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Teacher Lynn Brown speaks Tuesday at a School Committee meeting

Teacher Lynn Brown speaks Wednesday at a contentious School Committee meeting over district priorities and budgeting. She was one of a dozen teachers in “I am union” T-shirts, along with committee vice chairman Fred Fantini. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

There were moments of palpable frustration at a special meeting on the budget Wednesday from some School Committee members, teachers and the public, particularly about the district’s burgeoning social and emotional issues.

Member Fran Cronin could hardly have been stronger in her conviction that the proposed budget did not adequately address what she saw as an urgent need to improve student emotional and social supports. Pointing to a proposed rollout in the budget of a “multitiered system of supports for social emotional learning” – or MTSS – she said:

To think that we are going to implement a tiered system of support by next year – or start that – I think is a huge disservice to our students, to our schools and to our community. I don’t see how it’s possible. We do not have the resources in place. We do not have the talent in place. It is a coherent model, I agree, but we are nowhere near to implementing anything like that.

The MTSS initiative gets a three-year rollout in the proposed budget that provides “Tier 1” support and prevention for all students; some targeted intervention and early intervention for “Tier 2” students with greater needs, usually 15 percent to 20 percent of the students; and much more comprehensive interventions and services for the typical 5 percent of students with the greatest needs. The current year’s school budget included funds for “developing a framework and district standards” and planning for the rollout.

Mental health needs grow

032615i restless committee bBehavioral issues, mental health problems and school climate have been growing concerns throughout the district, raised repeatedly by staff, administration and families. Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Victoria Greer has reported on striking growth in the need for interventions and services among ever-younger students. At the meeting she reported an increase in the past year and a half of students needing mental health services, and also a spike in sixth- through eighth-grade “school refusals” – children resisting going to school.

The current budget proposal of $445,000 for the first year of the MTSS rollout is for four full-time “school counselors” for the upper schools, a half-time counselor for the Amigos middle school, a districtwide social worker and one school-based social worker to be split between two as-yet-unidentified elementary schools. An additional $85,000 from the current budget is allocated for related professional development.

Member Kathleen Kelly joined Cronin in saying that the current plan for providing supports is lacking clarity, at the very least. A wide-ranging, rambling discussion on an alphabet soup of social emotional support programs was sparked when Chandra Banks, the Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school conflict mediator, was invited by vice chairman Fred Fantini to step up to the table. During the talk Kelly told Banks, “I should be your ally at this table. I am completely muddled and confused. We need real clarification.” She went on to say that without better understanding of what’s already going on, the committee is ill-equipped to make decisions about adding positions.

Cronin advocated bringing in an outside turnkey organization with experience in providing full-time school-based supports, naming City Connects as an example. “That will give us the time that we need to really understand the resources that we currently have in place. Because right now we are looking to spend more money that is not going to get us where we need to be. And I think that [the MTSS proposal] is a foolish use of very limited resources toward a very large, complex need.”

“What we have … is not working”

Superintendent Jeffrey Young interjected to stress that the budget is very clear that a full implementation of a program such as this takes three to five years. “You may not think it’s working. You may not like the way I do my job or the way the principals do their job … What we are trying to say here is, if you want to be real about social emotional learning, it takes some time to make it happen.”

“My concern is next year. And the year after that,” Cronin said. “What we have in place this year is not working.”

Member Richard Harding supported Cronin. “Ms. Cronin is on to something. I understand the urgency around which Ms. Cronin wants to see something happen.” Saying he’s repeatedly resisted the “forfeit” of current students in plans to fix a problem down the road, he asked if there was a short-term action to add while the longer-term proposal unfurls. “If there’s a place where the district is hemorrhaging, I think we have to acknowledge it and have a plan to fix it if we can.”

School Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner said she could provide more detailed information on the “action steps” on social emotional learning lined up for the upcoming year, which could lead to “further dialogue about what more intensive thing could be done next year if [committee members] think something additional is required.”

