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Teachers and staff crowd the School Committee meeting room Tuesday to show solidarity during contract negotiations. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

Teachers and staff crowd the School Committee meeting room Tuesday to show solidarity during contract negotiations. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

The most dramatic part of Tuesday’s School Committee meeting was before the meeting. At least 100 teachers and staff, many wearing “I am the CEA” buttons in honor of the Cambridge Education Association, filed in and stood silently, waiting for the meeting to start. They were there in support of three representatives who spoke briefly about teacher contract negotiations during a public comment period.

“I am a proud member of the CEA, and I stand with our bargaining team,” teachers Julie Craven, Meg Moloney and Joel Patterson said in turn, representing an upper school, elementary school and the high school, respectively. “Along with hundreds of others I have signed [a] petition … to quickly settle a fair and equitable contract,” Moloney said, gesturing to her colleagues.

With that, the teachers filed quietly out.

Cambridge teachers have been working without a new contract since September 2012 – resulting partially from the introduction of a kind of negotiation called Interest-Based Bargaining – but have an interim agreement extending the terms of the previous contract. Last June, the union narrowly voted down a contract that included adding an extra hour to the school day. Negotiations began again in the fall. A longer school day is no longer on the table, and last night’s show of force indicates many teachers want the committee to feel that the membership supports their bargaining team this time.

High school class size

The growing size of high school classes, especially among honors and advancement placement classes, was a major concern for half of the eight other speakers, including Leah Cohen, a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior. With classes of up to 30 students, students get less teacher feedback and little classroom airtime. “Often students don’t realize when we’ve been deprived. Some teachers have said they have had to cut assignments because they can’t grade them,” she said.

The School Committee’s student member, senior Emily Gray, couldn’t agree more. “The new semester started this week,” she said. “I walked into three of my classes today and found 30 kids in my classes. It’s really disheartening. If I don’t get … feedback from my teachers, I’m not going to do that well. It’s been happening more and more as I get older.”

This year’s senior class has about 400 students; the freshman class has close to 500.

“I think that was the most poignant moment of the evening,” budget subcommittee co-chairman Mervan Osborne said later of Gray’s comments when discussing high school budget issues.

He and other members urged the school department to address high school class sizes in their review of budget items, and member Patty Nolan called it a critical problem for the entire high school population: “If we keep saying we want kids who are not necessarily comfortable with trying [advanced placement] and honors classes to give it a try, we can’t expect them to feel comfortable with an AP class with 30 kids in it.”

School Department budget  items

After public comment, there was an untelevised budget “retreat.” Cabinet members joined Superintendent Jeffrey Young in presentations of 15 initiatives they are developing in this year’s budget deliberations. The goal in the next few weeks is to prioritize them, pin down costs and decide what if any funding each will get. At this point, they don’t have any budget numbers attached and made clear not all would be funded and some might be only partially funded.

Claire Spinner, the school department’s chief financial officer, reminded committee members that “essentially we have a balanced budget. Any increases mean we have to find cuts.”

“But I want to point out,” Young interjected, “that even if we could fully fund all of them I wouldn’t want to. That’s too much for a district to absorb in one year. We’re trying to get some things right before we move onto a bunch of new things.”

The list of program improvements being contemplated is long, and most of the items, are the result of ongoing reviews and planning already in place. At least some committee members expressed support and enthusiasm for every item on the list.

Committee member Patty Nolan repeatedly asked that as part of any budget requests, the school department include data illustrating that any existing programs or pilots have been successful. “If we have had the program in place for a few years, you must have some indication of its success in order to decide to expand the program.”

“You raise a fair and important question, and one that we would ask about anything on the list,” Young said.

