CRLS ninth-graders dig deep into democracy, emerge with spirited opinions on candidates
As ninth-grade history teachers at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, we are always searching for ways to make our curriculum feel relevant and personal to students. In years past, as we compared and contrasted liberation movements in Africa and Asia, analyzed the fall of the Weimar Republic and explored the geopolitical maze of the Cold War, we sometimes struggled to make the fragility of democracy tangible. We wanted our students to feel democracy, to take part in its messiness. This year we united around a common goal: turning our classrooms into democratic laboratories where students could have agency in the political process. This firsthand experience, we hoped, would serve as a baseline for the rest of the year.
In pursuit of this, we developed an opening unit on local democracy – with a specific focus on the city’s 2019 School Committee elections. Over the first few weeks of school, students have defined their individual politics, debated their rights and the role of government in their lives, evaluated the Cambridge Public Schools budget for 2019-20 fiscal year and investigated the platforms of all 11 candidates for School Committee. Beginning in October, many of the candidates themselves visited the school, and students facilitated an open dialogue about each candidate’s priorities and vision. We were confident our young learners would become some of the most informed (non)voters in the city!
As part of this unit, our ninth-grade team developed a formal collaboration with Cambridge Day. Students wrote op-eds about each School Committee candidates, using their background knowledge to assess policy proposals. The strongest parts of these op-eds are being published for the benefit of Cambridge voters. We hope you will find these pieces informative, helpful and revealing. Not only will they deepen our collective political knowledge, but they are crucial for the education of our next generation of active and democratically engaged citizens. – The CRLS ninth-grade world history team
The student texts below appear for candidates in alphabetical order (by last name) with challengers appearing first, incumbents afterward. They were edited and condensed for publication.
Ruth Ryan Allen
Ruth Ryan Allen, a first-time candidate for School Committee, has a novel idea: promoting different paths for students after high school. Allen grew up in Cambridge as a working-class citizen, and as the first person in her family to go to college, knows it isn’t an option – or even a desire – for everyone. Working as a mechanic or in law enforcement are solid choices and could be a genuine replacement for college, she says, and “now is the perfect time to make [pathways besides college] more available and increase the options for our young people.” Her plan is to work with unions to provide apprenticeships so kids know from the start that other directions exist.
The career proposal is realistic and affordable. Allen knows it might not appeal to parents, but believes that if kids talk with their parents and introduce the idea slowly, they will get on board. Her hope is to get to a point where kids have the power to decide their own futures. – Ella Coffey
Allen has lived in Cambridge her whole life – and so have her parents and grandparents – and has two daughters, one already graduated Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the other in her first year there. As a parent, she wants the best education for not only her kids, but for every child, and no matter what their abilities.
That includes not forcing college down students’ throats. As a teenager who has grown up in Cambridge, I can say that college has been the only thing our schools prepare us for. “I believe that college is not for everyone,” Allen says. While she doesn’t have a plan to measure her proposal just yet, it is still feasible and can benefit from input by the youth of Cambridge. Allen has seen and experienced the problems facing the district, and knows what has to be tweaked – and what needs to be changed completely. – Aya Khatib
“Growing up in working-class Cambridge, I saw how unions and trades saved many young men and women,” Allen says – and non-college options may have been a good choice when she was growing up. But unions and the trades are becoming less relevant.
Allen’s proposals are outdated, fitting a 20th century school system better than a 21st century one. (Asked during a school visit “Why don’t you think college is for everyone?,” Allen responded, “I just do.”) Workers are being replaced by automation at an ever-increasing rate, and unions are declining, with only 10.5 percent of U.S. workers belonging to one. Cambridge Rindge and Latin should be planning for the future and encouraging students to go to college, increasing and prioritizing student engagement so students are passionate in fields that can lead to an enjoyable, successful career that’s full of discovery – one where they won’t be replaced.
