Christopher Lim is a new candidate this year.
Education has been central to my family's story since my parents first came to North America from Malaysia to attend college on academic scholarships. Like many first generation immigrants in our community today, my parents placed a very high value on learning. They knew that the best way to attain economic success was through academic success and they pushed my sister and me to work hard as we made our way through the public school system in Portland, Oregon.
Upon graduating from high school, I attended Carnegie Mellon University and received my degree in chemical engineering. I moved to Cambridge in 2003 to become a System Design and Management fellow at MIT. My work at MIT focused on studying how large systems—like companies or city governments—grow and adapt.
My wife has been a public school teacher in Belmont for more than 20 years. Through her I have seen how a close connection between classroom teachers, specialists, therapists and families can foster and encourage a child’s development. We have one child, who is now a 6th grader at the Rindge Avenue Upper School. When my son was at the Baldwin School I served on the board of the parent organization and helped lead the school's STEM club. I have also been involved for years as a coach with Cambridge Youth Soccer and Central Cambridge Youth Baseball.
This combination of experience as a parent, husband, organizer, coach and systems expert makes me a unique candidate for School Committee. As a family we are deeply committed to Cambridge and the city's public schools. I hope you will help me as I seek to make our schools more transparent, more responsive and more focused on long-term issues to ensure academic excellence for all.
- Systems: We need better systems in place to assess and evaluate school committee policies and close the loop with administrators, educators, and families. I’ve spent a lot of time meeting with administrators and educators in Cambridge and many of them have said I’m the first school committee candidate or member to have ever asked them questions about the impact that school committee has on them. School committee policies are only effective if administrators and educators can implement them. It's incredible that we rarely discuss the impact of policy with the experts in the school who live these changes every day. Additionally, we need systems that plan for growth, identify and encourage diversity hiring and retention, and maintain contact with CPS graduates so that we can learn from their experiences.
- Teacher Support: Our schools are dealing with escalating behavior challenges from a variety of children for an increasing host of reasons. These behavior challenges create safety issues for our students and teachers. They also heavily detract from the educational experience of the day. When the poor behavior is directed at a student or teacher because of their race or other personal characteristics it adds to the long standing racial tensions of our city and country. The first and most immediately helpful step would be having more adults in each classroom. Hearts and hands is a wonderful motto and we should aspire to add as many as possible to each classroom. Realistically however, we spend 82% of an over $200M budget on salaries and benefits, and there is some upper bound where even Cambridge’s vast resources will falter to meet the ideal for a growing population. We must advocate for more budget for additional educators, counselors, and specialists. Simultaneously, we must create systems that identify when, where, and why incidents are happening so that we know how to apply our resources to the best effect. Finally, we must implement restorative justice practices in our district, engaging both or multiple sides of an incident with mediated conversation. Currently, there is no district wide plan or system to collect data on incidents. Families are left to feel isolated and frustrated, teachers are left to handle an array of challenges well outside of their intended job, and administrators are left in the unenviable position of having to tell the district about problems that for years we’ve told ourselves are simply not happening in Cambridge.
- Best Educational Outcomes: Working to close achievement gaps is important work that must continue, but we should not sacrifice advanced learning to do so. We need policies and support that allow all children to achieve.
Top Challenges Facing CPS today
- Lack of systems and connection between policy and implementation. We don’t have the tools in place to make informed decisions about the changes we want to make, we also don’t do a good job working with educators and administrators to connect policy to implementation and iterate when policy is either not constructive or simply not implementable. Current school committee policy gets written and put into a binder, the superintendent and his staff try to implement that policy, school committee doesn’t follow up with administrators or educators on the impact of that policy, school committee goes through an election with some amount of turnover, policy gets forgotten or superseded by new policy and the cycle goes on. This is one of the reasons that we have a collection of schools and not a school system. Good policy incorporates feedback from multiple stakeholders and should be flexible and iterative.
- Escalating behavior challenges. The courageous conversation we must have is “what does a functional district wide behavior management system look like?” We need a plan that respects all cultures while providing for student and teacher safety. The plan should also encourage a positive academic environment and provide resources for teachers.
- Transparency and Communication: We are all busy, sometimes with competing agendas, but everybody in the Cambridge Public School system intends well and wants what they believe is the best for children. CPS needs to be more transparent with decision making and process and then communicate more clearly and compassionately with the impacted families.
- Achievement Gap: We have struggled with the achievement gap for as long as we have had the data to illustrate it. Most of the obvious fixes have been attempted, I believe that it is a systemic challenge that will require the work I mentioned above to begin the actual analysis and foundation laying to attack the achievement gap issues properly. One of the tools that I would investigate would be System Dynamics modelling, where you create a system of causal loops that can be backed up with actual data. The models can be very accurate and often point out unanticipated but highly effective levers for change. One of the things that caught my eye in the DOE data was the strong correlation of achievement with economic disparity, even more than racial differences.
School Department Administration and Superintendent
Organizational change is often slow and difficult and changing leadership rarely helps the process. I believe in the superintendent’s intelligence, passion, and professionalism. Additionally, very few people work smarter, better, or harder under duress, certainly not for very long, and definitely not for the greater good. I would encourage the superintendent, staff, and administrators to work on transparency and communication. Better standards and systems for when and how we communicate with families, making sure that we close the loop and truly resolve issues, and added compassion in how we deal with our concerned families will go a long way towards healing the rifts in our community.
