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The Kennedy Longfellow School in East Cambridge

Plans are in the works for roof and cosmetic improvements for the Kennedy-Longfellow School in East Cambridge. (Photo: Charles Cherney)

Discussion of the superintendent’s proposed 2016 budget continued Tuesday from the School Committee budget subcommittee’s previous meeting, when members expressed concerns it doesn’t sufficiently address “social emotional health” needs.

Superintendent Jeffrey Young said that since the May 24 meeting he has heard a lot from members via email and phone calls, particularly around two “overarching topics”: “social emotional learning” and about giving more attention to three schools – King Open, Kennedy-Longfellow and Putnam Avenue Upper School – rated Level 3 for having significantly low MCAS scores overall or in subgroups.

For the Level 3 schools, Young said they are now proposing the following: Instead of providing four literacy interventionists to elementary schools (one each to King Open, Kennedy-Longfellow and Fletcher Maynard Academy, and a fourth to an as-yet-unassigned school), they are assigning that fourth literacy interventionist to Putnam Avenue. This will be in addition to the new math interventionist there as part of a proposal for new math interventionists at the upper schools.

But Young asked the committee for more guidance on what, among the several other issues members have raised, they want the administration to focus on. “The way it is helpful to us,” he said, “is when it comes not from one member … but from the committee as a group. We want to know if more than one person is interested in shifting funds around. We want something that sounds like consensus.”

When Young repeated that plea 90 minutes later at the end of the meeting, subcommittee co-chairman Richard Harding responded: “The reality is that as professionals I think you have to absorb what you heard tonight, understand the direction and the vision that you have, recognize the realities on the ground, understand all of the balance that has to be considered when you are running a first-class school system … There are some bigger themes that you might be able to look at and focus in on,” though committee members may have individual notions of how exactly to approach those issues.

Social emotional support

Mayor David Maher and member Fran Cronin had urged the department to consider hiring City Connects, a Boston College-based organization that provides school-based supports and interventions through staff installed in schools. Young said he, his staff and the mayor had met with City Connects to get a full briefing, and a meeting with City Connects and the upper school principals is upcoming.

The cost, Young said, is $80,000 per school to cover a full-time staff member, typically a trained social worker. In addition, there is a district coordinator, also at $80,000, making the total City Connects cost for the four upper schools $400,000 annually.

“We haven’t closed the door on it,” Young said, “but we are not going to wait for City Connects.” They want to pursue the guidance counselor avenue, he said, with both an academic and “social emotional outreach” component.

Maher and Cronin remained enthusiastic about the program, with Maher pushing for more presentations for school officials. “Everybody who has sat through the presentation has been somewhat sold,” he said, including members of the city’s human services department, the Kids Council and the public health department. He envisioned that City Connects could be a citywide program, with funding for a pilot program in select schools shared across agencies.

Cautious

“I agree with the mayor that the presentation was compelling,” Young said. “There’s a lot to like about the program.” But without staff buy-in on changes for the teachers and principals, the department is hesitant about moving forward quickly, and it may take time to thoroughly “vet” the program, he said.

Budget subcommittee co-chairman Mervan Osborne and members Patty Nolan and Kathleen Kelly were similarly cautious, with Osborne adding concerns City Connects’ experience may not be in school districts similar enough to Cambridge. Nolan pointed out that it reported impact on school dropout rates and MCAS data that are not as strong as Cambridge’s current student data.

Kelly and Nolan leaned toward using the current school department staff of social workers and counselors more effectively. “The model they have is a good model, but it’s not a magic model – it’s not a model that can’t be replicated,” said Kelly, who pointed out she is a graduate of the Boston College School of Social Work.

Cronin asked for the department to “map out” all mental health services available to students throughout the city to create a one-stop clearinghouse, including information about insurance, availability and fees. What we need, Cronin and others said, was a better sense of what we have.

Principal shares perspective

Rindge Avenue Upper School principal Ralph Watson was invited by Young to speak about his experiences in managing social emotional issues. Stressing he was not speaking officially to represent all four upper schools, he seemed to take exception to the suggestion that the schools needed help providing certain supports for students:

It’s hard to be a principal sitting back there and hearing some of the discussion, especially about the social emotional – the idea of other resources being brought into the buildings. One of the things that shows our success is our stories, and I’m not sure that the School Committee has a sense of our stories – of the teams of counselors and administrators and nurses that talk about the social-emotional needs of our students and then get the care that they need … The schools know the resources that we have.

