Race, economic inequity dominate forums of 11 candidates for School Committee seats

School Committee candidates prepare for questions Oct. 16 at a Margaret Fuller House election forum. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

The achievement gap and inability of the Cambridge Public School district to provide a quality education to all students weighed heavily on the minds of School Committee candidates and the questioners in two election forums last week. Most if not all of the candidates present said it is the major issue driving them to run.

Racial and economic inequity were emphasized at a three-hour forum hosted Oct. 16 by the Margaret Fuller House and moderated by state Rep. Marjorie Decker, and a two-hour forum two days later focusing on issues at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, moderated by David Vogel. Eleven candidates agreed more than disagreed in fielding a dozen questions ranging from putting students on “tracks” to college or a vocation to whether Cambridge should consider returning to a kindergarten-through-eighth grade structure. (Incumbent Kathleen Kelly was not present. It was announced at the CRLS forum that there was a family illness.)

Election Day is Nov. 7. The six-member committee has one open seat, as incumbent Richard Harding is seeking to move to the City Council.

Equity and achievement gaps

David Weinstein, campaigning a second time after coming up short in 2015, said he has a “sense of urgency in his gut” about addressing opportunity gaps in the district, which he said are not unique to Cambridge. “It is probably the single most motivating factor for me in running. There’s a lot we can do,” he said, speaking from his teaching experiences in grade school and high school classes and his work with special-education students. “And it’s not a zero sum game. Anything addressing opportunity gaps benefits all students.” Some actions he advocates are making the achievement gap a standing committee agenda item, and a focus on African American students, increasing teachers of color, supporting new teachers, providing family liaisons in the upper schools and increasing guidance counselor capacity.

Recent CRLS graduate Will MacArthur, a first-time candidate, puts his local experiences into policy positions. “I can’t imagine getting a better education at any other district,” he said, “and every year I had at least one teacher with my social and economic background” – a trenchant jab at a concern about the low number of teachers of color in the schools compared with the student population. “But I’m a white, middle-class male. These schools work incredibly well for students like me,” he said, but not so well for less privileged students. He remembered in 11th grade that a track race team member thought the school was 70 percent white. “That’s crazy,” said another student. “It’s like 80 percent white.” Still another said, “No way. It’s 80 percent black.” (The real figures: roughly 40 percent white, 30 percent African American and 30 percent everyone else.)

“If a CRLS student can make it through 11th grade and have no idea of the racial demographics in their school,” MacArthur said, “that is an indication of segregation. My vision for the district is that ‘opportunity, diversity, respect’” – the CRLS school motto –  “is an observation, not an aspiration … We need to examine every aspect of student experience. I have a lot of thoughts of how we can do that.”

“My entire life, from childhood to my life as a professional, has been focused around the Cambridge Public Schools,” said new candidate Laurance Kimbrough, a 1998 CRLS graduate. His father was a district teacher, brought here with a 1970s initiative to increase teachers of color, he said. Now Kimbrough has also been employed at the elementary, middle and high school level, and is now a parent of a kindergartner. “There are systemic issues keeping poor and minorities undereducated,” he said. “No one is to blame. It is systemic.” He urged raising expectations, using alternative assessments, including student portfolios and emphasizing the need to involve families, singling out Fletcher Maynard Academy Principal Robin Harris’ use of home visits and other innovations.

“We cannot underestimate the impact of race,” incumbent Emily Dexter said. “Everybody has to be totally focused on that. It pervades everything – what class you are in, getting to school on time, everything.” Dexter underscored her work on the committee using data to get at who specifically is affected in tests, absenteeism and staff levels.

The release of state MCAS assessment last week showing consistent achievement gaps “is today’s news, but it is old news,” said Fran Cronin, who was a 2014-15 committee member but lost her reelection bid before running again this year. “The litmus test for anything we do should be: Does it support student well-being and advance achievement?” Of last year’s kindergarten class of more than 500 students, she said, more than 200 “have already been identified as high-needs.” She emphasized early childhood education and making “sure we do everything we can to support our students.” She also wants to follow students for at least six years after they leave CRLS to provide a more accurate measure of district impact.

