August 31, 2017: Cell phones are the new “bouncing balls”

August 31, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As our kids head back to school this week, let’s think again about the safety implications of mixing cars with kids walking to school.

Some lessons you just never forget. I’ve been taught since I was a young driver to “beware the bouncing ball.” I will always carry the memories of those afternoons practicing driving around our neighborhood, gripping the wheel of our family car, my instructor at my side. My mother would lecture (sometimes, perhaps, in louder tones than others), “bouncing balls, and the children who chase them, are the bane of the driver. Watch for them. Notice them.”

The numbers today tell us about a different type of “bouncing ball.” These numbers warn that it is perhaps the teenager that is most at risk as a pedestrian.  According to one report, “Teens on the Move,” every hour of every day a teenage pedestrian in the United States is killed or injured.  According to this study, “while teens account for one-third of children in the United States, they make up two-thirds of the pedestrian fatalities.”

Safe Kids, an organization dedicated to improving pedestrian safety, agrees.  Safe Kids attributes the problem to “distracted walking.”  Safe Kids reports that by the end of 2015, 88% of high school students owned cell phones, up from 45% just ten years earlier.  This trend has safety implications for students walking to and from school.  Safe Kids collected more than 34,000 observations of students crossing streets in school zones.  It found that “one-in-five high school students, and one-in-eight middle school students, were observed crossing the street while distracted by phones, headphones and other mobile devices.”  Indeed, according to Safe Kids, from 2013 to 2016, distracted walking increased from one-in-five to more than one-in-four among high school students, and increased from one-in-eight to one-in-six middle school students.  In today’s world, in other words, cell phones are the new “bouncing ball.” As my mother would have said “watch for them; notice them.”

It is not just street crossings, however, that merit increased attention as our kids go back to school.  Driveways can be deadly as well.  In the United States, 50 children are backed over every week because a driver could not see them.  Every vehicle, I am told, has what is called its “blind zone,” that area behind the vehicle where the driver cannot see even when looking back and properly using his or her rear and side view mirrors.  The larger the vehicle, the larger the blind zone.

Driveways are often made even more dangerous to kids walking to school by bushes and other shrubberies that line the driveway or sit close to the sidewalk and impede sight lines.  In addition, cars like our Prius hybrid are so quiet, they can “sneak up” on pedestrians, both young and old, without being heard.  Situations where the driver cannot see the pedestrian, and the pedestrian can neither see nor hear a car backing out of the driveway, will daily present the potential for tragedy without the exercise of utmost care.

Unlike the teenage dangers of distracted walking, backing out of driveways poses the most danger to younger children.  According to KidsAndCars, a national safety organization, “children do not understand the danger of the slow moving vehicle; they believe if they see the vehicle, the driver can see them.”  The need to protect our kids from our cars, in other words, arises before one’s car ever hits the streets.

Kids, welcome back to school. I hope you find the year both fun and interesting.  Here’s hoping, also, that we all take seriously our responsibilities, as both drivers and pedestrians, to keep the school year safe as well.

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July 20, 2017: Talking today about when savings run dry

July 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

It’s worth saying out loud already.  Even though Belmont has been frugal with its spending in recent years, Town Meeting was told this May that “projected deficits for [Fiscal Year 2020] and beyond suggest that. . .increased revenue (such as in the form of a future override and/or reduced expenditures) may. . .be required in the coming years.”

This message was brought by a group called the Warrant Committee.  The Warrant Committee is charged with being TM’s advisor on financial matters.  The Committee authors a report to TM each year on Belmont’s proposed budget for the coming year and beyond.  While not easy reading, the report is worth paying attention to.

Belmont has used the increased revenue from its 2015 operating override wisely, this year’s report said.  When voters approved the 2015 override, TM created what was called the “General Stabilization Fund.”  The GSF was intended to serve as a “savings account” to hold the override revenue until needed.  The override revenue was expected to help the town balance its budget for three years (2015, 2016, 2017).

