Sunday, June 16, 2024

Figuring out how to create a middle school in Cambridge’s K-8 system would have been complicated enough, especially during budget season. Now the School Committee has asked Superintendent Jeffrey Young to come up with a second plan for the district, to be presented at the same time, that does not include a middle school.

The request, made at a Tuesday roundtable meeting of the committee, means Young will have a busy seven weeks until an April 6 presentation. The committee is to vote on a plan May 18. Whatever is decided, changes won’t go into effect until the following school year.

Because of the roundtable format of the meeting —slightly more casual, and with participants grouped at folding tables, not at their wood desks — there was no formal vote taken.

Some committee members, including Fred Fantini and Richard Harding, were clearly dubious of the request. The maker of the informal motion, Alice Turkel, was, obviously, the most emphatic about it.

“I don’t want to restart on April 6” if the committee can’t support the original plan, she said. “Please pursue an option that does not include a standalone middle school.”

In the two-hour discussion of committee members’ fears and questions about the middle school, which Young asked to hear so he could pin down details before April, there were several striking points raised, identified as multiple “elephants in the room”:

The closing of two or more schools is likely, even without the creation of a middle school. “There is going to be destruction no matter what we do,” committee vice chairman Marc McGovern said, expanding on an issue raised by other members. All agreed Cambridge has schools so small they become unchallenging academically, socially restrictive and lacking in programs such as sports and music. That didn’t have to be solved with a middle school. “We may be able to get to larger cohorts by closing two schools and keeping the K-8 structure,” he said.

(Much of the conversation was done in the shadow of the consolidation of public schools undertaken in 2003 in answer to a $3.8 million budget gap and declining enrollment. But enrollment declined further — the district has about 1,000 fewer students now — and committee members didn’t want their broad discussion to start a panic. Harding was particularly conscious that “when we start to talk about closing buildings, no one in their right mind will look at the highest-performing schools and think we’re closing them. So we need to be careful. We have constituents who will take that information and run.”)

The Intensive Study Program, while able to give advanced students what Fantini called “life-altering experiences,” was intended to be a temporary program that lives on and hurts schools. Because better students are sent out of schools for classes, the schools left behind may fail to strive for the same level of excellence. In words that could be interpreted as targeting the program for integration back into the mainstream, Young pointed out that ISP “are just three letters that have to do with academic rigor.”

In talking about the program, Harding said, “We don’t want to set up any kind of structure as de facto segregation.”

Race and class continue to bedevil a school system meant to be integrated and equal in all ways, with committee member Nancy Tauber recalling an uncomfortable conversation with a parent in which it was admitted there were different comfort levels in sending a child to a school dance — depending on which school and where, demographically, that school was. Aware she was touching a raw nerve, Tauber recounted the story with difficulty and regret, but it was a theme vital to discussion of the middle school.

Committee members have already expressed concern over self-segregation in the district, separating races and family income levels.

“One of my concerns is the split system,” Turkel said of the middle school plan, which will involve 450 students and leave 600 students of the same age in a K-8 model. “This may be a move that doesn’t help us integrate our schools, but does the opposite. Over time, can two different models attract people across all these [demographics]? I would guess not.

“I don’t know which group will be attracted to what, but I’d be surprised if it were balanced over time by natural choice,” she said. “Our two challenges are to have our schools be attractive across demographics and serve all our kids. I don’t want to do anything that exacerbates the challenge or makes it worse.”

Nolan also raised a key question: If the middle school is the best idea, why not do it for everyone? And if it isn’t, why impose it on anybody?

While committee members such as Harding noted that in his discussions with parents, “I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘I want to sign up for the middle school,’” some 11- to 14-year-olds have expressed excitement about the idea of being with “just a bunch of kids like me.”

And there is still a need to find a campus, including the auditorium and playing fields demanded by the school’s size.

The research, logistics and solicitation of ideas goes on — the teachers union survey ended today, and schools are sending questionnaires to parents — and Young and committee members wanted members of the community to know they continue to seek ideas for a district model. “So long as it’s somewhat controlled,” Young said. “We don’t need a lot of … half-baked proposals. But if people see ways to tweak there, strengthen that, I’m for that.”