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Originally from outside Washington, D.C., I grew up in a family of civil servants, teachers, librarians, and secretaries. I believe in equity, transparency, and the careful use of taxpayer dollars. I high expectations that our schools can be leaders in the field of public education, and that Cambridge can educate all of its students to be successful, healthy, responsible, and engaged adults.
In addition to having been active as a CPS for 17 years, I have worked in the education field for 25 years, including as a language specialist for five years at an “out-of-district” special education school for Deaf students in Framingham, and as a literacy researcher for fifteen years at Harvard and at Lesley University. I have a doctorate in child and youth development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and extensive training in research, program evaluation, and data analysis.
Before being elected to the Committee in 2015, I was an activist parent who served on district- and city-wide advisory groups and spoke frequently at School Committee meetings. I write a blog, Public School Notes: Commentary and Grassroots Information about the Cambridge Public Schools, which is widely read by parents and others in the community. (www.publicschoolnotes.wordpress.com)
My 1st-Term Accomplishments:
Innovation Agenda/Hybrid Middle School Program:
The four upper schools, now in their sixth year, are well established, and each one has some unique, delightful characteristics, as well as unique challenges. The same is true for the Amigos 6th-8th-grade program, which is coordinated with the upper schools. Now that the new structure is established, the job of the School Committee is to support all the existing CPS schools in their current grade configuration, and to ensure that all 17 schools have enough resources, including teachers and other staff. The middle school grades should not be considered unto themselves, but rather part of a 6th-12th grade pathway that transitions students from early adolescence to early adulthood.
Though my own two children were already in high school when the Innovation Agenda was decided, I played a very active role, as a high school parent, in supporting the new district structure. In 2012, I joined the newly formed parent group, the Cambridge School Advisory Group (CSAG), as a CRLS parent representative; and became a member of the group’s Steering Committee. With parent representatives from every CPS school, CSAG met monthly for roughly three years, with parents exchanging information and advocating for needed resources. I also worked with upper school parents to advocate, successfully, for additional staff to be added to the upper schools, such as additional intervention teachers and full-time librarians. We have not yet been successful at persuading the district to add family liaisons to the four upper schools, which are the only schools in the district without family liaisons.
School Department Administration And Superintendent:
Because Dr. Salim has been working in our district for only one year, and is a relatively inexperienced superintendent compared with our previous superintendents, he needs support, feedback, and guidance from other administrators, teachers, the School Committee, and parents, students, and community members. With this support and guidance, he will quickly learn as much as possible about Cambridge and our school system. Though our district is small compared to major urban districts like Boston, the complexity of Cambridge, the extreme diversity of our students and wide range of incomes, combined with the rapid changes happening in the city, make the school system complicated to administer and govern.
School Dept. Budget And Oversite, Capital Needs:
It is also important for taxpayers to know that although Cambridge has a very high per pupil spending as compared with other districts, Cambridge spends a substantially smaller percentage of its budget on teachers—the most important professionals in education. For example, according to DESE data for 2016, our total per pupil spending is 45% higher than Brookline ($26,600 in Cambridge vs. $18,400 in Brookline), but our per pupil spending on classroom teachers is only 6% higher than Brookline ($6,480 for Cambridge vs. $6,100 for Brookline). Salem, Waltham, and Medford all spend roughly the same as Cambridge, per pupil, on classroom teachers ($6,300-$6,900 per pupil).
That said, Cambridge does fund many amenities that other districts can’t afford, such as more mental health professionals in our schools, a well-funded high school extracurricular program, and community partnerships. We also have very high health insurance costs and very small schools, which is expensive. There are, however, some places where we could trim our budget and direct more of our dollars to student learning rather than infrastructure.
In terms of capital needs, we are building four state-of-the-art schools that will each hold an elementary and middle school. We are not building these schools primarily because of the Innovation Agenda, but because Cambridge conducted no major school renovations between the 2001 renovation of the Peabody School the beginning of the 2010 renovation of CRLS. As a result, some of our buildings seriously deteriorated. Cambridge also needs to build more city spaces for the arts, early childhood education, afterschool programs, and adult education, which should be factored into any new city construction.
Achievement Gap/Meeting The Needs Of All Learners:
If we truly want teachers to be able to teach all their students well, we have to give them adequate resources. We’ve emphasized professional development in this district for two decades, but that is only one resource. We also need to take into account that we hire roughly 100 novice teachers every year. CPS teachers in some schools and grade levels have told us that they need smaller class sizes and/or other trained adults in their classrooms, such as co-teachers, skilled paraprofessionals, and more reading and math specialists. Teachers also need more time to plan and confer with their colleagues, which requires more staff to cover classrooms. In particular, investing in more evidence-based practices in the early grades, such as having smaller class sizes in grades K-3, should increase the average achievement of low-income students, and save the city money in the long run.