“I own and run Paddy’s Bar,” Allen said as a qualification to serve on the committee, but a bar is a business model that doesn’t and won’t change. Students might benefit more from a candidate such as Chris Lim, who has experience with high tech and understands how business and technology are advancing. – Kai Alm
Allen plans to work with unions, trade groups and public safety departments to give more options for jobs after high school that don’t require college. The proposal is not going to help Cambridge students. If students use her program and become an electrician or carpenter, their average pay might be as low as $40,000 per year, according to ZipRecruiter. It is impossible to live on that salary in Cambridge, where the district budget says housing values range from $583,900 for a condominium to $1.2 million for a three-family house.
But while running Paddy’s, Allen has done things to help Cambridge students. The Paddy’s 5k road race benefits girls’ sports teams. And she served as a member of the Cambridge Special Education Parent Advisory Council and testified and rallied on Beacon Hill to help get a state dyslexia bill passed.
She wants more certified screeners for dyslexia, and for parents whose kids have disabilities to get more clear communication with schools, with a smoother collective application of individualized education programs. These steps would benefit Cambridge students, though she hasn’t spelled out how to implement them – and admitted while meeting with CRLS students that she probably won’t have time to carry out any of her proposals. – Fairooz Chowdhury
Allen is passionate about improving the education of students with learning disabilities and disorders, and hopes to use a committee seat to ensure the statewide dyslexia bill is implemented successfully in Cambridge. Roughly 10 percent of district students have been diagnosed with dyslexia.
Although Allen has amazing goals and great plans to accomplish them, she does not have a way to measure her success – a rare flaw voters must take into account. – Philip Wilkins
First-time candidate Bernette Dawson, a parent of two children in Cambridge Public Schools and is a small-business owner of an organic body care line, says she cares passionately about education and proposes a variety of improvements. Two stand out, starting with offering universal pre-kindergarten to help narrow the academic achievement gap between groups of students. Currently, enrollment is based on a child’s birthday, which Dawson calls arbitrary and unfair. Her second proposal offers extra support to teachers and administrators in need. As a parent of a son with autism, she has experienced firsthand how teachers often lack the resources to support students with different needs.“I want to be the voice for all groups of minorities and children who have [individualized education programs],” she said.
The plan to offer universal pre-kindergarten is clear and ambitious, and will make the lives of many Cambridge families easier while giving all kids the opportunity to succeed. Her support plan will empower teachers to make sure that more students meet educational goals. Dawson knows that “every parent, regardless of their income or education level, loves their child and wants the best education for them.”
Being a mother of two children in district schools, one with a learning disability, gives her a unique perspective, and her experience as an entrepreneur gives her financial judgment to ensure her proposals are realistic. I am convinced her plans would improve student lives significantly. – Maia Feik Reinhart
Elechi Kadete has experience with Cambridge education from the inside and outside.
He has mentioned time and time again that his devotion to making Cambridge Public Schools better has come from personal experience – and that, sadly, some of the issues that affected him as a student here are the same ones affecting kids today. Now that Kadete is more experienced in the skills needed on the committee, he is trying to expand early education opportunities and get free tutoring for every child performing below grade level. He also wants to add resources to the Innovation Agenda, expand the elementary school world language immersion program and raise academic expectations for all students.
Another of Kadete’s plans is to make lunch free for all students, regardless of income. The cutoff for free lunch is $50,000, meaning that the child of anyone whose household income is $50,000.01 and up needs to pay; with our society and student body already divided for many different reasons, Kadete strives to make it easier for students to feel safe. Kadete is one of the few candidates who understand that once you unite the students, it is much easier to make change, while his experience as a financial analyst for Harvard’s Office of Technology Development makes him good at dealing with budgets and deciding where money should be distributed.
Kadete is running for his fourth time and has revised his policy proposals to make them more specific. Kadete says he plans to keep running until he gets on the committee because he isn’t running for himself, but “for the students.” – Asmayt Medhanie
First-time School Committee candidate Chris Lim is a volunteer coach in youth sports such as soccer and baseball, was treasurer for the Friends of Baldwin, has studied chemical engineering, system designs and management, and now runs his own company.
A high school can only do so much, but Cambridge Rindge and Latin is surrounded by a diversity of industry that could offer hands-on experience and can help students choose what career we want to pursue. Already CRLS students can take advantage of some local resouces, such as by taking language classes at the Harvard Extension school; Lim wants “to provide our students with the chance to visit, be mentored at and intern at some of the most advanced companies and universities in the world.”
