Posts Tagged ‘Aviva Gat’

Head of the Mass. GOP says it’s a new day

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Posted Jun 02, 2010 @ 12:58 AM
BOSTON —

Jennifer A. Nassour is out to prove that the Grand Old Party may be the new thing in the Bay State.

A 38-year-old mother of two, Nassour became one of the nation’s youngest state party leaders when she was elected Republican chairwoman in January 2009. Now she is focusing on attracting more like her: women, young people and those fed up with the status quo.

“Things have become different,” said Nassour.

The numbers back up her assertions.

Before Nassour took charge, 14 of the 80 slots on the party’s state committee were empty. Now just one or two are vacant.

Since last summer, 100 town committees have been set up across Massachusetts.

This year’s Republican convention in Worcester was attended by more than 3,000 delegates. In 2006, about 1,400 delegates participated.

Though Scott Brown’s election to the U.S. Senate shocked the political establishment, Nassour says she saw it coming when she noticed 500 people showing up at Brown fundraisers.

“It’s been quite some time since we have had that many people in a room for a Republican in Massachusetts,” she said.

For Nassour, Brown’s victory was just a beginning. She recalls thinking the day after the Jan. 19 special election: “Oh my God, there’s a lot of work to do this year.”

Nassour has been preparing for the challenge since she was 19.

As a student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Nassour was approached by someone collecting signatures to run for office. She was so intrigued that she spent the rest of that day collecting signatures herself.

She interned for a New York state senator and later studied law at St. John’s University.

After graduating in 2000, Nassour moved to Massachusetts with her fiance, to work as an attorney. But she couldn’t get her mind off politics.

“I was practicing law, but I loved politics more,” she said.

In 2008 she represented her Charlestown district on the Republican state committee.

“I was not thrilled by the climate that was there,” she said. “It was an election year and people should have been really excited and working hard. No one seemed like they were interested in doing anything.”

After the presidential election, Nassour decided to run for chairman.

“I was treating it, and it was, a statewide campaign,” said Nassour. “I was in Springfield in January in a snowstorm. I was in South Dartmouth in December with a lot of ice. It was a really bad winter. My heart went out to Sen. Brown when he was campaigning.”

Nassour defeated two other candidates for the leadership post, and came to an office that was in debt, where the computers constantly crashed and where a mouse lived on her desk.

She decided not to take a salary.

“I didn’t think it was fair to walk into a position where there was debt and no staff and [get paid],” she said. “I still think it was the right decision to make, despite what my husband said.”

Nassour has made sure to include all as many Republicans as she can in her decision making.

Republicans all have “a seat at the table, and I am interested in their concerns, their views and take everything under advisement,” said Nassour, who attended the Tea Party rally on the Boston Common in April. “I didn’t promise anyone that I would actually do what I heard, but that I would actually listen.”

With this renewed enthusiasm, Republicans are hoping to gain power in a heavily Democratic state. They have a chance this year. There are 34 seats – mostly held by Democrats – in which the incumbent is not running this year. Add to that an electorate that seems to be weary of incumbents in general.

The state GOP has been scouting viable candidates and hosting seminars to teach them how to get their message out, target potential voters and talk to the media. It estimates it may field as many as 176 candidates in the fall, the highest number in a decade.

“The candidates that are running this year have a fantastic message that really goes along with what’s happening on Beacon Hill right now,” she said. “So it is about jobs, it’s about the economy, it’s about keeping the government small and keeping taxes low.”

The push for seats echoes a 2004 initiative by then-Gov. Mitt Romney to gain enough seats to protect his vetoes from overrides. The party fielded more than 100 new candidates; all of them lost.

Nassour said this year will be different because of the economy and disappointment with how Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature have reacted to the recession.

“There’s no reason for that in an area where we have all these great colleges and universities and no one can find a job,” she said.

Marty Linsky, a political scientist at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government, said Republicans have to back candidates with broad appeal if they hope to succeed.

“It’s going to be a big year for anti-incumbents, and in Massachusetts, incumbents are mostly Democrats,” he said. “So there’s a lot of potential for Republicans.”

