Smart choice around the next superintendent could heal our growing divisions about school
My mother has given the advice, “Start from where you are.” For the Cambridge Public schools, that’s a difficult place.
The vast majority of students have not been “in school” since March of last year. While strong division exists on when most students will return, when they do they will need significant remediation and emotional support. The superintendent has announced he is resigning in June, and since his statement of resignation, the teachers union voted no confidence in him and the School Committee. The committee has approved a more significant “in-person” option as of March 1, but divisions are high among parents and teachers. Race and equity are front and center from both sides, by parents and child advocates citing the disproportionate effect of virtual learning on low-income students and by teachers union representatives citing white supremacy rooted in the return to in-person learning. As with all coronavirus-related decisions, it’s very personal and emotional. I, personally, was disappointed that given Dr. Anthony Fauci’s predictions about a second late fall and winter surge, the Cambridge Public Schools system was not more prepared in the early fall when our numbers were very low. Many private, parochial and some public schools were partly back in-person and outdoors.Thankfully, Because of some incredibly committed staff, a very small percentage of our students have had “in-person” interaction too.
What is clear is that we have a fragmented power structure, and that the broader community in Cambridge typically stays out of school politics.
I write all this as background for a far more positive set of thoughts – positive because more folks then ever have tuned into the business of our schools. And with vaccinations coming, this “in-person” debate should wane in time. Lastly, the superintendent has given our community six months to figure out what it wants in a new superintendent.
It’s very possible that with communitywide leadership, divisions from coronavirus could be healed – in part by using all this focus and passion to direct a process of looking at what qualities we need in the next superintendent, and what we expect from our school system. Crises expose weakness and typically cause division, but can also unify around a common cause. It is highly possible that those in staunch disagreement may agree on what we need. Some initial observations are:
- The Cambridge Public Schools district is a highly political institution.
- We have a significant income gap and a significant and growing achievement gap.
- Parents with high income can peel off to private schools, subject to available space.
- We have a very strong union that knows that, as progressives, we are pro-union and pro-teacher.
- Parents run on fragile ground – in that many are privileged but also can get “equity” thrown in their face for demanding more.
- Lower-income families are wrought with outside pressures that make engagement difficult.
- We have an alternating mayor, not elected by the people, which makes the superintendent far more powerful.
- Our challenges are not based on a lack of resources or spending.
As we think about a new superintendent, I ask a few simple questions: Who will lead this process? Do we actually want reform? How do we frame the challenges of post-Covid education?
And do we want a “politician”; a hard-nosed “reformer”; a relationship and trust builder; or a leader unafraid of taking on the status quo?
Maybe we want all of the above, but whatever it is, the decision must be intentional. The superintendent and the mayor sent a strong statement which, agree or not, showed strong leadership. The mayor is likely to change, and the superintendent is leaving. I wonder if the superintendents’ notice gave him a new freedom to join the mayor in a strong leadership statement. Maybe the superintendent, without the pressure of wanting to stay, can be a stronger executive and give his honest feedback on our structural and generational challenges. No matter how you feel about the qualities needed in a new superintendent or task at hand, I hope you agree that we need more Cambridge voices taking the schools seriously; I have always felt the lack of attention was a major enabler of inaction to a system that could achieve far more.
We are an amazing, unique community that lights up for a presidential election but feels uncomfortable talking about school performance. It may be possible that a long public hiring process keeps the community engaged far beyond Covid-19. Our children deserve it.
Anthony D. Galluccio is a Cambridge resident and partner at Galluccio & Watson LLP, and a former state senator, mayor and chair of the Cambridge School Committee.