Saturday, June 22, 2024

School Committee vice chairman Marc McGovern returns to his seat Tuesday in City Hall during a vote on a proposed district Innovation Agenda. (Photos: Marc Levy)

Student Perri Wilson speaks from the lectern Tuesday against the loss of Cambridge’s JK-8 elementary school system. Nearby is Jessie Rubin, seen cupping her chin in her palm, a student who spoke in favor of moving to an upper-school plan.

The School Committee approved the creation of four “upper schools” in a 6-1 vote Tuesday that was at some points emotional and impassioned and other times tedious and confusing. Alice Turkel was the “no” vote.

The pressure felt by the committee’s six members and Mayor David Maher was clear. Two members cried while discussing the topic before voting.

Yet the mood was lighter for much of the meeting, nudged in that direction by the two festive trays of mini-cupcakes — lemon, with powdered sugar on top — provided by Turkel. When thanked for the treats early in the meeting, Turkel was silent, brimming with emotion, and she later explained why: “This has been really stressful,” she said. “People respond to stress differently. I bake.”

Committee members spoke before the meeting with some confidence the votes were in place to pass the plan, presented Feb. 1 by Superintendent Jeffrey Young as the Innovation Agenda.

They undoubtedly grew more confident as the two-hour public comment period wore on, as more and more people spoke in favor, some presenting themselves as representing large groups. Speakers against the plan were heard later in the period, their numbers never quite matching those of proponents.

The community has been divided by the issue, and attention has started to focus on that as well as on the agenda itself.

Resident Amy Nadel said she posted a petition online at 1 p.m. Tuesday and had 190 signatures within six hours opposed to the plan, but proponents such as Rosalie Rippey also claimed petitions that continued to grow until being closed so they could be brought to the meeting. One group petition was especially notable: The signers were district principals.

As in other meetings about the agenda, the crowd overflowed the seats in Sullivan Chamber and sent some watchers upstairs to the balcony or to mingle in the second-floor hall, and many lingered for more than four hours through 10:32, when the votes had been tallied (and until shortly afterward, when the meeting ended, brought to a premature end by a motion from committee member Fred Fantini).

Former committee member Joe Grassi, who had long warned of the failures of controlled choice in the district and its tendency toward self-segregation, said he remained concerned that the upper schools’ current grouping of poorer students exacerbated the problem but urged acceptance of the plan anyway — and a unanimous adoption, at that.

“It may be symbolic, but I think it’s important to help knit the community together,” Grassi said. “This house divided cannot be successful for our students. We need to be united as we move forward.”

That wasn’t to be.

Deciding their votes

At least some committee members had decided their votes before the meeting began, with Nolan saying tearfully that, although “I just spent the past few weeks literally not knowing what to do … until 5 o’clock today I wasn’t even sure which way I’d vote,” she had determined to vote in favor so the torn community could “move on.”

Turkel’s opposing vote was decided by her colleagues’ declining to vote on an amendment that would have barred the district from leveling or tracking kids — meaning putting them on educational paths defined by an early assessment of their abilities.

“I can’t vote for a plan that’s supposed to be about equity that brings children together in buildings and separates them in classrooms,” Turkel said, weeping. “I can only accept one outcome on tracking. I think this is simply a social justice issue.”

Those who voted in favor said repeatedly, like Nolan, that it was simply time to move forward. But Nolan and Turkel both talked of being haunted by a 2003 consolidation of the district’s then 15 schools resulting from shrinking enrollment and a persistent achievement gap between students of different races and classes. It was another plan debated for what seemed like endless weeks, also divisive to the community, and when finally voted in and implemented it wound up going awry, actually sending many families out of the district. “Silly me, when I was on that side of the room I really wanted to sit at the table,” Nolan said, thinking back to where she was during the consolidation vote. “And the seat is really, really hot. It’s hotter than I could possibly have imagined.”

Even in 2003, the achievement gap was talked about as having been allowed “to last for decades,” Nolan said. “We have the same problems today, and that plan was supposed to fix it. I need faith this time it will work, and we don’t have certainty.”

