Parents speak against changes to K-8 school structure
Parents packed Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee to plead the case of the K-8 school in the coming reworking of the city’s middle grades, with some two-thirds of the crowd representing the Amigos dual-language school.
They went away knowing they were only part of a larger process, but a deliberate one Superintendent Jeffrey Young assured wouldn’t result in change until September 2011.
Sullivan Chambers was standing-room-only, with several members of the City Council among those listening, and interim mayor and committee member Ken Reeves invited the overflow to sit in chairs and benches in the area usually reserved for school officials. The names of those signing up to speak went onto a second, third and fourth sheet — more than 40 people in all, with many allowed to go over the three-minute limit. Comment stretched beyond two hours.
There was alarm that schools where students stay for nine years before high school would be broken up and the top two or three grades put instead into a middle school, even if the middle school were a separate system rather than separate physical location somewhere in the city.
“I want to offer some thoughts on what 11- to 14-year-olds need and how we as parents and educators can best fulfill those needs. We believe [many] are best fulfilled in the K-8 setting,” said Dan Penrice, a parent representative on the Graham & Parks School steering committee. His statement responded to a city report referring to schools “committed to knowing the whole child, providing a school environment in which healthy relationships and communication are fostered and working in partnerships with families and communities to support student learning and development” and where students are “anchored but free to explore.”
“We have found that there are clear advantages to the K-8 model. At Graham & Parks we have built our middle school program around not only a strong curriculum but also on relationships among students, family and staff that are developed over time,” Penrice said. “We strongly believe middle school students get some of this anchoring from being surrounded by nurturing adults who have known them well since the primary grades and are invested in each student’s personal success.
“It is common at our school for middle school students to visit their primary grade teachers to show their achievements, ask assistance or just check in, which helps the staff to guide them. Our staff has found this particularly helpful for working with students who struggle academically, because these relationships, built over time, have established bonds of trust that pay dividends in the classroom,” Penrice said.
Amigos parent Suzanne Shaw agreed the K-8 model was a “terrific” and “safe and appropriate learning environment for kids as they enter adolescence. Too often middle school is a nightmare for kids, and to have some of the social pressures set aside so you can focus on learning at a time there’s a lot of change going in your life is a real gift.”
“I’m not saying there aren’t problems,” Shaw said, but she encouraged officials — as others did — to solve those problems without affecting the K-8 structure.
Parents also testified to older students in K-8 schools nurturing and serving as good examples to younger students. They urged that Amigos specifically be preserved, along with its focus on social justice and demonstrated ability to raise standardized-test scores and decrease dropout rates among Latinos.
More than one parent spoke of being drawn to Cambridge from as far away as New York and New Jersey solely for Amigos and the opportunity to protect children from prejudice. Parent Lillian Rater — the transplant from New York — noted Amigos had become something of a laboratory school visited by educators from Libya, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Spain and Alaska, where there were hopes of creating a successful bilingual school for Inuits.
Two city high school students testified as well to the Amigos experience and how crucial the middle school years were to locking in language skills. One, Cambridge Rindge & Latin School sophomore Byron Cohen, called his middle school years at Amigos “critical to the fulfillment of its mission. If Amigos’ middle school were removed, there would be a huge amount of progress erased.”
“It would be a shame if other students never got the opportunity I got,” Cohen said.
The overwhelming presence of the Amigos community — despite the same meeting notice being posted on each school’s Web site and letters sent to parents citywide — was striking because it wasn’t, as School Committee member Marc McGovern feared, the result of rumors flying about what reform might wreak.
But it also meant committee members weren’t hearing negatives about the school district they knew to be out there. In addition to e-mails, phone calls and letters, committee members have had access to more than 1,000 returned surveys about the middle school and more than 400 attached comments, many extensive and critical.
“There are some kids who aren’t having a good, robust middle school experience,” committee member Fred Fantini said. “I would like to hear from other school communities.”
But Tuesday only a few people, including former committee member Joe Grassi, spoke about middle school classes too small to warrant certain classes or programs (one class was 13 students); students who excelled in small classes and were lost when they graduated and got more competition; the overwhelming social pressures of high school after nine years at one school; and the self-segregation by race and class evident from observation and data from a recent study.
Grassi urged the committee and superintendent to “be bold” and remember “social justice has got to be how all our students are moving forward.”
Although his message was counter to what most speakers were saying, Grassi was applauded when he finished.
The committee won’t vote until April 6 on changes to the middle school structure. Before then there will be a second teacher forum and additional opinion gathering from staff, parents and students. Young will go over the district’s options with the committee and make a recommendation for one course of action at its next meeting, Feb. 2, allowing almost two months in which members can hear more public comment before a vote.
“I was really impressed by the passion, I truly was,” Young said of Tuesday’s speakers. “People tend to draw from their own experience. It’s human nature. So most of the people who spoke tonight have had very good experiences in their own schools, and they want to perpetuate that for reasons that are entirely understandable.”
Still, he said, “My job is to look at the entire district, and roughly 6,000 students, and to try to build a program that includes equal access to excellence for everyone.”
“You may have heard me say this before. I believe it. I do believe Cambridge can be the best urban district in the country. I believe it has the resources, and I’m not just talking about the per-pupil expenditure,” he said. “It’s what people here talked about — the community, the universities, the businesses, it’s the good will of people, it’s the staff, you can mobilize all this into something extraordinary.”
Whatever happens, it wouldn’t be rushed into taking place next September, he said.