Mitchell Chester Comes to Brockton MA
By Amy Dubé, Massachusetts BAT
Originally posted on her Facebook page
NOTE: Mitchell Chester is the Commissioner of Education for Massachusetts and he heads the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). He is a Board member and the former Chair of the PARCC Governing Board. Chester came to speak in Brockton MA for a "Meet and Greet" on September 20, 2016. Chester approved New Heights Charter school to open in Brockton this September even though the community voted against it. The charter has run into problems opening on time because they didn't obtain the proper building permits. The students are temporarily being bused to another site in a different town.
Okay people. As promised, this is my report of that meeting in Brockton with Mitchell Chester:
After working a full day teaching grade 6 in Lynn, I drove to Brockton for the meet and greet with the Commissioner of Education.
Not being from Brockton, I was worried I would not find the high school easily. Upon entering the city, I saw numerous Brockton Kids Count bumper stickers and lawn signs. I don't recall passing a single Great Schools sign.
I arrived at 5:30 for the 6:30 event. Approaching the road that leads to the high school, I was greeted by countless people holding Brockton Kids Count and No on 2 signs. Cars passing them were honking and waving and giving the thumbs up. As I pass them, I beep, wave, and smile. The sign holders applaud and raise their arms in joyful solidarity. This is what it must feel like to be...well, someone who isn't Mitchell Chester.
The parking lot was already filling up quickly.
I proudly wore my Lynn teachers lanyard. "Look friends! I come from afar! Greetings and solidarity from the North Shore!"
After I parked my car, I joined the fold of sign holders. I said, "Hey does a Lawrence girl driving all the way from Lynn get a lawn sign, pin, and extra bumper stickers?"
Someone from the No on 2 table proceeded to fill my car with yard signs and bumper stickers. (Direct message me. You want 'em, I got 'em.)
I made friends fast. One of them was Barbara Madeloni. I tried to suppress my total fan girl squeal when I met her.
The sign holders wanted to make sure all the paths to the high school were lined with people "greeting" Mr. Chester's car. They were brainstorming the paths he could use to get there.
Not a single Great Schools sign. I shake my head. Those people have no ground game.
I walked into the red café and was greeting by music from Brockton High school students.
There was a table with forms for questions you'd like to ask Chester. And boy did people line up to fill out those forms. Coming from Lawrence, I had my share of questions.
I made sure I had an aisle seat dead center. I was in the first row after the 3-4 front row seats that were marked off as reserved.
The room was packed with parents and teachers, as well as various local politicians. A member of the Brockton School Committee welcomed us. It was a packed house. The moderator's right hand shook noticeably as he introduced the local politicians, as well as the leader of Brockton Kids Count.
As promised, I began to live stream the event. Darn it. No cell reception for that.
The superintendent then welcomed us to the launch of the 2016-2017 Brockton Kids Count campaign. She was all smiles and read through Chester's resume as well as his educational background. She introduced him to the audience and thanked him for being always there for her to contact - even after hours.
Then I spotted Chester. (Cue Imperial March)
Chester is not as tall as I imagined him to be.
The audience applauds politely.
Chester calls out for the teachers in the audience to stand. I suspect he wants to see how much of the packed house were union people.
Then he asks for applause to support the teachers doing amazing work with our students.
Then Chester asks for parents to stand.
"This is who we work for. Please give them a round of applause." The applause is thunderous.
I'd say the room is a split of half teachers and half parents.
"Brockton kids count - what a neat initiative," says Chester.
Very interesting and rather patronizing word choice in my opinion.
Of course, I'm not a fan of Chester. He could have said the word crackers and I'd have been fuming.
Chester explained that he doesn't run into any Kids Count push in many other communities like he does in Brockton.
Not sure what he wanted to infer here. That elsewhere he has support for his half baked initiatives?
Chester pandered to his audience. He spoke of the nationally recognized success of Brockton. His words were punctuated by the applause of the crowd, many of which were standing in the back, unable to find seats.
Then in a very patronizing and pedantic manner, he explained to the audience, "I'm going to walk you through on a very basic level of what's going on in education."
(Gee. Thanks, Mitchell. It's all so confusing for my two brain cells to handle.)
Enter the PowerPoint of charts and graphs.
Chester explained that the spread of responsibility of schools is throughout the various branches of government. Translation: I'm not the only one your finger should be pointing at. Don't shoot the messenger.
"Dept. of Ed is one of several divisions of government responsible for educational legislation..." A graphic organizer lights up the projection screen. I felt like I was in Ferris Bueller's class during roll call.
"When is this meet and greet open for questions?" I thought impatiently.
"It surprises me how well kept a secret how good Massachusetts schools are," Chester reveals.
Chester proceeded to list the history of Massachusetts scoring top in the country and the world.
"No state out performs us."
He explained this was because of the dedication and commitment of educators and their spirit of collaboration. Carefully chosen words I must say.
"How did we get there?" Chester asked.
