Students rally in 2011 in Harvard Square to get signatures on a petition to save their Intensive Studies Program – eliminated with the rollout of the Innovation Agenda. Identification and treatment of advanced learners remains a district debate. (Photo: Per Magnus Riseng)

Residents eager to see improved support to children with advanced-learning needs are challenging School Committee candidates to commit to helping them. They request candidates “be a public and unapologetic advocate for all children,” including taking some specific actions, or the signers vow not to vote for them. If candidates do commit to promoting their agenda, the signers “will vigorously promote those candidates in our workplaces, among our friends and in our communities.” The initiative has 60 Cambridge households signed on, and counting.

The commitment on Advanced Learning for Candidates for the Cambridge School Committee is being presented today through Cambridge Day, and to candidates “no later than Friday.”

The advocates, who say they are independent of a group that advocates formally on advanced-learner issues to city officials, argue for greater district outreach to identify children with advanced-learning needs. Research shows, they say, that between 5 percent and 10 percent of children fall into this category, or about 350 to 700 students among the district’s enrollment of 7,000.

“Students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds are the least likely to be identified and get the support they need either inside or outside of school to reach their full potential, especially in the early grades,” the statement runs. Unless the district puts in a systematic process for identifying advanced learners, they say, the only kids identified are those whose parents advocate for them, which skews demographics artificially toward more privileged students.

Students can be advanced in one or more academic areas, and can be already identified as special-needs students.

District changes

In 2012, largely as a result of advocacy by an advanced-learning parent interest group, the district created an academic challenge and enrichment program, hiring Paula Feynman as its director. She was charged with training teachers on providing supports to advanced learners; identifying and creating support materials, evaluating possible students, usually from parent inquiries; and developing systems to identify “hidden” advanced learners in other ways, especially through teacher inquiries.

By redesigning the Department of Special Education into one on Students Services, then-new assistant superintendent Victoria Greer brought the academic challenge program under her umbrella. Feynman welcomed this as a way to formalize the notion that the charge was to provide adequate academic challenges to all students.

But Greer moved on last fall, and in the spring Feynman also left. There is still no replacement for Feynman. Greer was the only senior administration member with direct experience running an advanced-learner program, from her previous job.

“The district staff does not currently include a single person with direct expertise and professional training in advanced learning or gifted education,” the activists’ commitment accurately describes.

Specifics

Specifics commitments for the endorsement include:

bullet-gray-small Hiring a qualified replacement for Feynman quickly.

bullet-gray-small Requesting and voting for the creation of a second position, an assistant director of advanced learning, at a minimum. (The advocates note that “the original model for Cambridge was based on Brookline Public Schools, where there are trained advanced-learning teachers at each school.)

bullet-gray-small Acknowledging and advocating for the unmet needs of advanced learners from all backgrounds and in all subjects without requiring proactive intervention by parents.

bullet-gray-small Producing an annual status report.

bullet-gray-small Conducting an annual universal screener districtwide – an “adaptive test” to identify students well beyond or well behind grade level.