Rindge Avenue Upper School principal Ralph Watson

Watson

“I do have concerns about bringing in another outside program that is not part of our school community,” he said, sharing two stories of students getting critical services arranged by the school. “That’s the importance of a school-based, school employee that’s part of our family, part of our community, part of our team that’s meeting weekly.”

The description of City Connects given at the meeting, however, included the provision of a full-time “team member” dedicated to the school, not unlike the superintendent-proposed guidance counselor model.

High school coaching

During public comment, the committee heard from several Cambridge Rindge and Latin teachers, including staff union vice president Jesse Kaplan, advocating for the return of instructional support coaches in high school. The teachers gave several examples of how they and other colleagues had relied on coaches to help them develop as teachers – coaches eliminated in last year’s budget with a promise from Principal Damon Smith to work with teachers to develop a new model. That effort never materialized. This year there are 30 teaching coaches for grades kindergarten through eighth and none in the high school.

Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk explained the coaches’ being eliminated for at least two reasons: a growing concern that the coaches – the best teachers – gave two-thirds of their time to “sharing their expertise with their peers rather than sharing their expertise with students”; and because returning them to full-time teaching let CRLS limit class sizes without adding more staff even in the face of dramatic growth of student population.

“There is an interest in revisiting having a coaching model within the high school building,” she said of Smith, but there are still discussions of how. Rather than “ask for money,” she wanted to first “do some problem solving” with Smith.

With the big three

Other budget concerns raised included: Cronin asking for more information on mentoring and support for upper school principals, better out-of-school programming for those schools, and a revisit of providing upper school literacy coaches; Nolan wanting more evidence on the efficacy of ongoing budget projects and consultants entering years two or three; Harding saying, half-jokingly, that “Miss Nolan and I would like to see a million dollars for tutors”; and Fred Fantini wanting full-time art teachers in each elementary school, which Cronin echoed.

On keeping a second fourth-grade teacher at Kennedy-Longfellow, due to be cut because next year’s fourth grade will be too small for two classrooms, Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner pointed out that this is common. Occasionally one cohort in a school gets small, so they cut a position for two years. (For example, in two years the Kennedy-Longfellow fifth-grade class will need only one teacher.) Fantini argued, with some support from Harding, that breaking up a teaching team that is seeing progress, especially at a Level 3 school, is not a good solution.

But the big three issues, as Young summed up at the close of the meeting, were social emotional supports, supporting the three Level 3 schools and high school coaching.

Other business

A motion by Maher seeking a plan for Kennedy-Longfellow building improvements by the beginning of school in September brought a presentation by Chief Operating Officer Jim Maloney. In the short run, the roof – which apparently took a beating this winter and leaked repeatedly – is continuing to be patched regularly, and ceiling tiles will be replaced, Maloney said. In the long term, a new roof “is in the process of being funded,” preferably with solar panels, and will be installed, but not before summer of 2016.

Maher pushed for more short-term cosmetic help, clearly cognizant of the more than 100 families who have been mandatorily assigned to Kennedy-Longfellow for next year and are dismayed at its condition, including on paint and carpeting. “We need to think about the families that we have that are not very pleased with us right now. We need to find a way to soften that blow.”

Maloney agreed, saying the district needs to do a better job at managing “cosmetic things.” Twenty years ago, he said, there was money set aside regularly for that work, but it has slipped away over the years. He said he would create “a plan of sorts” for Kennedy-Longfellow, but warned that the focus this summer is on moving four schools for upper school building redevelopments.

Along with Maher’s motion, also passed unanimously were a motion by Fantini that the committee hold a controlled choice roundtable on May 12; a motion by Nolan and Cronin that there be a presentation during a May meeting by members who attended the National School Board Association conference; and a motion by Maher congratulating Morse School Principal Patricia Beggy for getting the Environment and Community Impact Award from CitySprouts.

Policy revisions regarding athletics-related head injuries; $188,000 for out-of-district tuition contracts; contracts for $125,000 for moving services and $33,000 for occupational, physical and speech therapy services; and acceptance of $500 and a piano in gifts, $11,600 in state grants and $35,000 in federal grants also passed unanimously.

Calendared while awaiting information was a contract for $27,000 for a software site license.