Plenty of others have also been making comparisons to the failed consolidation. Resident Jim Iffland, expressing the other kind of certainty — that the Innovation Agenda is bad — predicted to committee members, “You will all be back here in another six or seven years. Those of you who were here in 2003 know it.”

Helen Bryant didn’t seem certain at all, but urged committee members to feel confident before voting that the plan would work despite her fears teachers and “people with affluence” would abandon Cambridge public schools, leaving those “who have no choice but to be here — generally they’re black, they’re brown and they’re poor.”

“Is this plan white-flight proof?” Bryant asked the committee members. “I’m deadly serious about that. We know that people are going to leave, they told us.”

Knocking down myths

When Maher finally spoke, he said mildly that he hoped people wouldn’t leave, but would instead participate in the next 18 months of community involvement to ensure the agenda came together in the best way possible. He more forcefully began knocking down a myth that had grown up around the expense of improving district schools, which worriers in the city had been putting at up to $50 million.

“In the long run it’s going to cost way, way more than has ever been mentioned, because we are talking about investment in our young people,” Maher said to applause, noting the injection of rebuilding each city schools into the goals of the City Council.

Money to rebuild schools is also separate from the operating budget of the district, committee vice chairman Marc McGovern explained. “That money comes out of a different pot, and if we don’t use it for renovations we don’t get to put it in another pot,” he said.

Jessie Rubin, an eighth-grader at the Graham & Parks School, took on what she saw as another set of myths standing in the way of passage. “Don’t be afraid of middle-schoolers; we’re not so bad. I think you are letting us scare you too much,” she said, wondering how the same people worrying about little sixth-graders being alone in school with big eighth-graders were okay with having big sixth-graders in school with little kindergartners.

Confirming the opinion gathering done by Young, she went on to say that every student at Graham & Parks she’d talked with supported the idea of upper schools, including “some of them who asked me not to tell their parents.”

A handful of students undermined that unanimity later,  though, either protesting changes introduced with the revised plan and the loss of the district’s Intensive Study Program or the entire concept, which would result in the loss of programs such as Reading Buddies — in which older students worked with younger students on reading skills — and the advances that can be made when students grow comfortable with each other over years.

“You should take what’s already working well and build on those things,” said Perri Wilson, a sixth-grader who advocated consulting with additional students to determine whether more felt the district should be kept as is.

Committee members also expressed faith in Young and his team — although they also passed several amendments demanding immediate action on several fronts, including calling constituencies together to start filling in the agenda’s blanks, quickly firming up staff and cost estimates and using a community outreach budget to reach anyone in the city who remains unaware of the changes coming along.

The biggest changes: Instead of having a dozen “elementary schools” housing students from childhood until they graduate to the Cambridge Rindge & Latin high school, the agenda would give the district “upper schools” on Cambridge Street in the King Open School, fed also by the Cambridgeport and Fletcher Maynard schools; Vassal Lane in the Tobin School, fed also by the Graham and Parks and Haggerty schools; Rindge Avenue in the Peabody School, fed also by the Baldwin school; and Putnam Avenue in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, fed also by the Kennedy-Longfellow and Morse schools.

Amigos School likely to stand alone

That leaves the Amigos School, a Spanish-language immersion elementary school, standing isolated in a building near Central Square after being moved from East Cambridge  — staying JK-8 rather than feeding students to a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade upper school — as what some call the most troublesome issue of the Innovation Agenda, and one reason why the superintendent’s March 7 revision of the agenda lost some supporters.

Maher acknowledged that, given more choices, a different building might have been chosen, and that the drop-off in attendance in the upper grades had to addressed.

But Maher doubted Amigos’ status would change. “We were having problems with how you make that work in regular feeder patterns,” he said after the meeting, referring to Amigos’ unique Spanish-language aspect. “They wanted their own building, had been crying for their own building for a long time. I think the people in the Amigos community are thrilled.”

This story was updated March 28 to add comments by Joe Grassi, Jessie Rubin and Perri Wilson.