Sunday, July 14, 2024

Parent Maryann Matyas speaks Thursday at a School Committee budget hearing. Dan Monahan, president of the the Cambridge Education Association, was a previous speaker. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

The case against world language was made Thursday – this time by educators and parents – at the third and final public hearing on budget issues before proposed figures are released mid-March 15.

In December, Superintendent Kenneth Salim and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Anda Adams gave a long-awaited presentation on how elementary school world language might look in a rollout proposed for next year, beginning in fourth grade, adding fifth-grader in year two and third-graders in year three. Previous superintendent Jeff Young had called failure to create such a program a “broken promise” of the five-year old Innovation Agenda, which stripped foreign language exposure from elementary schools with the idea of implementing a robust program across all schools. Scores of parents have appeared regularly before the School Committee since to plead for “21st century” world language instruction, even launching a Cambridge Pangea advocacy group.

But Thursday, some teachers asked that language instruction not be added to their already full days – echoing language once used by Young. A district survey of teachers showed that “world language is a good idea, but for right now it is detrimental,” said Dan Monahan, president of the the Cambridge Education Association union. Citing “innovation fatigue,” Monahan said an overwhelming share of the teachers say there is “already insufficient time on core content areas” in a six-hour school day, and that they “don’t want to give up their specials” such as art and music.

“I understand this body promised this,” Monahan said, “but I urge you to listen closely and act judiciously given the realities in the classroom.”

Five educators spoke supporting Monahan. “While we value and look forward to the day when we can offer world language instruction,” said veteran teacher Suzanne Russell of Haggerty, “this is not that day.” At Haggerty, she said, the “robust” Response to Intervention program – providing one-to-one tailored support to struggling students – already doesn’t pull students out of English or math classes to minimize instructional interruptions, and competition for time could also jeopardize the successful Kodaly music program, which is in several schools. Haggerty fifth-grade teacher Jolene Stewart noted the rolling out of a new science curriculum. Adding that to the grade’s musical instruments program, a “packed specials schedule,” the “Know Your Body” curriculum – and the highest number of standardized testing days of all the elementary grades – the tradeoff of a “token” foreign language instruction does not seem worth it, Cambridgeport fifth-grade teacher Sarah Baszto said. “I would love to see foreign language instruction,” Baszto said, “but not in this current school day.”

Special education instructor Rachel Hickey agreed a time crunch would “create more deficits” for her students.

They were supported by Haggerty parent Carol McGill, who said her time at the school has changed her mind on elementary world language instruction. “Four years ago when my kids were entering the school system,” she said, “I would have said ‘yes.’ But as I have spent more time in the schools I see how tough it is to get everything in,” she said. “I understand a promise was made years ago, but you can’t just be checking off a box,” she added, asking how teaching foreign language could be “justified given our current goals.”

Immersion programs

A different set of parents and staff, however, pleaded for an expansion of existing Portuguese and Chinese language immersion programs, suggesting a possible way to provide what many educators call a 21st educational requirement – learning a foreign language.

Fabiane Noronha, kindergarten teacher at the Portuguese Olá bilingual program at the King Open School, asked for a modest budget allocation to help advertise and recruit families. Asked to present to the Utah board of education about Olá’s approach to immersive writing and literacy, she noticed the enormous support and advertising of Utah’s bilingual programs, including billboards and brochures and posters in restaurants, malls, town halls and the state capitol building. An overwhelming number of families in Cambridge are not even aware of the Portuguese and Chinese programs, let alone the benefits from bilingual education, she said.

Four parents from the King School Chinese Immersion program asked support for continuing Chinese instruction into the Putnam Avenue Upper School, where the elementary students go starting in sixth grade.

“My daughter has learned a lot of Chinese,” said Everest Huang, despite getting no help from home because no one there speaks the language. “But the act of learning in another language with all the benefits,” he said, “has helped her to learn and think differently and has had a great effect on the kids and school.”

Abdi Samater noted his daughter’s excitement in trying to teach her whole family and her pride in speaking Chinese with a stranger in public. Parent Jane Chang quoted her third-grade child’s announcement of her pleasure in “doing two things at once – math and Chinese.” “When children tell you how much they enjoy learning,” she said, “you should continue to let them do so.”

Larger budget

Four parents argued that now is the time for a larger share of the city’s budget going to education. Kimberly Mancino, who with other Putnam Avenue Upper School Parents have appeared since a Jan. 3 meeting to plead for help facing the “crisis at their school” – including being listed as “one of the lowest-performing schools in the state” – put it frankly: “I know this is anathema for those of you facing reelection and given our current politics,” she said, “but we may need more money to hire additional staff.” The committee’s long-touted commitment to academic excellence and closing the achievement gap, she charged, has not worked. “I have high hopes for Superintendent Salim, but we shouldn’t expect him to be a miracle worker,” she said, calling for co-teaching, a robust math program and family liaisons in the upper schools.

There was agreement from Maryann Matyas, of Graham & Parks and the Vassal Lane Upper School, who also supported an improved after-school program for upper schools; only sports programs have succeeded across schools, she said. Matyas also asked for more funds to facilitate quick translation services to better reach all families. Vassal Lane parent Kelly Dolan submitted a letter for “boldly” expanding the budget to hire more educators, with 52 parent signatures.

Graham & Parks parent Kris Dickson also asked for increased classroom support, saying it jibed with teacher requests and goals for improving social-emotional learning as well as improved literacy. “These goals are not being met,” she said. “That means we need to increase budget.”

Dickson paused her comments briefly when co-chairman Richard Harding stepped out of the one-hour meeting for the fourth time and asked co-chairwoman Kathleen Kelly if she should wait until he returned. Kelly urged her to continue.

Register Forum

In addition, high school senior Diego Lasarte, editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, the Register Forum, asked for a doubling to $10,000 for the paper’s budget, noting that since an allocation five years ago, the school’s enrollment has risen and the paper is now twice the size, limiting the number of editions they print to less than one-third of the student body. The Register asked unsuccessfully for a similar increase last year.

Manikka Bowman was not present. Mayor E. Denise Simmons entered in the last few minutes, ahead of a budget subcommittee meeting.