Monday, May 27, 2024

A group of Cambridge residents sits with Superintendent Jeffrey Young at a Tuesday meeting to air what works and what doesn’t about the district. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A meeting canceled by last week’s snowstorm has been rescheduled for Tuesday, allowing people a third chance to discuss Cambridge schools’ strengths and weaknesses before Superintendent Jeffrey Young chooses a path for restructuring.

The meeting will be at the Jefferson Park Community Building, 1 Jackson Place, from 7 to 9 p.m., School Committee member Nancy Tauber said in an e-mail.

The other meetings scheduled to gather opinion and goals were Saturday on Windsor Street and Tuesday at City Hall, and there will be either two or three more after Feb. 1, when Young announces his decision. (Meetings for Feb. 9-10 are set; a Feb. 8 meeting is possible, Mayor David Maher said, to balance out the three being held this month.)

“I’ll do my absolute best to meet those goals,” Young told those meeting at City Hall, thanking them for speaking. “I’m not smart enough to figure this out by myself, which is why it’s important for us to listen here to you.”

The committee is set to vote March 1 whether to accept Young’s recommendations.

By holding meetings away from City Hall, the superintendent and other city and school officials may hear more diverse viewpoints, Young said. The first of the three attracted a crowd just short of 75 people, including city councillors and state Rep. Alice Wolf, but was predominantly made up of white parents of younger schoolchildren.

Praise and criticism

The crowd was split into red, blue and yellow groups who came forward by color to sit with Young and share their opinions. Many spoke and got answers from Young, if only an acknowledgement of complaints and a vow to think further on the issues.

There was much praise for teachers (including a parent who deemed her child’s teacher “magnificent … my hero”) and criticism for the Family Resource Center (“not a very good experience”) and the entire process of helping parents choose schools (including a parent who summed up, “controlled choice has never worked”). Officials were urged to work to retain the communities that have grown up around schools and fix the district’s special education system (one parent called it “adversarial” and another said “radical changes need to be made”). The committee plans to look at special education at a March 15 meeting.

There were requests for more standard experience across schools (one parent described wanting fewer schools “of a particular flavor”), more language skills being taught to younger students — and for an even more immersive experience, up to teaching gym in a child’s second language — and more recess time for everyone.

There was strong support for the district’s current “elementary” school model, in which kids stay in a single school through elementary and middle school years before attending Cambridge Rindge & Latin, the city’s only public high school. Last year a separate, physical middle school was proposed but withdrawn by Young, who said he didn’t want to rush into a plan when so many residents felt uninformed, rushed or resistant.

Now, in addition to plans for improving the district’s school choice methods, moving administrators’ offices out of long-term rental space and renovating or rebuilding the Graham & Parks, Kennedy-Longfellow, King/Amigos, King Open and Tobin schools, there are four proposals for the structure of city schools:

  • Keeping the system as it is, with a dozen schools ;
  • Cut the number to up to six schools with two buildings each, each with its own principal, in which the same group of students switch from one building to another at Grade 3 or 4;
  • Change about half of city schools to keep students only until Grade 5 or 6, when they would transfer to other schools through Grade 8;
  • Create three or four small middle schools to take all students.

School Committee vice chairman Marc McGovern and member Alice Turkel led the team making the four proposals.

Some goals were to smooth out radically different class sizes and ensure students socialize and get experience with various teachers, who themselves should have a chance to interact with and learn from other teachers.

Support for JK-8

But parents almost universally spoke about the nurturing environment of the current JK-8 model — some referring to how it avoids jarring transitions and limits bullying, others even citing extensive research to show students in such schools do better on tests and fare better in development, self-esteem, leadership skills and their views of teachers and suggesting a shift in the district’s model should be grounded in hard data.

Young assured that whatever suggestion he made would be grounded in such data and drew chuckles when he said some was drawn from outside the district in “recognition that someone, somewhere outside Cambridge might have thought of something good.”

Another plan will have a tough road ahead, when parents such as Harriet Morgan tell stories of how seventh- and eighth-graders at the Peabody School look out for the kindergartners and Luci Herman speaks of “the wonders of being in K-8 schools.”

In her role advising students at Harvard, Herman said, she’s had many conversations with students who’ve been through Cambridge’s school system and endorsed the current model, causing her to wonder if afterschool activities could be enhanced to fill some of the roles educators look to in middle schools.

The research and work by some parents seems as nearly as comprehensive as that of school officials. In addition to the Amigos parent citing Rand Corp. studies, district parent John Capello has posted solid analyses of local middle school initiatives over the years (noting, for instance, that 12 of 16 research briefs cited last year were by organizations with “an interest in the development of middle schools” such as the National Middle School Organization) and even dug up Young’s Harvard dissertation, which is on the structure of grades in middle schools.

“It is too bad we didn’t have this document, done with stellar free labor (a labor of love, for sure) a year ago. The concern now is that the train has left the station, and although we don’t know where it will stop, many people fear that taking time to take stock would derail change efforts,” committee member Patty Nolan wrote to parents in a Jan. 6 newsletter, referring to Capello’s work. “I disagree, and am very glad that the superintendent took time to review the report.”

Capello indicated Tuesday that he was looking forward to learning what model Young does prefer, since a separate, physical middle school was off the table, and hearing Young’s data backing that decision.

“Literally, today was the first day I heard anyone say we were looking outside the district,” he said.