Q&A with Superintendent Kenneth Salim, ‘unpacking and identifying’ upon arrival
Kenneth A. Salim has been Cambridge’s superintendent of schools since July 1. He spent much of the summer launching his “entry plan” to “learn as much as possible” through observations, focus groups and data analysis over the course of several months. This approach, he has said, is similar in spirit to one he used in Weymouth, his previous district, with the exception that he has learned to “focus more deeply on work in the schools.” Part of that work includes him spending a full day in each of the schools.
Over the course of the summer, Salim visited all of the school buildings to get the lay of the land, and in August hosted “colloquia” with administration, principals, teachers and other staff. At the beginning of the third week of classes, Salim sat down with Cambridge Day in his Thorndike Street office to talk about his first impressions. The conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
What has been your favorite moment so far?
Coming into a new district there are lots of different “firsts.” There’s the first time of bringing the principals all together. There’s the first time of having the full team of teachers and paraprofessionals on the colloquium day. Certainly, the first day of school. It’s hard for me to pinpoint a single favorite moment because I think each of those experiences has enabled me to both learn something new about Cambridge and also connect with people who are part of the school district community in a different way.
I had my first full day school visit, this one at the Fletcher Maynard Academy. It was a great opportunity to immerse myself in the community of that individual school: from observing classrooms, to shadowing a fifth-grade student, to meeting with the Parent Teacher Organization executive board over lunch, to talking with teachers and sports staff before and after the school day. I haven’t had the experience before of being able to have those conversations with teachers in a focus group-like setting so closely connected to actually seeing those teachers practice in their classroom – to fully experience what they were talking about, both in terms of really exciting things and successes happening at the school and the relationships with students and families, as well as some of the things that are challenges at the beginning of the school year.
As you’re getting to know the district better from the inside, is there anything particular that has surprised you, that you weren’t expecting?
Aside from the parking issues of getting from place to place … I joke about it, but that is one of the challenges of bringing the whole district together. A third-grade teacher at the Peabody typically has little interaction with other third-grade teachers across the district. And so, even though we are a relatively small place geographically and have 7,000 students, which is certainly a medium-sized district for Massachusetts, those opportunities for inter-school collaboration and connection have not existed because of some of these real practical challenges.
You think it’s because of parking-related logistical issues?
I think it’s a large part of it. The different start and end times also present challenges for finding common time for people to connect. We’ve tried to look at this issue in our meetings with principals: With the new structures [from the Innovation Agenda reorganization] of the elementary and upper and high schools, how can we have closer connections? How can we really take into account the fifth-to-sixth grade transition? We have monthly convenings with our principals, and part of that time we’ve structured in school triads so that the principals of the upper schools and their feeder elementary schools can talk in a hands-on way about the things they need to keep in mind at both sets of schools to help transition our students as seamlessly as possible. And it’s not just students. How do we maintain parent engagement? How do we support families as they are going through that transition as well?
Cambridge is rich in resources, but with diverse needs. Do you see yourself taking advantage of that by trying to do something radically different here – doing something out-of-the-box where you’re leading the nation?
Resources are not just monetary, but also the richness of the community in terms of partnerships, the city partnerships, the Human Services Department with their community schools and preschools programs, and the other various city departments that are all part of supporting children in Cambridge. I think that’s exciting and related to the resource piece. And then there’s also the higher education institutions, the business community, the start-up community, the bio-tech, pharma, the innovation economy that is so present in Cambridge – there’s a lot of exciting possibility for our kids. Recognizing that larger, broader landscape, I think there are real opportunities to do some really exciting things in Cambridge … It’s not just innovation for innovation’s sake, but about finding out what’s going to be successful in helping to close gaps in opportunity and achievement for our students.
I’m not asking you to name something. But when I look at some of the trends in education, I see, for example, the idea that young children are losing play in the classroom, and that this may even be connected to the increasing social emotional difficulties seen across the country. Or emphases on standardized testing, or needing them to read and write earlier. Did you ever lie awake thinking, “I might be able to do something really interesting in this job?”
