Upper-grade students at the Amigos School would be at a middle school on Spring Street under a plan proposed Tuesday by Superintendent Jeffrey Young. (Photo: Mark Jaquith)

A plan for four “upper schools” to take elementary school students and prepare them for high school was presented Tuesday by Cambridge’s public schools superintendent, Jeffrey Young.

“The structure we have is impeding success,” he said to gathered parents, educators and city officials at a Tuesday meeting of the School Committee before going into detail on his plan.

Speaking to a crowded room at City Hall, he described keeping the district’s dozen schools for 250 to 300 younger children each but ensuring their sixth, seventh and eighth grades — described as “a very delicate and fragile time of life [when] children often make choices that determine their future” — are spent at four schools at the following locations:

  • Cambridge Street, fed by the Cambridgeport, Fletcher-Maynard and King Open schools.
  • Rindge Avenue, fed by the Baldwin, King and Peabody schools.
  • Spring Street, fed by the Amigos, Kennedy-Longfellow and Morse schools.
  • Vassal Lane, fed by the Graham & Parks, Haggerty and Tobin schools.

These four middle schools would be carved out of existing space, from buildings chosen because they have the most square footage, Young said. The Cambridge Street school would be in the King Open school building, for example, although there is likely to be will be some renovation at all; Rindge Avenue and Spring Street are structurally sound but may need facelifts. The schools feeding the proposed middle schools were divided by location and to provide racial and socioeconomic balance.

The four middle schools would share a curriculum, defeating long-cited problems that students in the current system — in which students stay in one “elementary school” from their first grade to the time they enter Cambridge Rindge & Latin, the high school — have radically different experiences and early educations.

“Hear me right. What we need here is consistency,” Young said. “That does not mean we have a desire to take away teacher creativity. We cultivate and call for that.”

Young also describes his “Innovation Agenda” as a way to ensure teacher development, since he knows “teaching is isolating,” especially when a Cambridge elementary school is so small that there might be only one math teacher, and that teacher may have little chance to speak to and learn from their peers.

Teachers and students

Christine Colbath-Hess, president of the Cambridge Teachers Association union, spoke during a brief public comment period at the start of the meeting, the bulk of which was turned over to Young’s presentation, to note the more than 18 months Young spent researching his decision and meeting with different groups within the district. “While we do not know the specifics of the Innovation Agenda yet, and therefore, cannot have a position on it, I do know that my members believe [the] guidelines have great potential to support increased student achievement across the board, no matter what decision this body finally reaches,” she said. “It is also clear there must be some change in order for those guiding principles to be fully implemented.”

“We are never all going to agree on one plan, but I look forward to hearing in more detail what the superintendent and his team have created and believe that future conversations and collaborations will enable us to forge a path that makes this system better,” she said.

Young echoed that when telling the gathered parents to resist thinking just of their own children when assessing the plan. “It’s natural we all think of our sons and daughters,” he said. “I ask you instead to think of your neighbors’ sons and daughters. What are we going to do for them to give them a fair crack at excellence?”

Tiny class cohorts (Young has pointed to the example of the John M. Tobin School, which has 11 students in the sixth grade) lead to unfortunate outcomes. After a lunch meeting with some 25 older Cambridge students to get opinions on their middle school years, Young and Mayor David Maher had new examples to share. About three-quarters  of the diverse group of teens said their middle school years had been too easy and failed to challenge them academically. One student described her love of the trumpet but revealed how her small school had failed to capitalize on that love: While she was in a band, she told Young and Maher, “I was the only person in the band.”

“That’s only one of dozens of examples of how our students are shortchanged,” Young said.

His plan also calls for increased language skills, improved math and science instruction and even better bathrooms. Involvement from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and city companies such as Microsoft is expected.

More information wanted, and coming

The meeting ended with some bound copies of Young’s findings being passed out among the audience. While Young’s presentation got actual and implied applause, many people also said — like Colbath-Hess — they were wary of its content and eager to dive into the inch-thick document for more detail.

“I’m amenable to the goals, it’s the methods are what I have questions about,” said Gojeb Frehywot, who has a child in the Cambridgeport school.

“He put a lot of thought into the presentation. But until I hear more details, I’m not going to be too enthusiastic a supporter. I’m going to be optimistic that we’ll actually bring about the changes,” said Mary-Ann Matyas, who has boys in Graham & Parks. “I have to read the whole report.”

City councillor Craig Kelley saw the emphasis on middle schools and wanted to know more about improvements for other grades.

Marc McGovern, vice chairman of the School Committee, was as cautious as the others.

“It was a great presentation. I agree with him completely in terms of issues the district is facing. These are not new, they’ve been around for decades, and it is unconscionable that for as long as anyone can remember high school teachers have been able to tell what elementary school a child has gone to because they know who’s been prepared and who hasn’t,” he said. “It’s completely wrong, and this plan addresses that. But I have some questions about the plan. I haven’t digested the whole thing, and I have to do due diligence and really look at before I say whether I fully support it or not. It’s ambitious, and it deserves our close attention.”

Next up are two town hall meetings, from 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Frisoli Youth Center, 61 Willow St., and from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 10 at the West Cambridge Youth Center, 680 Huron Ave., and at a Feb. 15 committee meeting that will serve as a public hearing on the idea. The committee will hold a roundtable from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, but there will be no votes or public comment.

The committee will vote March 1 whether to accept and implement Young’s selection, which would affect students starting in the 2012-13 school year.

This post was updated Feb. 2 to show Christine Colbath-Hess’ support for a process rather than a specific proposal.