Monday, May 27, 2024

For many reasons starting with the Covid-19 shutdown and her recent appointment, new interim schools superintendent Victoria Greer has a clean slate from which to improve things and to not play the game the usual way, with Cambridge Public Schools more focused on defense than offense, putting managing information and politics first and stringing things out until summer break for a reset in the fall.

Whether the system had problems before Covid is not important, and while everyone who has kids or works with them knows they suffered over the past two years of pandemic, the fight over virtual learning and in-person education is behind us.

We have plenty of data that points to a crisis over students’ mental health, lost learning, attendance and social disconnect. We all have seen guns in the community and are aware of how mental health issues, drugs and alcohol affect kids. School surveys have told us all we need to know about the current health of students, and my simplest advice would be to start with the data and own it. There is no question that standardized tests can be racist and classist and alternative modes of child performance and potential should continue to be developed. But the crisis we are in requires executive-style focus and action. Academic debates about how, what and when will not help kids already far behind in many areas. 

Take this approach with all facets of the system, doing objective, third-party audits and assessments and talking directly with students and families (which are not the same). Audit attendance, extracurriculars and sports, family engagement, school climate, cultural competency of staff, post-high school success and so on. 

Cambridge students’ chronic absenteeism is more than 12 percent compared with Brookline’s more than 5 percent, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Our test scores are not close to commensurate with our spending, and the achievement gap is not shrinking. But we will not address the achievement gap by lowering standards on achievement or attendance. (In fact, I would question the drop to 133 students disciplined in 2019-2020 from the 254 disciplined in 2012-2013 – why the dramatic change?)

I am excited that the technical program, which is well known to be inadequate and substandard, will be reassessed. State data shows only 0.4 of graduates go on to building trade apprenticeships. With a city that has probably among the nation’s highest rate of union construction per capita, this is a disgrace, and considering the entrepreneurial spirit of young people, our technical alternatives should be a signature of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. The last time we studied technical education was during my mayoral term, resulting in a major rebuild more than 20 years ago. 

As a starter, I would look immediately at family engagement assignments in the front office of every school. Guidance counselors and school liaisons have come to own this, but we need it owned at the administrative level, and for nothing to move without parent involvement.

I would also make sure that a deputy superintendent is assigned to union relations, because nothing will change without the union. We will not move the dial on the achievement gap between regular school hours, and when you are behind you must work harder.

The superintendent understands that race and class issues are pervasive in school politics, and getting community buy-in requires hard work and skill. A fresh start that focuses on data and gets everyone buy-in for a reset presents real hope for Cambridge Public Schools. Make this pandemic an opportunity to do better, and let’s have Greer’s back.

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.