Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books I Liked in 2011

I knew it! You were just dying to know what books I really enjoyed this past year.

My favorite piece of adult fiction that I read was City of Thieves by David Benioff. It's a story about a Jewish boy during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, and given that they are all starving, you wouldn't think it would be funny, but it is. (Funny in the way that Catch-22 is funny--a lot of absurdity!) In high school went through a period where I read a lot of Holocaust literature, but that is not the same as World War II literature, and I really knew nothing about the Siege of Leningrad.

My favorite piece of non-fiction that I read this year--alright, to tell the truth, I'm still only half-way through it--was (is?) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Through the lens of one woman's cells, and one woman's family, we learn about: her family history, as well as ethics and racism in medical research. Maybe that doesn't sound too scintillating, but it is really engrossing.

Update 1/1/12: I forgot to put in my favorite graphic book of the year. That book would be Feynman, by Jim Otavianni (author) and Leyland Myrick (illustrator), about Nobel prize-winner (quantum physicist) Richard Feynman. And Otavianni is an Ann Arbor resident!

As for children's books:

The best children's book that I read this year--and I just read it last week--is an older book, a Newbery Award winner from 1998. The book is Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, about the Dust Bowl. It's written in free verse, and the sparing, short lines make the book a very quick read. (It is quick, but also there are some parts that are [mentally] difficult reading.) This children's literature site suggests that you could pair Out of the Dust with reading the book (and/or watching the movie) Grapes of Wrath.

I'll also mention four other children's and/or young adult authors:

Tamora Pierce has a newer book out, Mastiff, that I enjoyed. It's part of a young adult fantasy trilogy about Beka Cooper, a policewoman (Dog) in Tortall. I have pretty much enjoyed all of Tamora Pierce's books--although I will say that my daughter found them boring. But then, she doesn't like fantasy at all.

E. Nesbit is an author I keep coming back to. This summer I listened to The Phoenix and the Carpet (well, part of it--can you tell I sometimes stop in the middle and pick up the book again later?). However, my favorite book by E. Nesbit is The Railway Children. Here is a 1964 essay by Gore Vidal about E. Nesbit, in case you are interested.

Rick Riordan is in the middle of a series about Egyptian magicians, and my son has insisted that I read this series, as well as the Percy Jackson series (about the gods on Mt. Olympus). I have to admit that I give these series kind of middling grades (they are okay, but not fabulous). My son, however, disagrees and so I am sharing this with you because you might have an elementary- or middle-school child who would like to read these as well. Looking at Rick Riordan's biography (see the link above), I was surprised (but maybe I shouldn't have been) to see that, "For fifteen years, Rick taught English and history at public and private middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Texas. In 2002, Saint Mary’s Hall honored him with the school’s first Master Teacher Award." He also writes adult mysteries. Maybe I should try those.

John Feinstein must be one of the most prolific writers ever. If you've heard him on NPR, you might not know that he has a very interesting mystery series that is targeted at the young-adult, sports-loving audience. He's got two teen reporters--a girl and a boy--covering big sports events like the Final Four (Last Shot) and the World Series (Change-Up), and solving mysteries along the way. Both my son and I agree the whole series is quite good.

I don't get to spend much time with illustrated story books anymore--and I miss them--which is perhaps why I have found myself thinking about these two "vintage" books recently:

Lore Segal's Tell Me A Mitzi
Brinton Turkle's Rachel and Obadiah (and others in the Obadiah series like Thy Friend Obadiah and Adventures of Obadiah)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Testing and the Emperor's New Clothes

This history of testing in New York State is both funny and terrifying. . . and it could just as well be Michigan.

10 Years of Assessing Students With Scientific Exactitude by Michael Winerip (New York Times article)

PS The comments are good too.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

$1.4 Million Dollars: School Medicaid Revenue

One of the items that I missed in the action-packed Ann Arbor school board meeting last week is Pat Green's announcement that she had found $1.4 million dollars for the district. That savings is approximately 10% of the projected cuts needed--nothing to sneeze at--and comes from Medicaid reimbursals that we should have been getting.

I have to admit that when I heard about this, I shouted to my friend, "I had that idea first!" And seriously, I did.

