The Kennedy-Longfellow School, a K-5 school in East Cambridge, came up several times in debate at Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee. (Photo: Watchdog New England)

The Kennedy-Longfellow School, a K-5 school in East Cambridge, came up several times in debate at Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee. (Photo: Watchdog New England)

Student achievement, individual school performance and race and income achievement gaps sparked wide-ranging and sometimes table-thumping discussions among School Committee members Tuesday as they continued their conversation about next year’s budget. Large class sizes at the high school came up again too.

There seemed to be some disagreement about the relative performance of Cambridge’s schools, as well as the role controlled choice plays in Cambridge’s school system.

Member Fran Cronin argued that a persistent achievement gap exists in all of the schools. “The issue of underachievement is consistent,” she said. “When you look at the data, you can see that for every school, every subgroup underperforms. This is true in every single school.” Committee member Mervan Osborne agreed. “It has to do with the districtwide performance of certain groups across the schools. Why aren’t we doing better with these kids?”

Richard Harding seemed to see things differently. He argued that underperforming subgroups are better served in some schools than in others. “Numbers don’t lie,” he said, singling out the King Open School. “A poor black boy in that school will not perform as well there [as at another school].”

CPS parent Emily Dexter said after the meeting that this is one of “many myths about our public schools … that our districtwide MCAS scores are lousy and that there are ‘good schools’ and ‘bad schools’ in Cambridge.” Based on her analysis of MCAS data from the state Department of Education, she found “amongst the 11 urban districts in Massachusetts that are the most similar to Cambridge, our MCAS scores are in the top three for reading, math and science.”

The data, she said, support Cronin and Osborne when it comes to comparing schools. “Across our schools,” Dexter added, “the biggest achievement differences are between low-income and high-income students attending the same schools, not between similar students attending different schools.”

She saw the issue as one of poverty, with “schools in the highest-poverty neighborhoods serving the highest-poverty children in our city.” According to the recent “Poverty in Cambridge” report, King Open, Fletcher Maynard Academy and the Kennedy-Longfellow schools, all singled out in the past two committee meetings for weak MCAS performance among subgroups, are in some of the poorest tracts of the city, whereas Graham & Parks, offered as a counter example, is in a census tract with a zero percent poverty rate. “Our question should be how to direct far more resources to the low-income children in all of the schools, not on how to make this school or that school a little better,” Dexter said.

Controlled choice and school changes

020514i vote by School Committee

Part of this discussion came up during a discussion of tweaking the controlled choice policy voted in last year after being presented by Patty Nolan and Alice Turkel, then a committee member and co-chairwoman of the controlled choice subcommittee. Controlled choice is the policy and formula that looks at parents’ preferences and decides which school a child attends.

For controlled choice to work, the revised policy holds, individual schools need to be attractive enough to enough families that schools are not perceived as bad. If individual schools have programs attractive to a range of families – Montessori, for instance, or language immersion – only then can Cambridge eliminate the sting of “mandatory assignment.” To that end, last June’s controlled choice policy included a charge that the superintendent would work with administrators, teachers and school councils of schools that are underchosen by a demographic “to achieve socioeconomic balance.”

The superintendent’s December memo addressed possible program changes and processes and mentioned six schools – three underchosen by families getting free or reduced-cost lunches (Amigos, Baldwin and Graham & Parks) and three underchosen by paid-lunch families (Fletcher Maynard, Kennedy-Longfellow and the non-immersion King).

Tuesday’s motion asked that the superintendent’s four-page memo have more information about how the community and committee would be involved and give more detail about program development.

That launched a sometimes heated committee discussion. It began with Fred Fantini saying that what this motion really was about was the Kennedy-Longfellow School. Superintendent Jeffrey Young thanked Fantini “for calling out the ‘K-Lo’ because that is what is implied here. It behooves us to honor the work that the staff is doing there.”

Nolan tried to bring the conversation back to the language of the motion. “This motion is not that we mandate a change for a school. It says that we should have a community discussion about such a change,” she said. “I really think we have to be careful about saying that the intention of this was anything different than living up to our goal of having all of our schools well-chosen.”

But the attention stayed fixed on whether the committee members would support the work of the staff of Kennedy-Longfellow, and the motion was voted down, with only Nolan voting to pass it.

Fantini, who with Turkel co-chaired the school choice subcommittee that released the policy changes, explained his vote later in an email: “My point, and I should have stated it clearly, is that the Kennedy-Longfellow is in the middle of a change process. It has partnered with Lesley University, which has put some substantial funds and committed a number of highly skilled staff who are working at the Kennedy-Longfellow school to effect change … I want that process to be given every chance to succeed and was not in favor of veiled attempts to undermine that effort.”

Asked why the language in the motion asking for more process and input was a “veiled attempt to undermine that effort,” Fantini wrote, “That’s the way it felt to me last night.” Cronin and Kathleen Kelly also expressed that they felt the motion was not about clarifying the language for community input. “No, it was not about that,” Kelly said. Cronin added, “This language is no longer needed. [The superintendent] is not going to change the Kennedy-Longfellow program.”

Interestingly, the program at Kennedy-Longfellow partnering with Lesley University was already in place when the controlled choice policy was rewritten last year. That means that four of the six committee members who voted against the motion Tuesday also voted last year in favor of language asking for programmatic change for underchosen schools, including Kennedy-Longfellow.

Budget and class size

The regular committee meeting was suspended so the budget subcommittee – led by Harding and Osborne – could meet to give feedback to the school department’s presentation of budget priorities the previous week. Kelly stressed that “it’s time for the family engagement piece to be put in place.” She also strongly supported a “cultural competency” component, saying, “I feel they would affect the whole system.”

Cronin wanted more support for struggling students throughout the system, noting that there are 200 students per guidance counselor at the high school, and for counselors to spend more time with ninth- and 10th-graders as well as juniors and seniors.

Nolan asked again for a report from the upper school principals about what they need, and said she hoped to see social workers in the schools. She also wondered about the choice of changing the math curriculum to Math in Focus, which was presented last week as a program that was language intensive – but not, Nolan said, as a program aimed at closing achievement gaps. “We need to make sure that this will really make a difference before we spend the money and time making a change rather than spending time focusing on improving what we already have.”

Harding and Fantini seemed to agree, and Harding also sounded other priorities, practically begging for “direct intervention. Be more intentional. Class size is an issue of achievement gap. How are we going to look at issues of community engagement?” Fantini, meanwhile, focused on getting more adults into the classrooms to “flesh out” third-grade reading. “If we had to take money out of professional development to get the adults in the room for third-grade readers, I would vote for it.” Osborne also gave a plug for the beefed-up teacher orientation proposal.

And, once again, class size came up as critical. First reiterated during public comment by a parent and a student, it was also raised by Cronin, Nolan, Harding and Osborne, who said, “I think class size is on people’s minds now as much as advanced learning was last year … I think the public would want to know that solutions are being explored.”

School department statistics show 25 to 30 students in 40 percent of honors and advanced placement English classes; 47 percent of honors and AP math classes; and 53 percent of honors and AP history classes.

In other business, Associate Commissioner Eva Mitchell of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education outlined the process for an upcoming review of the city’s school department. This mandated review process happens in each community every eight to 10 years to analyze “how district systems impact teaching and learning … across districts and across schools.” The review will result in a report of district and school “strengths and challenges” in a list of 12 to 15 findings and nonbinding recommendations expected to be delivered in the summer. The immediate impact will be an intensive five-day site visit Feb. 24-27.

The committee adjourned to go into a closed-door session to discuss teacher contract negotiations.