Thursday, May 23, 2024

Cambridge Public Schools superintendent Kenneth Salim and deputy superintendent Carolyn Turk at a 2018 meeting of the School Committee. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

The school district will establish an “enhanced investigation and response system” for racist incidents and other inappropriate behavior, put in place mandatory anti-racism and racial equity training “at every level” and vows to pay more attention to the voices of students and families of color, superintendent Kenneth Salim said Friday.

“A shift in our practices is required if we are to become an actively anti-racist school district,” Salim said, drawing attention to a 12-item call to action posted Friday as a letter to the editor from the Building Equity Bridges group. Building Equity Bridges is a partnership between Cambridge Public Schools and the Cambridge Education Association.

“Their call to action channels the voices of hundreds of children and adults of color – challenging us to do more … if we are going to disrupt inequities in our schools and district,” Salim said.

He called his three priorities “just a few of the next steps” the district will take.“Building Equity Bridges has shown us the path toward becoming un-stuck as a school district. As soon as we return from the winter break, we will work together to take decisive action in each of the areas named,” Salim said.

Students and teachers of color in the district have long been complaining that they are confronted often by racist acts.

The letter follows mass calls for resignation of School Committee member Emily Dexter for inadvertently saying the full “N-word” once in an academic context, which itself followed the release of a widely criticized report on the incident.

Dexter’s slip took place during a Jan. 10 classroom panel discussion; none of her subsequent apologies were deemed adequate by offended students, parents or educators. Dexter said Sunday that she was opting out of serving her third term on the committee, and she didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting the last of the year and term.

“The stress of the past few weeks is not sustainable for us as individuals. It is all the more important that each of us take some time for rest and healing. The road ahead is challenging, and our students need us to return to them, ready to do the work,” Salim said. “It is important to me that our students understand that their voices have been heard, and have moved our community to action. I am energized by the power of this moment in our Cambridge history. If the CPS community can come this far despite all that divides us, imagine how much we will accomplish by working together.”

Salim’ description the three priorities:

CPS will establish an enhanced investigation and response system for racist incidents and other inappropriate behavior. This will include clear steps for communication, restorative practices, professional learning, and accountability, up to and including termination. In November we began talks between CPS and the CEA to develop a clearer and more transparent protocol for investigating and responding to reports of racist behavior by CPS staff. Some CRLS students have also been developing a proposal, which we look forward to learning more about so that we can establish new systems that respond to the needs of all stakeholders.

Anti-racism and racial equity training will become mandatory at every level. Over the last few years, we have invested in peer-led and expert-led professional learning around racial equity issues; and every school has implemented a school-designed strategy to provide cultural proficiency training to their staff. We see that this work has been uneven from school to school, and the quality of these efforts has at times seemed inconsistent. Among the gaps in our current model has been the need to differentiate learning experiences for staff members’ different identities, roles, and existing skills and knowledge. We need to develop an education-specific, comprehensive and structured mandatory training experience where participants demonstrate their practice.

We will center the voices of students and families of color, while actively engaging with our broad community of parents and caregivers around issues of equity and racial equity. In fall 2019, we piloted a series of family discussions in one of our school triads, focused on the barriers to equity named by Building Equity Bridges. Based on our learning from that experience, we will move forward with family engagement around these issues — responding to our community’s desire to be part of the solution, while also recognizing the concerns of those who have felt unheard in existing family engagement spaces.