Thursday, June 20, 2024


A School Committee member since 2008, Patty Nolan was born in Chicago, and raised there and Connecticut. Nolan attended Harvard University and the Yale School of Management and worked for several years for the consulting firm McKinsey until, as she said, her school loans were paid off. She then went into the nonprofit and socially responsible business sector, as well as running a couple of small businesses.

Since moving back to Cambridge in 1991, she served on the board of Cambridge School Volunteers for seven years and as president and treasurer of Children’s Village, a child care center her children attended, followed by involvement at her kids’ public schools. She also served as director of Cambridge United for Education, an independent organization aimed at promoting excellence in the city’s public schools. Among her other work, she led a group trying to open an International Baccalaureate Charter High School in Cambridge. Although it wasn’t chosen by the state, “it got me very involved in thinking about how to better use our tremendous resources as a district,” she said – leading to her first run for School Committee in 2005.

Compiled from the candidate’s words in publicly available sources

Top three priorities:

bullet-gray-small A districtwide approach to meeting students’ social emotional needs. Increasingly, I see one overarching issue central to all we do: addressing in a comprehensive way the social-emotional needs of students. We know now, thanks to solid research, that the relationships in the classroom, the feeling of safety, the sense that the student matters and the conviction that the teacher cares is a prerequisite for student learning. Students must feel safe and that it matters. Once those conditions are met, the student is open to learning. As a result, teachers feel more like whole human beings and see students as whole human beings. If we focus consciously on ensuring that teachers are given the support they need to build relationships with students and have the resources to create a safe classroom environment, many of the “behavior” problems we see would disappear. Intimately tied to this issue is standardized testing: Over-testing and an overemphasis on standardized testing is harming the social-emotional needs of students, making it harder to help them learn. We are doing too much, and it is hurting our students and disheartening our best teachers.

bullet-gray-small Improving the educational program in the upper schools. While change takes time, it is long past when we should expect well-functioning upper schools. Our upper schools now have additional staff, thanks to parent and staff advocacy and School Committee leadership, and some electives. Yet the dream of a much richer and robust set of electives and vibrant, engaging classrooms filled with high expectations is still a work in progress. We also need to make good on the promises of the Innovation Agenda for elementary schools, including world language. A larger cohort in the middle schools has improved some aspects of that experience for our middle-grade students. Based on feedback from families and students, the goals of increased rigor and greater engagement have not been met.

bullet-gray-small Addressing the controlled choice system with explicit focus on underchosen schools. We need to discuss specific ways to improve the attractiveness of underchosen schools. We know what it takes: bringing in programs that attract families across the city. Due to the geographic distribution of our schools, we need families on the west side of town, where I live, to want to go the east side of town for school. Families will do that for a program they want – not for a school that does not offer a specialized program they want. I believe there are three programs that would attract families: another Montessori on the east side of Cambridge, another immersion school (Spanish or French being the most likely candidates) and an International Baccalaureate school.

Edited from the candidate’s words

Profile one view of the candiate

Nolan makes important contributions to the committee through her understanding of data and her ability to look behind assumptions, her willingness to ask direct and sometimes uncomfortable questions and her almost unique commitment to vote her convictions. Like colleague Fred Fantini, she is also very responsive to the “retail politics” part of being on the committee, meaning helping individuals and groups that have failed to get the response they want from the administration. Sometimes her approach rubs her colleagues and administration the wrong way – she should probably stop putting forth motions to fix retail issues without pre-arrangement – but sometimes it’s that irritation she is willing to garner that makes her the most valuable member of the committee.