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.

January 28, 2016: Belmont: A town full of ‘Laurie Grahams’

Belmont Citizen-Herald: January 28, 2016

There was sadness on the Belmont School Committee last week, as long-time member Laurie Graham attended her last meeting before her retirement from elected public office. In her eight years of service, three as Chair of the School Committee, Graham left her imprint not only on the public schools, but on the community as a whole.

I hope we all appreciate the amount of her inner-being that Graham has given to the Belmont community throughout the past decade. Graham helped lead the School Committee through some particularly tough times. The turn-over in school superintendents is never easy, yet Belmont had one superintendent who left earlier than he had committed to; replaced by an “interim” superintendent (who graciously agreed to stay an extra year to benefit the town); before landing Superintendent John Phelan who now leads our district.

Graham helped usher the town through the construction of a new elementary school, with young kids housed in temporary modules and sharing space at the high school; this, too, is never an easy task, for the kids, the parents, the teachers or the administrators.

Labor negotiations in Belmont always seem to be contentious, but have been even more difficult in an era of severely constrained financial resources. How do you address underpaid teachers when there is simply no more money in the budget?

The school committee was placed in the awkward situation where members had to insist on preserving already inadequate girls’ athletic fields from being used for non-school facility building construction, when no replacement land was promised or anywhere available.

All the while, spiraling enrollment was creating space problems; the high school physical plant continued to deteriorate; and the budget was increasingly squeezed by expenditures that were mandated by, but not financially supported by, state and federal law. Graham certainly didn’t devote eight years of her life to the schools because it was “fun.”

Despite the challenges, Graham’s good humor, good will, and good sense ensured that progress continued to be made. Clearly, challenges still remain. But the town is better off today because of her service.

The thing that is so special about Laurie Graham is that she isn’t special. She doesn’t have umpteen advanced degrees in education; she didn’t bring decades of professional experience to bear on how to manage school systems. Instead, she has succeeded because she’s been willing to step into the fray; she’s been willing to do the unheralded, often unappreciated, dirty work to understand issues and how they affect our community; and she’s been willing to suspend her own personal predispositions so she can hear the full story and find a basis for reasonable decisionmaking.

In so doing, Graham has made perhaps her greatest contribution to Belmont. She has demonstrated that we all have the capacity to make contributions to the broader community. The fact is that Belmont is full of “Laurie Grahams.” We as a community need to give people permission to step into the public arena, make their contributions, and exercise their best judgment, whether they be young or old; homeowner or renter; with kids in the schools or not; long-time resident or recent arrival.

I hope when folks next see Laurie Graham, whether on the street, or at the market, or at the post office, you take a moment to stop her and say “thank you.” However, even as we express our gratitude to Graham for her years of service, we should also look forward to embracing, as well as providing encouragement and support to, the next individual who will step forward to make their own unique contributions to helping our schools, our town, and our community.

December 31, 2015: Belmont steps out in 2015

Belmont Citizen-Herald: December 31, 2015

Belmont was a town of steps in 2015. Steps forward; steps backward. Fast steps and slow steps. Steps through record snowfalls.

Exceptionally fast steps were seen at Belmont High this year, as the girl’s track team won its first conference championship in forty years. Led by Julia Cella and Megan Alper in the sprints, Samantha Kelts and Marley Williams in the triple jump, and Claudia Tenner and Kayla Magno in the hurdles, the Marauders didn’t just win, they dominated.

The track team was not the only group of high-steppin’ high schoolers. The annual BHS musical this spring featured dancing in Anything Goes that left theatre patrons abuzz. In addition to congratulating the students, however, let’s also take a moment to thank Jenny Lifson for a job well-done. She not only choreographed the show, but she then also taught the kids how to dance with the skill and energy that so captivated the audience.

A look at BHS theatre in 2015 would not be complete without acknowledging The Laramie Project. The play presented the true story of a small town coming to grips with the hate-induced violence leading to the brutal murder of a young gay man. The performance was powerful in a way atypical of high school theatre. Particular kudos go to Ezra Flam, director of the BHS Performing Arts Company, who brought the play to Belmont to challenge and stretch both his students and the community.

Not all decisions in Belmont this year were steps forward. The Board of Selectmen stepped backward on a proposed community path when it ignored hundreds of hours of research and deliberation by its own Advisory Committee and decided instead to include one path alternative in the engineering study that had been found to be neither safe nor practical. The real impact of the BOS decision to study a “community path” that traverses a lane on Concord Ave. is to slow down, and possibly derail, a project that the community as a whole both wants and needs.

One project that did move forward in 2015 was construction of the new Belmont Light substation. In the midst of a year of public turmoil over Belmont Light’s “net metering” solar policy, general manager Jim Palmer, along with former Selectman Ralph Jones, quietly made sure the substation moved toward completion. While not a glamorous initiative in any sense, the substation will both help ensure reliable electricity, and reduce electricity costs, to Belmont residents. Frequently, it is the nitty-gritty work, rather than those decisions most publicly debated, that have the greatest impact on the town’s residents.

Many considered last April’s over-ride approval a step forward for the schools. The added revenue, however, also meant that the budget for sidewalk repair increased by 1300% over prior years, thus making steps easier for Belmont residents throughout town. The Belmont Street/Trapelo Road construction ground toward completion, while the Cushing Village development remained a hole in the ground. Compromise was reached on green space in Belmont Center, even while the Center’s businesses continued to suffer due to the long-term construction.

May we never forget to thank those people doing the hard work to make some of Belmont’s annual events seem routine. Town Moderator Mike Widmer ushered Town Meeting through its annual decision-making. Jennifer Page and Sara Oaklander organized another successful “Meet Belmont” gathering. The Payson Park Music Festival again offered summer entertainment and delight. The Foundation for Belmont Education crowned a new spelling bee champion.

As we remember 2015, and wonder what 2016 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.