School Department Budget and Capital Needs
Cambridge brings tremendous resources to bear for our school system. We are one of the best funded school districts in the country, if not the world by almost every measure. We need to estimate population growth and the impact it is likely to have on our schools in order to plan and provide the time needed to adjust the budget and seek additional resources or matching funds for capital needs. We are constrained in our potential for physical expansion by limited and expensive land so long term planning will be required to prepare for the future. One of the most specific needs in Cambridge is the need for additional physical space for Special Start, Pre-K, and JK classrooms. Every year, elementary schools are forced to make difficult choices regarding the allocation of classrooms, we need to locate additional properties, either renovating older buildings or investing in land to prepare for a city wide junior elementary school space. I am committed to universal Pre-K and I believe it will be an important part of any plan to close the achievement gap. Having a large, newly renovated space for our youngest and most at-risk children to start their educational journey would go a long way toward our goal of universal Pre-K.
Achievement Gaps, Meeting the Needs of All Students
Working to close achievement gaps is important work that must continue, but we should not sacrifice advanced learning to do so. We need policies and support that allow all children to achieve. As the DOE MCAS data shows, the achievement gap has been persistent and generally increasing for the 19 years that we have data on it. This hints that more challenging work is ahead of us, including difficult conversations that will touch on race, equity, and economic disparity. This is not an issue that can be laid at the feet of teachers or administrators, this is a systemic problem that will require system wide analysis and solutions.
Meeting the Needs of Advanced Learners
We should not impede the growth of advanced learners, in fact we should be leaning into their passion and academic interest to encourage their continued growth and love of learning.
Controlled Choice, Student Assignment Policies
I think more research and analysis is overdue for controlled choice. As a family that got none of their choices for the first two years of our son’s elementary school career and in fact got bumped down more than 5 slots every year, it seems clear that when families are impacted, they are impacted in a very personal and challenging way. We still had a positive experience because of the incredible teachers, occupational and physical therapists, and staff that our son was lucky enough to have. However, location and start/finish time have a dramatic impact on families and it's not always as simple as telling our families to put their kids on a bus.
Curriculum and Programs
As a prospective school committee member, I believe that my focus needs to be on developing systems that amplify the best practices going on in the district. Curriculum and programs should be generated by the expert teachers and administrators we have in the district, aided by well written, thoughtful policies that the school committee generates. One of the challenges of any school committee is retaining the correct focus on larger scale, longer term challenges and policy. We also need to increase the consideration we grant to the administrators and teachers tasked with implementing our policies. It is counterintuitive to write a policy without seeking input from key stakeholders. This leads to ineffective policy and difficult implementation. Lastly, school committee must make a concerted effort to assess and analyze past policy’s, closing the loop to verify that the implementation matches the policy intent and hasn’t resulted in unintended consequences.
I only have first hand knowledge of grades in the elementary world so I have been listening and learning from parents in the upper school and high school what they are feeling about grading systems and communication. As I said at the CEA debate, my challenge as a non-educator parent has been parsing the grades during my son’s elementary school career because they seemed to involve a great deal of reading between the lines and I was reliant on my wife to help translate from the report cards to a clearer picture of how our son was doing. While not universal, this has been a common complaint I have heard from other elementary school families. It also seems clear that our grading system creates a lot of work for our teachers, work which isn’t necessarily resulting in clear communication with our families. I would be interested in doing more research and working with CEA and the superintendent to try and find a happy medium where families fundamentally understand how their student is doing without creating a frustrating barrier to transparency that teachers are stuck using without input.
We believe that CPS is a strong system, but it can--and must--do better, particularly in the following areas:
- Deploying Solutions, Not Band-aids: Cambridge is one of the best funded school systems in the country, but we have a tendency to focus on short-term fixes instead of long-term, systemic change. We must continue to fund and develop our schools with detailed plans, timelines, and tools to assess the changes we’re seeking to make.
- Teacher Support: Classroom teachers are under-supported, especially as disruptive behaviors manifest in more vocal and physical forms. When an administrator or interventionist is unable to assist, classroom teachers are forced to dedicate their attention to disruptive behavior, essentially ending academic progress for significant portions of the day.
- Best Educational Outcomes: Working to close achievement gaps is important work that must continue, but we should not sacrifice advanced learning to do so. We need consistent policies and support to allow all children to achieve.
- Targeted Funding: Aides and specialists are currently not distributed in proportion to school population. Paraprofessionals and interns come from each principal's discretionary budget. These are crucial resources we can add to support teachers and administration at each school.
- Early Intervention: Early access, especially to books/reading/academic tools, is crucial. Reinforcing language specific support for immigrant households like the Community Engagement Team (CET), finding more space for Special Start programs and lowering the age for Pre-K would create more opportunities for young families to start the process of lifelong learning for their children.
- Planning for Growth: We need more robust systems in place to estimate the impact of population growth on our schools. We need to evaluate and revise expansion and school renovation plans with forecasted growth and focus on opportunities to create more physical space for CPS and lower classroom sizes.
- Affordable After-School Care: We need to continue to work with our afterschool partners and programs, expanding their scope as demand increases and removing financial barriers to entry for families in need.
- Cultivating Diversity: With diversity hiring being a stated goal of the district, we should investigate and create a pipeline for interested minority after-school teachers and mentors to become full time CPS teachers. This can include providing help with certification or final educational steps.
- Supporting CPS Graduates: We need to maintain contact with CPS graduates, working to support them as they proceed with higher education and taking the opportunity to have frank discussions with them and learn from their experiences. We should work to bring CPS graduates back to the community as mentors, leaders, and teachers.
CCTV candidate video (2019)