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- Political notes
A Chicago native and later a resident of Stamford, Conn. – where Title IX legislation made her the first girl on the school’s cross-country team – Nolan went to Harvard and “fell in love with Cambridge.” She went on to the Yale School of Management and did corporate consulting at McKinsey until her school loans were paid off, when she went into the nonprofit and socially responsible business sector, as well as running a couple of small businesses.
Since moving back to Cambridge in 1991, she has served on the board of Cambridge School Volunteers for seven years and as president and treasurer of Children’s Village, a child care center her children attended (followed by involvement at her kids’ public schools). She also served as director of Cambridge United for Education, an independent organization aimed at promoting excellence in the city’s public schools.
Among her other work, she led a group trying to open an International Baccalaureate Charter High School in Cambridge. Although it wasn’t chosen by the state, “it got me very involved in thinking about how to better use our tremendous resources as a district,” she said – leading to her first run for School Committee in 2005. She scored an upset win that gave her 2,366 votes, more than even longtime incumbent Fred Fantini got that year.
There are many achievements this past term, including the massive restructuring of the district into JK-5 schools with small middle schools. Since the restructuring is a work in progress with uneven results to date, though, I believe it is too early to say it is our most significant achievement. I would point to the achievement of putting in place staff to monitor and evaluate programs and address the needs of advanced learners.
Some background: A key issue for school districts is knowing how to use data to inform teaching practices and figuring out which programs and initiatives are most effective. Cambridge is no exception. The staff gets so busy in the day-to-day that it is impossible for them to take the time to thoroughly review the practices and programs in place to understand if they are working as well as they can. To help us know that, the school district decided to elevate program evaluation as a districtwide goal. We brought in outside evaluators to look at rigor and instruction in our classroom and got an eye-opening report that documented some lapses in our instruction. As a result, this year we were better able to direct our professional development to a specific goal. This year we will be doing more evaluations and using those to improve our instruction for students – which has to be the focus of every effort we make.
Attention to advanced learners was a profound lack in our district before this term. We have many programs in place for students who are behind, yet did not have any coordinated effort to address the needs of advanced learners. That changed with the hiring of a person whose job is to work on academic challenge. A group of parents who formed the Cambridge Advanced Learners Association were forceful and effective advocates for this cause. This landmark step taken by the district is making a difference in the lives of many students. Advanced learners come from all backgrounds and need to be challenged appropriately in school or are in danger of educational disengagement. Many people who opt out of our schools or become frustrated do so because of a lack of challenge for their children.
I was the leader in the effort to bring evaluation to the forefront of all our decisions. With my management background, I know how critically important it is for monitoring and oversight to happen, and how essential data and comprehensive evaluation are to good policymaking and outcomes. I worked to bring that perspective to the joint effort on goal-setting with the administration. I was successful in bringing everyone to the table to focus on elevating evaluation to a top priority.
I worked closely with CALA on the issue of advanced learners. Once again, I played a key role in the effort to have a districtwide person assigned to work on advanced learners needs. By working with teachers and administrators across the district, the Academic Challenge manager is bringing much needed expertise to Cambridge’s schools. That work is especially important in light of the dismantling of the Intensive Studies Program that happened this term. With the demise of the ISP, I proposed an open honors program, based on CALA’s work, for all middle-school students to have access to honors and be required to take at least one honors class. High school students favored by an overwhelming majority having honors classes in the new middle schools. A majority of School Committee did not support the honors proposal, so my policy proposal failed.
Two areas worth noting this term was the work I did on as co-chairman of two committees: the Controlled Choice Committee and Negotiations Committee. These committees were the most time-consuming and challenging of all the committees, and you will see below the success that was achieved.
Controlled Choice: In the past two years our Controlled Choice, or student assignment, plan underwent a significant review process, and many changes were made with the purpose of affirming our values of diversity and excellence for all our schools. Positive trends in keeping our schools balanced by race and socio-economic status continue even while many of our nation’s public schools are significantly losing ground. We also reaffirmed our desire to prove that choice works only when you have excellent schools from which to select and, as part of our policy, we have directed the superintendent to make changes to those schools that are not attracting parental choice.
Negotiations: The school department has eight union contracts, of which we were able to settle seven.The remaining contract is that of the Cambridge Education Association, whose teacher membership voted down a proposal from its leadership team. The negotiations for the teachers’ union was accomplished through a process known as “interest-based bargaining,” which is the most time-consuming. Because of the high level of interaction between the parties, though, results are more lasting and more trust is created between teachers and administration and policymakers. We will continue to negotiate in good faith with the teachers union. I took on this important duty because maintaining good relationships with our unions is important; it allows the school system to remain focused on our educational priorities and to ensure that teachers have an important seat at the table where plans are made to ensure that the best work is done