(Aviva Gat is a reporter in Boston University’s State House program.)

As gloomy budget forecasts persists, pressure grows to draw on reserves

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

By Aviva Gat

In 1986, Massachusetts created a stabilization fund, or “Rainy Day Fund,” to supplement the state budget in times of need. Money has been transferred from the fund during every recession since its creation.

But now, after more than two years of recession and three years of budget deficits, Beacon Hill is wondering if the rain will stop soon or get even worse.

Gov. Deval Patrick says the skies are clearing and wants to use more of the money to avoid cuts in local aid. House budget writers and outside budget hawks prefer holding the remaining supplemental money in reserve, anticipating an extension of hard times.

“We’re going to need that money next year,” said Rep. Charles Murphy, a Burlington Democrat and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

Murphy voted against using rainy day money for the fiscal year beginning in July. “If you’re upset this year (with budget cuts), you’ll be really upset next year.”

The fund is nourished by 0.5 percent of all state taxes, past budget surpluses and interest. By the end of 2007, it stood at $2.34 billion.

Since the start of the recession in 2008, 72 percent of the fund has been used to ease budget deficits. Budget writers tapped $315 million in 2008 and used $1.39 billion in 2009. So far, $235 million has been used in 2010.

This year, the Legislature decided against using any of the remaining $658 million.

The $27.8 billion budget passed by the House in April would cut local-aid funding by 4 percent, or $234 million. Higher-education funding would be trimmed by 3 percent, or $132 million.Murphy said the Legislature wants to save the rainy day fund for fiscal 2012 because federal stimulus money, which has bolstered sagging state revenues since 2009, will no longer be available. Fiscal 2011’s budget relies on $1.55 billion in federal money.

“I’m already thinking about next year’s budget,” Murphy said.

Gov. Deval Patrick’s $28.2 billion budget would have used $175 million from the fund to keep funding for local aid and education at the same mark as this year.

Cyndi Roy, a spokeswoman for the Office of Administration and Finance, said the governor also planned to use several other revenue ideas, including raising taxes on candy, soda and smokeless tobacco and cigars.

“We have the rainy-day fund for the very circumstances we are in right now,” Roy said.

Previous administrations and legislatures have not been shy about dipping into the fund. In the early 1990s, the entire $100 million account was used. In the two years after the 2001 bust, about 71 percent of the $1.71 billion was used — about the same rate budget writers have used over the past two years.

Other states have also relied on their stabilization funds. According to a fall 2009 report by the National Association of State Budget Officers, about half of the states with stabilization funds drew from them in fiscal 2009 and 2010. All states except Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Montana, Oregon and the District of Columbia have some form of stabilization funds.

Both Maine and Alabama have emptied their rainy-day funds; Ohio’s has 89 cents remaining.

Brian Sigritz, the director of state fiscal studies for the association, said many states are expected to use the fund to balance their budgets in fiscal year 2011.

“There’s been a lot of debate in all states,” he said. “Some states are trying to hold out, but others are running out of options.”

Sigritz said, ideally, states should keep about 5 percent of total expenditures in their rainy-day funds. Massachusetts’ fund holds about 2.5 percent of total expenditures.

Andrew C. Bagley, the director of research and public affairs at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said it would be dangerous for the fund to drop below $500 million. At that level, he said, the state’s credit rating could drop, leaving Massachusetts more vulnerable during future fiscal crises.

“You never know what fiscal emergency you may run into,” said Bagley. “If we have another fiscal hiccup, we’re going to need the fund.”

Roy called Patrick’s use of the fund “modest,” saying the roughly half a billion dollars left after fiscal 2011 will be enough to help Massachusetts through the end of the recession.

“We are seeing signs of the economy turning around,” she said.

But Bagley said other pitfalls lurk down the road. Beside the end of federal stimulus funds, two initiatives on the ballot in November–to lower the sales tax to 3 percent and to eliminate the sales tax on alcohol–could reduce state revenues up to $5 billion.

“(The initiatives) will devastate the budget,” said Bagley. “We’ll be better able to deal with problems in 2012 if we have a substantial reserve.”

The taxpayers foundation said the state should add to the fund this year in anticipation of a drop in federal funds.

