Teachers pleased, kids despair at 6-1 vote ending school program

Student Celeste DeLancey explains the value of the Intensive Studies Program during a Nov. 7 petition drive in Harvard Square. The program was ended in a vote Tuesday by the School Committee.

The 6-1 vote to end an advanced-studies program will drive students away to private schools and charter schools or out of the city, parents and kids told the School Committee on Tuesday.

And the fallback on which some pinned their hopes, that there would be two teachers in classrooms to handle a range of students, was assessed with skepticism by the holdout committee vote, Patty Nolan. “There’s no way we can afford two teachers in every classroom unless we totally restructure central administration,” she said.

But the warnings of disappointed parents and students were mingled with testimony to the committee that has been scarce over their months of fighting to save a beloved program: that of district teachers who believe even alone they can teach these smarter students alongside their standard-paced and slower peers in what are called heterogenous classes.

“For students to be successful at all levels, we need the diversity of our student body to be present in every classroom. It is because of diversity … that achievement for all students can increase. My classroom shows that a diverse student group can be incredibly successful,” said Katie Gribben, an English-language arts teacher at the Cambridgeport School, running through a series of glowing statistics for a range of students “all in the same classroom, learning together.”

While schools such as Cambridgeport are known for their heterogenous classes, the Kennedy-Longfellow and Peabody schools host some 175 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the Intensive Studies Program, which was meted its death sentence Tuesday and denied even a grandfathering option to let students finish out their time — safe from bullying and free to learn at their own pace — before arriving at the district’s high school. The cutoff results from the opening of four upper schools in the fall to serve students between K-5 and ninth grade, and Superintendent Jeffrey Young intends them to be run more in sync than the district’s current dozen or so K-8 elementary schools. They will have “ample flexibility, but not free rein,” in Young’s words.

When Nolan suggested that there be open honors courses in two of the four upper schools for a couple of years, so the district could gather hard data about which approach was more successful, it never made it to a vote.

Data she presented suggesting the dangers of heterogenous classes was answered with data from committee member Marc McGovern showing grades of students entering ninth-grade honors courses from schools such as Cambridgeport were roughly the same rate as ISP students. (Nolan believes the data he cited were flawed.)

Ultimately, no committee member would second Nolan’s motion.

“People will leave”

“People will leave the school district,” said Milo Lynch, a seventh-grader. “When I was in fifth grade I was considering leaving, but I heard about the ISP, so I stayed.”

Parent Thomas Ball called the ISP a “last resort for parents who have been dismayed by poor achievement levels in the district” and warned of a “hollowing out” resulting from the program’s end. While he said his child would stay, he knew of parents already applying to private schools such as Cambridge Friends on Cadbury Road or looking at charter schools.

Worries about the ISP began in March with the committee’s vote to adopt Young’s vision for the district, the Innovation Agenda, which includes the four upper schools. Student efforts to save the program began in earnest in November, including petition drives, the creation of persuasive videos and speaking at meetings.

But by Tuesday, fans of ISP knew which way things were going.

“Students have put me and other ISP students who have been working so hard for this down just because they thought it was funny we were on the losing end,” Celeste DeLancey said.

“Even if we lost and the plan went through, at least we had honors math. It wasn’t perfect, and we were going to try to get more than that, but at least we had something, a base to work up from,” she said, referring to an Academic Challenge policy introduced by the superintendent Jan. 17 and — until Monday, when a revised policy was posted on the district website — what most expected a vote on. “And then this morning I heard … I couldn’t believe it. How could someone revise a plan that affects the education of over 1,000 students and post it the night before the plan is voted on? It was horrifying.”

She was not alone in questioning or being angry about the timing, and committee member Richard Harding asked Young directly about it, saying “the public deserves some explanation.”

“If that was too late, I apologize,” Young said.

Talking to the teachers

He swapped out the previous, 15-page plan full of specifics for a two-page policy because the committee’s role is to outline broad goals and let administrators specify a way to implement them, he said. Between the plan and policy, “we went out and met with staff and teachers and ran the ideas contained in that academic plan past them. Both our conversations with our teachers as well as offline conversations with School Committee members led us away from those proposals … away from the sorting of students and led us more toward the grouping of students in flexible ways to maximize challenge and support for all.” Administration staff worked over the week on a new draft, finished Friday and sent it the committee, soliciting comment or questions and saying it would be posted at the beginning of the week.

The policy allows for flexible grouping within grades, letting like-minded students build smaller communities of learning within a heterogenous class, Young said, and even for students to go through curricula written for those a year ahead. The absence of specific language from his two-page policy, such as for a sixth-grade transitional year with co-teaching, does not mean the idea is gone from the plans that will be implemented, he said.

“We ask for your trust in letting this happen,” he told the committee and community, and said “our plan is to go back to the teachers and work with them to design the best ways to implement this. We think they have the answers.”

Teachers and some parents lauded Young’s approach, saying they were “very excited about the new policy” and that “people have felt heartened and listened to.”

“I’m so grateful to the district personnel who came to our department meetings and listened to the loud, clear voice of the teachers,” said Julie Craven, a humanities teacher at the King Open School. “In all due respect to the students … I’ve taught over 500 children in my career, probably close to 1,000 … and I know I challenged a diverse group of students and I know I supported a diverse group of students.”

The president of the Cambridge Teachers Association, Chris Colbath-Hess, said the policy united principals and teachers, allowing such things as sixth-grade transition and co-teaching while acknowledging their feelings that academic “tracking” of students and the ISP were not wanted.

David Vanvoorhis, a parent who cited experience with schools in Germany in urging the committee to keep ISP, spoke with Nolan and then McGovern after the meeting. “This can be done,” he told Nolan of the transition to heterogenous classes. “It can’t be done in sixth months.”

As a result, he planned to remove his seventh-grade daughter from the district quickly because “we’re not going to have her waste a year” until high school. McGovern assured him Adele would have the same teachers and the same curriculum (“Then why get rid of ISP?” Vanvoorhis asked), stuck out his hand and offered to bet a beer that the new policy would work out well.

No go.

“This is the end of my relationship with Cambridge Public Schools,” Vanvoorhis told him.

This post was updated Feb. 9, 2012, to reflect that Nolan’s amendment was about open honors courses and to clarify the nature of data presented by McGovern.

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One Response to Teachers pleased, kids despair at 6-1 vote ending school program

  1. ladymurasaki

    Tuesday, February 14, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Many moons ago, as in decades, in Newton, parents in two school districts were at odds over changing the lines of said districting. Those who considered their school to have superior students fully believed that allowing those students in the “other” district would result in an overall lowering of test scores of their school at the time. It is not an unusual disagreement applied to many issues and is, in my opinion, much like the issue being contested here.

    Those who protest so loudly and say that they are leaving have, of course, every right to do so. Unfortunately, some of the comments made seem incredibly entitled, as if a school district owes some parents a private school education equivalent for their talented children. One could debate from both sides, but I believe that it is too often the case that some school districts may be good to excellent though they are not as excellent as they believe themselves to be. The reverse also applies.

    Caring parents, students, staff, it does take a village and well meaning people to try to educate each and every child to be able to live up to their best potential. There are always some compromises. Those who have the financial ability to send their children to private schools should simply thank someone and move on and leave everyone else to do their best for all children in the schools.

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