He spoke of The Grand Bargain - Investment in education in return for a testing system of accountability.
"1993, more than 20 years ago...Massachusetts Education Reform Act...a progressive funding formula...expectations for the kind of learning we want to see...school choice...charters and vocational technical school... New Heights Charter."
Enter boos and hisses.
It was the first time I had been in a crowded room where people actually hissed like snakes at the speaker. I must admit. I love Brockton.
Chester ignored the disapproving sounds of the crowd.
"Results count...It's not about putting more money in the system."
"Brockton has quite a history. In fact, this is where the funding lawsuit began that initiated this....Jamie? Is she in audience?"
(No Jamie in the audience.)
"Jamie, she has a new last name now, was a Brockton student who was the lead plaintiff in a funding lawsuit. Her father was member of school committee. Now Jamie is now a teacher in the district of Brockton...She's an instructional resource specialist and coach..."
"Brockton has been very much at center of this journey."
Okay, so far the formula is clear. Speak of the success and strength of Brockton. Acknowledge Brockton's history. Then speak of the great work DESE is doing.
This was billed as a meet and greet. I didn't exactly meet him. He did greet the crowd. I met plenty of teachers and parents who welcomed me to the event. He was supposed to go over his future plan, but it seems to be a review really of what is already happening.
"We are upgrading our assessments which haven't been upgraded in 20 years!"
Okay I'm speechless right about now.
He mentioned the amount of money - billions invested in education.
"Mass Health is the biggest chunk of the state budget he added." (Look! Over there is a nice distraction!)
He displayed a pie chart of where money goes.
1% is used for assessment and admin and licensure.
99% goes to SpEd reimbursement and schools.
He shows a line graph. "There's been a 34% increase in the Brockton school district state budget. This doesn't include federal dollars or local taxes."
"There has been a steady increase even through a recession."
Chester gives credit to the governor for that. Oh, we do love our boss.
"The state continues to make an increased investment in education," Chester explains and goes on to speak of Chapter 70 funding.
"The basic funding formula has increased almost 40%."
He explains state revenue, local revenue, and federal dollars.
Brockton schools are financed from 77 % state funds and 23% from city support.
There's a 229.5 million dollar school budget for Brockton.
"Property values and income meet to create a progressive formula."
Some wealthier districts are funded 15% by the state and 85% by local funds.
"The state finances 95%+ of the budget in places like Lawrence and Holyoke."
Then Chester speaks of "the signatures of educators' work in Massachusetts."
"There are 7,000 fewer high school students each year dropping out than the state had a decade ago....We narrowed achievement gaps, but we have achievement gaps...Are all students benefiting in all the subgroups: race, ethnicity, income, sped, ELL?...The gaps are real but they've narrowed."
He once again works the crowd.
"Brockton high school is one of the strongest high schools in the nation for their progress...nationally recognized! Brockton lifted all students up...it's close to state wide average for ALL students...a success story for the community...Students furthest behind made most progress...Grad rates rising steadily...10% more students graduating in 4 years...drop out rate declined...Number of students taking AP tests tripled students taking tests."
Chester's words are again punctuated by applause.
He spoke of the US World and News Report for their 6th time mentioning Brockton High School as a top school in the nation.
He mentions all the ways the superintendent of Brockton is terrific.
And now for the moment all have been waiting impatiently for.
A leader of the school committee moderated. He held a basket of pre-selected question forms.
He informed Chester that the questions were in categories: Assessment, Charter, SpEd, and Other.
He read the first question.
When will the format and basic content of new MCAS be released? Should the public be expected to have a PARCC/MCAS hybrid? Are there any samples or practice tests? Is there a timeline for implementations?
Chester explained. "There's a lot of details... The Next Generation Assessment will be administered in April or this spring for grades 3-8. The high school test will remain in place until 2019-2020. To give advance prep on that, many teachers in Brockton had a peek of what it would be like because they took the PARCC assessment."
"We will borrow heavily from PARCC... you have already experienced it. Examples of this are on the DOE website and the PARCC website. You have a picture of what it is starting to look like."
Why do you feel the need to put charter schools in Brockton - why take money from our system?
Boom. Yes. Why indeed.
"We have charters in many communities...
Many are in urban areas and many are not."
And here's a gem of a Chester quote:
"We don't ask, "Do they need one?"
Oh great. That's good to know.
"If someone has an idea, they submit an application. We have a strict criteria and a high bar for not only opening a charter but staying as a charter."
He announces proudly, "I've closed 5-7 charters schools."
Where are my Girl Scout badges? Clearly Chester has leveled up somehow.
Now he explains the debacle that is New Heights Charter.
"The New Heights had two years of applications that were rejected because we felt they were not ready."
The crowd interrupts Chester with laughter.
"Please be respectful." The moderator reminds the community. His right hand which holds his microphone shakes nervously.
Chester chastises the community. "You can say this is not the way it should be, but let me answer the question you asked." Chester begs.