In fact, according to the Warrant Committee, Belmont will not need to draw money from this “savings account” in 2018.  As a result, the Warrant Committee said, “we should be in a position to use a portion of [the GSF] to balance the budget in [Fiscal Year 2019].”  It is at that point, however, that the arithmetic catches up with Belmont and the savings account will run dry.  The arithmetic is easy to understand.  While expenditures in this year’s budget will increase by 3.5%, revenues simply don’t increase that fast.  Accordingly, while Belmont can draw down its savings account for several years, eventually those savings will run out.

This year’s budget does what most Belmont residents really want done.  According to the Warrant Committee, “the recommended budget maintains roughly level town services, avoids major cuts in the School programs and addresses higher enrollments, and provides for capital investments (roads, sidewalks, equipment).” The Warrant Committee reported unequivocally that “Belmont’s schools are efficiently run with excellent results.”  The Committee noted that “there has been increasing attention to the state of our roads and sidewalks and the 2015 override devoted more resources in this critical area.”

Schools. Roads. Level services.  Good job, right?

So, given that good news, why talk about 2020 today? The time comes closer, you see, when Belmont will need to seek another override approval from the voters.  When that time arrives, statements will be made about the dire consequences of not approving the override, as well as about the “millions of dollars of waste” that could be removed from the budget (if only we “really tried”).  Letters will be written. E-mails sent. As we know all too well, however, in an election campaign, it is often difficult to separate truth from spin. Competing claims are often intended not to educate, but rather simply to harden the pre-existing opinions of people who already firmly believe one way or the other.

Knowing what we know today about when the arithmetic tells us our savings will run dry, therefore, one process that would be beneficial, whether through the Warrant Committee or someone else, is for a series of public forums to be held over the next two years to allow the public to express their opinions about what specific services are essential to preserve from cuts and, conversely, where specific budget cuts would be proposed by those who believe waste exists.

Engaging in that public conversation outside the context of a campaign, by beginning it before an override is proposed, and hosting it by town officials, would be helpful to all concerned.

March 23, 2017: Boston Belmont Friends Group: A service to yourself

March 23, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do you do?  What do you do when the school day ends at 2:30 and your play rehearsal or basketball game doesn’t begin until 7:00?  Where do you do your homework? Eat dinner? Simply stay grounded for that four or five hours?  These are very real questions facing Boston METCO students attending the Chenery Middle School and Belmont High School.

The Boston Belmont Friends Group helps fill that gap.  According to Lorraine Kermond, one of four parents who helped organize the group at the Chenery, one role of the Friends Group is to provide a safe, welcoming place –a home-away-from-home if you will– to allow Boston students to be grounded when they have time gaps created by participation in after-school activities and can’t just run home for a few hours.

“Having a host family is a lifeline,” says Janee Carroll, one of the Boston parents involved with the Friends Group.  “I don’t have to worry if my son (a ninth grader at BHS) gets stuck at school. He has a place to go.”  In the same way, Belmont host families help, also, when kids get sick at school.

While important, says Kermond, the role of “host families” misses the core of the Friends Group.  Yes, the Friends Group is a collaboration to ensure that kids don’t get stranded. Yes, the group helps parents in each community make connections in the other community.  However, Kermond says, “the parents who help make this group go are not merely fellow committee members, there is genuine friendship. We all have interesting jobs. We all have had interesting life experiences.”

And I “got it.” After all, our daughter has been out of Belmont High for six years. Nonetheless, some of our closest friends remain those parents we first met while waiting outside the Wellington for school to be dismissed.  The Friends Group recognizes that since the Boston parents will not have that after-school waiting time to bond, special efforts must be made to provide opportunities for relationships to sprout and for friendships to blossom. The kids are in school together and will choose their own friends. The parents would never have reason ever to meet.

Accordingly, parent-to-parent dinners are arranged throughout the year. Local events are scheduled when school events (such as curriculum night) occur.  Indeed, this year’s annual all-family bowling night is on the calendar for March 26th (contact Carol Sabia, crsabia@gmail.com if you’re interested in attending).  It takes effort and persistence to reach out to connect people, Kermond says. But it is an effort of passion, she says, given what each community has to offer the other community.