MCAS moratorium?

A question on whether the candidates would consider a moratorium on the MCAS standardized test opened up avenues for some to talk about alternative, “authentic” assessments, but equity across races and incomes continued to be the underlying theme.

“Before the MCAS, children of color and special-needs children were not being educated as well as they could be,” said Fred Fantini, who has been on the School Committee for 30 years. “It’s important to have a measuring system, and if somebody can present an alternative, I’m open to discussion,” he said. “We would need to convince the state that our internal system is showing what we need to show.”

“The whole conversation around assessment makes me very nervous,” said Manikka Bowman, a first-term incumbent. “My fear is that if you go to a different model, how will we be able to assess by race and income?” she asked. Without offering specifics, she called for a global reassessment: “We need to figure out as a school district, as a community – to acknowledge that unconscious bias is a very real thing. What will we do to be able to make sure we are correctly assessing what we are doing? … Until we get really real about that, we will continue to have problems. At the core, we need paradigm shift around how we look at our students, from a place knowing that every child can succeed.”

“I want to be remembered as just a kid from Cambridge,” said Elechi Kadete, who entered the district as a young English-language learner “at the lower end of the achievement gap,” but is now a Brandeis University graduate helping manage a multimillion-dollar portfolio at WGBH. Kadete is running for the third time. He said his experiences inform his approach to district policy, and is one reason he supports a moratorium on the test. “It should be high standards, but low stakes,” he said. “Just because someone doesn’t perform well on the test does mean they can’t do well,” he said, also pointing out the unfairness of some families providing standardized-test and college-admissions assessments preparation that keeps the playing field uneven.

Jake Crutchfield, a Cambridge educator also back for a second try at a committee seat, emphasized his connection to teachers, students, administration and the impact various policies have in the classrooms in supporting a moratorium. “Nothing can explain the stress of the seven- to eight-week schedule of MCAS in schools during that time,” he said. “It puts everyone on high alert, and it is not what we want our schools to be about. It is a broken system.” Crutchfield’s campaign stresses using subcommittees to aggressively engage community voices – teachers, student and families – to build more responsive policies, including about appropriate assessments.

“The current state standardized testing is valuable, but badly misused,” said new challenger Piotr Mitros, a longtime Cambridge resident whose son started kindergarten. “Once you tie it to high stakes, it stops working.” Mitros is no amateur on this topic. He has researched, written and practiced extensively across the world on eliminating achievement gaps and improving assessments, relying on what he calls “the science of learning.” A rich, internal “dashboard” of assessments should be the district goal, he said.

Patty Nolan, a committee member since 2005, urged that Cambridge “lead the way” on alternative innovative assessments. Agreeing with Fantini and others that early MCAS testing was critical in revealing that the district wasn’t educating everyone to the same standards, she nevertheless criticized the current approach: “We way overcorrected.” When her generation was young there were annual standardized tests, but no test prep and no anxiety, she said. Nolan advocated that Cambridge join the Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, create an alternative package of assessments and seek a state waiver from MCAS.

Dexter, in her first term, agreed with Nolan on the preferability of alternative assessments, pointing to the paucity of “joy in learning” as a direct outcome of the high-stakes testing. Citing the work of the consortium on alternatives, she said, “I think within three to five years standardized tests will go away. We need to start thinking about that now.”

Middle school math tracking

Candidates fielded two questions on the current seventh- and eighth-grade math program, which has an “accelerated pathway” and separate “on-grade” class. The questions asked specifically about the result that the dual tracks resulted in sections largely segregated by race and privilege.

MacArthur said the problem with math tracking is that “it is not ability-based tracking. There are students in the regular class who are capable of advanced, and vice versa.” Better attention to actual ability, he said, would make sections less segregated by getting at the underlying “expectations game.”

