Sunday, June 16, 2024

Students rally Monday in Harvard Square to get signatures on a petition to save their Intensive Studies Program from possible elimination. (Photo: Per Magnus Riseng)

Mary Gashaw, 12, surrounded by fellow classmates from the program, reads a statement Oct. 18 to School Committee members and Superintendent Jeffrey Young. (Photo: Marc Levy)

While Occupy Harvard draws hundreds to Harvard Yard in an ill-defined quest for socioeconomic justice, 12-year-old Mary Gashaw and her friends are protesting this week with a far more specific goal: save ISP.

Or, even more specifically, reach 1,000 signatures they can present Tuesday to the School Committee to show how important the district’s Intensive Studies Program is to its students and parents. A rally Monday in Harvard Square added more than 500 signatures to those Mary and her friends began gathering last school year. On Friday, starting at 4:45 p.m. at City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, the group of 11- to 13-year-olds will spend about an hour seeking to do it again.

The knock against the program is that it’s guilty of tracking kids — deciding their future based on how they did in their earliest years in school — and is elitist, meaning it’s only for the smart kids. Neither is true, Mary argues, since “it’s an option anyone can join. The point of ISP is to give students a chance to try hard and do better in their work.”

At one time, there were entry requirements for the program, such as writing an essay for review, and that perception may be lingering and complicating the kids’ efforts. “Some people think ISP is tracking and won’t sign,” Mary said of her efforts at gathering adults’ names for the petition. “But when we tell them about ISP and what it means to us, they start to understand.”

Mary’s own story shows why she cares: As an advanced learner whose teachers were often kept busy with students who needed more help, she was slumping toward a school career of sullen underachievement before the program pulled her back.

“One of the easy classes for me was Spanish, and I decided not to study for a test. And I got a C and decided it was kind of cool that I stopped studying and could still get a C, when others might not study and get an F,” she recalled Thursday. But she joined the program in the sixth grade and found herself challenged again in school and more engaged in her studies. “If kids don’t have the chance to push themselves, they’re just going to start experimenting” as she did, Mary said.

In place for five decades

The program been in place for five decades while Cambridge has been set up as a K-8 school district. Superintendent Jeffrey Young noted that reviews of the program and math curriculum were goals even before he proposed an Innovation Agenda that created schools just for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, but many people see the agenda and possible end of ISP as linked anyway. The program is for kids in those grades.

“People had raised questions about how well it was working and whether it was serving student needs,” Young said Thursday.

That review, by Nancy Brigham Associates, has been observing classes, talking to parents and students, examining test results and looking at demographics culminating in a report expected to be filed sometime in the next two weeks, Young said. He hopes to be able to bring the consultants to the Academic Challenge Roundtable planned for Nov. 29 or to the School Committee’s regular meeting Dec. 6.

But Mary and her group want to get the signatures in Tuesday as a follow-up to a students’ statement she read to the committee and Young at an Oct. 18 meeting, when they also heared pro-ISP testimony from parents and other experts — including former advanced learners whose own boredom with school led them to start experimenting with drugs and crime.

Another fear: “If they shut it down, a lot of parents are just going to leave the Cambridge school system,” said John DeLancey, the father of a seventh- grader at the Kennedy-Longfellow School. “That’s just a fact.”

Factors in the decision

With so much at stake, the work of the consultants has been making parents and students nervous, in part because the work was intended to begin in June when school wasn’t in session and the people who are most knowledgeable about the program weren’t around. Parents felt they had to intervene, DeLancey said. Now they hope to see the consultants’ report and catch any mistakes before it’s presented.

But Young doesn’t want more weight being put on the report than is justified. “It’s not designed to say ‘keep or drop ISP.’ It’s more of a descriptive report,” he said.

Nor does he want outsized importance put on the students’ petition.

“We try to depoliticize the decisions we make in terms of education. It’s not about how many people line up on one side or another,” he said, and the petition itself “is not going to affect my decision … when you hear me consistently repeat that decisions are made in [the best interests] of all students, it means all. Including the most accelerated.”

He also acknowledged that if the program ends, the issue of teaching advanced learners in the upper schools opening next year is “a legitimate interest.” And he admired the students’ work in conceiving and organizing the rallies and petition drive, and “if they requested a meeting, I’d be delighted to.”

Parents are also impressed by the students’ rallies. Mary, whose Ethiopian parents had her speaking to the media about human rights abuses there from a young age, called the protests and petition drives a group effort and credited the site dosomething.org with helping hone them.

That they’re coinciding with a raft of other protest movements is a coincidence.

“Mary had this idea back in spring. This preceded the Occupy movement,” DeLancey said. “But they’re taught social justice in school.”