Friday, June 14, 2024


The Maria L. Baldwin School

Third-grade families from the Maria L. Baldwin School hope to start a pilot world language program there next fall. (Photo: Brian C. via Yelp)

The School Committee got a comprehensive status report on the district’s new math program Tuesday and heard a plea from third-grade families from the Maria L. Baldwin School to start a pilot world language program there next fall.

A letter signed by 36 parents of third-graders asked that they be allowed to “reintroduce” a world language program as the “fulfillment of a promise,” referring to the Innovation Agenda, which included the provision of a world language program in elementary schools starting in fall of 2014. Baldwin had been offering some Spanish starting in the second grade before the implementation of the Innovation Agenda precluded schools from shifting money into language instruction.

Money for world language education has been absent from budgets and most individual School Improvement Plans since the implementation of the Agenda, which separated middle-schoolers from what had been a K-8 district. It has been identified as a “broken promise” by Superintendent Jeffrey Young and has frustrated committee members and parents who remind educators world language is considered a “core subject” by the state Department of Education.

Noting that research shows similar broad benefits to students of learning foreign language and music, one parent Tuesday said, “as a life skill, learning another language will get you a little further.”

The district has said the issue is finding time in kids’ packed academic schedule, drawing a parent’s response Tuesday: “The expanded music program at the Peabody and other schools shows there is time in a six-hour school day for a world language program.”

While stating that their ultimate goal is that all elementary schools have an option for a world language program, they are initially proposing a pilot program for next year at their school. Citing the “general support” of their principal, they are asking for funding for one full-time language instructor. Their plan is to have the school community identify which language they would offer. The committee did not discuss this proposal during the meeting.

Math in Focus

The Math in Focus curriculum shows promise, said Lisa Scolaro, acting head of the district’s math department, referring to a $560,000 curriculum whose rollout began with pilot classrooms in 2013.

Scolaro, already the director of the science department, took on the additional math position last summer with the departure of math director Mark Healy and a decision to defer the search for his replacement after a reported failure to get more than five qualified candidates. The decision to move to Math in Focus was made under Healy.

There is still work to be done, Scolaro said.  But she and her team members – including K-8 math coach Jayne Lynch, head teacher Eileen Gagnon and teachers Christina Astrove, Elsa Head, Deb Holiday and Monica Leon – were enthusiastic and clearly optimistic about many of the changes they have seen, including:

bullet-gray-small Textbooks and workbooks for students that they can use in class and at home, a change from the previous curriculum, “TERC Investigations.”

bullet-gray-small More written and online resources for teachers and students, including extension problems for both struggling and accelerating students and pre- and post-tests for each chapter, and other professional development opportunities.

bullet-gray-small Increased rigor at all levels, including “really challenging” enrichment and bonus problems.

bullet-gray-small“Attitudinal shifts” among students who are excited about challenging themselves and feeling “proud” of their work as mathematicians: “My students are very disappointed if for some reason math is not on the schedule that day,” according to the comments. “All of my kids are doing their math homework!”

Next year will be the first when all K-8 students will be using Math in Focus, with the additional rollout to all kindergartens, second- and third-grade classrooms. The three-year transition was necessary to allow teachers to get up to speed, but it did create challenges, the staff said, including “backfill,” or the need to teach students the new approach while also trying to move forward on content. This often meant that the classes have to move more slowly the first year.

In addition, there was added stress on teachers learning new models of presentation, and the district had some difficulty getting initial delivery of all the materials.

Although not listed as a challenge, the presentation highlighted the program’s heavy use of conceptual word problems, suggesting a need for strong literacy skills, concerns brought up in discussions during the lead-up to choosing it. The teachers present, though, downplayed that, saying they have techniques that are proving successful, including vocabulary review.

The data: Not yet clear

Along with this anecdotal evidence, Scolaro presented data comparing district assessment scores on identical math questions for fall 2013 and fall 2014. She prefaced this by saying research suggests that schools should expect a drop in performance during the transition to a new program.

Instead, Scolaro said, they were pleasantly surprised, finding that for grades one through four, students showed no decrease of performance in the first year, and grade five students showed a slight increase on most questions. They also saw increases for some English-language-learner and students-with-disabilities grades, although the sample sizes for these groups were sometimes quite small, she warned.

There was an overall decrease for grades six and seven, though, and also continuing gaps between demographic subgroups in the upper-school levels, with white students on average outperforming nonwhite students. There was no reference to whether they found gaps in the elementary grades. Scolaro pointed out that the “backfill” issues may have played a larger role in the middle grades, who have more to “relearn,” leading to the students not covering enough of the new content by assessment time.