Socioemotionally, all students need to accept diversity of ability in various domains, and not stigmatize students for being too advanced or too behind in various skill areas. It’s also important that schools have mental health staff who can recognize issues, such as depression or acting out, that might be more prevalent amongst students who are far above their peers, or students who have unrecognized strengths. We should also ensure that we use assessments that are capable of measuring high levels of student ability in various subject areas and domains, and give teachers the resources they need to learn, from parents, about their children’s interests and abilities.
Controlled Choice, Student Assignment:
The original structure of Controlled Choice was a dual system of: 1) neighborhood schools open primarily to students in the neighborhood (via “proximity preference” in the lottery), and 2) a parallel system of magnet schools open to any student in the district. The magnet schools were designed to attract higher income, mostly white students, to schools in lower-income, mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods. Until the late 1990s, Cambridge had magnet programs in almost every elementary school, which integrated the schools, but not necessarily the classrooms within the schools. Most of these magnet programs were eliminated in the early 2000s, so most schools now have “proximity preference.” This means that it is almost impossible for families to attend popular programs if they do not live within the proximity boundaries of those schools. The most popular schools tend to be those in more affluent neighborhoods.
Though our Controlled Choice policy was reviewed only four years ago, (I served on the community advisory board), very few changes were made at that time. The main conclusion that there are many families living west of Harvard Square, but the majority of schools are located east of Harvard Square. I.e. not all families living on the west side of Cambridge can fit into their popular neighborhood schools. Even of CPS did not try to balance schools by income, there is need for some students from the west side to attend non-neighborhood schools an the east side.
Since the kindergarten lottery is the entry point for families joining the public schools, it is essential that we review and improve the Controlled Choice policy and process, which can be very negative for parents/ Potential changes, some even suggested in the 2013 review but not implemented, include:
Family Engagement and Communication:
We need to think of Family Engagement in terms of a hierarchy of needs and stages of parent development, similar to the Head Start model of Family Engagement. Parents, particularly those not from civic mainstream, need: 1) Frequent communication from teachers and structured opportunities to work with their children on school-related projects at home, so they understand what and how their children are learning at school. 2) Structured and informal opportunities to come to the school building to interact with the teachers, principal, and with other parents. This helps parents feel comfortable in the institutional environment of their child’s school, and helps them become part of a parent community. 3) Leadership opportunities within the school, such as to organize fundraisers, serve on the governing body, etc., which helps parents increase their leadership skills and sense of empowerment. 4) District-level advocacy opportunities in order to engage with the district administration and School Committee, which they, in theory, help elect to set the policies that affect their children. Some parents come into the school community with higher-level abilities to engage at all these levels, some enter with much lower-level school-engagement skills. Our schools should not just be “welcoming” to all families, they should be parent learning environments that result in all families feeling more empowered as Cambridge residents.
Though standardized tests can provide valuable information at the group level, it requires considerable expertise and knowledge of the tests themselves to properly analyze and interpret standardized test score data, particularly for a district that has very small schools and small cohort sizes. Cambridge currently has only one full-time data analyst, and in the past had only a part-time analyst. As a result, the district, historically, has conducted very little analyses of its test score data. The result has been that administrators, the School Committee, and the public have often drawn erroneous and damaging conclusions about what our achievement data does or does not say about students’ academic abilities, teacher effectiveness, or school quality. CPS needs a robust research program in which clear research questions are explored through iterative, expert-level data analysis.
As is frequently noted, the problem with standardized testing in Massachusetts is not the test, but their high-stakes nature. Because schools are rated by the state on their test scores, there is tremendous pressure on principals, teachers, the Superintendent, and students to improve test scores quickly, which is not a good way to improve instruction and increase student learning. The community and School Committee can unwittingly exacerbate this non-constructive pressure when we emphasize test scores as the only measure of school or district quality, and ignore data on graduation and college-going rates, attendance and enrollment, or data on student participation in out-of-school or school-funded extracurricular activities. As every statistician knows, a construct such as “student achievement” is multifaceted, and needs to be assessed using multiple measures if we want a valid and reliable picture of student learning and abilities.