The impact of groups that end up separating races “can be devastating to black students” said Kimbrough, who remembered the blow to him from third-grade reading sections that seemed separated by race. Kadete also was “strongly” against tracking, based on seeing that “most of his lower-income friends were on the remedial track and most of my higher-income friends … were in the advanced placement classes.” Those with support from home and who knew how to take advantage of the system were able to leap ahead.

Crutchfield, Mitros, Weinstein and Dexter instead emphasized differentiation teaching in mixed-ability classrooms as the alternative, each noting that though it is difficult – “one of the toughest things for a teacher to do,” Crutchfield said – there is evidence and research that it can be done well.

Bowman was more circumspect: “Different children need different things,” she said. “We need to be intentional about having really difficult conversations about race and class.”

Cronin voted with her 2012 colleagues to initiate the dual track, yet said Tuesday, “if there is any place that tracking is wrong, it is in the middle school.”

Fantini, at least acknowledging his 2012 supporting vote, said that he is “opposed to the tracking” as it is now in the schools. He reported that at the Cambridge Street Upper School, Principal Manuel Fernandez is piloting integrated seventh-grade math classes.

Nolan alone defended her vote to create the dual track, calling data suggesting upper-school classes were still segregated by race and income was out of date. The 2012 decision to create the “dual pathway” math program was in response to the many teachers, parents and students who had asked for this approach, Nolan said. Though she admitted the program is flawed and still “has a way to grow,” she maintained that the percentages of students taking the seventh-grade accelerated track this year are now about the same for all racial groups – a stark contrast to the heavily white enrollment rate for most schools before the dual-track program, she said.

For the record, no one was in favor of returning to a kindergarten-through-eighth grade system, primarily because it would be too wrenching. “Change is hard,” all the members said, with many members here through the Innovation Agenda restructuring to create middle schools – as either a committee member or parent – recounting the huge stress and “pain” it takes to make such major changes. Only Mitros said explicitly that he would not have supported the move to middle schools, but he wouldn’t change back now: “I value stability.”

 Jockeying for uniqueness

Instead of disagreement on issues, there was some jockeying for which candidate was better situated to make changes, particularly in the first forum. In opening comments, Kimbrough said flatly that he is “uniquely qualified to know who all of our students are,” suggesting in one anecdote about finding a former student now homeless in Davis Square that he alone would have “recognized him as one of our students.” Kimbrough also pointed out that Kadete had been a former student of his, and that he had been guidance counselor to candidate Emily Dexter’s daughter.

Kadete and MacArthur also attended the Cambridge public schools, though, and are recent graduates. Kadete, like Kimbrough, is black. The three men all stress their own experiences in the school as a window to their understanding of inequities across race and what works and doesn’t work in the schools.

There was also some vying on teaching experience. Cronin said she is the “most experienced academic” candidate. But Crutchfield and Weinstein are teachers, the former having subbed in every school in the district and in every grade before settling at the Cambridgeport School. Weinstein has five years of classroom teaching, though not in Cambridge. Kimbrough has also worked in Cambridge schools as a teacher, guidance counselor and coach. Mitros, though not a teacher, has spent years working with an MIT/Harvard Initiative studying educational evidence-based practices. Dexter worked for five years at a school for Deaf students and for fifteen years in educational research and evaluation.

Incumbents Bowman, Dexter, Fantini and Nolan pointed to their own committee experiences and accomplishments, though Nolan was careful to indicate that “no one gets anything done on their own” on the committee – a counter to Bowman’s declaration that she led a “no suspension policy” and the districtwide planning effort. A June 2016 revision to the substance abuse policy did remove an “up to three days” suspension as a possibility for students in the kindergarten through second grades at Bowman’s suggestion. The language surrounding discipline has been revised repeatedly for several years, often driven by Nolan and Kathleen Kelly. Though Bowman led an Ad Hoc Superintendent Transition subcommittee, Superintendent Kenneth Salim’s districtwide planning effort was led by his staff member Lori Likis. Bowman joined Nolan and Fantini on the 25-member working group.

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