‘Upper school’ proposal goes on with minor changes

School Committee member Alice Turkel had the most serious concerns Tuesday about the proposed district Innovation Agenda, which would create for schools for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in Cambridge. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

The Innovation Agenda is going forward by creating four “upper schools” for Cambridge, but with some changes, Superintendent Jeffrey Young told School Committee members and a full audience of parents and educators in a televised Tuesday roundtable at City Hall.

Despite caution from a couple of committee members and the urging of member Alice Turkel to add at least a week to the process, delaying the vote so there was more time to absorb the changes, the roundtable nature of the gathering meant no notes were allowed — and even Turkel agreed there was no will on the council to vote with her.

“It’s my belief it’s time to end this phase of discussion and move onto the next,” said Mayor David Maher, who leads the committee, after members such as Richard Harding and Fred Fantini said they weren’t sure another week of thinking would be helpful.

That keeps a vote March 15 on what committee vice chairman Marc McGovern affirmed as “a framework” for which every question answered would raise three more questions.

Instead of having a dozen “elementary schools” that keep students from childhood until they graduate to the high school, there would be upper schools for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students on:

  • Cambridge Street in the King Open School, fed also by the Cambridgeport and Fletcher Maynard schools.
  • Vassal Lane in the Tobin School, fed also by the Graham and Parks and Haggerty schools.
  • Rindge Avenue in the Peabody School, fed also by the Baldwin school.
  • Putnam Avenue in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, fed also by the Kennedy-Longfellow and Morse schools.

When the plan was introduced, the Rindge Avenue school was also fed by the King School, and there was a Spring Street site planned for the Kennedy-Longfellow School, fed also by the Amigos and Morse schools.

Young’s current plan leaves Amigos as a standalone school, though, which drew fire from committee member Patty Nolan as “inequitable and unfair” because it’s isolating and antithetical to Young’s entire idea of the Innovation Agenda, which was to strengthen middle-grade education by grouping students and educators.

“You have said really clearly that 11- to 14-year olds need peers, they need more offerings, they need different teachers, and so this isolation of Amigos really flies in the face of that,” Nolan said.

The agenda builds educational structures that don’t exist in the city today, Young said, because “good schools are places where educators work together. What we have now are schools where educators are isolated.”

Amigos would also be moved out of its East Cambridge neighborhood to Upton Street, which Nolan points out means leaving behind much of the city’s Spanish speakers. She proposed an alternative that would start with Amigos moving into the Longfellow School, which would otherwise be a “swing” space to take students temporarily ousted by a separate school construction plan, and the superintendent noted the idea without comment.

Nolan was only the first to speak with her new round of concerns, after Young’s already seemingly ceaseless series of community meetings throughout February. Even Tuesday’s roundtable went beyond 9 p.m., extended slightly more than an hour from the intended end, so committee members could get a rushed second round of questions and comments.

“We have listened,” Young said, referring to feedback gained from the tour that led to the addition of a school site in the Cambridgeport and Riverside areas.  “We are not going to short-circuit the will of that community.”

The plan, which Young said would cost between $380,000 and $650,000 to implement, would have between 75 and 88 students per grade in each middle school, except at the Vassal Lane school, which would have between 90 and 100 students per grade, with more teachers to match.

Turkel wondered how the city budget would accommodate the upper-school plan, a question Young didn’t immediately answer. There is a televised district budget presentation scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

More public comment is asked at meetings from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday and from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, also in City Hall. Both are set to be televised.

The superintendent’s revised plan is here as a PDF.

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