The House budget puts off $300 million in debt payments to the future. The House decided to use that money to offset other cuts, but Bagley said the $300 million should be added to the fund.

“If we use the $300 million now, in fiscal 2012 it’s gone,” he said. “(Programs) could get cut in 2012 and it could be worse.”

Bagley said the foundation supported using the fund in 2009 and 2010.

“It was exactly the time to be using it,” he said. “There was no way to balance the budget without it, even with cutting programs.”

In March, Moody’s Economy.com, an economic consulting firm, said Massachusetts has started recovering from the recession. But even if the economy is recovering, the state still suffered from a $5 billion gap between revenues and spending in the 2010 budget and may face a $2.7 billion gap in fiscal 2011, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

“(The rainy-day fund) helped us get through what was a drastic loss of revenue,” said Bagley. “We have to build it back up. It served us well, but if we have a few more difficult years, we’ll use it up.”

Educators: Anti-bully measures in place

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Posted: 04/30/2010 06:32:12 AM EDT

BOSTON — Area high school principals say the anti-bullying legislation passed unanimously Thursday by the House and Senate only mandates what schools have already been doing.

“We’ve had a harassment policy forever,” said Fitchburg High School Principal Richard D. Masciarelli. “I don’t see what the big deal is for needing legislation. I’d think every school would have a policy in place.”

The bill, a compromise following long debate between the House and Senate, would require schools to teach students about bullying prevention and annually train staff on prevention and intervention. Any staff member who witnesses bullying would have to report it to the principal, who would oversee an investigation and notify law enforcement if needed.

The bill also requires schools to intervene with cyber-bullying and designates the fourth Wednesday in January as “No Name Calling Day.”

The bill is a response to the suicides of Phoebe Prince of South Hadley and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, who were allegedly bullied by fellow students both online and at school.

Masciarelli said Fitchburg already “strictly” enforces the bullying policy outlined in the school handbook, which requires staff to report incidents and intervene immediately.

“We don’t deal with bullying any differently than any of our other policies,” said Masciarelli. “We take all (policies) seriously to maintain a safe and healthy academic environment.”

Masciarelli said the school has not needed to train teachers on any handbook policies, but would start if the legislation mandates it.

“No child should come to school and feel out of place at Fitchburg High School,” he said.

Susan Beers, a Westford Academy social worker, said Westford already handles bullying problems.

“At this school, we do a good job,” she said. “Bullying legislation will urge and mandate that other schools do a better job too”

Some Westford Academy students disagreed, saying bullying is prevalent among teenagers, especially cyber-bullying.

Carter McAllister, a Westford junior, said she was teased on the website FormSpring, about her body.

“I couldn’t do anything about it because it was anonymous,” she said. “I know a lot of people who are bullied on FormSpring. It’s bullying central. It’s like (the Facebook application) HonestyBox, but public. No one can really get in trouble because it’s out there unless someone knows who wrote it.”

Blair Wong, a senior at Westford Academy, remembers being bullied as a young child by a neighbor, and also on the school bus. She believes the legislation is “a good idea, but it’s very idealistic. It’s hard to stop bullying because usually people do not speak up.”

Anne O’Bryant, the principal of Chelmsford High School, said the school is already “proactive” in dealing with bullies, but this legislation may provide guidance on the school’s role.

“This will just give us more stringent guidelines,” she said. “It gives us more clout to take action. In some ways it puts more responsibility on us, but you have to deal with it, if it’s affecting our kids.”

O’Bryant said Chelmsford does not provide teacher training and does not usually intervene with bullying that happens outside of school, but said the school will make these priorities because the legislation mandates it.

“We really don’t have any control over (bullying outside of school),” she said. “This will give us more legality if it affects the kids in our school.”

Kelsey Taylor, Chelmsford High School sophomore said the school’s policies do not stop bullying and she does not think the legislation will either

“We still see it especially with boys,” Taylor said. “It’s not just name-calling, but more physical stuff, like throwing people into lockers. Conflicts are usually just worked out or ignored.”

The bill must now be signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, who said he supports it.