Committee member Patty Nolan pointed out that Cambridge students’ math performances have shown a pattern of improving annually for several years now, so it is hard to see what impact Math in Focus has without looking earlier than two years ago.  Scolaro agreed that they need the longer view, but said that because the curriculum standards were changed in 2011, they do not have earlier comparable district assessment data.

Next steps

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Jessica Huizenga joined Scolaro in saying they will continue focusing on professional development and exploring ways to best target and provide supports for underperforming students, including bolstering schools’ Response to Intervention programs. They are revising the screening tool that they use at the elementary level to identify individual student strengths and weaknesses, and are putting together a K-8 math task force to unify efforts across grades and schools.

Regarding the upper schools, particularly the gaps between subgroups, Huizenga said it is a major area of concern at the school department.

“What are we going to do about it?” Huizenga said. “Relentless focus on instruction. We need the highest caliber teachers in front of our children. We need supports and interventions during the school day.”

Upper school summer math

Scolaro said they are improving summer school math options and communication with students and families about options under the seventh- and eighth-grade “math pathways,” which provide an “on-grade” math program and an accelerated math program to prepare students to take algebra in ninth grade.

Scolaro acknowledged the issues raised in public comment by three parents of Rindge Avenue Upper Campus students whose children did not get access to accelerated math, including one parent whose twins were assigned to different tracks. They complained that the decision-making standards and process were unclear, there was poor communication about the timing and role of the summer program, and access did not seem equitable across upper schools. They worried that students may inadvertently be underestimated.

Nolan also noted that the percentage of students taking algebra in the ninth grade has actually dropped considerably in the past three years. Scolaro, who did not become the mathematics director until July, agreed, saying this is among the issues they are hoping to improve this year. She and Huizenga intend to improve early and reliable information to upper-school families this year, continue to try to find ways to have students get the supports they need within the school rather than relying on out-of-school time, increase access to and participation in the summer program, increase the ability of students to jump between the two program streams, and boost the numbers of students ready for advanced middle school math by strengthening the earlier grades. They hope these changes will, among other things, help to improve diversity, lamenting that students in the accelerated classes are overwhelmingly white.

Other business

The committee passed unanimously a recommendation setting this year’s acceptable percentage levels of paid-lunch versus free- or reduced-lunch students in schools for the JK/K lottery, allowing the Family Resource Center to move forward on releasing the first group of lottery letters.

This year, 55 percent of the district’s students are in the paid-lunch socioeconomic status category. Given the goal of having all schools be as similar as possible in their paid-lunch versus free/reduced-lunch balance, each year the district sets a “band” – a percentage by which the school can vary from the current balance. The closer the band is to zero, the greater the number of families who will not be able to get their first choice because there will be no seats for their socioeconomic status group in their chosen school.

The recommendation this year was to allow schools to have a band of plus or minus 9 percent – or have somewhere between 46 percent to 64 percent of their students be paid-lunch SES in each school. This was the same band used last year. Even with this variance, there will still be an initial shortfall of 28 seats available to paid-lunch students.

That shouldn’t be a problem in the long run, Chief Operating Officer James Maloney said. Based on experience, he said, “it will work out because … not everyone will show up” when school starts, and he is certain all students will be assigned and no schools will be above capacity.

For now, some schools will be over-assigned, but not schools with existing wait lists.

The committee unanimously passed a resolution congratulating the Tobin Montessori School on becoming the only public district level school in the country to reach full American Montessori Society accreditation.

Member Fred Fantini proposed reconsideration of the 2015-16 calendar, but the calendar stayed with a start date of Sept. 8. Amigos parent Lyn Kardatzke said in public comment that there was some concern the late start could be a burden on parents and a June 21 end date is worrisome considering the possibility of snow dates. While acknowledging there may be reason to reconsider in the future, Fantini and Nolan noted that it was too late in the process to try to change the schedule.

Also passed unanimously were recommendations for a $58,000 contract for out-of-district placement and $181,00 in contracts for kindergarten math materials, printing equipment for the RSTA program and Apple computer hardware; and approval of $900 in miscellaneous gifts.

Passed unanimously were committee motions that the superintendent launch an analysis of Cambridge schools’ summer program opportunities, including contacting the Rand Corp. regarding its national study; a request for a superintendent report on a transition plan for Kennedy Longfellow School with the end of a Lesley University partnership; the retention of the Collins, Loughran & Peloquin law firm for collective bargaining services; and to go on record supporting the recommendations of the city’s STEAM Working Group.

Referred by Nolan to the superintendent was a motion by Fantini that there be no staffing cuts at any Level 3 schools, meaning those where at least some population subgroups had standardized test scores in the bottom 20 percent of the state.

This post was updated March 6, 2015, to correct the academic year start date.