New vote saves school-consultant dollars, but request to show value still unfulfilled
Two consultant contracts that raised tensions in August were revisited Tuesday by the School Committee, which passed a $90,000 teacher training contract for a year of literacy support and voted down – again – a proposed $125,000 Harvard program on behavior management.
At last month’s meeting, the only one of the summer, committee vice chairman Fred Fantini calendared a proposal for a $94,390 contract to Ideal Consulting Services for the third year of “response to intervention” teacher training focusing on literacy instruction, sending it back to be renegotiated. Members balked at the high daily rates – $3,000 plus other expenses – and member Patty Nolan reiterated her ongoing call to see evidence that the program is effective; in this case, anecdotal and partial evidence of results swayed most committee members, and educators promised it would look at actual data down the road.
This pushback echoed the heated discussion on the first two years of the Ideal contract in a July 2014 meeting. Ultimately, only Nolan voted against that contract, saying she objected to “paying outside consultants Wall Street lawyer rates.”
Tuesday’s version of the proposal has a $90,190 price tag – about $4,000 lower. The daily rate comes to $2,850 per day for 28 days of site visits, plus about $10,000 in other expenses. Asked by Nolan what Ideal president Christopher Parker’s daily rates are in other communities, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Jessica Huizenga said between $2,500 to $3,300.
But that was the only discussion about cost.
What the program provides
Parker was hired to facilitate the use of a new reading assessment – really a quick “screener” called FAST used to assess every child in the district from kindergarten to fifth-grade – the district has been rolling out to target individual students’ needs, and his work is focused on three schools. To talk about the impact, Huizenga and fellow assistant superintendent Maryann MacDonald brought forward the principals of the schools targeted by the Ideal program – Robin Harris of the Fletcher Maynard Academy, the Haggerty School’s Nancy Campbell, and Kennedy Longfellow’s Christine Gerber – along with Haggerty’s early literacy interventionist, Patty West.
“We do lots of professional development,” Harris said, “but this professional development was very different. They have brought staff to the table in a different way.” Parker is helping the staff “dig deeper” in the data, they said. Campbell talked about the power of getting into the “nitty gritty” details of how kids actually try to read words and where individual kids get stuck as a way of breaking through on reading improvement. Harris said the work has helped “institute a tiered level of supports that we’ve never really done in Cambridge.”
The educators also spent time talking about Ideal’s sorting and presentation of the data, done via a proprietary software program called SPS. The actual data is collected by the district, which holds it for only a year, Campbell and West said, and has not been able to produce the quick comparisons and analyses SPS can provide, including creating timelines and target goals for students and comparisons with data across Massachusetts. Ideal also is helping “revamp” school schedules “to maximize staffing for interventions and supports,” Huizenga said. The proposed contract includes $5,490 for extending SPS analysis to all 12 elementary schools this year.
The educators were clearly anxious to secure the third year of the contract. “This is a gradual-release model,” Harris said. “This is the year that we will be taking over our meetings. By winter and spring we will be doing it on our own with feedback [from Ideal].”
MacDonald added that in this third “transition” year, other schools will be attending meetings. “It is our hope that through the leadership of some of our people we can roll out this work in other schools. Are we prepared to say this is the final year forever? Maybe not. It’s certainly the final year for these three schools. It is our hope that people will have the capacity to do this work [in other schools] next year.”
“What happens to the data after the end of the contract?” Fantini asked. Huizenga said that typically “districts continue to use the SPS system if they have worked with Chris [Parker] for three to five years. They will continue to support us.”
Nolan’s previous requests for evidence of impact were partially addressed.
Gerber, who gave her strong support of the program at the August meeting, read aloud figures provided by Ideal’s analysis showing changes in “assessing fluency” from fall 2014 to spring 2015 for grades two through five at her school, in each case saying that some proportion of students originally scoring in the bottom three of six categories showed improvement. Her strongest report was for last year’s fifth-grade class, which had 70 percent of the students scoring below average at the beginning of the year; by the end, all had shown “ambitious” or “typical growth.” MacDonald also handed out a packet prepared by Ideal showing results for a selection of grades in Kennedy Longfellow, Fletcher Maynard and Haggerty.
But with this particular assessment implemented in Cambridge only since 2014, their data points were limited, and didn’t include other measures – such as the MCAS standardized test – to create a longer-term view. (Gerber said that preliminary MCAS English-language arts growth data she has seen looks like it will match the improvement she is expecting based on the Ideal analysis.)
Nolan pointed out that there are also no data on the schools that weren’t part of the Ideal contract – the “control group,” as she said, that could reveal its benefits by comparison. Others schools are using the same assessment, but do not have Parker’s guidance or SPS’ quick data analysis. How was their progress compared with these three schools? Nolan asked.
MacDonald said that they had the data and would “share it.” Later, MacDonald told Cambridge Day that other schools started collecting comparable data last year, with the last two schools starting this fall, and, as requested by the committee, “we will be looking at that data.”
Committee members Fran Cronin and Kathleen Kelly responded enthusiastically to the presentation, with Cronin saying, “From what I’ve heard this seems to be the most effective, most targeted tool to really address what we think are the most fundamental issues that have inhibited some of our students from succeeding.” Kelly agreed, saying “I think this is one of the most powerful presentations we have had in a long time.”
The committee voted to pass the new contract, with Nolan voting “present.”