Greater Lowell high schools hail passage of anti-bullying bill

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Principals point to policies already in place; students say more must be done

Updated: 04/30/2010 11:13:19 AM EDT

BOSTON — Area high-school principals welcomed new anti-bullying legislation passed unanimously yesterday by the House and Senate, but said it only mandates what the schools have already been doing.

“The only thing that I see changing is that we’re going to make sure we’re doing it better,” said Lowell High School Headmaster William Samaras. “It’s all stuff we already have at the high school.”

The bill, a compromise after long debate between the House and Senate, would require schools to teach students about bullying prevention and annually train staff on prevention and intervention. Any staff member who witnesses bullying would have to report it to the principal, who would oversee an investigation and notify police if needed.

The bill also requires schools to intervene with cyberbullying and designates the fourth Wednesday in January as “No Name Calling Day.”

The bill, which Gov. Deval Patrick has pledged to sign into law, is a response to the suicides of Phoebe Prince of South Hadley and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, who were allegedly bullied by fellow students both online and at school. Prince, 15, killed herself in January. A group of her classmates at South Hadley High School have been charged. Walker-Hoover, 11, hanged himself in his home last year.

Samaras said Lowell High has crisis counselors to deal with bullying and, as headmaster, he already expects to be notified of incidents.

“It’s something I cannot tolerate,”

he said. “Bullying is dangerous to the person doing the bullying because they have issues and it creates issues for the student being bullied.”

Samaras said cyberbullying is usually a police problem, but the bill makes the school’s role clearer. On Monday, Lowell High School will host a forum for parents and students on dealing with bullying.

“People have the right of free speech, but they certainly don’t have the right to scare people,” he said.

Susan Beers, a Westford Academy social worker, said Westford already handles bullying problems.

“At this school, we do a good job,” she said. “Bullying legislation will urge and mandate that other schools do a better job, too.”

Some Westford Academy students disagreed, saying bullying is prevalent among teenagers, especially cyberbullying.

Carter McAllister, a Westford junior, said she was teased on the website FormSpring.

“I couldn’t do anything about it because it was anonymous,” she said. “I know a lot of people who are bullied on FormSpring. It’s bullying central. It’s like (the Facebook application) HonestyBox, but public. No one can really get in trouble because it’s out there unless someone knows who wrote it.”

Blair Wong, a senior at Westford Academy, remembers being bullied as a young child by a neighbor, and also on the school bus. She believes the legislation is “a good idea, but it’s very idealistic. It’s hard to stop bullying because usually people do not speak up.”

Chelmsford High Principal Anne O’Bryant said the school is already “proactive” in dealing with bullies, but this legislation may provide guidance on the school’s role.

“This will just give us more stringent guidelines,” she said. “It gives us more clout to take action. In some ways it puts more responsibility on us, but you have to deal with it if it’s affecting our kids.”

Samaras said the bill provides an important definition so staff can distinguish between bullying and fighting. The bill defines bullying as repeated acts that cause physical or emotional harm to the victim or the victim’s property and creates a hostile environment at school for the victim.

“We have to make sure everyone understands what bullying really is,” he said. “We have mediation for fighting, but bullying is a more in-depth problem. In bullying, somebody has the upper hand.”

Samaras said he will adjust the school’s bullying policy to comply with the new legislation, although he does not think much will change at the school.

“We’ll just be looking to see that the law does not set us up for failure,” he said. “We’re dealing with people’s rights, too.”

O’Bryant said Chelmsford does not provide teacher training and does not usually intervene with bullying that happens outside of school, but said the school will make these priorities because the bill mandates it.

“We really don’t have any control over (bullying outside of school),” she said. “This will give us more legality if it affects the kids in our school.”

Kelsey Taylor, a Chelmsford High sophomore, said the school’s policies do not stop bullying and she does not think the legislation will, either.

“We still see, it especially with boys,” Taylor said. “It’s not just name-calling, but more physical stuff, like throwing people into lockers. Conflicts are usually just worked out or ignored.”

Athletes call for regulations on how to respond to concussions

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

BOSTON — Lowell boxer Micky Ward and other retired athletes who suffered concussions rallied at the Statehouse yesterday, urging lawmakers to pass a bill designed to raise awareness of the injury in younger athletes.

