An overflow crowds into Sullivan Chamber at City Hall on Tuesday to discuss a plan to create four middle schools for the Cambridge public school district. (Photos: Marc Levy)

The public school community has predictably split over the Innovation Agenda proposed by Superintendent Jeffrey Young, which would create four middle schools in existing school buildings. The district now generally keeps students in “elementary schools” until they reach ninth grade and enter Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, the public high school.

Tuesday’s School Committee meeting illustrated the split, as the spillover crowd — filling the audience seats in Sullivan Chamber at City Hall and pushing people into the balcony, deeper into the room onto benches near committee members or to stand in the lobby to watch the proceedings on a television monitor —wore stickers saying, “Expect more/Unify Cambridge/Support the plan/I’m a voter and I support the Innovation Agenda.”

“Sometimes voices of support get lost,” said Joyce Gerber, explaining the stickers as necessary because school officials “need to know there are voters who are committed to have this move forward.”

Those without stickers were “concerned it’s inequitable” and worried that expressions of support such as a mass letter sent to The Cambridge Chronicle reflected a minority of the district’s dozen elementary schools, noted Kelly Colbourn. Those are the people who know they plan will work out well for them and their children, she said.

Before the vote

The committee votes on the agenda March 15, with several meetings about it before then, starting at 9 a.m. Monday with one hosted by the Cambridge NAACP and moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr.

“We applaud Superintendent Young for his moral courage in developing a plan of excellence for all children in the Cambridge Public Schools. It is time for Cambridge to move from a history best described as a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ to a city of One and All,” says the organization’s flier, borrowing language Young has used to illustrate a split in the district, with some benefiting far more than others.

The two-hour Monday meeting is planned for St. Paul AME Church Christian Life Center, 85 Bishop Richard Allen Drive.

Meetings at each of the elementary schools are ongoing, and there is a planned March 1 roundtable of the committee that, atypically, will be televised — and was set to go from 6 to 8 p.m. until committee member Alice Turkel said last week that the roundtable “should not have an end time,” and Mayor David Maher agreed.

A meeting of the committee set for March 8 will also take public comment, although the format is not known, said committee member and vice chairman Marc McGovern.

Turkel was concerned that when revisions to the plan came back for consideration, members of the public wouldn’t have enough time to assess and comment on them.

The mayor said he’d talked about that with Young, and “we feel there will be plenty of time.”

“I question that,” Turkel said, asking if it wasn’t possible to schedule a meeting with public comment after March 10.

“We all share Miss Turkel’s concerns,” committee member Patty Nolan said.

“We should hold a pajama meeting and just go all night,” committee member Fred Fantini said.

It might be necessary. Last week’s meeting drew, in addition to city councillors Leland Cheung, Craig Kelley and Ken Reeves, more than 60 speakers, each allotted three minutes at the lectern. “So it’s a good four hours to get through public comment alone,” Maher said at the start of the meeting. “We know there are folks on every side of the issue.”

A wide range of comment

First with comment was Christine Colbath-Hess, president of the Cambridge Teachers Association union. While the association awaited answers to six questions sent to Young about how the plan would be implemented, she said, she was “reassured” by his responsiveness and that his approach indicated “a profound respect for the collective wisdom of the CTA members.”

If the Innovation Agenda passes, the superintendent has vowed to meet quickly with a faculty group to figure out the best ways to approach scheduling, curriculum and general organization for the new district structure.

“The faculty in our schools understands at a very deep level … that there must be change in our system,” Colbath-Hess said. “That we are willing to engage in healthy debate about what is best for our students is the good news. That said, critical to any plan working is the support of the faculty. If the power to create is put into our hands, if we are deeply, deeply engaged in the work, then there will be change at the most powerful level and in the most powerful ways.”

School officials Superintendent Jeffrey Young and the school district’s deputy superintendent, Carolyn Turk, listen to public comment Tuesday with Mayor David Maher.

Public comment truly reflected a range of opinion. There were the strongly opposed to the plan as whole, such as David Albert, who said it was “polarizing and divisive” and would “create winners and losers, and far from being the equitable plan it was meant to be, would cause such heartbreak and loss of morale that it may be irretrievably broken before it begins.” He suggested that the district’s structure remain nearly as diverse as it is now, and wondered what, if serious change didn’t result in the agenda, all the community meetings were for.