On January 24, 2010 I wrote a piece called Revenue Side, where I stated,

4. Medicaid Reimbursement: Some of the district's special education expenses are Medicaid billable. Currently, that billing brings in about $1 million each year, and is largely handled by social workers. I believe that this is an area where the school district needs to be absolutely sure it is maximizing its billing, and if the billing is spread out, it is likely that it has not been maximized. I don't have local statistics, but a study in New York State of 8 districts found that they were only being reimbursed for about 1/3 of the Medicaid monies that they should be reimbursed for. In the study, some of the reasons that the districts did not get reimbursed included: a) not checking students' Medicaid status regularly (so they would be kicked off Medicaid, and not get back on even though they were still eligible, and the districts would not know); b) waiting too long to send in the claims; and c) not appealing claims that were denied, even if they believed that denial was in error. In those districts, the estimate was that they could triple their reimbursement level! The Medicaid claims submission process should be reviewed from the point of service onward, even if the increase would add $100,000 and not $2 million to the AAPS budget. (And this is true for every district in the county.)

I also mentioned it again a week later, on January 31, 2010, in a post called The Rest of the Story: AAPS Budget Part II (remember, we were doing budget cuts that year as well), where I wrote:

I think I addressed the largest chunk of the budget with my recent post on personnel costs and my post on revenue enhancements, including a look at whether we can increase Medicaid reimbursement. 
At the first of the fall budget forums this year, I mentioned Medicaid reimbursement again to Robert Allen, who told me the WISD handled it (which they do, but apparently they weren't handling it well)--and I'm pretty sure that I wrote something like "maximize Medicaid reimbursement" as a suggestion at both last year's and this year's budget forums.

In fact, the only reason that Medicaid reimbursals were on my radar screen at all is really a fluke. Several years ago, my son was on a baseball team where a few of the players' moms were either speech therapists, occupational therapists, or physical therapists at various school districts. Given that it was May and June, they spent a lot of time discussing how time-consuming the Medicaid billing was for them. Before that, who knew that schools even billed for Medicaid?! Not me.

I'm not really a cynic. Well, sometimes I think my family is full of cynics, but my husband nicely points out that we are optimistic cynics. So by writing this up, I in no way mean to imply that Pat Green (or other school staff in finance or special education) didn't come up with the idea of looking into this on her (or their) own. (In other words, I'm not looking for credit.) It's very plausible to me that Pat Green has had experience with Medicaid revenues in other districts, and in fact may have read the same research study about Medicaid reimbursals that I had read. It's also likely that the Medicaid problem was much more bureaucratic and difficult to untangle than just increasing billing. So that's the optimistic part.

But here is the cynical part.

I did bring up the idea of looking at Medicaid reimbursement nearly two years ago. And perhaps I wasn't the only one to bring it up. For two years, the district has been collecting ideas for budget savings from parents, teachers, and taxpayers. I wonder if they ever looked closely at the items people wrote down? Did they just ignore them? At the fall budget forum I went to, someone suggested scrutinizing the comments on budget saving in, and yes, I am fully aware of how squirrelly those comments are! But there are likely a couple of diamonds in the rough on those budget articles, and I know that I myself have lots of ideas in this blog. No, they are not all good ideas. Some of them are impractical or lousy. But some of them are good!

I just wonder--did anybody really look at all of those ideas that have been collected at the budget forums? In other forums? [Here, by the way, is an obvious plug for the school district leadership to read this blog regularly. It's super easy to become a regular subscriber by clicking on the "Subscribe" RSS feed on the right.] My first recommendation to the school district for budget cuts this year is to go back and read the data and ideas they have already collected.

And by the way, when it comes to Medicaid reimbursement, it could be that other school districts in the county should follow Ann Arbor's lead and be able to increase their Medicaid reimbursement revenues--Saline, Ypsilanti, Dexter, Whitmore Lake, etc. . . are you listening?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is It Time for AAPS to Raise Top Administrative Salaries?

Tonight, the Ann Arbor school board is being asked to raise the salaries of three of the district's top administrators.

