As U.S. slips back, gathering aims to keep Cambridge schools balanced

Controlled choice expert Michael Alves, center, speaks Thursday at the start of a two-day School Committee advisory group gathering. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Controlled choice expert Michael Alves, center, speaks Thursday at the start of a two-day School Committee advisory group gathering. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Some 30 educators, parents and other experts are midway through a two-day, nine-hour look at controlled choice, that mystifying formula that identifies which kid goes to which public school. It puts the system under a spotlight more intense than any since 2001, said officials at the summit’s Thursday launch, and for good reason: the system ensures Cambridge children experience diversity and get a chance at social justice.

Among the key points raised at Thursday’s 3.5-hour event, which included a briefing on controlled choice’s history and condition, small group work and an Italian dinner with cookies and mini-cupcakes: Cambridge not only led the nation in desegregation, but is almost unique in continuing to stand out on the issue.

“The data indicate that Cambridge as a community and a school system has become less segregated – more integrated – over the years. It’s really a lot to be proud of,” Superintendent Jeffrey Young said, “particularly in view of what we see nationally, where communities and school systems across the country are not just segregating but resegregating.”

Refocusing

But committee vice chairman Fred Fantini and member Alice Turkel, who lead the committee’s Controlled Choice Subcommittee and convened the two-day gathering of its advisory group, say there’s work to be done in keeping the system focused.

“Over the years, many, many amendments have been put on it. At best you could say it’s messy,” Turkel said. “The question is, where do we go from here? How do we make it better?”

Among the issues remaining to be tackled: How to apply controlled choice to The Amigos School, a dual-language immersion program now balanced largely by how many students are native English and Spanish speakers; and a stubborn “east-west divide” in which more families choose the schools falling roughly to the west of Harvard Square, even though there are far more junior kindergarten seats available in the east.

It’s an issue that could be addressed more directly Saturday in a session starting with an 8:30 a.m breakfast and ending at 2 p.m. with a look at next steps.

History lesson

Thursday’s event had a celebrity of sorts in Michael Alves, who designed and implemented Cambridge’s controlled choice plan with professor Charles Willie in 1981 and has continued to monitor results locally, as well as to consult with districts around the country.

‘They used to call it ‘The Cambridge Plan,’” Alves told participants. “We were actually asked, ‘Could this controlled choice thing you have in Cambridge, could it work in San Jose, Calif.?’ … You could imagine the absurdity of this. ‘Yeah, but will it work in Chicago?’ They didn’t understand that the basic principles of the policy were very flexible. You could adapt this really to any school district. There were a lot of logistical issues and you had to use common sense, but the one big factor that you could not manufacture was leadership and integrity.”

Desegregation began in Massachusetts in 1965 with a statewide law called the Racial Imbalance Act, but it was Cambridge – which had one racially imbalanced school, the Houghton Elementary School – that was first to come forward with a corrective plan, called “open enrollment,” Alves said. The Houghton campus was replaced with The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School.

In 1975, Democrats led by William “Billy” Bulger tried to kill desegregation, leading to an amended act that let districts take up the effort voluntarily, largely via the creation of magnet schools and state-funded transportation, and Cambridge led again, Alves said. When it became clear the revised system wasn’t working as well as hoped, Cambridge presented what came to be known as Alves’ and Willie’s “Cambridge Plan” in 1981, letting parents choose three favored schools (with preference given to children with siblings already in those schools) – an early version of the system still in place.

Socio-economic status

In 2001, the district left race behind and opted to focus on socio-economic status as a way to keep schools diverse. Statistics presented Thursday by Brenton Stewart, an education policy consultant for the district, showed so-called SES kept the schools balanced by race even better than the solely race-focused version. In the 2001-02 school year, eight of 14 schools were in compliance with controlled choice balance guidelines, or 57 percent; in the 2011-12 school year, after a decade of SES balancing, eight of the district’s 11 schools were in compliance, a leap to 73 percent.

In 2010, the School Committee formed a controlled choice subcommittee to look at the process in the run-up to implementing the Innovation Agenda, which took sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders out of elementary schools and give them four facilities of their own. That subcommittee was led by Patty Nolan and Richard Harding.

When that team finished, it listed in its report that there was much more left to do,” Turkel said. “We’re taking up that work,” with this Thursday and Saturday sessions ultimately leading to a hearing on proposed changes.

Turkel also animated a video guide to the controlled choice process that is posted on the district’s website for watching online or download. (Click the image below to watch the video.)

020113i-controlled-choice-video

“I realized I could explain controlled choice to someone if I had 20 minutes. I thought I could make a really short, concise video – it turns out the video’s 15 minutes! Short and concise can’t be done,” Turkel said, imagining improving it some day by breaking it into sections that could be more easily digested.

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