Sunday, April 21, 2024

Cambridge School Committee members Patty Nolan, Marc McGovern and Alice Turkel listen to Superintendent Jeffrey Young, at desk, speak March 12 about the district’s proposed Innovation Agenda. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A thorough plan for the school district Innovation Agenda was offered Tuesday to the School Committee, complete with a statement of principles and objectives, a structure of the teams put in place to accomplish them and an exhaustive timeline to follow through October 2012.

But none of that came soon enough to head off parents’ worries they weren’t being included in the agenda, which restructures the district to create four schools just for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, nor to prevent them from starting work that may not have a place in the official structures being put in place by Superintendent Jeffrey Young.

“There is a growing disconnect between the official structures being developed to implement the I.A. and the parents and teachers of the district. Central Office staff are addressing many of the same issues and problems as parent and teacher groups based in schools, but the process and structures for parent-teacher involvement are unclear and inadequate,” said Graham & Parks School parent Judy Weiss, announcing the creation of a group called the Cambridge Family Information Network to address the gap, fight for more transparency in the process and disseminate information on the work.

“Things are moving quickly,” Weiss said, “without sufficient input from our communities.”

Committee member Alice Turkel had an example from the night before of parents and school staff members planning for Innovation Agenda changes on the micro level — down to what spaces could be used as temporary classrooms as students move between schools under construction — in a meeting with the imprimatur of being announced in a school newsletter, but without the knowledge of Young and other administrative leaders.

While parents anywhere would want a say in how school changes will happen, there is a factor making Cambridge parents uniquely aggressive in claiming a role: a ridiculously high level of education. More than 72 percent of city residents over 25 have either a bachelor’s or a graduate degree. One parents’ group alone has three architects and a landscape architect among its members, noted Amigos parent Max Moore — himself an associate with the architecture and urban design firm Machado and Silvetti Associates.

The superintendent allowed a hint of exasperation in his reactions to the parents’ demands for immediate involvement, which formed while he and his team prepared the implementation plan.

“If there are 20 parents meetings tonight somewhere, we don’t know they’re meeting and we don’t know what their questions are,” Young reminded Turkel. In gauging how frequently to give progress reports to the committee and community — considering requests for quarterly, monthly and weekly updates and the near-immediate posting of documents — he used a metaphor directed also at Turkel, who is a baker as well as the only member of the committee who voted against the agenda.

“Do we let the cake bake before we take it out of the oven?” he asked.

Officials welcome involvement

She responded, though, by miming using a finger to take frequent taste tests and suggested that by metaphorically opening the oven “we hope that lovely odors are going to waft out and we’re going to know what we’re doing when we can smell” what’s baking.

In general the committee members leaned toward asking Young to “build on the parent reservoir of talent,” as Patty Nolan put it, and keep allowing involvement and comment that could be “messy — but you get a better product.” Even use of Weiss’ network got a nod, although it was noted that frequent and clear postings of information on city websites would make a parents’ network redundant.

“We can’t be working on parallel paths,” vice chairman Marc McGovern said. “We really want to make sure we’re doing this as a community.”

Young assured the committee and community that parent, teachers, students and others were key to implementing the agenda, but their inclusion had to be done in “meaningful, coherent and helpful ways.”

The plan, to be fully at work in the 2012-13 school year, includes six strategic objectives: developing an upper-school program, building professional learning communities, creating a “wraparound zone” that integrates student and family support services, aligning district resources, renovating facilities and improving the programs teaching younger students. Work defining the planning process wraps up this month, giving way to program design through December, then a preparation stage for hiring and scheduling that lasts through July 2012. Then comes final implementation.

Saheed’s new role

While Chris Saheed may be retiring as principal of the city’s high school, this process gets to make use of his more than three decades of experience as a Cambridge educator. He’ll be working part-time for a year as an Innovation Agenda upper school program developer, Young said Tuesday.

His retirement from Cambridge Rindge & Latin was announced March 15. It was his work there advancing core values such as diversity and respect among students that led Young to ask him to help shape transitions for students from grades six through 12 and build strong school cultures.

“Ask anybody what the high school stands for and they’ll say, ‘opportunity, diversity and respect.’ Well, fine, those are nice words and they go on a bumper sticker. But Chris’ work has taken it to the next level,” Young said after the committee meeting. “People think about what those words mean, so they’re not just words.”

First, Saheed deserves a summer vacation, Young said.