Deans search on track, but raises diversity question

The hiring of four deans to lead the “upper schools” opening in the fall is on schedule, with eight finalists, a school official said Tuesday, but the report brought on a debate over whether the group helping winnow the field to eight finalists was diverse enough to adequately represent all of Cambridge.

The process began in late October with a community survey, leading to a nationwide search that resulted in 70 candidates, then 15 semi-finalists and is now down to a final eight, said the public school district’s executive director for human resources, Barbara J. Allen. The four choices for dean are to be hired next month so they can weigh in on hiring and other issues at their schools, even before their jobs begin officially in June.

The 16 people looking at candidates included two district officials; the four principals of each campus that will host an upper school for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders; six teachers put forward by the Cambridge Teachers Association; and four parents from the Citywide School Advisory Group, one from each of the “triad” of elementary schools feeding the new upper schools. And they settled on candidates “diverse in every way,” Allen said, including age, race, sex, experience and that some candidates come from within the district.

They will be identified and given short biographies this week, after they have a chance to tell their employers of their potential two-year contracts as deans, and the community can meet them in a 10 a.m. Jan. 21 meeting in the Cambridge Main Library, Allen said.

Committee diversity questioned

Then committee member Richard Harding asked a question leading to a half-hour repeat wrestling match with issues of inclusion and community involvement in decision-making:

“Were there any parents of kids of color on the committee?”

It took Allen some time to realize that the committee had not just a person of color, but someone who also happened to be a parent of a child of color. But Harding’s larger point was that there are parents who feel underrepresented in district deliberations.

“We have to begin to seriously look at our demographics and who we’re serving when we come up with these committees. In a district like ours, you almost have to have a particular representation of people in a thing like this,” Harding said. “I don’t want to belabor the point and start off the term in a bad way, but I do want us to continue to look at our district and who is suffering in any measurable way … The perception of who’s left out is what stings certain communities.”

The conversation went on, member Marc McGovern said, because the School Committee doesn’t get many opportunities to talk about such issues and seize on them when they’re raised in the course of other business. “When we have opportunities to have a more representative group and we don’t, for whatever reason, without assigning blame to anybody, it contributes to certain groups’ feelings, ‘Here we go again, we’re disenfranchised,’ and it makes it harder next time,” McGovern said. “It’s not to say the work wasn’t well done … but it is something to think about.”

“I would love it if in my time on this august committee, this issue of a perception of inequality be taken very seriously,” said Mervan Osborne, taking part in his first meeting since his election in November.

Member Alice Turkel worried that as the parents group grows more independent, it might be irresponsible for the district to rely on it the same way. “If we say, ‘You pick parent representatives,’ but the group isn’t particularly diverse, we’ve misstepped,” Turkel said. “We can’t say to them, ‘You must have our goals and criteria in mind.’”

A unique demand

Again it was mentioned that not every decision having to do with the district restructuring known as the Innovation Agenda and its upper schools can be thrown to the entire community, and Superintendent Jeffrey Young noted as well the uniqueness of hiring four heads for four schools at once — with the only precedent being the hiring of five deans for within Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in 2000.

Allen’s Head of Upper School Search Advisory Committee consisted of Carolyn Turk, the district’s deputy superintendent, and James Maloney, its chief operating officer; principals Jennifer Ford of Peabody School, Martha Mosman of the Tobin/Montessori School, Darrell Williams of the King Open School and Gerald Yung of the Martin Luther King Jr. School; parents John Holland (a recent School Committee candidate) for the Vassal Lane upper school triad, Steven Iammarino for the Putnam Avenue school triad, Linda Rabieh for Rindge Avenue and Pamela Walker for Cambridge Street; and teacher representatives Tracey Gordon and Jo Quest-Neubert for Rindge, Nathan Saveriano for Putnam, Sarah Shaw for Vassal Lane, Amatul Mahmud for special education and Ingrid Gustafson for special subjects.Elizabeth Hill, a King parent, was also mentioned as playing a role in the search committee — including, retroactively, as a parent of a child of color.

Census data from 2010 shows Cambridge is 67 percent white, 15 percent Asian, 12 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic. (People reporting two or more races accounted for 4 percent of the population.) District figures say fully 63 percent of its students are nonwhite.

“It’s good to have diversity on the committee. What’s more important to me is that the people on the committee are approaching the work in a way that recognizes all the different interests and constituencies and needs constituting the Cambridge community. This was a fabulous committee that worked very hard,” Allen said. “The outcome is something I think we can all be proud of.  It’s a very diverse candidate pool.”

This post was updated Jan. 11, 2012, to reflect the diversity of students in Cambridge public schools, and Jan. 13, 2012, to correct Census data. The figures posted earlier were for the state.

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