Lim has long-term, realistic plans that might be helpful for every person in the system. – Yasmina Keutsch
While many candidates propose diversity hiring initiatives, Lim plans a “pipeline for interested minority after-school teachers and mentors to become full-time CPS teachers [by] providing help with certification or final educational steps.” Lim also proposes supporting graduates beyond high school.
And like other candidates, Lim says he will work to close the academic achievement gap. “But we should not sacrifice advanced learning to do so,”Lim says. He grew up in a leveled system and feels more comfortable with it, Lim says, arguing that as long as classroom sizes are kept small, a leveled approach can work.
Despite offering well-crafted, unscripted answers in person that clarify his perspective, it is not clear that his proposals would benefit all students. The biggest deal-breaker is that preference for leveled systems, which could mean cutting programs such as Level Up – an initiative just implemented to bridge the achievement gap by giving all first-year students honors-level history and English-language arts. It is not financially realistic to make up for the effects of a leveled system by hiring “paraprofessionals and interns … from each principal’s discretionary budget” and lowering classroom sizes. – Shirine Daghmouri
Jose Luis Rojas Villarreal
Noting that the Cambridge Montessori School “has provided the highest achievement growth for all subgroups,” first-time committee candidate Jose Luis Rojas Villarreal proposes to open more bilingual and Montessori schools, grant equitable access to junior kindergarten and preschool and build more schools for the increasing number of students.
Villarreal expresses passion about education, likes to “communicate and collaborate with people of diverse backgrounds” and has lived in Cambridge for 15 years with his two sons, who attend public school – but to ensure voter support, he needs to clarify his plans.
He has proposed to build schools, but where? Building on the little grassland and nature we have left is unsupportable; he mentioned using the area around the Alewife T station, but that land is now largely filled with apartments and condos. While many of Villarreal’s plans are feasible and realistic, this is among those with flaws. – Fiona McGlennon
His ideas may benefit future students – but could harm current students. Montessori schools are expensive: You have to design the classrooms a certain way, which would mean a new building, and teachers must be specially trained. Trying to open another Montessori school will strain the district budget, which Villarreal seems to disregard completely despite a degree in economics and political development and experience working in community finance.
Villarreal also wants to speak with student leaders to “hear their opinions and bring them back to the School Committee,” but that will be of little value. He will learn only how those leaders see things; if he really wants to learn about the schools, he should also visit detention and sit in on lunches, talking with a variety of students.
Villarreal says he’s passionate about education and seems to believe that is enough. It’s not. When I spoke to him at CRLS he talked around every question that was asked. There are already too many people with soft proposals in office, and what’s needed are people who will actually help students – keeping in mind that the future does matter, but so does the present. – Nora Malone
David Weinstein, making his second run for a seat on the committee, says he “builds consensus” and “gets stuff done.” He also has various great, progressive ideas.
Weinstein is trying to change the education system drastically with seven of them listed meticulously in his campaign materials, including hopping on the “pre-K for all” bandwagon as a way to close the academic achievement gap. Adding pre-K will surely improve students’ opportunities and learning, because it creates a level playing field. As Weinstein puts it, “Every child only gets one shot at this, and we can’t afford to wait” – a fact many candidates overlook when discussing education reform.
Many Cambridge parents and taxpayers are concerned about how the district budget will fund another grade level, and Weinstein understands – and admits it will not be possible. Instead, he plans to discuss the $15 million price tag for universal pre-K with at the city budget level. While I believe this goal isn’t feasible with the current budget, I hope Weinstein can help this idea gain traction. – Gray Bittker
Rachel Weinstein – a teacher, Cambridge Public Schools grad and now a district parent – is focused on helping economically troubled families in her first run for a committee seat, making sure that all students have equal opportunity while recognizing that racism exists even in 21st century Cambridge.
Seeing the unrighteous difference in treatment between her experience as a white girl in the educational system and her child’s as a black person, Weinstein wants to ensure that teachers and educators push back against discrimination and that students feel safe, including through teacher-student conversations about race and privilege. She also proposes a “Champion for Every Child” program that would pair students with an adult role model, giving kids from economically disadvantaged areas more support and chance to succeed.
