Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Kennedy-Longfellow elementary school is one of the campuses likely to be affected by moving Cambridge’s High School Extension Program. (Photo: Gal Tziperman Lotan)

After parent uproar over moving the High School Extension Program to space alongside an elementary school or to make space for it by cramming together the Amigos and Kennedy-Longfellow schools, district administrators and the School Committee moved to two other options on a list of six:

Moving the program to a Broadway building it would share with an upper school of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, resulting in attached King and Kennedy-Longfellow elementary schools.

Moving it to the Broadway building with the King elementary school, instead moving the upper school in with the Kennedy-Longfellow elementary school.

Such moves (there were called “options four and five”) are needed because the district is rebuilding schools and, in the fall, opening four upper schools as part of a restructuring plan called the Innovation Agenda. A solid decade of construction is expected, with $3 million budgeted just for preliminary design and $30 million to get work started, and administrators don’t want to keep moving students around during the work.

“We’ve been talking about these options for the last six months, working with the city manager, talking to the universities, talking to private Realtors, and it’s unlikely — anything’s possible, I suppose — but it’s unlikely that one of us is going to wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Oh yes, I forgot about that building that’s three doors down from the high school,’” Superintendent Jeffrey Young told the committee.

But a surprise option for the High School Extension Program emerged only minutes later — not only as a surprise, but as a mystery.

“I have an option I’d like to discuss with you. I’m not here to say in the open tonight that it is a viable option, but it is in a building close to the high school and the city has in fact rented temporary space there before, so it may be something we could look at,” Mayor David Maher said, amending a motion defining the administration’s search criteria to ensure the mystery building could be considered.

After the opposition

The motion, read by committee member Alice Turkel, asked that the program not be put into the permanent building of an elementary or upper school; that “no schools or programs other than the High School Extension Program and the schools that need to temporarily move for renovations should be relocated”; that administrators work with the city manager to find more space possibilities; and that the program be as close to the high school as possible, since the 60 or 70 extension students are encouraged to take part in Cambridge Rindge & Latin School programs, clubs and sports.

With Maher’s amendment keeping open the idea of paying to rent space, the motion passed 5-2; voting against were Richard Harding, who was “very uncomfortable” with the idea that several passionate community voices should be enough to knock out a potentially necessary move; and Nancy Tauber, who looked at some schools “every couple of years [having] new roommates” without seeming too disturbed by the idea.

There was significant opposition from parents and others during public comment, though, with at least nine speakers — some saying they represented dozens of other people — resisting the Amigos and Kennedy-Longfellow options, including city councillor Tim Toomey and former School Committee member Joe Grassi. He called it “a major change to the Innovation Agenda [that is] a breach of trust and has the appearance of a bait-and-switch.”

Among the concerns: putting high schoolers alongside elementary school students, especially extension program students that could be troubled, where they could be either bad examples or a source of violence. Those concerns were answered quickly by Toomey and committee members; vice chairman Marc McGovern, for example, noted that the students are already longtime neighbors of the district’s Special Start preschool special education programs with no reported problems, and Turkel spoke of living across from the current program and experiencing not just “no issues,” but pleasant interactions with the students. She wanted to keep the program separate from upper schools because she was “not at all worried about potential conflicts, but I do think there’s a worry about potential romances. Parents might not be very happy to have their seventh- or eighth-grade student involved with a high school student.”

“Your kids are moving!”

At the end of an hour of debate that itself followed lengthy public comment, some of the officials seemed impatient to begin the next step in the process — which Young and district Chief Operating Officer James Maloney promised would include proper outreach to affected communities.

Barring the mayor’s mystery option, “I think we’re really looking at options four or five, and we should really just be saying that,” Young said to the committee members. “That’s what’s going to happen here, and you should acknowledge this.”

“Personally, I think four and five will be the options,” McGovern said, before noting that not every move in the Innovation Agenda can have “10 community meetings” before a decision is made.

Speaking to the people in the audience, he drew appreciative laughter in seeming to sum up the situation and the committee’s role in minimizing the inevitable effects of district reconstruction. “Here’s the deal. Let’s just put it out there. Any school that’s going to be renovated, guess what? Your kids are moving! That’s it. If we knock down the King School, your kids aren’t going to be in the building,” he said, “hopefully.”