The bill would regulate how high-school athletic coaches respond to head injuries among their players.

“When in doubt, sit them out,” said Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, whose bill would require coaches at schools in the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to undergo training on how to respond to concussions.

Baddour’s legislation would also prohibit athletes who suffer a head injury from playing the day of their injury. Athletes would need medical clearance before being allowed to play again. Similar bills have already been passed in Washington, Oregon, Texas and Virginia.

According to the Sports Legacy Institute, a Boston institute that studies brain trauma, 3.8 million concussions occur in youth sports each year, but only 10 percent are diagnosed by a doctor. The institute considers a concussion any blow to the head that causes a loss of consciousness, memory problems, blurry vision or headaches.

“If you get dinged, that’s a concussion,” said Dr. Robert Stern, from Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “Getting a concussion while the brain is still recovering kills.”

Ward, the subject of the soon-to-be- released movie The Fighter, said he was hurt more during training than in boxing matches because boxers wear heavier gloves to practice.

“I used to get them in the gym all the time,” said Ward. “It happens one day and you can’t wait two weeks to go back to training.”

Ward said had he known about the long-term effects of getting hit in the head, he may have done more to protect himself.

“I’m doing pretty good right now,” said Ward. “But only time will tell.”

Chris Nowinski, the president of the institute and a former professional wrestler, was forced to retire because he had gotten too many concussions.

“I was getting headaches, loss of memory,” he said. “I thought it was like a knee injury, just push through it.”

According to the institute, 18.3 percent of high-school students have suffered a head injury in the last year, and 40 percent of injured athletes start playing again before they are healed.

The center studied the brains of 12 deceased football players and found signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in all of them. Brains with this disease have a build-up of tau proteins that interfere with the nervous system. Symptoms of the disease are similar to Alzheimer’s and “come out years or decades after one’s athletic career,” Stern said. “It eventually leads to full-blown dementia.”

Stern said little is known about the disease other than it occurs in people who received continuous head trauma. Last week, the National Football League donated $1 million to the center for further research.

Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson said he retired in 2005 because his “head was killing” him. After retiring, he went to several doctors who told him he had sustained brain damage from being hit. Johnson said he had probably gotten two to three concussions a week during his career.

“I knew the hazards of football, but I didn’t know what continuous hits to the head could do,” said Johnson. “It’s the invisible injury. You can see a torn knee or shoulder.”

Nowinski said coaches need to find a safer way to play sports. In baseball, pitchers can only throw a certain number of pitches every game, so there should be limits on how many head traumas players can sustain.

“We can’t have people dying in their 40s because they got brain injuries in their 20s,” Nowinski said.

Teens march for job funds

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Updated: 04/22/2010 08:52:47 AM EDT
BOSTON — Lowell teens joined others from across the state yesterday for a march through Boston to press U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and the Legislature to support funding for teen job programs.

Chanting “We want jobs now,” about 400 youth held signs reading “We’re Watching Your Vote,” “Fund Our Future,” and “Give Us Jobs Or Lose Yours.” Teens from Boston programs gave rap performances about getting off the streets and into offices.

The march from Boston’s Government Center to the Statehouse is the second demonstration about youth jobs in the last two months following the halving of state funding used to fund thousands of jobs across the state.

Last week the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University released a study that said summer teen employment has dropped 27 percent since 1999, when 104,500 more teens held jobs.

“These programs teach us responsibility,” said Bourin You, 16, a teen organizer at the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell.

You, a sophomore at Lowell High School, said before he was employed at UTEC he used to “be wild downtown” hanging out on the sidewalks and making noise.

“I wouldn’t say I was a bad kid, but I was on that road,” said You. “This gave me something to do.”

The march was also aimed at the state’s new U.S. senator. In March, Brown voted with Republicans against an amendment to the federal jobs bill that would provide $1.3 billion for youth jobs. The 2009 Federal Stimulus Bill, which provided the same amount for teen jobs, funded 6,875 jobs in Massachusetts.