The parents of the original Friends Group at the Chenery have now aged with their kids into the High School; the friendships have followed.  Nonetheless, a Boston Belmont Friends Group persists at the Chenery. Starting next year, Kermond says, the aspiration is to also have such groups in all four elementary schools. Parent participation at all grade levels is sought.

Parents do a remarkable number of volunteer tasks to support their kids in Belmont’s public schools. The Boston Belmont Friends Group, however, feels different in nature. It feels like opening yourself to new friendships more than like volunteering for a job needing to be done. Opening your home to let a kid crash for a few hours; taking your family bowling; going to dinner with the parents of your student’s classmates. In short, making cross-community connections. It’s one of the things that METCO is all about.  Participating in the Boston Belmont Friends Group is not just a service to your child or to your school.  It is a service to yourself.

December 29, 2016: 2016 brought beginnings, endings to Belmont

December 29, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

2016 will go down as one with significant beginnings and endings for Belmont.  One of the most substantial beginnings was the start of the process to renovate and rebuild Belmont High School.  To say that the process “started” this year is perhaps a misnomer.  Belmont officials have sought a state go-ahead for years. Both repairs and expansions are needed.  In January 2016, however, state approval finally came for the expected $100 million project. The project still has a long way to go before a renovated school becomes a reality. A building committee was appointed to usher the BHS project through the design and construction process.

Another education journey came to an end in 2016.  After residents overwhelmingly voted “no” to funding for a new Minuteman High School building, Town Meeting voted further to have Belmont withdraw from the Minuteman Regional Vocational School District.  For Belmont students to attend Minuteman in the future, they will need to apply for open spaces, as do students in other non-member towns.

Chenery middle school students are eager to use their new modular classrooms.  Seven classrooms, known as “the mods,” were delivered to Belmont in October to be installed on the Chenery tennis courts.  Chenery principal Mike McAllister notes that, given the increased student population in Belmont, the mods will be used for the foreseeable future.

Multi-year projects really can come to an end in Belmont.  In 2016, the reconstruction of the Belmont Street/Trapelo Road corridor, along with the reconstruction of Leonard Street through Belmont Center, were completed.  Requisite ribbon cuttings were held, smiles were seen aplenty, and more than a few heavy sighs of relief were heard.

One Belmont initiative generated some real excitement this year.  The Belmont Goes Solar campaign resulted in the sale of more than 250 solar systems to be installed on Belmont rooftops.   Before the campaign, only 20 Belmont residents had installed solar systems.  Belmont Goes Solar generated more solar sales than through any other community solarization campaign in Massachusetts.

Intoxicants were at the center of one major controversy this year.  The Board of Selectmen approved, on a rare 2–1 split vote, a highly controversial decision to allow The Loading Dock to transfer its liquor license to Belmont’s Star Market.  Legitimate arguments were raised on both sides.  On the one hand, owners of The Loading Dock needed the money from the sale of the license to stay in business.  On the other hand, the original intent of Town Meeting was to use liquor licenses to promote economic development by small locally-owned businesses in commercially undeveloped parts of town.  Fears were expressed that granting Star Market a liquor license will harm existing small local businesses, such as Cushing Square’s Spirited Gourmet and Belmont Center’s Craft Beer Cellars.

Other issues in Belmont continued to drag on throughout 2016.  Chris Starr (finally) sold the development rights to Cushing Village to another developer; nonetheless, by the end of the year no demolition, let alone construction, had yet begun.  The community path was laid over on yet another committee for further “public input” and “feasibility study.”  Reconstruction of the old Macy’s building continues, but still disrupts Belmont Center.

2016 gave Belmont residents a reason to have a fundamental optimism about how well local government works in our community.  Streets and schools were taken care of. Irrespective of whether one agreed or disagreed with the outcome, intensely controversial issues (such as The Loading Dock and Minuteman Tech) were squarely addressed and resolved.

As we remember 2016, and wonder what 2017 might bring, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel that “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

Happy holidays to all.

