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At just short of a mile, Rindge Tower kids aren’t eligible for a bus ride to school. (Image:Google)

At just short of a mile, Rindge Tower kids aren’t eligible for a bus ride to school. (Image: Google)

A policy of putting all levels of math students in a single classroom has failed too many students, parents have argued, with eighth-graders eligible for Algebra I doing most of their work through a computer program either in the back of a regular math classroom or in early morning pre-school sessions.

A vote on a small text edit at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting resulted in a significant change, though. Agreeing to add the phrase, “with the exception of math,” the committee voted unanimously to change the Upper School Academic Challenge Policy to allow separate, non-heterogeneous math classes for seventh- and eighth-graders, starting next year – meaning not all students will be taught together. While keeping a policy that English-language arts, science and social studies will be taught “in heterogeneous classrooms where children of all ability levels will experience instruction that meets their academic level,” seventh- and eighth-grade math won an exception.

The proposed program, which itself does not need a vote by the committee (its sets policy only, not implementation), created two “pathways” – an “on-grade level” and an “accelerated level.” The on-grade level would complete seventh- and eighth-grade math under the state’s math curriculum framework. The accelerated path aims for preparing students for their choice of either Geometry or Honors Algebra I by the ninth grade by adding ninth-grade-level Algebra I. Staffing levels would stay the same, with two teachers continuing to co-teach sixth-grade classes and one teacher each for seventh- and eighth-graders covering both class levels.

The passage was met by a healthy round of applause and obvious elation by the 15 or so parents, students and staff members in the audience, many of whom had supported the change in public comment. Several committee members also took time to express their pleasure.

Shared frustrations

Testimonies from eighth-grade Putnam Avenue Upper School algebra students during public comment shared frustrations over pushing higher-level math students to learn from a computer program.

Elizabeth Ball said she doesn’t “see the value of online courses; I was testing out of courses I would have liked to review. I once took a pre-test, failed it, did the lesson and failed the pre-test again. I would have liked to have a course with a teacher who is not on the screen.” Other classmates bemoaned the absence of a live teacher who has “an ability to notice when a student is struggling,” or a classroom environment offering motivation and human interaction.

The policy change, though, is not without its detractors. Moving to create separate streams of students illustrates the tension in education policy between building community, avoiding labeling kids as more or less capable and being able to teach all kids at a level appropriate to them. Supporters of heterogeneous math classes citing successes often point to the work of math teachers in the defunct King Open and Graham & Parks middle school math classes, and of Robert Moses’ Algebra Project, in which the Cambridge-based civil rights activist created a program teaching algebra to minority students. The current system of teaching some kids a different topic on a computer in the back of the room, they argue, is not in fact heterogeneous teaching, and there is a better alternative.

Question of tracking

But this vote lays to rest attempts at fully mingled middle school math in Cambridge, at least for now. “Putting some children in a lower-level math class after sixth grade risks setting them up to take less challenging courses in high school,” said Alice Turkel, one of the city’s most vocal proponents of heterogeneous classes, who stepped off of the committee this year. “Outcomes for students attending CRLS are already inequitable by race and class. I believe this move could make that disparity greater.”

Committee member Richard Harding raised shades of this issue by voicing concern that when certain kids, “especially kids of color or some low-income kids, land in a certain place, the agility to manage between the two places” is not always available to them, and they may “stay wherever we put them.”

Superintendent Jeffrey Young acknowledged Harding’s concern that students, parents and teachers need to have high expectations and a feeling that there is in fact “agility to glide into an advanced pathway.”

“I don’t believe this is about tracking. Tracking is putting students on a track or a pathway from which they cannot escape,” Young said. “This will enable [a student] who halfway through the seventh grade has a light go on to move to another class.”

Young and many committee members put the onus of making sure that happens – and expectations it would – on the staff and administration, and Young pointed to support programs for pathways within and out of school being developed as part of the change.

Young more than once admired comments by Putnam Upper School parent Ellen Ball expressing that this “expansion” of math options in the middle school should work for all students. She was dismayed not only that her daughter and classmates were learning algebra from a computer program, but that only 11 percent of the Vassal Lane eighth graders were even eligible to take that course.

“I’m hoping that the presence of an algebra class [in every school] will give something for kids to shoot for [and] raise the level of interest and achievement for all kids,” Ball said.

Safe walking to school

Another major discussion of the evening came when Harding raised concerns about the safety of middle-grade students who need to walk from North Cambridge’s Rindge Towers to the Vassal Lane Upper School, a 20-minute trek just short of a mile. Before the creation of the upper schools, he said, all of the K-8 students could take a bus to the Tobin building, which shares an address with the upper school. Now middle-schoolers are ineligible; to be eligible, middle school students must be more than 1.5 miles from their school, or need to cross a major artery.

Harding and Fantini cited worries from parents about students crossing an active commuter rail train track on their way to and from school. Citing the fact buses are offered to students in the Binney Street area because many need to cross a train track on their routes to schools on the city’s east side, Harding cited “legitimate safety concerns [and] issues of equity.”

Maloney explained his position: First, there are two routes to Vassal Lane from the Rindge Towers that cross the railroad tracks safely – using the bridge along Alewife Parkway or the Yerxa Road underpass along Sherman Street.

Harding pointed out that a common route is along Sherman Street where kids have to actually cross the tracks; Maloney countered that there are still the two safe, preferred routes.

Second, he said, the middle-grade students going between Rindge Towers and the Tobin building were technically never eligible for a bus, since the shortest route along Alewife is just a mile. Because all K-8 grade classes began at the same time, and the buses had room, the middle school students could and did hop onto the bus for the elementary students. Now, though, K-5 Tobin starts an hour earlier than the upper school and the buses are near capacity.

Perhaps students could be trained citywide on safe transit by foot, bus and bike, committee member Patty Nolan said.

This all arose during a discussion of a recommendation to pass an Innovation Agenda student transportation policy that somehow slipped through the cracks – it was never voted for the required second reading after its initial, unanimous passage in December 2011. It primarily changes the definition of “middle school students” (needing to walk within 1.5 miles) from seventh- and eighth-graders only to sixth- through eighth-graders, aligning with the recent creation of the middle-grade upper schools.

Tuesday it passed with Harding and Fantini voting no, even though nothing in the policy in fact affected the issue that concerned them. Fantini said later he voted no as a signal to the administration that he wants “to keep the issue on their minds” while he considers bringing a change to the policy.

The next committee meeting is March 13, when the superintendent presents his budget proposal for the 2014-15 fiscal year.