Saturday, June 18, 2011

Italian classes/ overcrowded classes at Colfax

This week's Agenda Review also had an extended discussion about whether the district should continue to offer Italian as a foreign language option at Brashear. The discussion was sparked by a vote on an order for new Italian testbooks. Administration reported that about 200 students study Italian at Brashear and that it is a very popular offering.

Board members discussed what languages PPS should be offering, expressing a strong preference for Spanish and Chinese. Board member Sharene Shealey remarked that one of her children was to be placed in a 30 student class at Colfax next year and so she could not support the purchase of books for Italian classes.

This topic raises many issues for discussion.

First, would it really save significant money to discontinue Italian? Let's say the district replaced the Italian teacher with a Spanish teacher (if one could be found); it is still paying for a teacher and still paying for textbooks. Also, at last word the Italian teacher also taught French. Would the school really be better off replacing an Italian and French teacher and limiting students to just Spanish? And where exactly do the cost savings come in, and how much is saved?

Another issue- if classes are so crowded at Colfax, but there are empty seats in other schools, why are school assignment lines not being redrawn and students transported to schools where there is excess capacity?


Questioner said...

Links to articles about the study of Chinese- certainly a complex and multifaceted issue that deserves a great deal of community input before a decision is made:

Anonymous said...

30 student classes are going to be the norm in elementary schools next year, are what I've heard.

I imagine if a school had a number that doesn't fit easily into that 28-34 student number, for instance if it has about 40-50 kids per grade, the savings will come by getting rid of other teachers. This would likely mean making art, music, gym or library positions a fraction of a whole (so they are half at one school half at another), or getting rid of some of these positions.

I wonder if coaches are being cut...they'd be more use running a classroom to decrease class sizes.

Excellent point that it's really the cost of textbooks we're talking about -- those same kids are likely to take a language if it's offered.

Always interesting how "choice" is the buzzword in creating smaller, themed schools, but not the buzzword at a large, comprehensive high school which was the numbers to offer more choices.

Anonymous said...

Or are we trying to put the focus on Chinese like the district did with Japanese?

Remember that Japanese started to be offered all over the country (and in Pittsburgh) in response to the fears that they would own everything in our country soon and it was going to be *the* useful language.

Truth is that learning ANY other language makes it easier to pick up any other language. It also generally is the last way that kids learn any grammar these days. They learn about verb tenses and conjugation, about objects, etc. by learning a different language's way of doing things.

And no, I'm not a language teacher!

Questioner said...

If 30 student classes are to be the norm then it would have been nice to see a Board discussion on this topic- what was the average class size last year, what is the expected class size for next year, what are the concerns with a larger class size and what can be done to address those concerns, other options foc cost savings. Private and charter schools will now be able to contrast their small class sizes with giant PPS class sizes, potentially leading to even further enrollment decline.

Anonymous said...

Yeah yeah. Chinese is the flavor of the week. Yep, it's good to offer Chinese, sure, but why at the expense of another language? Should we only offer Chinese and Spanish now? Should we just get rid of French? And German? I think Russian is still out there somewhere (Alderdice or Obama maybe?).

Anonymous said...

And it sounds like while teachers were told to expect this next year, that board members weren't exactly clued in.

I have a kid who will be in a class of 30 next year too, at a different elementary school.

It's another example of how things will spiral -- parents looking at the PPS will see these vast classes and it will be one more mark against the schools.

Differentiated instruction is hard enough with 20-25 kids. Nearly impossible to do with any success for the students with 30-35 kids.

Anonymous said...

What about culturally relevant education- might Italian be culturally relevant to students in a part of the city that has had a strong Italian heritage?

Questioner said...

Maybe smaller classes for everyone would have been a better choice than college scholarships for just those students who meet the requireents and will be attending college in Pennsylvania. Too bad families and community members were never consulted.

Anonymous said...

What's the problem with a popular class having the books they need to do well? I don't get this.

Questioner said...

There seemed to be two issues:

1) Students should study a language more useful than Italian and

2) Money saved on Italian classes could be used to reduce class sizes elsewhere in the district.

But, there was no calculation of how much money (if any) would be saved by switching Italian students over to Spanish. And, 50k of Italian books over say 5 years (10k a year) less the cost to provide those students with Spanish books cannot be expected to do much to reduce class sizes at Colfax.

Questioner said...

For students going into architecture, music, the arts, fashion or fine restaurants- Italian may well be more useful than Chinese.

Language Teacher said...

Ugh. Do I want to wade into this topic as a district world language teacher?

