Despite it being the night of a Red Sox World Series game, the fifth School Committee candidates forum and at least the ninth forum of the Cambridge election season overall, about 50 parent voters came Wednesday to a cafeteria of the city’s high school for a final glimpse at their ballot options Nov. 5.
“I’ve been running for 30 years, and this is probably the most qualified group of candidates that I’ve ever run with,” said Fred Fantini, the six-member committee’s most senior member. “I don’t think the citizens of Cambridge can make a mistake” in voting.
Still, he said in making a case for his experience playing a role in voters’ decision-making, “this is going to be a very new committee.”
With one member opting out and another running for City Council, there will be at least two new committee members even if the remaining four incumbents are reelected. (With Mayor Henrietta Davis retiring as well, there will also be a new mayor leading the committee in the coming term.)
Parents who have attended the forums and looked through candidate materials agreed the candidates have had generally the same concerns and goals, such as bringing in educational partners and getting a more diverse group of families taking part in community discussions.
High school issues
The forum was not just set at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, but had a focus on high school issues, which made candidates’ comments about family engagement somewhat poignant: The school has a population that is more than half nonwhite, but there was only a single table of three people of color at the forum.
The school went through a self-reflection process last year as part of a once-a-decade accreditation process and on seven standards called itself “acceptable” on two, “limited” on three and “deficient” on the final two, Fantini said.
The high school focus led inevitably to talk of how CRLS graduates do in higher education, and it was generally acknowledged that while Cambridge’s public school district is good at getting kids into college – including even some 90 percent of lower-income students – it sees too many alumni dropping out after their freshmen year. There was talk of what the district could do to boost the number of graduates, and incumbent Richard Harding spoke bitterly again of the “Mount Ida effect,” a reference to private, for-profit colleges where students might pay to take remedial courses for no credit, wind up on probation and get kicked out with no recourse.
The city is launching an Office of College Success, an initiative led by city councillor Ken Reeves, but the high school needs to do more as well, several candidates said. Fresh looks at the divides between college prep, honors and Advanced Placement courses were promised, and an examination of too-restrictive block scheduling is already on the way.
The incumbents – Fantini, Harding, Patty Nolan and Mervan Osborne – are safer bets for making it back onto the committee in a year where there are fewer of them (but only, of course, if voters continue to give them No. 1 votes before trying to figure out which of five challengers can slide into the remaining two seats). Thousands of voters are looking for ways to distinguish and rank them.
At Wednesday’s forum, amid all the candidates’ platitudes and academic jargon, each of the five challengers had moments that stood out, complementing but sometimes in contrasting to comments from throughout their campaigns.
Fran Cronin has played up her knowledge of the arts, community partnerships and special needs in her campaign. She often relies heavily on academic idioms such as “intentionality” and “academic perch,” but on Wednesday she spoke most clearly in elaborating on the failure of the high school in getting its graduates ready for college, where they “spend a year spending their own money to take a course for which they will get no credit, so the net-net is that they end up being a financial burden to their families and to themselves without getting the benefit of college credit,” she said. “We need to try to minimize the students who need to be remediated after graduation.” She advocated mentors who would also help students apply for college and financial aid, an idea not far off from the proposals of other candidates.
John Holland pitched himself as the business candidate, a dispassionate problem-solver – but also joked that he would need Fantini around to calm him down “because I’m going to start riding things until we fix this, because this system works but it can be much, much better.” He caught voters’ attention Wednesday by noting how a bus never arrived to take kids to an away soccer game at Newton on Sunday and wondering why the high school’s football players had to take MBTA buses to practice at Russell Field. While his website identifies correctly a lack of accountability and transparency on performance standards and ratings for the district and its employees, he has also taken his political rhetoric in odd directions in the past weeks. At the candidates’ first forum he demanded that the district “focus and actually do something” rather than split its attention by “going all over the place – yes we’re building a new school, yes we have an Innovation Agenda, and you know what? We also want to have an extended hour every day.”
Joyce Gerber, touting her background as a lawyer and role creating the Cambridge Citywide School Advisory Group, let people see the high school’s unofficial tracking system of college prep, AP and honors in a new light by identifying an aspect of “self-segregation,” and she drew interest in proposing that a range of students could be interested in a class on the history of Cambridge. While her accomplishments in the district through CSAG and presentations at committee meetings have focused on data more than rhetoric, at the forum she was lively and eloquent.
Elechi Kadete brought his own experiences – as a CRLS graduate who went to Brandeis and now works at Millennium Pharmaceuticals – to bear as a model for current and future students by proposing that local companies such as his own connect with district students through internships, apprenticeships, career fairs and mentoring. He stressed that in an age students can leave college with thousands of dollars in dangerous debt, the district should be teaching financial literacy along with more standard academic lessons.
Kathleen Kelly, with a background as a social worker, pastor and community activist, also looked at post-high school success, saying that whatever college students go off to, they should have a mentor back in Cambridge to call if things get rough. She also worried about class size at CRLS rising above a target of 25 students because enrollment has been edging up over the past two years – Nolan said there were about 120 more students than there were in 2010, and that other communities put ideal class sizes at 15 to 20 students – and even about wear and tear on the high school campus, which got a $112 million, three-year revamp unveiled in 2011.
While giving her closing statement she stopped speaking, set down her microphone and paused, collecting herself before picking it up again. “This is kind of embarrassing to stand up here and be extraordinarily tired and want to pull together your ideas and you’ve been campaigning a long time and somehow your brain is complete mush,” she said.
Kelly rallied, though, “going completely off script” to say why she was running – because she appreciated getting a quality public school education and wanted to help give others the same gift.