Rally participants presented Brown’s office with a toy truck stuffed with pink slips and asked him to vote for a summer jobs bill passed by the House that would provide $600 million for teen jobs.

“On his campaign he really portrayed himself as a friend to the little guy,” said Dan Gelbtuch, the youth force director of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corp., a rally organizer. “He said he would fight for people who were struggling economically. Here’s an opportunity to do that.”

Youth also visited Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s office to thank him for level-funding city teen job programs despite the city’s budget deficit. The city jobs program employs 8,500 youth. Last year 14,000 teens applied for these slots.

In February, teens came to the Statehouse to ask legislators to restore funding to YouthWorks, which pays the wages of teens who work for nonprofit organizations or government agencies, and to The School to Career Connecting Activities program, which pays for education programs such as culinary arts and multimedia training.

In fiscal 2009 the YouthWorks program received $8 million, paying 4,595 teens’ wages in 25 cities. The School to Career program received $4 million for 25,633 participants, including both teachers and students.

But in fiscal 2010, funding for these programs was slashed in half. Gov. Deval Patrick proposed further cutting YouthWorks to $3.7 million and level-funding the School to Career program in his latest budget.

Yesterday’s rally asked state legislators to support an amendment in the House budget that would restore funding to the fiscal 2009 level.

UTEC Executive Director Gregg Croteau said his organization employs between 40 to 50 teens every year. About a month and a half ago, UTEC started a transitional employment program for high-school dropouts to do landscaping and maintenance work. The program is funded by private donors, but Croteau said he hopes to get state funding to expand UTEC’s employment programs.

“It feels good to work for money,” said Brandon Rose, 22, an employee in UTEC’s transitional program. “You feel like you accomplished something.”

Croteau said the Lowell teens met with state Sen. Steve Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, yesterday to thank him for supporting the state’s Youth Violence Prevention Program.

Anti-gang activists rally to retore Shannon funds

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Updated: 04/20/2010 09:42:38 AM EDT

BOSTON — Anti-gang activists rallied at the Statehouse earlier this week, asking legislators to restore funding for a community-grant program that saw its budget slashed by more than 60 percent this year.

The Charles E. Shannon Jr. Community Safety Initiative grant program “is critical to the lives of our kids,” said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “The cutbacks have dramatically curtailed our efforts.”

In the fiscal 2009 budget the grant received $13 million. For fiscal 2010 the grant was cut to $6.5 million. In October 2009 Gov. Patrick reduced the funding to $4.5 million because of the state deficit.

The rally came a day before the House scheduled to release its budget for fiscal 2011. The council asked that funding be restored to at least $6.5 million. Gov. Patrick proposed $4.5 million in his version of the budget.

The Shannon Grant was created in 2006 to honor Sen. Charles Shannon, a Winchester Democrat who died of leukemia. It supports 17 organizations in 40 municipalities, including police departments, schools, public-health initiatives, after-school programs, anti-bullying efforts, job training centers and community awareness campaigns.

“(The Shannon Grant) has been a key part of our anti-gang efforts,” said Lowell City Manafer Bernie Lynch. “It’s paid dividends. We have not had the level of gang activity that existed a few years back.”In Lowell, the grant has paid for gang mediation programs, anti-truancy initiatives and mentoring programs for at-risk and court-involved Southeast Asian youth.  Lynch said these programs allow community workers to “intervene before kids get into gangs.”

According to the grant’s Web site, there are 25 gangs in Lowell. In the first year of the grant, gun assaults declined by 37 percent, violent crimes decreased by 17 percent and the number of truant students decreased by 13 percent in the city.

Lowell received $975,000 from the grant in fiscal 2009, which was cut to $346,000 in fiscal 2010.

Lynch said the budget cuts have forced Lowell to reduce its youth activities.

“We’re trying to find others way to fill the gap,” he said. “We haven’t seen the results yet from the cuts, but we may see it down the road if kids go back to gangs.”

Some attending the rally also asked for increased taxes to fund the grant.

Lew Finfer, organizer of the Safe Teens Safe Communities Coalition, said last year’s sales-tax increase reduced budget cuts by $800 million.