The salaries that are up for a vote relate to the following four administrators, two of whom are new to the district (so the ratification is for contracts that Patricia Greene, Superintendent, and Deb Mexicotte, School Board President, have already signed):

Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services Alesia Flye, hired in at a salary of $140,000. The former Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services, Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelly, had a salary in 2010-2011 of $132,000.
Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Dawn Linden, hired in at a salary of $117,900.
The former Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education was also Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelly (prior to taking on the interim appointment of Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services), and in that capacity her salary was $122,399 in 2010-2011.  It should be noted that Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelly also had 38 years in the Ann Arbor district. (This is not an increase in salary.)

The other two are current staff people:
Deputy Superintendent of Operations, Robert Allen
Deputy Superintendent of Human Resources and Legal Services, David Comsa

In 2010-2011, Robert Allen's salary was $130,556 (before he was interim superintendent, where he earned the same salary as our former superintendent, Todd Roberts).

In 2010-2011, David Comsa's salary was $124,524.

The proposed salary modifications for Robert Allen and David Comsa bring their salaries to the equivalent of the new deputy superintendent Alesia Flye, on the grounds that they should all be equal.

The percentage  increases, relative to 2010-2011 salaries, for the three deputy superintendent salaries are 7.2% (Allen); 12.4% (Comsa); and 6% (Dickinson-Kelly/Flye). Overall, this is an additional expense to the district of nearly $33,000. (If you include the fact that Dawn Linden is getting less pay than Dickinson-Kelly was, the cost is just over $28,400.)

I know what the superintendent is's a big's not a lot of money. 

Wrong! That is the wrong way to think about it! It's hugely symbolic.
The school district has to cut $14 million dollars,
and says to parents, "You need to pay more for x and y."
They say to teachers, "You are going to have to give concessions of x and y." 
They say regarding using local and/or unionized companies, "We are going to go with low-ball bids." (Tonight there is also a discussion/resolution about contracting with a non-unionized, west side of the state company called DM Burr for heating and cooling.)

And then they say, "Oh, but let's raise our salaries."


Please join me in asking the Board of Education to oppose this resolution. Email: or go to tonight's meeting, December 14, 2011, 7 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Read the details about the salaries and the DM Burr contract in the board packet, here:

Read the last board meeting's discussions about salaries, and about the DM Burr contract, in this Ann Arbor Chronicle article.

Update Thursday 12/15/2011: Early this morning, at about 1:30 a.m., the salary resolution was brought back onto the agenda (at 10 p.m. my friend was told it would be voted on at the next board meeting, and had been taken off the agenda for this meeting) and it was approved 4-3, with trustees Baskett, Lightfoot, and Thomas voting against the raises. That is very disappointing to me. And what is even more disappointing is that I wonder now, if I had realized a little bit earlier that it would be on the agenda tonight, could we have changed the outcome of that vote? It only would have taken one more school board member to vote against the resolution. I'll say this: It will get ever more difficult for the administration to convince teachers to take cuts, and to get parents to vote for the tech millage, when they are raising their own salaries.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Time and Time Again

Lately my son has been getting a lot of bar and bat mitzvah invitations. A bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah (bar mitzvah for a boy, bat mitzvah for a girl) is a Jewish ritual rite of passage marking the transition from being a Jewish kid to a Jewish adult (ritually speaking). (My son has not had his bar mitzvah yet.)

As you might or might not know, generally when kids have a bar or bat mitzvah they get presents. And then they have to write thank you notes. When I had my bat mitzvah, the thank you notes seemed endless.

Which led me to the following recent conversation.

Me: "Joe got his thank you notes out really quickly! His bar mitzvah was just last week!"
Son: "Well, it takes less time if you do it quickly."
Me: "It doesn't take less time. Whether you do it quickly or slowly, it takes the same amount of time."
Son: "No, if you get them done in a week instead of two weeks, it takes less time."
Me: "But if every thank you note takes 5 minutes, and you have to write 20 notes, it takes 100 minutes altogether, whether you write 2 a day for 10 days, or do all 20 in 1 day!"

[We'll leave aside the fact that you might achieve efficiencies if you do a lot of them at once. Because you also might get writer's cramp.]

The math on this--which my son did understand--goes like this:
5 minutes/note x 20 notes = 100 minutes
2 notes/day x 10 days = 20 notes/day x 1 day
And yet, my son insisted: "No, it takes less time, because it's a shorter amount of time."
And here, my son is referring to the difference between 10 days, and 1 day. In other words, he was thinking of time as a spatial entity, and I was thinking of time as a quantity. [Mathematicians might have different words for that, by the way.]