The potential budget initiatives, in order of presentation:

bullet-gray-smallMeeting new mandated requirements for assessment and performance of bilingual programs, such as those programs for English language learners. Meeting the higher legal program standards and making room for more students is straining staff levels.

bullet-gray-smallImplementing a new math curriculum. After a multiyear review, the district wants to roll out the “Math in Focus” curriculum by 2015-16. District officials estimate that every teacher will need 18 to 24 hours of professional development in the curriculum, as well as added resources for materials. “One of the challenges,” said Jessica Huizenga, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, “is that it is a very language-heavy program,” and therefore may need more support.

bullet-gray-smallDeveloping an elementary-grade world language program. The district has already announced it will be hiring a Spanish teacher for the Fletcher Maynard Academy and is expanding the Chinese non-immersion program to absorb the third-graders at the Martin Luther King Jr. School coming out of its Chinese immersion program, which ends at second grade. Officials are still developing proposals for world language for the other 10 schools.

bullet-gray-smallAligning the JK-5 curriculum across schools, grades and classrooms to create more continuity and reliability. The multiyear process will require funds for curriculum design, materials and teacher professional development, and possibly new staff.

bullet-gray-smallThe Response to Intervention rollout. RTI is a “multi-tiered” support system built on quick assessment and targeted intervention with individual kids to keep them on track with academic goals. Already piloted in several schools, a full rollout will require funds for professional development and training, quick assessment tools and some increase in substitute-teacher hours to allow classroom teachers to meet more with specialists.

bullet-gray-smallIncreased school improvement funds for Level 3 schools. The Kennedy-Longfellow and King Open schools were determined by the state to be “Level 3” schools based on 2012-13 MCAS scores, meaning they showed inadequate levels of student improvement. (Kennedy-Longfellow qualified based on its overall scores, while King Open’s inclusion was based on some population subgroup scores.) The Fletcher Maynard Academy is also targeted despite being the highest “Level 1” school by showing relatively high rates of improvement from the previous year; its actual performance levels are in the bottom quarter of the state’s schools.

bullet-gray-smallA family engagement plan and cultural competency training. School officials may be looking to assign someone districtwide to oversee these issues, and there will be professional development and training needs for family liaisons and other staff, all aimed at strengthening family engagement.

bullet-gray-smallUpper school improvement. On Thursday all upper school principals will be in an all-day session to determine what they want to fix in the new schools and what it will take, including in areas such as out-of-school opportunities and library and technology needs.

bullet-gray-smallHigh School and Rindge School of Technical Arts program needs. The focus is on implementing fully the National Education Advisory Committee’s recommendations for quality high school programs. It was here that committee members pleaded with Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Turk to address the growing class sizes in the high school.

bullet-gray-smallSpecial education programs. Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Victoria Greer’s comprehensive overview at last week’s committee meeting referred to possible new initiatives, such as a summer camp for special education students. Greer said Tuesday that it was still too early in the process for her to know what if any new resources she might ask for this year. “One thing I want to look at first is what do we have and can we arrange it so that it performs better?” Budget subcommittee co-chairman Richard Harding urged Greer to “be bold” in her requests this year, with Young sitting quietly to his left.

bullet-gray-smallA school climate and behavior program. The district, Turk said, is developing a behavior plan, for which “it’s way too early to say what the budget implication is, but there may be some.” Asked by Nolan if it might include social workers, Turk replied that principals, when asked potential needs, “generated a page and a half of resources … so for me it’s not about asking for more but ‘Are we using what we have in the right way?’”

bullet-gray-smallAdding staff diversity. “We’ve tried lots of things over the years and our results have not been great. But I think I have good news,” said Barbara Allen, the district’s executive director of human resources. She is exploring a partnership with a third party called Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Teachers, that she said has a “great track record” in providing diverse teaching staffs, including developing “home-grown” teachers nurtured from high school through teacher placement. (It is unclear from the organization’s website what portion of its new teachers teach in public schools.)

bullet-gray-smallTransportation. District officials continue to revise bus routes and commensurate costs, with the Chief Operating Officer James Maloney saying they “are looking at various onboard tracking and monitoring systems.”

bullet-gray-smallLeadership development. The district is planning “a full-blown launch of a [leadership development program] with all of our principals, assistant principals, curriculum coordinators and cabinet members,” Turk said, and there may be professional development costs.

bullet-gray-smallTeacher orientation. Huizenga will be proposing a three-year orientation plan for new teachers, providing comprehensive state-, district- and school-based introduction in the first year, followed by individualized support in years two and three. Costs might include professional development time and materials.

This story was updated Feb. 6, 2014, to reflect that teachers are working under an interim agreement extending the terms of their previous contract.