October 6, 2016: BHS protest honors father’s WWII service

October 6, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Last week, Belmont High principal Dan Richards issued the following public announcement:

“This past week at Belmont High School, a group of about twenty students peacefully organized their voices to support the national protest of ‘Black Lives Matter.’  On Friday. . .the students wore black to school and some students chose to write ‘Black Lives Matter’ on their arms. The students’ intentions were to bring awareness to the topic and to continue the conversation our nation is having. The students successfully brought attention to the topic in a peaceful and respectful manner by having dialogues with students, faculty, staff, and administrators without any disruption to the school day.”

Principal Richards stated: “In addition to the events during the school day, approximately twelve of our athletes chose to support our students’ voice at the evening football game by mirroring what some professional athletes have decided to do by kneeling during the national anthem. The athletes who chose to kneel in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement did so in an organized, respectful manner. The athletes who chose not to kneel decided to support the students kneeling by standing next to them, placing their left hand on their shoulder and their right hand over their hearts. . .This was also done in a peaceful and respectful manner.”

I attended junior high and high school in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Viet Nam War years.  Particularly as a former Des Moines resident, I appreciated the efforts of our BHS students.  How are those two things related?

John and Mary Beth Tinker were Des Moines students who wore black arm bands to school to protest the Viet Nam War.  School officials, who had been told this was going to happen, suspended both of them. The Tinkers’ schools were the same schools that my brothers and I attended.

The ensuing court case challenging the suspension of the Tinker kids ultimately made its way to the US Supreme Court.  The Court, in famous language applicable yet today, pronounced that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate…”

The Court found that rather than trying to prevent “a material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline,” the suspension handed out by the Des Moines schools was used to prevent the “discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

My father fought in World War II.  My father was forever scarred by his service in Northern Africa and in France during WWII.  Nonetheless, I fervently believe that the actions of our Belmont High students honored, and didn’t dishonor, the memory of his long (and painful) military service.  Indeed, those BHS actions exemplified the very reason my father served. He fought to preserve the fundamental right to pursue the precise activities that the Tinker kids did, as did our Belmont High students fifty years later.

Principal Richards concluded his announcement last week, stating: “Allowing students to express themselves while respecting the views of others is one of the hallmarks of Belmont High School. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement continues to be a topic of passionate conversation across our nation and in our schools. I am extremely proud of the manner in which our students organized and conducted themselves this past week.”

Principal Richards, I could not agree with you more.  I offer my congratulations, my respect, and my admiration both to our BHS students who sought to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter issue, and to our Belmont school officials who sought to facilitate that discussion rather than trying to shut it down or squelch it.

June 9, 2016:Class of 2016: Pursuit of higher education

Belmont Citizen-Herald: June 16, 2016

Congratulations Belmont High class of 2016.  You’ve had a great high school career and, now, it’s time to move on to “higher education.”  What exactly does that mean?

I had lunch not long ago with the son of a friend (let me call him “Jason”).  Jason recently had graduated from college and he was worried because a job wasn’t waiting for him at the doorstep. He was questioning whether he had marketable skills to sell to an employer.  What do I have to offer, Jason asked me.

This question was raised by a person who, during the middle of his college years, decided to move to Bangkok, Thailand for a year.  On his own. Not part of a program.  Not affiliated with an institution.  Not living with friends or family. No formal training in the Thai language.

Let’s set aside your classroom education, I urged him, and look at what higher education you received.  That Thai trip was not simply an adventure.  How did you grocery shop in this new country? Where did you bank? How did you pick up the language? How did you meet friends, find your way around the city, or do any of the other activities of daily living?  I couldn’t think of skills more sought-after by an employer than those exhibited by this Thai trip: problem-solving, initiative, communication.

Jason’s experience directly relates to you as a recent BHS graduate. For most of you, higher education means attending a four year college.  Be it in engineering, social sciences, literature, or the hard sciences, the next four years will be devoted to class time with increasing specialization as you move through your collegiate career.

But, like Jason, much of your education will occur outside the classroom.  You will meet new people with different backgrounds. You will negotiate roommate “issues.” You will decide when to seek academic help and when not. You will manage your own health, your own time, your own finances.  You will organize who you play with and who you study with.

