Cambridge Superintendent Jeffrey Young speaks today in his office about options for middle school students. He will discuss the options again tonight at 6 at City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Five paths for Cambridge middle school education — and a recommendation of which to take — were presented Tuesday to the School Committee by Superintendent Jeffrey Young.

He asked the city to create a “hybrid” system in which some schools stay K-8, some go K-5 and a single middle school for grades 6-8 is established.

Over the course of Young’s presentation, he seemed to win over much of the packed, wary audience. His talk was greeted at appropriate times with gentle laughs and slight applause. Only occasionally were there scoffs or skeptical snickers.

Afterward, committee members had several practical questions — where the school would be, who would lead it and so on — that Young vowed to address. With reservations, the committee voted unanimously to have Young explore the hybrid option. But the date for a vote on the plan was put off from the beginning of April, with the superintendent to decide a new timeline within the next couple of days.

“This is not in my view a school system that needs to be exploded,” Young told committee members and watching teachers and parents. “The hybrid model validates our belief that one size does not fit all, [and it] supports the community’s long-held value of choice.”

The other options, he said today, are to: do nothing and retain the current structure, which is primarily K-8; go strictly K-5 throughout the district and create one or two middle schools; switch to a “sister school” model in which some schools go K-5 while others stay K-8, with students from K-5 schools going to a “sister” K-8 school upon reaching the sixth grade; and keeping the K-8 model but with fewer schools, resulting in larger classes.

Preliminary number crunching, taking into account economies of scale won by better groupings of students, indicates changes in the district can be done despite budget shortfalls of more than $3 million in each of the next couple of years, Young said. That could even include buying “netbooks” for students that would bridge the digital divide between families that can afford computers at home and those that cannot.

Skepticism and wariness

Audience seats were filled, peppered with members of the City Council, but the public comment period was exhausted in a half-hour, not the two-hours-plus marathon of the Jan. 20 meeting.

Some audience members who spoke before his presentation were skeptical of change.

“We have an awful lot of private schools in this area, but I can’t think of a single one that has a standalone middle school,” Heather Hoffman said during public comment of the assertion students need a wider range of teachers. “I wouldn’t tell that to the Waldorf Schools, where students have the same teacher for their whole [time at a school].

I’m not convinced that what we have is so irreparably broken that we need to have a huge upheaval.”

City councillor Craig Kelley also warned that Young’s recommendation “could do damage to a very fragile environment,” but wanted to learn more about how the plan would affect specific schools.

Committee members also had many questions and cautions for Young, with Alice Turkel and Patty Nolan raising the specter of the troubled 2003 school consolidation that took city schools to 12 from 15 as an answer to a $3.8 million budget gap and declining enrollment — only to see enrollment decline faster as families lost faith in the district.

The consolidation also bothered vice chairman Marc McGovern, who said straight out Tuesday that he was a fan of K-8 but interested in seeing Young “flesh out” his “skeletal” plan.

Like committee member Richard Harding Jr., he wondered how choice would work with the middle school and who would wind up there, since the middle school would not hold all 11- to 14-year-old students.

Turkel (who has described herself as a “K-8 girl”) asked how, if small schools were a problem, it helped to remove their students and put them in a middle school, and Nolan followed up again to say she felt Young’s goals could be achieved within the current district structrure. “All of these desires can be addressed within K-8,” Nolan said. “But however we go, at least we know what the goals are.”

The committee has learned from its mistakes, committee member Fred Fantini said, and that’s one reason there is so much time built into the process.

“We should follow the data,” Fantini said. “The superintendent put forward some powerful data. Our middle schools are not working for a number of reasons.”

Problems addressed

Although there are still many details to work out, Young said Tuesday that he likes the hybrid model because “It provides the opportunity for academic challenge for all students. The ones who feel they’re functioning best within that K-8 environment, they can stay there. The ones who really want the opportunity to have a more traditional elementary school experience … but then move on to a middle school, where that rigor can be present, can go down that path.”

The committee will not vote on a plan until April, and implementation of any change will come September 2011, almost a year and a half from now. When Nolan expressed doubt about voting on a plan only days after a presentation, Young agreed to find a better schedule.

The problems with the current system —— 11 schools set up as K-8 and one that is K-6, with all feeding into the high school — are familiar to many, but Young’s presentation to the committee displayed some of the arguments in stark, graphic detail. Two slides, for instance, showed educational accomplishment in language skills and math skills by race and make the district’s achievement gap plain: Whites and Asians rank significantly above other demographics, including Hispanic, black or low-income students.

“The gap could not be any more plainly presented,” Young said. “For me, and for virtually everyone I talk to, this is just unacceptable.”

Graphs of performance by school in language skills and math skills, with the names of the schools removed, show performance all over the place, although Young admitted early Tuesday that schools toward the bottom are, sadly, those with the highest number of students of color, with language difficulties and from low-income families. The scattered level of accomplishment at schools can lead parents to move “unchallenged” students elsewhere in the district, leaving smaller schools to greater failure.

“There are haves and have-nots. It’s outrageous and bordering on immoral,” he said.

Overall in the district, schools are showing slow and steady improvement, but “in my opinion, it’s not fast enough and the gap is not closing.”

“You cannot really stake a claim to academic excellence without social justice. And you can’t really promote social justice just by teaching kids to be nice to each other,” he said.

Size matters

There are virtually no state districts still using the K-8 model — Brookline and Somerville are among them, and only Somerville has a comparable demographic breakdown. District administrators see small class size as a problem, and Young notes that of Brookline’s eight K-8 schools, none has fewer than 400 students; one of Somerville’s six does; but eight of Cambridge’s 11 are that small.

“We like our schools small like a family, but when you don’t have a critical mass of students, you don’t have a critical mass of teachers,” Young said, and teachers can’t learn from each other. For students, too, “Sometimes you can be too close and too cloistered.”

Finally, smaller schools lack electives and enrichment programs. The smaller the school, the less likely it is to have arts programs such as school plays, an orchestra or ceramics classes with equipment such as kilns.

Under Young’s hybrid plan, a middle school would hold about 450 students. That would give two “teams” per grade of 75 students each, providing for class sizes of 18 or 19 kids.

Young sees a middle school as a way to gather students for richer experiences with a new set of teachers; and in great enough numbers to justify powerful arts and language programs — primarily Spanish, Arabic and Chinese, which Young sees as the most important languages to know in the coming generations. “There may be additional ones as well,” he said, with languages such as French still likely starting before high school. Even the Amigos K-8 school is “still not a coherent world language program.”

Young also plans close ties with after-school programs, so what kids experience outside formal learning hours reinforces what goes on inside the classroom.

And he is talking with businesses and universities to formalize relationships with resources in the community.