Staffing levels

Though much of the meeting looked at whether the district has sufficient plans or staff for providing social or emotional support for students, staffing levels for other areas were also called into question by committee members and by teachers and parents during public comment. The theme of the insufficiency of staff positions shared across different schools, and of individuals splitting their time between two jobs recurred throughout the meeting.

English eighth-grade teacher Lynn Brown of Cambridge Street Upper School, speaking for herself and others, and CSUS teacher Betsy Preval urged that additional English language arts interventionists be included in the budget as well as the proposed new math intervention positions. The need was as critical as the need for math support, they stressed, arguing that weak language skills affect all disciplines. The current model of having one professional serving as a half-time teaching coach and a half-time student interventionist is insufficient, they said, and creates logistical issues that keep that staff member from being fully engaged in the school.

Asked how they chose to add upper school interventionists for math rather than for ELA, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Jessica Huizenga said they had to prioritize. Initially, she said, she had proposed internally to provide four additional math interventionists, four additional ELA interventionists and two guidance counselors at each upper school, but ultimately she felt that the math scores suggested more urgency.  Cronin and fellow committee member Patty Nolan asked the administration to see the data.

Three people at public comment asked that Cambridgeport School be allowed to have a full-time art teacher, including Liz Soeiro, the school’s librarian, who pointed out that in the past four years the school has had three technology teachers, four music teachers and five different art teachers. This year, they have the equivalent of 0.6 art teachers – divided between two people.

Spinner later confirmed that next year Cambridgeport will have an increase of art teacher time, up to a 0.8 position, and that several elementary schools have part-time specialists in music and art. When they became K-5, the number of classroom hours per school for an art or music teacher dropped enough so that many of these schools needed only part-time specialists.

The big picture

In addition to Cronin’s obvious frustrations, echoed by Kelly and Harding, the meeting was bookended by related comments.

During public comment, the Cambridgeport School’s Soeiro worried that she and fellow staff “feel a bit of detachment from the everyday experiences happening in our classrooms and the allocations of funding. We feel that the committee doesn’t always grasp the impact of what they may feel are small or inconsequential budget decisions,” and offered an invitation:

The teachers that I talk to are afraid to come to these meetings, afraid to speak out. This fear is perpetuated by the seeming lack of presence in our hallways of the decision-makers … Let me start by extending an invitation to all of you. I invite you to come into our schools. And not just for a walk-through and not just for a meeting, but for a day. Come sit on our rugs, eat lunch in our cafeteria, participate in morning meeting, log onto our computers … feel the stress of testing, feel the joy of learning. Come see the results of the budget allocation and engage with teachers, students and families in our schools. Our doors are open to you.

The meeting ended with Mayor David Maher expressing his own frustration with the current state of the schools. Stressing that he feels some personal responsibility for the middle school-creating Innovation Agenda because he was mayor and committee chair during its passage, he said:

I realize that we have outstanding issues there. I want to applaud the team for bringing forth a budget that does make strides in addressing some of these issues. I’m just not fully confident that they are addressing it in the way that it needs to be addressed. In Year 1, Year 2, we can test this, we can try people’s patience, but I think by the end of Year 3 we are losing people. … I’m just not confident we are addressing what I see as deficiencies in this program with this budget.

Specifically, he said that if City Connects is the right program to address emotional issues – and he countered Young’s earlier dismissal of the program to Cronin – he urged that they get the program started. “I don’t want to hear that a principal is afraid to go forward with looking at City Connects because of the cost. The principal shouldn’t be even thinking about the cost of the program. We should be making an evaluation” and finding the funding if it warrants, he said. He ended:

I think that it appears that there is an unwillingness or inability of some of the [administration] folks to get behind something like this … This is not meant to be critical of the school department, but I just feel sometimes we all have a different sense of urgency. We elected folks around the table … are the first line of hearing the critiques. We need to be paying attention to what people are saying. Because if we don’t, people are choosing to walk.

Committee members agreed to continue to send other comments and questions directly to administration staff before the budget vote, scheduled for the April 7 meeting.