My daughter just graduated from college.  Five years in school. A couple of academic degrees.  Yet, I will forever believe that perhaps her most significant college education came not from the classroom, but from her years of participation in her university’s Dance Marathon, a student run charity that raises money each year for the Children’s Miracle Network.

Through her work with the Dance Marathon executive board, she lived the experience of setting goals, both long-term and short. She mobilized resources toward achieving those goals; planned and coordinated group endeavors; mediated internal organizational disputes; celebrated successes and weathered disappointments. She had to decide how to allocate scarce resources, including both organization money and her own time.  Does that sound like a typical employment setting? Yes, indeed.

Class of 2016, as you move forward in your educational journey, a huge part of your higher education will come not from your classrooms, but from your experiences. But beware. Amongst the considerable wisdom flowing from baseball players over the years, former Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Vernon Law once opined that, “experience is a hard  teacher. She gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.”  I encourage you not only to be open to the tests, but to be cognizant of the lessons.

Class of 2016, your community could not be prouder of you as a Belmont High graduate.  Your Belmont education has prepared you well for the journey ahead, wherever that might lead.  Your friends, family, neighbors, indeed the entire community, wish for you not merely success and happiness, but wish for you to live an interesting and fulfilling life.

May 26, 2016: Meeting kids’ needs through high school options

Belmont Citizen-Herald: May 26, 2016

Belmont High School is moving toward the end of another spectacularly successful school year.  Academic accomplishment remains high, with graduating seniors headed toward four-year colleges.  The theatre program hit a home run with the presentation of The Laramie Project.  Athletics excelled, with the girls basketball team enthralling fans with their deep tournament run.  Music, community service, after-school clubs, even new coding classes to advance technology education.  Belmont High offers something for everyone, right?

Well, maybe not quite.

I had conversations recently with two Belmont educators about the advantages of the high school options that Belmont offers within our community.  The question I posed was not in the negative (what does Belmont High not do well), but rather in the positive (what advantages does the community receive from having more than one high school). Both educators agreed that Belmont was well-served by having these options.

Dan Richards, principal of Belmont High School, noted that education provided by public high schools involves a reflection not only of the community, but of society as a whole.  One societal norm to be reflected today, Richards said, is the expectation that things be customized. “One can go on the internet and customize jackets and shoes for individual tastes. That expectation now extends to public education as well.”

Belmont High can, to a point, teach to differentiating learners, Richards said.  One difference between Belmont and other towns, he said, is that Belmont’s public schools don’t simply talk about that as an abstract principle, but “actively embrace that notion” to guide what is done “inside the bricks” (i.e., within the school walls).  The problem, he said, is that despite best efforts, Belmont High cannot “fabricate all environments for students to thrive in.” In that sense, Belmont High cannot completely meet society’s expectations. Accordingly, having different schools that provide different education environments can only do good for the community.

Providing an opportunity for an alternative high school experience is what Belmont’s Waldorf High School offers.  According to Waldorf High Director Mara White, while many Belmont residents are not even aware of the small independent school tucked away on Lexington Ave., WHS graduated its first class in 2000 and moved to Belmont in 2004.

White speaks the same language as BHS principal Richards.  “It is evident,” she says, “that one system cannot serve the needs of every single student.  A student might thrive in one place and not in the other. A student who does very well at BHS might not flourish at Waldorf” and vice versa.

The objective of Waldorf High School is the same as any high school education. “We seek,” White says, “to help students develop the intellectual capacity to think critically and to maneuver in society and with each other.”  Belmont High and Waldorf seek to “teach the same skill sets to students,” White emphasizes.

The size of the Waldorf is the “most obvious difference” between the two schools, White says. “Whether it is sports or music or drama, Waldorf provides the opportunity to participate. You may not be the best soccer player, but you  can still experience being part of a team and engaging in competition.”  In addition, “students do not receive an individualized education program, but the school attends to individualized needs.”

Obviously, Belmont High and Waldorf High are not the only two high schools serving Belmont residents. They do, however, illustrate an important lesson. As we approach the completion of another school year, additional celebration is merited by the fact that Belmont supports a variety of local opportunities to provide a successful education to our kids, whatever their needs.  Not all communities can say that.