Role of the School Committee:
The first responsibility of Committee members is to know what is going on in the schools and in the community. This requires asking for information from the administration, attending school and community events, and getting to know parents, students, teachers, administrators, staff, and community leaders. It is impossible for Committee members to ask good questions and make good policy if they don’t know what is working well and what is not. Their second role is to supervise, evaluate, and provide direction to the superintendent. School Committee members, because they are elected from the community, have knowledge about the schools and community that the superintendent does not have. In addition, in theory, it is the School Committee that is accountable to the public via the ballot box, not the superintendent. The Committee must use the collective knowledge of the members to guide the superintendent to fulfill the will of the public, while also observing state and federal requirements and sound educational practice. At the same time, the Committee must engage the superintendent’s expertise when trying to solve difficult district problems. The relationship between the Superintendent and Committee should be collaborative and collegial, but ultimately it is the School Committee that is responsible for the schools via their supervision of the Superintendent, their monitoring of data, and the process of assigning resources to the schools via the budget process. The Committee hires, evaluates, and directs the Superintendent, not vice versa. On a year-to-year basis, the Committee is responsible for articulating a vision and setting goals, which should come primarily from the public, which funds the schools via their taxes and elects the School Committee as their representatives. The ongoing work of the Committee is to bring issues from the public to the administration, which is why the Committee meets publicly at least twice per month. These meetings give Committee members the opportunity to bring public issues forward, and gives parents, students, and other community members a chance to speak publicly about improvements they would like to see in their schools.
School Committees, in Cambridge and in other districts, are often criticized for getting “too deep into the weeds” rather than sticking to policy. However, schools are supposed to be cultivated farms and gardens, not wild fields. If there are too many weeds that are not being pulled out by the administration and educators, it is the School Committee’s responsibility to draw their attention to the weeds, and ensure that they get pulled out. Otherwise the schools can’t operate smoothly and focus on their mission.
Role of Teachers in Shaping Programs and Influencing Policies:
Often overlooked is the need for there to be direct trust between parents and teachers, and between the community and teachers. Trust cannot be mandated, it must be developed through contact and positive experiences. The Committee needs to set policies, and the administration needs to employ practices, that provide teachers, parents, and the community opportunities for trust-building experiences with families.
Curriculum and Programs:
In terms of adopting new curricula, CPS was one of the first districts in the country to teach “Facing History and Ourselves,” a middle school curriculum that emphasizes critical moral reasoning. The district currently is piloting a new curriculum called “Discovering Justice,” created by a Boston-based non-profit. CPS has had a long-standing relationship with TERC, a Cambridge-based math-and science-oriented research and curriculum development organization that develops curricula for a national market, often with NSF funding. The King Open and King School were the original sites where Bob Moses developed the Algebra Project, now scaled up nationally.
It is the differentiation of the curriculum in each classroom that is the challenge, which requires that teachers have enough planning time, enough adults in the classroom, and enough feedback on their teaching to support the learning of diverse students.
The JK Program: A School Committee priority should be to change the unfair JK policy by which half of all four-year-olds, by an arbitrary birth cut-off, are granted a taxpayer-funded pre-kindergarten year of education, as well as two opportunities to enter the lottery (first, as four-year-olds applying for JK, and, if they choose not to enter at JK, they can apply again as five-year-olds applying for K). I.e. some taxpaying City residents are guaranteed 14 years of public education, others only 13 years. This is akin to if the city said it would pay for the first year of college for half of the graduating senior class. CPS should either expand the junior kindergarten program to cover all 4-year-olds, pay for students not eligible for JK to attend other preschool programs, eliminate the JK program and have all children start in CPS school as kindergarteners, or offer the JK program only to low-income children in order to ensure they have pre-kindergarten school experience.
Immersion and Other Elementary Language Programs: It is very important that all Cambridge children have access to language learning opportunities when they are young. Learning another language has multiple benefits, including increasing students’ metalinguistic skills, which are necessary for first-language literacy, and increasing critical thinking and cultural empathy and perspective taking. Language immersion is not an either-or approach, nor is teaching language via more formal classroom experiences. Both require opportunities to learn and interact in the target language, combined with structured lessons in vocabulary, grammar, and culture. An explicit, 21st century learning goal for the School Committee and administration should be increasing elementary school language learning in all our elementary schools, via both “immersion” opportunities and more structured lessons. To accomplish this, CPS and the Committee must do more to educate parents, teachers, and the public about the value, to all students, of gaining some proficiency in another language. Our non-immersion programs, such as the Ni Hao non-immersion Mandarin program at the King School, and the Spanish non-immersion program at the Fletcher-Maynard, serve a disproportionately low-income student population, while the opposite is true of our official immersion programs. The quality and quantity of language learning opportunities in both types of schools needs to increase, as does the economic diversity of both types of programs.