There are plenty of reasons to consider languages outside of Spanish and Chinese. Chinese is pretty complex for English speakers, for example, that if you don't start studying at a very young age (elementary school) in a well organized program that goes all the way up to 12th grade, then it's very difficult to get a decent level of proficiency. That doesn't mean we shouldn't offer it! We just need to be realistic.

And Spanish is important in the US, yes, this is true. And it will be useful in the job market to say you have some proficiency in Spanish, yop. You'll be competing against a growing number of Latinos who speak Spanish way better than you, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't offer it.

The larger problem is the American approach/attitude toward language learning. Despite the lip service given by some federal officials, Mark Roosevelt in his day, and other folks around Pittsburgh and in Pennsylvania, learning a second language is not considered important. If it was, there'd be a mandate to pick a language early on and stick with it until you graduate. And then, like in Europe or parts of China and other countries in the world, you'd pick up another language around middle school -- which would be even easier since you've already started acquiring a second one during your elementary years.

Since it's not mandated, successful language programs in Pittsburgh and everywhere really tend to rely on strong and interesting teachers. We tend to create a cult of personality that works in the favor of our program. The Italian teacher at Brashear is an excellent teacher -- she knows how to teach a foreign language and she knows her Italian. But like every other successful language teacher out there, she has to make that extra effort to make her program a "go to" program. We have to be perceived as "fun" and "entertaining" -- something English and math teachers don't really have to worry about (although it helps when learning times tables!).

Frankly, any successful language program in this district should be revered and protected. If these kids walk away from the experience being kinder to an ESL student or being willing to consider visiting another country or taking a date to a foreign film or trying a stinky French cheese or hosting an exchange student from Germany, we've made progress. Not everyone has to become an embassy diplomat to have had a successful foreign language learning experience.

Just ask Kobe Bryant, who recently gave an interview on Italian TV, all in Italian.

Anonymous said...

All of the comments here, so far, demonstrate that the focus is on preserving the positions of adults who are NOT qualified, in terms of experience and expertise, for the positions that they hold in Central Office. All decisions around budget cuts are being made at the expense of a quality education for Pittsburgh's children. If you examine the background and qualifications of those making decisions in PPS Central Office, you will find that they are NOT QUALIFIED to be making educationally-productive decisions.

The priority MUST be the EDUCATION of ALL PPS children, and NOT Public Relations, Career Preservation and/or Advancement, New Teachers at Lower Salaries, and blind adherence to BROAD/Gates principles.

The cognitive abilities of ALL children cannot and will never be advanced in schools where the only focus is on PSSA reading and math. To grow intellectually and cognitively, broader, wider, deeper experiences in art, music, foreign languages and athletic opportunities MUST be a part of the school experience for EVERY child, (particularly in the Hill and Homewood), not just those in selected for CAPA, Sci-Tech, and Obama. To deny such educational opportunities to children in low income, low achievement schools strips them of EQUITY of opportunity to move forward in the world. It limits their capacity to think, interact, and compete with those who are provided with a broader, richer, deeper, more diverse, curricular and educational repertoire of learning opportunity.

The people of Pittsburgh must stand up for their children and demand a quality education for all.

Anonymous said...

Colfax gets whatever they wish.

Anonymous said...

Colfax parents are very united. Ms Shealey spoke of her concerns about the 30 number during the agenda review meeting. If a school is missing something that it needs parents have to pull together and ask for it. It sometimes works.

Anonymous said...

Schools simply are not treated equally at PPS. It is a known fact.

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to imagine how PPS will improve as a district with large class sizes and limited electives.

Those who sat around the table at Agenda Review show very little understanding about how the District might prioritize on behalf of students' learning and improved achievement.

How did we get to a point where PPS achievement declines every year, knowledge levels of central office folks decline yet central office administrative positions expand exponentially, those who are able are fleeing the city to better school districts, and our School Board, by and large, rubber stamps every bad decision being made without knowing the difference???

How long will it take to totally decimate the PPS? The last few years have PPS administration has precipitated a dangerous decline that is destroying a once proud urban district.

Questioner said...

From the link cited at 3:26 above:

"We like the curriculum, we like the kids, and then there’s the school building! To me, as a former aspiring architect, a building’s style and atmosphere are as important as what rooms and facilities it offers. Colfax has high ceilings, large windows, wide hallways, and an overarching sense of quality, solidity, and beauty. It’s celebrating its centennial this year and has been excellently maintained. It has beautiful woodwork, some stained-glass windows, and two tiers of steps leading up to a main entrance between brick turrets that seems to say, “Welcome to this important place!” Everything about the architecture of Colfax expresses the love and care of people in 1911 who believed children deserve a real building in which to do the important work of their days. There’s also a new addition, carefully designed to respect the style of the original building."

