school districts have even more acute challenges which include special education transportation costs and distances, and the difficulties of providing needed services within the school setting.
I believe that the state should fund special education based on the actual number of students receiving services rather than an assumed percentage calculated in Boston. We also must address the fixed costs of educating students with special needs. Even if the total number of students needing services is relatively low, those students still need and deserve those services delivered in the best way possible.
Number three: Over my first years in office, I’ve been focused a great deal on school buildings. Right now, the way we fund school buildings is inequitable. More than that, COVID taught us that there are many school buildings that are not structured with health in mind – especially when it comes to air flow, air purifying, and more. And on top of that, we know now that healthy buildings are also green buildings.
I’m delighted that my bill to jumpstart work on green and healthy schools – which I filed with Rep. Mindy Domb – was included in the climate and energy legislation just signed into law. I’m at work now with allies and advocates to make sure the law is implemented as intended.
Lastly, a final issue I’ll share, that I’ve dedicated myself to, is an end to high stakes testing. And here – I know that educators and staff are evaluating their students every minute of every school day. And I also see the value of standard measurements. And – of course – like you, I want excellent schools and excellent outcomes for our kids.
But what I don’t see any value in is allowing one test to determine whether a student receives a diploma. And I certainly see no value in raising the passing bar – adding more stress and strain – as we emerge from a pandemic that has ravaged the most vulnerable and marginalized in our midst.
So what’s ahead?
We’re barreling toward the end of this current legislative session and we’ll begin anew again in 2023.
You can count on me to do these six things:
- Vote to continue funding the promises made in the Student Opportunity Act;
- Vote to fund regional transportation at 100% – after all, that’s what the state promised;
- Work to implement the recommendations on the Rural School Commission;
- Fight to end high stakes testing;
- Fight to make our schools both green and healthy for the wellbeing of school communities and the climate alike;
- Continue to make public education one of the top priorities of each day
I do this because it’s a priority of mine personally and also because I work for truly dedicated education professionals like you all assembled this morning.
In addition to being the wife of a teacher, I’m the daughter of a public school teacher and a public school librarian. I’m also a mom to two kids in public high schools (the fact that they’re both in high school is shocking!).
My kids will have a brighter future because of every single educator, staff person, and coach who helped launch them.
Your work matters.
Indeed, launching future generations is the most noble work in the world.
I wish you a tremendous start to the year.