I am fully committed to expanding and improving the quality of the CPS full-immersion and more structured elementary school language programs. While still a CPS parent, I organized petitions, wrote columns for the local newspapers, and spoke at public comment in support of an elementary school language program, which was explicitly envisioned as part of the Innovation Agenda. This year, as a result of my advocacy and that of other Committee members and parents, a 4th grade Spanish program will be piloted in two CPS schools. The programs will be combined with some form of arts instruction, which would provide an immersion component.
The Upper Schools and High School Programs: At the national level, models of middle school and high school education are moving away from the 20th-century students-sitting-in-classrooms model, and emphasizing more active and complex learning via large-scale, multifaceted problem-solving projects. Whole school programs such as Expeditionary Learning, based in Portland, Maine, and High Tech High, created in San Diego by two former CRLS teachers, are inspiring models we can look to as we continue to develop our middle school and high school programs. We have the potential to have a vibrant 6th-12th grade pathway that prepares students for post-secondary education, meaningful work, civic engagement, and positive social relationships. The question is how quickly we will see this pathway develop and what will it look like? Creating a more innovative high school program will drive change at the middle school level, but not necessarily vice versa.
The core of our current high school curriculum is a traditional program of standard high school subjects—American History, Chemistry, Geometry, 10th grade English, etc., many of them well-designed and well-taught, but still designed around the traditional students-sitting-in-classrooms model. At the margins of the high school program, however, are some fascinating non-traditional learning opportunities. These include many of the electives, extracurricular activities, off-campus internships, the RSTA career-technical programs, and the HS Extension School for non-traditional learners.Examples include an English elective in “Immersive Journalism,” the Kimbrough Scholars program, in which a small group of students work with lawyers to investigate unsolved crimes committed in the Jim Crow South; the STARS class (Students Teaching About Respect) in which students design community action projects; the Marine Biology elective, many of the hands-on technical and career courses; the Enhanced Senior Year option for independent study or internships; and the new and little known “Life Sciences Concentration.” At this point, the core, non-career CRLS academic program offers a fairly undifferentiated array of opportunities. Students themselves have to impose coherence on the options. If the school can shape these opportunities into more coherent core pathways, such as the Life Sciences Concentration and the vocational-technical concentrations, more students could experience the focused education that the more knowledgeable and savvy CRLS students are about to pursue at CRLS. Other pathways might be an Arts Concentration, a Community Service and Politics Pathway, a Humanities Concentration, etc. All pathways should have an off-campus component, and be structured around problem-solving activities supplemented by formal classes. CRLS also needs a stronger guidance program to ensure that students have help making choices and navigating opportunities.
Hand-in-hand with the need to create more coherent pathways for grades 9-12 is the need to give HS students far more responsibility and freedom, which the students themselves are demanding. As chair of the School Committee Subcommittee on School Climate, I’ve worked with the CRLS Student Government leaders to support their efforts to spend more time working on school policies, and less time organizing talent shows, which could be done by student clubs.My subcommittee has also been charged with drafting a revised “Rights and Responsibilities Handbook,” essentially the district’s disciplinary policies. Our current HS discipline policies are framed in terms of traditional, offense-punishment terms. Our goal, as a subcommittee, is to reframe the policies to align with the district’s commitment to restorative justice practices such as conflict mediation and resolution.
School Climate and Socioemotional Learning: Learning happens within relationships between students, teachers, and peers. Students also learn within school and classroom communities.
We also know that learning has to have an emotional component in order to be meaningful. Those emotions include pleasure, frustration, excitement, satisfaction, anxiety, relief, pride, and so on. It is essential, if students are to become “good learners,” that they learn to regulate their emotions (for example, not to get too positively excited or too frustrated), and that they learn how to interact with peers and teachers.
To its credit, CPS has put much effort, in the last few years, into providing professional development for teachers about how to support socioemotional learning and a positive school climate. It also has a social worker program by which two elementary schools share a full-time social worker,who supports teachers and provides clinical support to students with mental health issues. During the past two budget seasons, I successfully lobbied to have the initial program expanded from two schools to six schools, and would like to see that model expanded to cover all 12 elementary schools. We also need more mental health professionals in our middle schools and high school. It is important that every CPS school has professionals with different types of expertise and training. Most of the people working in our schools are trained in education, but we need more people trained in mental health, family engagement, community-building, and so on. With the number of students we have who are at risk for poor achievement or poor social skills development, and with the number of students who show signs of serious depression, anxiety, or who have experienced trauma, we need to take a wrap-around approach to education in our schools. Socioemotional learning supports must be explicitly incorporated into all aspects of the school experience.
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