Sunday, April 21, 2024

School Committee members Richard Harding and Fred Fantini unveil a rocking chair presented to the committee’s retiring executive secretary, Marilyn Y. Bradshaw. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The public gets at least five chances to say what they think about dramatic school restructuring plans, with the first coming Tuesday at City Hall from 7 to 9 p.m. The next ones — in which people get their chance to say what plans and options they prefer — are Wednesday and Saturday.

Then Superintendent Jeffrey Young identifies his favored approach, and two more public hearings are set for next month, with comment colored by those choices.

The reports laying out suggestions and options are online. The educational structure report, from a team led by School Committee vice chairman Marc McGovern and member Alice Turkel, is here. The report of the facilities team, led by committee members Fred Fantini and Nancy Tauber, is here. The report of the school choice team, led by Richard Harding and Patty Nolan, is here.

The reports were discussed with Young at a Tuesday meeting of the committee.

The facilities team report is the simplest. Looking among the district’s dozen “elementary” schools in 11 buildings, it recommends major renovation or new construction as possible over the next several years for the Graham & Parks, Kennedy-Longfellow, King/Amigos, King Open and Tobin schools, with the Longfellow Building on Broadway absorbing students for schools being redone, and for the district offices — in rental space for three decades — to be relocated to the former Graham & Parks building on Upton Street. Architects should be hired in the next fiscal year, the team said, and renovation of the first school should begin the year after that. Planning and construction of the other schools would “occur at regular intervals of two years assuming funding is available,” the team writes.

Among the 26 features suggested for the new facilities: a separate wing for middle schoolers and flexible, subdividable spaces for use by students and members of the community.

“One thing we know about education is that it’s always evolving, never reaching a static point where we say ‘We have everything exactly right and nothing should change again for the next 20, 30 or 50 years.’ That’s just not how life works in our business, because we’re in the business of learning,” Young said. “And when we get locked in, as often happens in schools, by antiquated facilities or constrained physical design, that’s when our programs can begin to suffer. So I’m very pleased that the findings of this report call for that kind of flexibility.”

Educational structure

On the matter of the middle school, however, the facilities team’s work depends on the findings of the educational structure team.

“The one that we’ve said from the outset is really the driver for a lot of our work is the JK-through-eighth educational structure team,” Young said. “It gave us some excellent direction.”

The team’s 24 guiding statements — grouped into areas of equity, programs, structure and process — were particularly praised by Young. They include such things as “The district should not support programs that recruit students away from other CPS schools” that might say the basic or obvious as a way to steer the district away from trouble spots. Other guiding statements include:

  • The district should support the individual educational philosophies at each school with the expectation that those philosophies will align with state frameworks and meet the desired outcome of more uniform achievement outcomes for all students.
  • Two schools in one building can be a logistical challenge; the district should not house multiple schools in a building unless appropriate renovations are executed.
  • Families with students enrolled in Cambridge Public Schools should be able to understand why and how any proposed changes affecting their child(ren) will improve the overall school system and in what ways the proposed changes will benefit their child(ren).

Parents sometimes reject plans that can be good for the community because they fear their own kid’s education will be disrupted, McGovern said.

The structure team makes suggestions to smooth out variations in class size (in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades the size ranges from 48 students to 197, depending on the school), regulate the time schools start and end by grade (students arrive at up to four different times during the day), split junior kindergarten into its own grade and set up a system to measure school quality that can be easily understood by nonexperts in the community. “The data most used is MCAS and anecdotal, neither of which gives a complete and accurate picture,” the report says.

Controlled choice

The team on controlled choice was unique in the number of questions it raised and its clear admission of the amount of work there is left to do.

The team “worked hard to cover a lot of ground, and has come up with a report, some recommendations and some commitment to finish the partially finished work on some key issues,” Harding and Nolan wrote.

The Family Resource Center, which deals most directly with parents in helping them choose schools, came in for the most specific criticism as “biased” and unhelpful.

“We call the FRC the ‘Family Roadblock Center,’ because information was not accessible and staff are not readily available,” one parents said at one of the numerous public forums held by team members in readying their reports.

The length of some school wait lists and lack of movement on them was also singled out for resolution. But the broadest suggestions were for improved communication with parents and and answer to their biggest concerns: that the schools are not balanced in  race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status and range widely in quality, and that these problems have gone on for years.

Young will have to make major policy decisions from the reports, including whether to keep the district operating under a model of moving students from elementary schools straight to the high school or add a middle school to the mix.

The coming meetings — Wednesday’s is from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Jefferson Park Community Building, 1 Jackson Place, and Saturday’s is from 10 a.m. to noon at the Work Force Office at 119 Windsor St. — will help Young decide.

“There is no done deal,” he said.

Bradshaw departs

Tuesday as also the last committee meeting for its executive secretary, Marilyn Y. Bradshaw. Her decades of service and help was honored with the gift of an elegant rocking chair and words of appreciation from each committee member, Young and the district’s deputy superintendent, Carolyn Turk.

“It’s been an honor,” said Fantini, who spoke of Bradshaw giving up her office when it was needed as a student media arts lab and couldn’t resist trying her rocking chair after unveiling it with Harding.

“I can’t think of a singles slip-up in 10 years,” Turkel said, extolling Bradshaw’s professionalism, while others paid testimony to her sense of humor and calm.

“I never, ever, ever saw you sweat in the face of adversity,” Harding said.

“That you attack problems, not people, is one of your greatest gifts,” Young said.

At the end, Bradshaw demonstrated her sense of humor and calm again in saying goodbye to her “dream job” and colleagues.

“This stuff is what you hear at funerals,” she said. “So I’m glad that I’m still here to hear it.”