Experience as a paraprofessional at the Graham & Parks School and interning for state Rep. Alice Wolf helps make Weinstein a well-rounded candidate. Her extensive knowledge of Cambridge, support for unprivileged Cantabrigians and focus on racial equity is needed. – Julia D’Amato
Citywide pre-K, which will provide all students an equal opportunity to advance and learn, and the “Champion” program are standout proposals from Rachel Weinstein’s platform. Her goals are ambitious (which, initially, seems to deserve applause) but might require an unrealistic amount of funding and resources.
The “Champion” program calls for “a family member, volunteer, teacher or social worker [so] each young person has a champion who monitors their progress” – a potentially large number of adults, and Weinstein has not presented a plan for recruiting these volunteers.
Weinstein could be an extraordinary asset for the district if she is able to organize and propose goals that could be achieved within budget limits.
– Leah O’Connell
As a graduate of Cambridge Public Schools and teacher-counselor for the Cambridge Housing Authority’s Work Force program, based at the high school to get teens after-school jobs, Ayesha Wilson is no stranger to the community; over the years she has built a lot of good connections with students and families.
Her campaign focuses on equity, diversity and inclusion. She wants to make sure students feel supported and don’t face racism, oppression or inequity, starting with annual workshops for teachers on how to be culturally sensitive. “I am looking to support the students who are vulnerable, who don’t have strong relationships with their teachers,” she says.
She is not the only candidate who has suggested this – Rachel Weinstein is another big supporter of cultural competence in schools, but has not suggested professional development to achieve it. And while Wilson could succeed on the committee with proposals that could make kids feel welcome and try harder, she doesn’t have experience in budgeting and has not suggested a way to measure if her policies actually improve schools.
Her plan is in addition to cultural competency programs already in place – last year the district offered $100,000 for cultural proficiency professional development, and promised the project would grow this year. A day of professional development, excluding the estimated $67,184 cost of substitutes, costs around $456,000, a lot of money for workshops that don’t necessarily make a difference. (If Wilson plans to use cheaper programs, she hasn’t specified.)
Wilson seems confident about her workshops, saying, “This will best benefit the culture in CPS immensely.”
Wilson has good priorities and clear, achievable ideas, though her ideas don’t necessarily support her goals. Take away the professional development part of her plan and Wilson remains a driven, prepared and realistic committee candidate. – Phoebe D’Amato
Wilson wants to focus on how students transition out of Cambridge Public Schools and on to college, and more equity, diversity and inclusion while they’re here. After having had teachers of color in her own K-3 years in the district, Wilson says she understand the value they bring to the learning environment. Educators should reflect the diverse student population, and “increasing teacher diversity is an important aspect of improving educational equity for all students – especially for students of color,” she says. When students of color are taught by teachers of color, they have higher test scores, graduation rates and more enrollment in advanced courses. “Retaining diverse staff should not be overlooked” as well, she says.
As a student of color, I connect with teachers of color and feel Wilson’s thorough plan to put her ideas into action – including applying superintendent Kenneth Salim’s existing Dynamic Diversity Development Initiative – will help me. She also wants to focus on school climate, saying, “It is imperative that Cambridge Public Schools maintain a positive school climate where students are academically supported.”
– Nourin Tajnia
While Wilson’s qualifications may seem limited, they line up perfectly with what the School Committee needs. She attended Cambridge Public Schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, so she knows what it’s like to be a student in our city. She grew up disadvantaged, raised by a single mom, so she knows firsthand the problems working-class people face. Her role within the Work Force program keys her into the problems underprivileged teens face now. She has overcome racial and economic disadvantages, but instead of leaving her community behind, she gave back to help others who have experienced the same hardships.
She prioritizes policies that will help students directly, in a platform that is concrete and direct: working with “community-based providers to implement a quality level of learning frameworks” for universal pre-K to put every student on a level playing field; social, emotional and cultural training for teachers to ensure that classrooms are a safe place for all students; and her most unique and progressive policy – restorative justice. As an alternative to traditional school discipline programs, restorative justice focuses on conflict resolution between the victim and perpetrator rather than on punishment. Early data show it is more effective than traditional discipline such as suspensions, which only hurt students and can affect students of color disproportionately from as young as kindergarten. In this, she stands out from other candidates.
