Judging revised plans for better schools, committee says: Shows improvement
For only the second time in seven years, individual School Improvement Plans were presented to the School Committee at its Tuesday meeting, although state law requires annual presentations. Despite the presence of all 17 principals in the room for more than two hours, the presentation was by central staff, with only high school Principal Damon Smith making comments about his school’s specific plan.
The presentation was an overview of the complete revision of Cambridge’s SIP model to make the process and documents more focused, streamlined and accountable, said Bob Ettinger, a Harvard Graduate School of Education advanced-degree candidate leading a process begun two years ago by Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk and her staff. Ettinger described the model as “less is more” – leading to shorter and more focused plans than in the past.
Schools were asked this year to focus on one to three “action plans” for “complementary priority initiatives or objectives” and how to assess progress toward the goals, Ettinger said. Also new this year, the district determined that at least one of these action plans had to focus on math, and that SIPs had to address student performance gaps and steps to better include students with disabilities. Schools were also given more guidance on data to be included in the plans and asked to “identify and analyze key areas of strength and areas for improvement.” (The committee members had copies of the plans, and they should be available to families through principals. They are not yet available Thursday night.)
The plans were greeted by School Committee members as a “huge improvement” over previous years. “There’s just no comparison in terms of the rigor and the amount of reflection,” member Fran Cronin said. Member Patty Nolan noted that benchmark goals give the plans “more potential to become living, breathing documents than the old plans,” an objective cited specifically by Ettinger.
Previous plans have varied widely in scope and approach by school and were “hard to get through,” according to several committee members. Developers of the new model, Ettinger said, responded to feedback from principals and teachers that the previous plan “templates” were “too long to be useful, not connected to actual improvements in teaching and learning” and were “just exercises in compliance.”
This year’s plans have similar, shorter formats across schools and are more focused, Ettinger said. They cover two years instead of one, starting September 2014, with a focus on monitoring “benchmarks” toward goals in the first year. Final versions, usually due before school starts, were not due until December, but Ettinger said work was under way since the start of the school year.
High school is heard
Specifics about individual school plans were not discussed, though, with the exception of Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. Mayor David Maher noted shortly after Ettinger’s presentation that CRLS principal Smith was “getting a pass” to go home early because he had a four-day-old baby at home. Smith was asked “to come up first” to field a couple of questions on his plan; by the time he was finished and committee members had a round of overview comments, the committee moved to other topics without hearing from any other principals.
Member Fred Fantini suggested that the committee hear individually from schools in future meetings, a notion endorsed by member Richard Harding. The committee agreed to pursue having principals and possibly school council members present in small groups of an upper school and its feeder K-5 schools in upcoming subcommittee meetings.
There was some discussion among committee members about what was missing. Smith’s CRLS action plans focused on improving certain subgroups’ performance and representation in advanced courses, and finding alternatives to suspension. While praising those choices, Cronin asked Smith about the absence of the Rindge School of Technical Arts program in his plan, a program “as you know I’m a big advocate of.” Harding wondered whether behavioral issues should have been included as one of the required elements of the plan; Nolan and Osborne noted that world language was missing from all plans save from Amigos, a bilingual program; and Nolan and Harding commented on the absence of history, social studies or science in some grades.
Smith assured Cronin that the technical school, among other issues at the high school, was very important – just not in this year’s plan for a top few issues. “Omission, whether it was RSTA or world language or anything, was certainly not a matter of lack of importance,” Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk added. “It was a matter of people looking at their data, and saying … ‘Here are the two or three areas that rise to the top.’”
“Well, it may come down to, since we don’t test it, we don’t have the data to look at it,” Nolan said. The plans relied heavily on MCAS standardized test data for analysis, so it is not surprising the plans focused almost exclusively on math and English, she pointed out, urging the use of more sources to broaden the definition of improving performance.
Ettinger said some benefits of the new planning process were, in fact, more teacher-created ways of assessing student performance; more use of classroom observation; and more use of non-MCAS data sources, the result of urging shorter-term assessments of progress in plan goals.
Tensions between district, school goals
Committee member Kathleen Kelly said she was curious about the differences among plans’ priorities. Several members picked out elements in the plans they thought might rise to the district budget level, “to take stuff off your plate,” as Cronin said, suggesting a behavioral reporting system and providing MCAS analysis. Fantini noted a “restorative justice” program in the high school and art and music programming, and Harding asked about addressing behavioral issues.
“This conversation illustrates one of the interesting tensions in school districts – between district planning and school-based planning,” Superintendent Jeffrey Young said. The district chose math and special education as the issues required to be in SIPs this year because “that rose to the top based on data,” he said. “We’ve been hearing from the School Committee for a long time, use data to make decisions.”
But by choosing two or three, Young said, other issues by definition fall to a lower priority. “And that’s the challenge of focus and discipline … Just as you want to have something that unifies the district, at the same time you want to be able to create a kind of entrepreneurial incubator in each school … Part of good governance is to say to a school, ‘We want you to know what your own identity is.’”
Rest of the meeting
A scheduled presentation of the five-year financial forecast by Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner was postponed to the Tuesday budget subcommittee meeting.
A $43,500 contract award for studying district practices around inclusion of special education students was passed unanimously. Nolan inquired first about the use of an out-of-town consultant and the resulting high daily rate and travel and housing, but Assistant Superintendent Victoria Greer said she felt the need to hire “one of the best persons in the field” to address “outdated” practices and training that “has fallen through the cracks.” The consultant is working with the Haggerty and Fletcher Maynard schools and with Greer’s executive leadership team.
Moved to the budget subcommittee for consideration as it crafts budget guidelines was a motion by Maher to integrate mental health and social and emotional issues in schools into guidelines “to respond to concerns increasingly voiced by educators, parents and staff.”
Three parents spoke at public comment. Karen Dobak and Julie Viens, co-chairwomen of the Cambridge Parent Advisory Council on Special Education, spoke for 11 minutes, well beyond typical public comment time limits, on helping children with emotional and behavioral needs and urged the use of an approach called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. A third parent urged the city to “make a bigger effort to train teachers in trauma-sensitive approaches,” citing the “nightmare” situations she said her adopted child with a trauma history encountered in a Cambridge public school.
Also passed unanimously were recommendations for $216,000 for out-of-district day and residential placements, $36,000 in Perkins School for the Blind student support, $72,000 in Home for Little Wanderers special education services and a $26,600 contract for CRLS ice hockey facility rental; and acceptance of $4,500 in miscellaneous gifts and $17,000 in miscellaneous grant awards.