Friday, April 19, 2024

Incumbent elected in 2015 and seeking third term in office


The candidate’s website | Facebook | Twitter 

Endorsed by Bob Moses | Jan Devereux |  Our Revolution | Patty Nolan

Background: Educational research, language specialist | Focuses: Accountability, math, staffing


School Committee candidates were asked by parent Piotr Mitros if they would be interviewed. Of the 11, three did not respond to emails; one declined; and one declined to have their interview recorded. We provided interview questions to the candidates a week before the interview to give time to prepare. Due to the length of the interviews, we have summarized answers, with links to audio for more depth.

Why run? Dexter feels she has been an effective committee member in getting things accomplished, such as more staff in classrooms and an increased focus on school attendance. She has ongoing priorities she would like to finish shepherding through.


One thing. Dexter has been working in math, and with people in the community focused on math – a new area for her, as most of her background is in language education. She is working on what she calls “the Marshall Plan for math”: creating the best possible school program in terms of what happens in and out of the class. She’s thinking through what happens in schools, at homes and after school and how they interact. She’d like to bring about home activities that are joyful and rigorous and act as an extension of the school day. She would like to bring together a community advisory board to help make this happen, similar to ones the district used to have.


How much time could you devote? Dexter spends 20 hours a week on work directly on the committee, complemented by community organizing work. She is engaged with civil rights activists looking at data for improving math education (“Data for Better Schools”), especially for black and latino students. They have been talking with members of the communities (such as clergy) about what the data mean through a lens that includes the history of civil rights in America.


Cultural expectations at schools. Dexter sees this as the daily work of the committee, of teachers, of principals and of parents. Everyone in Cambridge says they love the diversity here and the different ways people think, and the question is how to pull ideas together into something coherent. She emphasized that most of what different groups want are not mutually exclusive. How do we connect activities? If kids are playing a self-invented game of kickball, can we connect that to the math curriculum? 


Academic Diversity. [Note: We repeated part of this interview due to a technological issue; there are a few slight non sequiturs due to editing; those are our fault, not hers.] Schools are inherently bureaucratic, and parents who have been through college and work in a bureaucratic company are likely to be better at working the system – which is we need to support all families, Dexter said. Within classrooms, we need differentiation: How do we build curriculum around student interests and manage different levels of student skill? Teachers really need planning time to think about the needs of individuals and how to plan a lesson around those needs. Teachers are rushed, and without that time, the easiest thing is to give everyone the same thing. Students should also work in a variety of settings – individually, in groups, and within different roles. There should be more flexibility with students working across grades, such as in Montessori programs. Especially in math, this is very powerful. 

In terms of diversity in schools, Dexter described saw self-sorting as a student, and saw that as bad, and liked the district to be a coherent unit, not a collection of unrelated schools. Immersion programs are tricky because programs are somewhat segratory by their nature, but Dexter saw a number of ways to broaden the diversity of families in these programs through broader outreach. She was ambiguous about these programs due to equity issues, but would be in favor of making the whole district immersion at some point to expose all kids to another language and culture.


Upper schools and math. Dexter would like to see stronger parent councils, more staffing in classrooms and additional training for principals on creating community in those schools. She is concerned about evaluating schools on reputation; she believes in real, quantitative data. We have test scores, but at this point, little beyond that. We had a school climate survey, and Dexter is looking forward to seeing results.


Parent-school partnerships and family rights. Family engagement should start from the top, with the School Committee more open to discussion with parents and providing a model to principals who also meet parents with different communication styles. Training in conflict management can help, Dexter said. There she be a parents’ bill of rights in the district as well as a students’ bill of rights, started by pulling together a task force. For example: parents’ rights to be in a classroom. Parents “in the old days” sitting in the back, drinking coffee to critique teachers contentiously lead to unhealthy dynamics, but there are  healthy ways for parents to observe – helping in a class, going on a field trip, or teaching a class on a subject they’re interested in.


Outcomes and testing. As someone trained in quantitative research, Dexter believes in tests and in measures, but as someone trained in qualitative research, she believes we need multiple measures. She wants to curb misuses of testing and balance its data with other sources. She thinks Cambridge does a good job with performance tasks, capstone tasks and portfolios, but asks how to formalize it to give information back to the community. Dexter would like to district to use MCIEA as a complement to MCAS, which it is designed to eventually replace. Benchmarks (such as the Benchmark Reading Assessment tend to be more authentic, and would be another complement to the MCAS.


Closing thoughts? Dexter thinks a key contribution she makes to the committee is to really push to know what’s going on. She asks continuously for data – on surveys, on special education, on attendance. She thinks it’s important for the committee to operate based on strong information, and not just on anecdotal parent, student, and superintendent reports. She also pushes forward issues which are not on the table yet. She pushed on school absence rates, and now that’s something principals look at.

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David Weinstein for School Committee, 2019