- Meanwhile, at other schools, families are told that the buildings don't matter.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and by the way, poster at 11:00 AM. That Russian program you inquired about? That was a successful Schenley program cancelled by Obama. It's not offered anywhere else in the district. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

I am certain the Mom that wrote this brag blog has nothing but good intentions.

Can you imagine how the inequities stand out to parents that live in areas that are dangerous or undesirable and they get very little help?

Thank goodness Colfax has Italan, Spanish, Chinese or any forgein language, plus an organic garden and a Pool? They also have a full time gifted "In House" program.

I am not anti Colfax, I just see the unbalance. PPS knows where the money/taxes comes from and they cater to them. Many families send their kids to Colfax for a few years, then send them off to private school. PPS is simply letting them save money so they can afford a "proper" education past 6th grade.

Name another school that has the same privileges.

Questioner said...

According to Ms. Shealey Colfax is not even offering Spanish to incoming classes- so it seems hard to believe that it offers Italian and Chinese. And she made it clear she would be working to end Italian classes at Brashear and use the money saved for smaller elementary classes, so it's hard to believe Italian would be a class at Colfax itself.

Speaking of using savings- doesn't the district practice school based budgeting, so that savings at Brashear wouldn't go to an elementary school anyway? The principal is given a set amount of money to apply as he/she sees fit, withing dpt of ed requirements, right? Some prinicipals have greatly cut back on school nurses and librarians. Wouldn't the Brashear principal have the right to chose Italian over another elective or activity? But maybe textbooks are outside school-based budgeting, so if the board refuses to buy the books the students would need to stick with their old books.

Questioner said...

The Italian discussion highlights another legacy of the Roosevelt years, and that is the willingness of admin and board members to wipe out programs that have been popular and successful for 20 years or more, with no evidence of serious thought, deliberation and community input behind the proposed change.

one parent said...

Dr. Lippert stated that there are not enough qualified language teachers to staff programs in schools. This has been always been the case. I can recall at least four previous superintendents stating that each time a parent asked for more language programs.

Has there ever been any thought to encouraging talented students to go into teaching languages? Obama in particular could be an incubator. I have heard that the retirees association offers a scholarship for graduates who plan to major in teaching and every year the number of applicants is extremely low. There is so much we can do better. I wonder if there would be more time for concentration on doing lots better if people weren't busy creating skits to RISE
(tripped over the video on ppstube, we can only hope they were done on kids' days off and not a school day).

Anonymous said...

Let me state upfront that I'm not a Colfax parent and have no desire to be one!

However, many of the programs and decisions made there are not the result of their funding being different than other schools in the district.

It's the result of having parents who make a principal's life difficult until the services they find most important to children are provided in that school. That usually means things like languages, gifted programs/enrichment, an emphasis on music/arts, additions to the curriculum, etc.

It's one of the reasons that schools with more varied SES do better. There tend to be more parents who have the time or at least flexibility to show up and demand things and show up and help out until they become a part of the school culture.

Sometimes those parents are truly annoying and selfish, only concerned about their own children. However, others aren't and often parents who don't have the desire to argue and demand are happy to have the chances to help out and be heard that are afforded by the louder, more demanding parents.

Colfax succeeds, where it does (their scores really aren't that great, for instance, when you break them out), because May-Stein actively recruited that type of parent. I'm sure he regretted it at times, but with those parents come others who will give hours and hours of their time and effort to your school.

I think the question is how to build that sort of atmosphere at other schools (there are only a few others in the PPS that I can think of that have anything like it anymore). You either need to attract a certain percentage of parents with demands and the time to back them up or you need a principal willing to buck the administration and develop and fight for those things on their own.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many Colfax kids go to private school past grade 5. I imagine it is significant.

Anonymous said...

There were times in Key Communicators' (Sup Thompson) and EFA (Sup Roosevelt) meetings where 3-7 parents from Colfax participated. Some schools can't get a single parent in the room to represent the school. I am not a Colfax parent.

Anonymous said...

Colfax does not offer Italian and Chinese. It only offers minimal Spanish (2 periods per six day cycle, starting at grade 3 or 4 -- can't remember which. No Spanish in K-2 grades).

The in-house gifted program (the district calls it the Gifted Pilot Program) at Colfax was understaffed by the district and they had to get a waiver from the State Dept of Ed because the gifted teacher caseload was more than twice the level allowed by state law (the other PPS schools in the pilot program were well below the caseload limit).