Saturday, May 18, 2024

081315i SC vote behaviorSchool Committee members expressed deep frustration Tuesday that absent Superintendent Jeffrey Young changed what they considered an agreed-upon approach to managing student behavior issues, including even reappropriating funds passed as part of the next district budget.

A fractured vote ultimately rejected Young’s request.

It was the committee’s only summer regular meeting and lasted four hours – and was saved from being longer only when a remaining few agenda items from among the 50 administration recommendations were calendared until a Sept. 8 meeting.

Central to the meeting was a presentation under the superintendent’s agenda for a proposal to address behavior issues, called social emotional learning. The presenter – Luba Falk Feigenberg, of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Cambridge public school parent – garnered some committee support for her project despite complaints about Young’s unilateral shift.

Young is in office only through June 2016, after committee members opted to offer him a single year more instead of the standard three-year contract he’d received since arriving in the district from Newton in 2009. The one-year extension allowed the committee to conduct its current search to replace Young. A selection is expected to be announce Oct. 22, just before a municipal election in November.

Social emotional learning dominated this year’s budget discussions. Some members supported bringing in a third-party vendor such as City Connects. Others wanted an in-house solution. But there was an emphasis among public and official comment for immediate attention, and in the end a budget passed in April with the addition of two social workers – one districtwide, one shared between two elementary schools – and $85,000 for teacher training. Young and Mayor David Maher had also indicated conversations exploring a partnership with City Connects would continue.

A major element of discussions among staff, parents, administration and the committee has been the different levels of needs among students – now referred to as Tier 1 (providing support for all students), Tier 2 (a subset of students needing somewhat more attention) and Tier 3 (a small but growing portion of students with the most needs). How best to handle Tier 3 students – who have an impact on all other students – is an ongoing issue.

Surprise proposal

Committee members were clearly surprised to discover in preparation for Tuesday’s meeting that the administration was proposing a $125,000 professional development contract to Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, addressing Tier 1 and Tier 2 students. (The total project cost is $200,000, but the contractor plans $75,000 in in-kind services.)

Feigenberg made a succinct and well-received presentation about a model focused “heavily” on Tier 1 students, to work on the district and school level and include parents through family liaisons. The project would also convene and build a district-level social emotional learning advisory council targeting a few schools, but offering training to any interested staff. Their mission, she said, is “to help the adults in students’ lives.”

“It sounds like a wonderful program,” committee member Kathleen Kelly said, “but my concerns are that we are not addressing Tier 3.” She wondered how this fit into the “number of existing initiatives” for classroom management.

“The teachers sent messages loud and clear that they are overloaded with initiatives,” member Patty Nolan said. “How did we get to this model? Do we not have it in-house? How involved is [the staff union] in developing this model?”

These questions were directed not at Feigenberg but at Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk, whose responsibilities include managing this piece of the school initiatives. Turk stressed that “we are going to need perspective and experiences of a wide range of people” to address the issue. An “exciting component of this potential partnership,” she said, was that the organization had already identified “pockets” of good work in the district, so this would not be a clean-slate new initiative.

While the union has not “formally” been involved, she said, there have been ongoing discussions with principals.

Turk also said that continuing conversations with Claude-Alix Jacob, head of the Cambridge Public Health Department, and Ellen Semonoff, director of the city’s Department of Human Services, are exploring ways to support Tier 3 students by “mapping” existing services. “We have the resources in this city to address the needs … but people are not necessarily facile with how to access those resources,” Turk said, suggesting there was a need for a “districtwide protocol.” She also suggested that the committee and the administration may want to work with the legislature to improve insurance access for families.


Member Fran Cronin said she thought it was “inappropriate that this was foisted on a summer meeting without the superintendent being present … We attempted to have a discussion about this during the budget process. We are now being given something else without any consultation. We were not consulted with the changing of funds we already approved.” Budget subcommittee co-chairman Richard Harding echoed her, saying he was surprised and disappointed that the superintendent was not present and that the budget and changes were proposed without Harding’s awareness.

Members learned that the districtwide social worker position in the budget would not be filled and would instead partially fund the city’s $125,000 portion of this project, along with training funds remaining from last year’s budget.

Moving toward a vote

“I think that what you are hearing here is a great deal of frustration,” said Maher, as he massaged the committee toward a vote. There was talk of delaying a vote on the proposal to fund the initiative until Young was present and consulted, or until there was a broader plan including Tier 3 students, but Maher pointed out that the contract work was to start this month. “I urge that we go forward with this,” he said, “and continue the dialogue on Tier 3.”

“Are you okay on voting on this?” Maher asked the committee tentatively. Eventually getting the go-ahead, the final vote was: Harding, Kelly and Mervan Osborne against; Maher and Fred Fantini in favor; and Cronin and Nolan voting “present.” The recommendation for the contract failed.

Maher, seeming a little taken aback, told Turk the recommendation could be resubmitted. Later in the meeting, as the meeting was reaching the four-hour mark and Fantini was calendaring remaining items for review at the next meeting, Harding made a request for reconsideration of the motion, which means the motion will be revisited at the next meeting.

Other business

Passed unanimously were seven revisions of various school policies, with one revision on student dress code policy referred for further rewriting. The committee also voted to accept 13 grants totaling $7.4 million, mostly from federal funds, including general Title 1 aid, special education and food service transfers.

Of the 29 recommendations for contract awards, the committee calendared three for future discussion, in addition to the Harvard Making Caring Common proposal, and passed the rest for a total of $13.3 million, including $11 million for out-of-district services and contracts for food and supply vendors, and community partners.

A motion by Harding and Osborne for the committee to develop its own advisory task force on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics to complement citywide efforts was passed unanimously, with Harding and Maher noting that the citywide task force seems to be focusing more on out-of-school efforts and could benefit from the coordination. Also passed were Harding’s motions for the superintendent to explore requiring all students to have dental examinations, and the feasibility of providing financial literacy and life skills classes at the high school; and a motion by Cronin to request that the mayor consider reorganizing School Committee meetings to allow for more “discussion of topical issues.”

A motion by Nolan to get a review of all consultant contract “effectiveness” and expenditures was calendared by Fantini near the end of the meeting.

In a nod to public comment by committee candidate Jake Crutchfield, who expressed concern that public discussions about the search for a new superintendent all happen before school starts Sept. 8, the mayor assured committee members that there would be “ample opportunity” for the community to give input after the beginning of school, with more information coming soon.