"We gave them feedback. They had to show demand...We judged they were ready. You can decide if it's erroneous or not. There is demand."
Chester spoke of 300 students attending the school and traveling on a bus because their desire is so great to attend. He spoke of a wait list of more than 200 students
Chester cries, "Facts belie demand."
A few voices from the crowd shout, "LIAR!"
Right about now I am craving popcorn.
More snake hisses from the crowd.
Clearly Chester is not the snake charmer he may have thought he was.
"Please be respectful." Repeats the moderator.
This is getting awkward...Onto the next question.
The moderator chooses another question from the basket.
"When will it be discussed that SpEd students get more than a certificate of attendance?" asks the moderator.
This drew a big applause from the community.
Chester explained, "This is a Heart wrenching issue for those parents of SpEd students. However, those students already have a chance to earn a regular state authorized diploma. They can take the 10th grade test without any accommodations. They can also take the state test with minimal accommodations. If neither is viable there is an alternative approach which requires teachers to document progress a SpEd student has made. It is already available. It's a shame that there is a misunderstanding that these students do not have a path to a regular diploma."
Now for a question that falls under the category of "Other".
What is policy if any for instructors of color in urban school districts?
The community applauds.
Chester answers that he is "Not sure what is meant by the question...All teachers have to get certified...Hiring decisions is by school districts...He is happy to talk to someone afterwards."
Now for an assessment question.
"How is the state preparing students to be productive adults when schools are just teaching to the state tests?"
This question draws applause from the community as well.
"I hope teachers do not teach to test." explains Chester.
"Kids with strong skills won't have trouble passing state tests...If teachers are teaching to tests they shouldn't be teachers."
A parent from the back begins speaking to Chester about the excessive testing and the copious work packets given to her 5 year old daughter. She asks him, "What research backs up this treatment of children?"
The moderator informs the woman that she is not allowed to directly speak to the commissioner during this meeting.
The mother told the moderator that Chester allowed her to speak. She said, "Ask him." And points to Chester.
The moderator then asks the commissioner if he wanted to take that parent's question.
He declines. He doesn't want any personal questions. He just wants general questions. But he's be happy to speak to her after the meeting. (We all know how that goes.)
"How does DESE deal with charters pushing out kids in October, after they receive the funding for that student for the year. How is the district compensated when they receive a child back from a charter months into the school year?"
Chester explains that, once a child leaves a charter, the charter no longer receives funding and the funding goes to the district.
Enter snake hissing sounds.
Voices heckle Chester. "LIE! LIE!"
"What makes a charter pick and choose kids? Why aren't they giving ALL students what they need?
(Reference to SpEd, EBD, and ELL)
Chester explains, "I hope I've addressed SpEd kids can get a diploma. You don't have accurate information. Sped kids can get a diplomas."
Now onto explain another misunderstanding.
"Charters are not supposed to be selecting students."
Key phrase: "not SUPPOSED to be."
"New Heights had over 500 applications. They had to choose by lottery from who applied."
"How can we get smaller classes for elementary class levels?"
"That is not a question I can answer - your school committee doesn't have as much money as they want to have..there's no open checkbook...tough decisions...prioritizing...your school district does the best it can.
One more question
Chester takes a gulp of his water.
This also falls into the "Other" category and is rather political, explains moderator.
"Do you think the Board of Education member, Paul Sagan's $100,000 donation toward lifting the cap is a conflict of interest?"
(Thunderous applause. The anger of the community is palpable.)
The first word out of Chester's recently hydrated mouth is, "Yeah..."
Audience starts sharing out loud what they think of Sagan.
"We agree to disagree," explains Chester.
"I have eleven members...He's one of eleven. Some come from more privileged backgrounds...strong opinions...in some cases some board members belong to organizations in which they are very active and passionate..."
"News articles have mentioned his involvement in the raise the cap initiative. However, very few have questioned his impartiality."
"There is an official involved in not raising the cap and nobody raises that issue."
(Perhaps that is because it is more in line with supporting public schools - the goal of the board. Just a thought.)
"All board members vote based on the best interest of children."
"I'm proud to work for the board. It is very rare that I see them not vote on what's best for kids."
Interesting word choice.
The moderator then informs the crowd that the question forum is finished and if anyone has a question for Chester they can approach him before he enters the school committee meeting. People from the reserve seats adjacent to Chester flock around him. One is in a black Harvard jacket.
The moderator again reminds the crowd that Chester will have to leave to attend the school committee meeting scheduled from 7-9. It is a few minutes past 7.
The moderator informs the community that Chester "recognizes good work...He will work with us...He will support us in any way he can." Translation: Chester is our friend.
I notice that around Chester there is no shortage of older white men in suits with various flag lapel pins.
The mother who asked to question Chester never returned to speak with him after the meeting.
Someone is now asking Chester a question while they hold up their iPhone's video camera to him.
Smiling groupies surrounded him.