One of the things that we tried to do as part of the colloquia was to really focus on a particular area that was important to administrators and teaches and parents, and that was social-emotional learning. It’s a term that we utilize a lot, but it’s important to try to come to some common language around social-emotional learning and what the needs are for all students – not just thinking about our most struggling students, but what social-emotional learning means for any student in Cambridge. That was a part of what I articulated in the entry process around visioning and thinking about what we hope for our students. One of the things we did at the colloquia is to ask, what are our students’ hopes but also what are the hopes among our teachers? Certainly there are academic benchmarks we want our students to reach, and we want preparation for college and career to be a central focus, but also, what do we want with regard to citizenship, what it means to be a successful member of our community? To have agency? To be able to have empathy for others? There’s no simple answer or solution to all of these pieces. A lot of times communities look to schools to develop these competencies, but one of the areas I really hope to take advantage of as part of my entrance process is asking that question of educators, parents, community members: What do we hope for our students?
Almost two years ago almost 50 teachers spoke at a special budget hearing session and pretty uniformly said, “We need more hands in the classroom, we need less testing, we need help with social-emotional learning. The kids are being too stressed, too pressured, and we’re losing them.” How do you see yourself addressing that tension whereby teachers are feeling stressed and not in enough control of their own classrooms?
Around teacher voice, one of the things that I asked at the opening colloquium was for teachers and paraprofessionals to share a piece of advice with me. So they all wrote on index cards. I had 1,200 index cards, and as I was going through them there were two piles that were much larger than the others. One was “come to my classroom and observe my work and my school.” I think there’s this yearning for having a closer connection between central administration and what happens in schools, and a yearning for understanding. And a second piece of advice, which was related, was to value and find ways of hearing teacher voice.
My hope is that through this entry process we’ve designed for the next several months I will not just “hear” from folks – that’s the first part, and it’s not uncommon to do that when you come into a new place – but my hope is that the substantive work that happens as a result of that is to then be able to unpack and identify what are the underlying causes of this yearning. How do we as a district communicate some of the information around assessments? How are we using assessments? What are the expectations? How does a teacher make sense of the expectations? What are the things that are being asked of teachers in the classroom? When I think back to my own experience as a classroom teacher, I didn’t necessarily distinguish whether it was something that was coming from the state or the central office or from the principal. It behooves us as a district leadership to create an alignment, to make sense of this, so it makes sense for teachers and for kids.
That’s more broadly how I think of all those moving parts. Not just hearing, but what do we do with this information. Ultimately that will inform how we think about professional development, how we work as central departments, how we think about this question around evaluation, around initiatives that exist. In fact, this morning we were talking about this with our cabinet. We had principals last Friday list all the initiatives that they feel that they are responsible for. And not surprisingly, it’s a pretty significant list. What we are starting to do is to analyze them as a group and as a leadership team. What happens a lot in school districts is we keep adding to the plate and we don’t stop and ask the questions, A) what comes off the plate? and B) what’s doable and, is it working? We need to be very open around the process and map out what we are doing for the teachers.
In theory, school committees are about setting policy and the administration is about making it happen, but it’s hard to see how strong a role ours actually has. The committee seems to pass broad policies no one can argue with – excellent teaching, excellent education for all students, social justice – that are somewhat toothless, or policies that seem to be ignored because they are accused of micromanaging, such as starting world language in elementary school. Is this typical? How do you see the committee role?
Identifying what those goals are, identifying the longer-term trajectory and a vision for the school district is not an easy thing. And that governance work is really difficult work. The board is in many ways the interface between the community and the school system. And while we certainly connect with parents and other members of the community in a different way, the School Committee is the pulse of the community in terms of what the goals and vision and priorities should be. That’s complicated because, while the adage of the committee’s “what” and administration’s “how” is easy to say and easy to write on paper, figuring out what that looks like in practice is a working relationship. My experience in my previous district is that we would have regular retreats and workshops to be able to figure out how to best work together, and to be able to have that opportunity to talk about operating protocols and revisiting the goals and benchmarks.
I’m still coming into Cambridge. I think the retreat we had in August was a great first step in being able to talk about what goals the community members value. I’m thinking about that in a parallel track as I undertake my entry process. The committee has looked at structures of how to continue moving that work forward in the form of subcommittees as well. I think it’s not uncommon for longer-term issues – whether it be something like world language or enrollment practices or things in Cambridge related to controlled choice – to be long-term. They are complicated because of a number of factors, whether it’s resources or time – and unpacking those and figuring out a way to do the work in a way that continues to be consistent with our overall goals of providing equity and excellence to all of our students is, I think, what’s complicated. With any of these issues, if it were simple, it would be something that we could easily do.