– Isaac Patterson
If the district wants a change, we must look to where it starts: the teachers. Wilson is a candidate willing to make that change. She has unique experience: She was raised in Cambridge and is a woman of color. She’s walked the shoes of the students. She’s more than just a candidate: She’s an inspiration. Wilson’s ideas don’t benefit just certain kids, but all. As a student, it’s inspiring to see successful people that look like me. It shows me that I can achieve great things too. – Kylee Bernard
Two-term incumbent committee member Manikka Bowman has a dual master’s degrees in urban policy and divinity, a job in the nonprofit sector and is a district parent, and she prioritizes supporting administrators, implementing universal pre-K and addressing the achievement gap. Most importantly, she wants to support minorities, girls and high-needs families. She wants “an honest conversation about [the] racism and unconscious bias” taking over the system – problems the School Committee has been aware of but has neglected, she says.
Bowman, whose experiences have informed her about diverse perspectives, takes other people’s backgrounds into consideration. This will benefit the district because it will build trust among students to have a leader they can look up to and see that she understands them. Students will feel comfortable with her leading them districtwide. Her plan for addressing race and bias seems realistic, since it would simply take a good group discussion between all of the people who work in the school system. If approved by people in higher power, it would be possible, and would change the district for the better.
I feel Bowman is going to make a positive change in the district.
– Amaya Fifield
Emily Dexter, another two-term incumbent, will create a stronger and more sustainable learning community. Dexter has kids that went to Cambridge Public Schools and has worked hard to push important initiatives during her time as a committee member. Dexter has worked as a teacher and knows what teachers and students go through day to day; she proposes initiatives such as adding teachers and tools for staff that will further student learning.
Dexter has strong priorities that will help overcome recurring issues students including myself have experienced at the Putnam Avenue Upper School, which suffers from low test scores. In my experience, I believe this is due to students having trouble focusing in class, which forces teachers to sacrifice precious learning time to instead shout and try desperately to keep classes in check; this hurts students who want to learn the material. Luckily, Dexter has a plan: Add more teachers. “If elected to a third term, I will continue to push for lower adult-student ratios,” she says. More teachers means more resources for differentiated learning styles, so students who are behind can get more attention from a teacher without delaying the education of another student.
Similar to Dexter, Rachel Weinstein has taught and has kids that go to Cambridge Public Schools. She also proposes initiatives that would equip teachers with the means to support students regardless of academic level. Together these candidates can create a stronger learning community.
– Rosa Boehm
Emily Dexter is a two-term School Committee member seeking reelection. She has many qualifications and understands the issues that need to be fixed. She has helped advocate for more summer and after-school programs related to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and has worked as a literacy specialist at a school for deaf students in Framingham, which suggests she understands special education. Dexter is very well rounded, and is passionate about special education and the importance of STEM.
Dexter has many ideas for what she could do if reelected. She is really big on Level Up, which undoes “tracking” that can keep students from college, and believes Level Up should be implemented into more schools, for all grades, with more teachers to co-teach and keep class sizes small. Dexter also want to make after-school programs, summer programs and preschools more affordable, avoiding some students having a leg up when attending kindergarten.
Overall, Dexter is a well-rounded candidate who has done a lot of work in education, but it was inappropriate that she failed to apologize for using the “N-word” to make an academic point until the situation became a bigger issue. Students of color in the district need to feel like they have people on the School Committee who understand who they are and are aware of the challenges they face. – Ruth Andre
Fred Fantini is expert in accounting and finance and has served on the School Committee for 34 years – he probably has the most experience out of everyone running, so dropping him now would be a major loss.
Fantini’s platform includes equity and access for all students, engaging learning for students and staff, supporting students as individuals, expanding and strengthening community and family partnerships and implementing progress monitoring. A lot of this platform is based around closing the achievement gap, and many proposals seems like they would aid the families and students at greatest risk of fal