I know, you're thinking, "That's a cute story, Ruth, but what does that have to do with schools?"

When I was in elementary, middle, and high school, we had to go to school a minimum of 180 days/year. So school was scheduled for 183 days/year, in order to account for snow days and other unforeseen events.

But now, school is scheduled with a minimum number of minutes as a requirement. A few years ago, when the legislature increased the number of minutes that students had to go to school, most districts just distributed those minutes over the school days, rather than add days to the school year. Typically, just a few minutes a day really added up.  All of which led to the following exchange that I thought was very funny with an elementary school teacher.

That year, we were chronically late to school with our oldest son, and the teacher commented on it.
Me: "I guess I had the time school starts wrong. What time is the bell?"
Teacher: "Well, the first bell is at 8:08."
Me: "OK, what time is the second bell?"
Teacher: "It used to be at 8:14, but now we don't have a second bell any more."

Does it make a difference, minutes or days? Is time a quantity or a spatial entity? You be the judge.

Update 12/13/11: Honestly, I did not know when I wrote this that had just published an article on the idea of using a balanced calendar at Scarlett and Mitchell. Nothing has been decided yet, and you can read the article here. As I've written about before, I myself am not interested in a balanced calendar for my kids. I know that other people are. I think the balanced calendar would be fine if people can opt in or out of it. So if Scarlett/Mitchell becomes a K-8 magnet with a balanced calendar, I'm sure some people will want it. Others won't, and they should be able to go elsewhere.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Proud Music

I spent much of this evening at the Ann Arbor Open winter band and orchestra concert. For middle schoolers, they sounded pretty good! The improvement between the intermediate and advanced groups is very noticeable. It's so nice to really see the difference, and understand that they are really learning!

As a parent, it is always a "kvell moment" when your child is performing, and there are not enough opportunities for performance in many types of school work. (Kvell--a Yiddish word that roughly translates to "swell up with pride.")

While I was sitting there in the audience, I was thinking about a couple of conversations I had with my sister and sister-in-law over the past few months. They both have middle-school-age kids, and they all go to "very good public schools" (in other words, comparable to Ann Arbor). But do their kids play instruments? Not anymore. "She tried it for a week..." "After two weeks she decided she didn't like it..." "She wanted to play the flute but she could barely get a sound out of it."

Two things stand out here. First, in the Ann Arbor schools, nobody tries instrumental music for a week. Everybody has to try it for at least a year! Second, students spend a few weeks at the beginning of fifth grade trying out different instruments, and if it's hard for a student to get a sound out of a flute, the teacher will probably not assign flute to that student.

So those conversations--and tonight's concert--really made me appreciate the Ann Arbor Public Schools music scene...especially in the elementary and middle schools, before it gets super competitive. The start that AAPS gives kids in music is awesome!

Or perhaps I should say that the AAPS music program...
Is jazzy.
It's snazzy.
It rocks and 
it rolls.
It's classy and
it's brassy!
It boogies and
it bounces!

Thanks, music teachers!

P.S. I would put in a plug here for Horns for the Holidays, but I'm not sure it still exists. Does anybody know? If you have an instrument in good condition, many of our local school districts would probably welcome the donation.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Evaluating your Child for Special Education Services

Do you suspect that your child may need special education services? If your child has not been officially diagnosed, but you have a feeling that they need services, you have the right to request an evaluation for services.

A parent can request a special education evaluation at any time if they believe it is necessary.  Interventions and a special education evaluation can be in process simultaneously.

If the school your child goes to is resistant to doing an evaluation (perhaps because they think they need to try an intervention first) you can (gently but firmly) remind them that it is the law. This letter from the U.S. Department of Education might be helpful: 

Two other groups that might be helpful:

Student Advocacy Center

In particular, you might appreciate the sections on Special Education.

Ann Arbor has a Parent Advocacy Committee for parents of students with special education issues. In fact, most of our schools have parent representatives. You can find the list of contacts on their web page.

Most importantly, I have found that these parents are fonts of knowledge--if you are worried about your child, they not only often know what you are going through, but can help shorten your learning curve and share important resources.

Just know--you are not alone.