“The Legislature said they won’t raise taxes, but something’s got to give,” said Finfer.

Activists tout importance of community grant program

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Activists tout importance of community grant program

Posted: 04/14/2010 06:32:22 AM EDT

BOSTON — Anti-gang activists rallied at the Statehouse Tuesday, asking legislators to restore funding for a community grant program that saw its budget slashed by more than 60 percent this year.

The Charles E. Shannon Jr. Community Safety Initiative grant program “is critical to the lives of our kids,” said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “The cutbacks have dramatically curtailed our efforts.”

In the fiscal 2009 budget, the grant received $13 million.

For fiscal 2010 the grant was cut to $6.5 million. But, in October 2009 Gov. Patrick reduced the funding to $4.5 million because of the state deficit.

The rally came a day before the House scheduled to release its budget for fiscal 2011. The council asked that funding be restored to at least $6.5 million. Patrick proposed $4.5 million in his version of the budget.

The Shannon Grant was created in 2006 to honor Sen. Charles Shannon, a Winchester Democrat who died of leukemia. It supports 17 organizations in 40 municipalities, including police departments, schools, public health initiatives, after-school programs, anti-bullying efforts, job training centers and community awareness campaigns.

“This program works in Fitchburg,” said Mayor Lisa Wong. “It’s such small dollars, but it’s working.”

The grant supports programs for middle school children in Fitchburg, Gardner and Leominster, focusing on keeping students in school, forming dialogues between the youth and police, and enforcing truancy policies.”It’s the glue that keeps the pieces together,” said Wong. “It keeps kids in school and keeps them off the streets.”

According to the grant’s Web site, in the first six months of the grant no juvenile arrests were made in Fitchburg, gang violence had decreased and youth and police met several times to improve their relationship.

Fitchburg, Gardner and Leominster received $245,000 in fiscal 2009, which was cut to $92,500 in fiscal 2010.

Wong said when the funding was decreased Fitchburg cut all administration positions dealing with the grant. Now the programs are all run by volunteers.

“Local aid cuts were tough, but we made it work,” said Wong. “But if we lose Shannon funding, that’s going to hurt my heart.”

Rally attendees also asked for increased taxes to fund the grant.

Lew Finfer, the organizer of the Safe Teens Safe Communities Coalition, said last year’s sales tax increase reduced budget cuts by $800 million.

“The Legislature said they won’t raise taxes, but something’s got to give,” said Finfer.

Study: Lowell 10th-graders on par with economic peers

Monday, April 12th, 2010

By Aviva GatThe Lowell Sun

BOSTON — The Lowell public schools are performing on par with the city’s socioeconomic peers, according to a new study released by the Pioneer Institute.

The study looked at 14 midsize, urban cities outside of Boston, with populations of 40,000 or higher, an average family income of $20,000 or lower and property values at about $80,000.

The study looked at the increase in 10th-grade MCAS scores from 2004 to 2008, the predicted scores based on the number of students who are in the Free Lunch program, and the average dropout rate in 2003-2004 and 2007-2008.

Lowell’s 2008 10th-grade MCAS scores were 77.3 in English and 72.2 in math. These scores were higher than the average of schools in the study, but Lowell’s scores improved less during the four-year period, with a 7.2-point improvement in English and 8.0 in math. The average improvement was 9.9 in English and 10.4 in math.

The study also measured the percentage of students eligible for Free Lunch program– students whose family receives food stamps and has an income is 130 percent or less of the federal poverty level. According to the study, the “percentage of students eligible for Free Lunch also correlates highly with MCAS scores.”

In Lowell, 52.9 percent of the 13,505 students receive Free Lunch. The average of the cities in the study is 56.5 percent and the state average is 24 percent.

The study says “the highest-scoring communities tend to have lower percentages of students eligible for Free Lunch.”

“That’s only part of the story,” said Lowell Superintendent Chris Scott. Lowell’s 10th-grade scores may not greatly improve every year, but individual students show above average improvements from year to year.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the average Lowell student was in the 49th growth percentile in English and the 55th growth percentile in math. Lowell is ranked No. 1 in growth for math and No. 3 in growth for English of all urban school districts in Massachusetts.