Dan Hunter thought he felt a common theme in comments from the audience and even committee members such as Turkel: “Why are we making such drastic decisions in such a short period?” He suggested the creation of middle schools was so much “shuffling of boxes” when it would be better to decide what was going on “inside the boxes.”

Roberta Vise also said that, although she was in favor of improvements in general,  the “lack of clarity and ambitious schedule do not make me feel comfortable with the plan as it is written.” She was most concerned with the fiscal and organizational aspects of the plan and questioned the “deans” who would be put in place to oversee the middle schools but be supervised by existing principals. Husband David Vise agreed a system with 16 schools would “administratively cost quite a bit more and add layers of bureaucracy” and complication, and Tom Carter also disliked the addition of deans and the proposed structure in general.

The principals overseeing the deans would likely craft the middle schools in their buildings in such a way that would cause “the perpetuation of social cliques. The middle school design should not risk creating academic or social haves and have-nots.”

John Bright also wondered how to ensure “feeder-school” equality, although he saw the potential good in the entire plan as outweighing the bad.

On the other hand, Ann Braude told committee members that she thought the plan had “much that is exciting … but after deep reflection, I’m coming here tonight to urge you to vote no.” Coming only years after a consolidation that eliminated and combined schools and resulted in unsettled parents fleeing the district, Braude worried that “this plan will put us on a self-perpetuating cycle of instability. Self-perpetuating because it gives the message that reorganization is a regular feature of the Cambridge Public Schools.” She wanted to see if increasing enrollment would solve some of the problems caused by tiny classes, where students had few peers to socialize with and few teachers to expose them to new ideas.

On that, though, she got a kind of answer from the people who might know best: last year’s graduates of the school system.

The students speak

Heidi Sokol read a letter from her son Oliver McNeely, away at college, who explained that he’d enjoyed his time at the Morse School up until sixth grade, when “we lost a good portion of our students to schools like BBN, Park and the ISP program. This made it hard for the small handful of kids like me left behind [with] teachers who were teaching to the middle of the class.” Attempts at fixing this by bringing in teachers to work with small groups was “great until it was discontinued.” He called his three middle-school years at Morse “not a complete waste of time, but I feel like I could have accomplished a lot more if there had been a larger number of students at my school, which would have allowed there to be more flexibility to have appropriately leveled class sections.”

“The proposed plan will move Cambridge public education to a better place where no one is left behind and no one is stuck in a place where they cannot reach their full academic potential,” McNeely said through his mother.

Ariane Berelowitch, seen as a student representative to the School Committee in March, returned last week to speak during public comment.

Even more powerful was the testimony of Ariane Berelowitch, a graduate of the Baldwin School and CRLS with impeccable credentials that include being a student representative to the committee last year. She goes to Harvard.

Berelowitch opposed slowing the pace of the Innovation Agenda, saying “When I was in eighth grade almost five years ago I had concerns, and they were put on the table and were starting to be addressed — and they still haven’t been addressed. I feel like classes and classes of students are graduating, and those students are waiting for their frustrations to be addressed and feeling kind of let down by how slowly the process is moving. For a student, things go very, very quickly.”

“By the time I made eighth grade, I’d had the same four teachers for two years and the same 40 peers for eight or nine years and I was ready to branch out, and I got to high school and remember feeling this huge sigh of relief of being able to choose what I can study and who I can study with and having a whole pool of students I can interact with,” she said. “I had a lot of frustrations, and a lot of frustrations that I felt were solved at CRLS because there were a lot more opportunities. I could go into academic and social and extracurricular frustrations I had, but I feel those have been put on the table several times.”

The remaining meetings at each of the elementary schools are: 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Feb. 28 at the King School, March 1 at Fletcher-Maynard Academy and March 2 at the Haggerty School; from 6 to 7 p.m. March 2 at the Amigos School, 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. March 3 at the Baldwin School and 5:50 to 6:30 p.m. at the Morse School, 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. March 4 at the Tobin School and 9:30 to 10:30 March 5 at the Graham & Parks School.

For information on the Monday NAACP meeting, call (617) 395-7878 or send e-mail to [email protected]