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Cambridge’s public school district has added 30 classrooms in total in recent years, including 14 kindergarten classrooms.

Cambridge’s public school district has added 30 classrooms in total in recent years, including 14 kindergarten classrooms.

The school district is full to bursting and looking for ways to get bigger, officials said Monday at a joint roundtable of City Council and School Committee members.

The three-hour “working meeting” began with 10 five-minute updates from school officials on topics ranging from family engagement to school technology, but it was talk about the district’s persistent achievement gap and enrollment issues that filled much of the time.

Enrollment is at 6,518, up 733 students or 13 percent since the district bottomed out in 2006, said the district’s chief operating officer, James Maloney. That was three years after a consolidation that took the city to a dozen schools from 15 because of already declining enrollment and a $3.8 million budget gap.

Enrollment is expected to grow over the next three years by another 230 students, Maloney said, to 6,748 – still short of the 7,200 students before consolidation, but space has already been tight and the problem isn’t going away.

“We are oversubscribed for kindergarten next year. We have 25 more students registered for this September than we have seats for those students. That’s something that has not happened for a long time in Cambridge, something we’re very proud of – and those numbers where we’re over include the addition of two more kindergartens for next year. All told, in recent years we’ve added 14 kindergarten classrooms and 30 classrooms in total. Thirty classrooms is about the equivalent of another building, and we’ve absorbed that,” Maloney said, noting that every single sixth-grade seat in the city’s four new upper schools is taken also. “We are full. We do not have a seat right now without juggling.”

Tight everywhere

Space has also been an issue at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, causing some classes at the high school to swell to more than 30 students. Superintendent Jeffrey Young said he believed that could be fixed by changing the school’s approach to scheduling: Instead of setting classes and letting students find and fill them, the district planned to look at what students signed up for within the existing curriculum and assign teachers to accommodate demand. Still, Young said he was holding two teacher positions that could be filled as needed at the last minute.

Having been sounding the alarm for months on the lack of space (including at a previous council-committee roundtable in June) and primed by enrollment concerns sounded even earlier by School Committee members such as Patty Nolan, Maloney said he has been talking for months with Deputy City Manager Lisa Peterson and Louis Depasquale, assistant city manager for fiscal affairs, about how to manage the problem.

The city has started work renovating one middle school and has at least two more such projects ready to roll, ideally with some state reimbursement for the later projects. Costs officials speculated about in June went well over $350 million over decades, including interest paid on bonding, but that hasn’t stopped talk about winning back students from out-of-district placements in parochial, private and especially charter schools. The committee authorized Maloney last summer to look at how to reverse the drain.

Charter school survey

Since the district isn’t allowed to contact charter school parents directly, a third-party contractor is to gather answers on why they opted out of Cambridge Public Schools. There could be results by the end of school year, Maloney said, leading quickly to talk about a marketing campaign to go after that population.

“I just want to temper expectations around this,” said Marc McGovern, a city councillor and before that a member of the School Committee. “Your return rate’s going to be low, and what we’re going to find out is that 10 percent left because they had a bad experience in Cambridge schools and 10 percent chose because their neighbor’s kid went to that charter school and they liked it and 5 percent because of [another] reason – that’s what we’re going to find out.”

Somerville’s school district has done a similar survey and got a “terrible” 10 percent percent of surveys back, McGovern found during a visit with Somerville Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi. “I don’t know if he used the word ‘useless,’” McGovern said of the surveys, “but basically they information they get doesn’t help.”

Other out-of-district students

In the city’s current adopted budget, paying to send residents’ children to charter schools cost $10.6 million, and the superintendent’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year puts out-of-district tuition for special education students at $6.8 million. The district’s total budget is about $157 million, or 30 percent of the full city’s budget expenditures, and is supplemented by other municipal line items.

“We have a large number of students who receive their services at what we call our Chapter 766 schools, our out-of-district schools,” Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Victoria Greer said. Most of the roughly 140 out-of-district students are in their high school years, but “our sixth- to eighth-grade numbers are creeping up kind of high.”

Still, those out-of-district special education numbers are an improvement over the previous year’s 176, down not just because some of the students aged out at reaching their 22nd birthday or returned after 45-day placements but because “some kids are coming back because it’s appropriate … Some kids are asking to come back, which we think is a great thing,” Greer said, warning that it can be difficult to meet kids’ special and sometimes rare needs in the district.

“We are now are starting to see some success in that,” Young said.

The achievement gap, still

For a while, that made it seem as though the district was doing better bringing back special education students than in closing the achievement gap that saw white and Asian students far surpassing black and Hispanic students academically. Jessica Huizenga, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, introduced the councillors to plans to implement a new, districtwide curriculum over the next six years that would “enable us to finally chip away at the pervasive achievement gap that has challenged every leader and educator in the city for decades.”

The gap – a problem nationwide – was measured in 2000 as a 40 percent spread in proficiency between whites and blacks and a 44 percent spread between whites and Hispanics, but actually goes back three decades without improvement and even worsened in the past 10 years with the introduction of stricter standards, said Huizenga, who was hired with Greer just over a year ago.

“We’ve placed our bets in many places, but never toward a guaranteed and viable curricular instructional system or in ways that were systemic or coherent or long enough to do things deeply before focus shifted to something else,” she said. “We put pockets of excellence in place, rather than at scale. I deeply believe we now need to shift the conversation from intervention to prevention. We have to look at the core.”

“Significant improvements”

Councillor Craig Kelley, who acknowledged being a harsh critic as well as a strong supporter of the district, was particularly struck by her figures, calling the lack of change over decades “stunning” and signaling dismay that the King Open and Kennedy-Longfellow elementary schools were deemed “Level 3 schools” because they had underperformed on the MCAS standardized test.

That brought a defense from Young, who said the district had “a strong strategy” for the Level 3 schools. “I want to caution any councillor from painting with too broad a brush on achievement gaps,” he said. “We have seen some significant improvements.”

Lori Likis, the district’s chief planning officer, noted also that Cambridge also had nine “Level 1” schools this year, up from four last year. The designation is for schools narrowing the achievement gaps afflicting the district as a whole.

More meetings needed

The roundtable was already running late when Kelley spoke, but the exchange with Young led rapidly to dialogue among other officials. Committee member Mervan Osborne said the problem was the loss of middle-class residents from the city as real estate values soared but city policies carved out affordable housing for low-income households – setting up a dynamic of rich and poor that led to a related dynamic of high and low achievement on tests measuring academic achievement; councillor Tim Toomey replied that there were plenty of schools that took the poorest students and helped them to extraordinary academic achievement.

“I feel like we’re just now at the dialogue stage,” said Leland Cheung, among the very last of the  councillors to speak. “We haven’t really gotten to the ‘round’ part of the roundtable. I feel like another meeting is warranted now that we’ve established a baseline of where we stand on things.”

Councillor E. Denise Simmons did him one better: She insisted that the officials gather for a daylong retreat.