“Despite a compelling presentation from a team I respect, I had two concerns. I can’t support [that daily rate]. And we didn’t have any data from other schools to make sure the interventions were what yielded the successes in the three schools. In other words, with no control group the results are difficult to interpret,” Nolan said afterward.
In related moves, the committee referred to the budget subcommittee a motion by Nolan to get a review by December on “how the effectiveness of [consultant and professional development] expenditures is measured.” Also, the committee passed an $83,500 three-year contract for an assessment management systems software plan after Nolan heard assurances from the district’s chief information officer, Steve Smith, that it was intended to provide integrative, longitudinal data analysis for 80 percent to 90 percent of the district’s data. A $44,250 teacher training contract for special education consulting – passed in the August meeting, but moved for reconsideration by Cronin because of the high daily rate – was pulled from Tuesday’s agenda by Cronin with an explanation that, after talking with the superintendent, the contract was “going to be adjusted.”
Social emotional learning
The other motion up for reconsideration from August’s meeting was a $125,000 teacher training contract with Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project for helping the district manage student behavioral issues. In August, the motion was voted down 2-3-2, with Fantini and Mayor David Maher voting for the program, Cronin and Nolan voting “present” and the others voting against. That same evening, Harding, though one of the votes against, asked for reconsideration of the vote at this week’s meeting.
Kelly led the discussion with Superintendent Jeffrey Young, who was not present at the August meeting, by asking, “First, what was it that is happening now that you think this addresses? Two, we have a number of initiatives around social emotional learning – how does it fit with what we already have? And, three, how many different programs did you research and look at and then decide that this was the best of those programs? What’s the plan that we have around social emotional learning?”
Young answered that he was hoping that the “survey work” of the Harvard group would help establish some of these answers, adding that to some extent he saw this project as “an opportunity to grab the expertise that exists within the city. We saw we could do something right away … with completely reputable people.”
The committee and the superintendent spent 40 minutes deliberating, explaining their individual votes last month and wondering if another meeting with the Harvard team would help clarify, as member Mervan Osborne said, “what this would look like in practice.”
As Maher tried to move the committee to some kind of action, it was Young who helped clear the way for the committee by saying it “should only enter into something like this with enthusiasm. You should never enter into something like this with ambivalence.”
Thanking the superintendent for that comment, Fantini moved for a vote on the reconsidered motion, noting that through “nobody’s fault” he did not sense the enthusiasm. The contract was voted down, with Cronin, Fantini, Kelly, Osborne and Nolan voting against, Harding and Maher in favor.
Private Montessori school
In a slightly odd procedural move, the committee heard a presentation for a new private Montessori school opening the next day. By state law, the committee must vote to approve the creation of a private school, although Harding and Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk clarified that the vote is really “perfunctory … The committee really doesn’t have any real ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ in this exercise,” Harding said. Turk agreed that it is merely an “acknowledgement of the fact that the school is operating in the city” with no public oversight, much like homeschooling. State law cited says the committee’s approval “means the children attending the private school may do so without violation of the compulsory attendance law.”
So Tuesday’s meeting included a presentation of the development of curriculum, materials and space for the Wild Rose School, which emerged from a homeschooling group of families and will start with 13 kids in kindergarten through second grade. The founders’ goal is to grow to a traditional Montessori school for about 35 first- through sixth-graders. Head of school Castle O’Neill said she has already begun working with that the city’s Tobin Montessori school about cooperative work, including providing access to the new school’s specially developed Montessori-approved materials. The committee approved the motion unanimously.
In other business, the committee unanimously approved contracts of $135,000 to the Guidance Center for mental health consultation and support services; $43,000 for teacher training on language-based learning disabilities; $46,000 to Pearson for assessment materials; $26,000 for computer software maintenance; and $30,000 for the annual license fee for the computer Edgenuity software, which is used to support Algebra I instruction in the upper schools and the high school extension program.
Two other contracts passed are $87,000 for translation services (Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Victoria Greer clarified that this translation provider is one of several resources – including in-house staff – and noted that in addition to providing quick turnaround in more than 100 languages, it is minority-owned, something she has been “pushing for” more of in contracts); and $25,000 to uAspire to support high school students regarding college affordability, replacing the current TERI program (a decision Young said he and Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school principal Damon Smith made in part because uAspire promises one-on-one counseling for seniors).
The committee unanimously accepted these funds: another yearly state payment of $292,000 for kindergarten support; $41,000 from the state to partially fund and support an early literacy interventionist teacher (down by $15,000 from last year); and a $55,800 federal grant to fund and support a special education paraprofessional in inclusion classrooms.
Also approved without discussion were revisions of policies against cyberbullying and about smoking on school premises; and a formal request for addresses from the city Election Commission to alert all qualified families to kindergarten and 3-year-old preschool lotteries.
The committee also agreed to refer to the superintendent motions to explore holding CRLS graduations outside the public library (from Fantini), improve high school student access to “financial literacy and life skills” instruction (from Cronin and Harding) and to ask the budget subcommittee to add a meeting with out-of-school partners before budget discussions this year to hear more about their work, performance and needs (from Nolan).
Nolan withdrew her motion to reconsider the decision to adopt the superintendent review from the Aug. 18 special meeting because, she said, she learned that procedurally this needed to be handled within the special meeting and cannot be addressed in a regular meeting.
Finally, the committee passed minutes from a May 2015 joint Building and Grounds and Curriculum and Achievement subcommittee meeting with the Amigos School community on long-term planning and needs.