Year-end report shows perception trails high school’s reality
Even while celebrating successes at Cambridge’s high school, district officials at a Tuesday meeting of the School Committee were forced to describe how they planned to fight its persistent negative image.
Mayor David Maher said a meeting with city real estate agents would be held so they could hear of improvements at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, while Principal Chris Saheed said a “homecoming” was planned to the share the same information with graduates and residents.
The homecoming event would take place a year from September, but Saheed said volunteers are already being sought — on the assumption there will still be a need to publicize the school’s turnaround.
“Myths die very hard in the community, and perceptions people have held about the high school persist,” Saheed said during a year-end presentation to the committee. “Not everyone reads Boston magazine and sees us in the list of the best high schools in the state.”
The event is being planned at monthly meetings led by Francis Duehay, the 30-year city councillor, three-term mayor and Cambridge Health Alliance trustee, Saheed said.
The current mayor, Maher, was matching those efforts to correct “outdated information,” he said, and had spoken with Superintendent Jeffrey Young that morning about gathering real estate brokers and school officials for a meeting. “It’s just the chitter-chatter of the city. People form an opinion on which they may have been informed 15 years ago,” Maher said.
It was only seven years ago that the school was placed on probation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the agency that accredits institutions after confirming they conform to such standards as class size, campus quality, test scores and mission statement. It was only one example of bad publicity for the high school, which still suffers from a districtwide achievement gap cited frequently as troubling by district officials and committee members.
But those members were cheering Saheed and his staff for what he’d accomplished since his hiring in December 2006, contributing to what the superintendent at the time, Thomas Fowler-Finn, called “an amazing transformation in recent years.”
“A huge credit to you and your staff”
The 2010 graduation rate was “the highest ever,” school attendance was at 95 percent and in terms of awards and recognition for students and the school, there were “too many to mention,” all while the school was under construction and forced to coordinate between two campuses, Saheed said Tuesday. In addition, the school added courses in Arabic and members of the community raised enough money to send students on trips to France, Turkey, the Dominican Republic and Cambodia. Students organized assemblies and led eighth-graders on tours of their future campus.
As of Wednesday, the presentation had not been posted online.
The committee’s vice chairman, Marc McGovern, noted also to Saheed that hearing his first annual report on the high school as a committee member, in 2003, “the number of students who passed the MCAS but did not pass our own requirements for graduation was pretty significant, and now it’s minimal. That’s a huge credit to you and your staff. And the number of students who are at risk for not graduating at all is so much lower than it was just [a few years ago].”
There were still mysteries in test scores to be probed, Saheed admitted to committee member Alice Turkel when she asked about drops in some SAT scores, including a 16-point drop in math over five years.
“We are trying hard to figure this out as well,” Saheed said. “We’re not quite sure what explains the data here that you’re referring to. But overall what we’re seeing is that our scores are definitely on an upward trend.”
To correct the SAT problem, he said, more students are taking the PSAT so they are familiar with the format of the standardized test, which many colleges use to help select between applicants.
Still, Turkel called the high school “the most phenomenal place on Earth,” and other committee members were not far behind in hyperbole.
It was Nancy Tauber, though, who spoke of an encounter with a real estate agent last weekend that seemed strong justification for the meeting Maher planned.
“She mentioned that one of the biggest challenges to selling houses in Cambridge was the schools,” Tauber said, referring to the real estate agent. “I said, ‘Oh, is it because there’s neighborhood schools and you don’t know which school to go to?’ ‘No, it’s just the schools.’ She definitely had this perception about the schools not being good enough. And a lot of the things she was referring to are things that went on many, many years ago.”
This post will be updated when the year-end presentation is available.