“Our kids start off lower,” said Paul Schlichtman, the coordinator of research, testing and assessment for the Lowell School District. “We have kids who don’t speak English, who come from bad backgrounds. They don’t have that problem in Brookline and Lexington. Our job is to get them to the same place by graduation.”

The study also looked at dropout rates, but says there is not a “strong relationship between changes in the dropout rate and changes in MCAS scores.”

Lowell had the third largest decrease in the dropout rate of schools in the study, dropping from 4.5 percent in 2004 to 2.4 percent in 2008.

2 school districts get good marks

Monday, April 12th, 2010

By Aviva GatSentinel & Enterprise

BOSTON — Fitchburg and Leominster School Districts are performing better than their socio-economic peers around Massachusetts, according to new study released by the Pioneer Institute.

The study looked at 14 midsize, urban cities outside of Boston, with populations of 40,000 or higher, an average family income of $20,000 or lower and property values at about $80,000.

The study looked at the increase in 10th grade MCAS scores from 2004 to 2008, the predicted scores based on the number of students who receive Free Lunch, and the average dropout rate in 2003-2004 and 2007-2008.

Fitchburg’s average 10th grade MCAS score improved by 10.4 in English and 12.8 in math between 2004 and 2008–one of three cities in the study that improved more than the study predicted in both English and math.

The study says this “may indicate that educators in these districts are utilizing policies and practices that are meeting the needs of their students.”

In 2008, Leominster had one of the highest MCAS scores in the study, although over the four year period the scores improved less than most schools, with 5.3 points in English and 9.4 points in math.

The study also measured the percentage of students eligible for Free Lunch Program — students whose family receives food stamps and has an income is 130 percent or less of the federal poverty level. According to the study, the “percentage of students eligible for Free Lunch also correlates highly with MCAS scores.”In Fitchburg, 48.4 percent of the 5,331 students receive free lunch. In Leominster 26.3 percent of the 6,287 students receive free lunch. The average of the cities in the study is 56.5 percent and the state average is 24 percent.

The study says “the highest-scoring communities tend to have lower percentages of students eligible for free lunch.”

Andre Ravenelle, the superintendent of the Fitchburg School District, said he is pleased the hard work of the district is being recognized.

“Every decision we make is about who our kids are,” said Ravenelle, who was unaware of the study until it was brought to his attention by a reporter.

Last year the school’s budget was cut $3 million and 40 staff members were laid off. Ravenelle said the district is always reassessing how to best utilize “these meager resources.”

“Our kids are just as bright and have just as much ambition as kids in any other community, but we have less resources,” he said.

Ravenelle credits Fitchburg’s success to its teachers’ skills at assessing their students’ abilities throughout the year. He also noted the district’s partners including the Bay State Reading Institute and Gear Up, a college prep program with Mount Wachusett Community College.

“Need encourages innovation,” he said. “You can’t do it alone.”

Nadine Binkley, the superintendent of the Leominster School District, said she wishes the study showed improvement through the 2009 MCAS scores. She said Leominster improves less every year because it has a lower poverty rate than other schools in the study and does not qualify for all the same grants.

“We’re operating at a disadvantage,” she said.

Binkley said Leominster also assesses students throughout the year. The also have a Freshman Academy, where teachers of all subjects work together to help students improve.

“Our decisions on how to teach are all data driven,” she said.

The study also looked at dropout rates, but says there is not a “strong relationship between changes in the dropout rate and changes in MCAS scores.”

Leominster was recognized from lowering its dropout rate from 4.7 percent in 2004 to 2.5 percent in 2008. Pittsfield was the only district that lowered its dropout rate more than Leominster.

Binkley said Leominster’s alternative high school program, which is almost completely online, has lowered the dropout rate. Leominster also calls parents when students miss school.

“As soon as a child is not in school for a day, the parent gets a call,” she said.

Fitchburg was also recognized for lowering its dropout rate by about 0.5 percent. Ravenelle said decreasing the dropout rate has been a priority of his since he was hired as the superintendent five years ago.

“If the kids don’t come to school is doesn’t matter how good the school is,” he said.