Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Students arrive at the Haggerty School in September 2021. (Photo: Marc Levy)

How to spend nearly a quarter-billion dollars on Cambridge Public Schools education was handled quickly at a Monday budget discussion, with specifics drawing little attention from City Council and School Committee officials. More time was spent exploring a few questions raised by councillors around enrollment, educational goals, and vocational programs.

The proposed budget is $245 million for the 2024 fiscal year starting July 1, up $12.6 million or 5.4 percent from the current $232.4 million, with most new funds going toward salary and benefits. Transportation is the second-biggest item. The district has some federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money to spend as well, projecting that $3.5 million will remain for the next academic year from the total $12.6 million.

Overall enrollment is projected to increase in the next academic year to 6,824 students, up by 68 from the current year, said the district’s chief financial officer, Claire Spinner. Fifty-five of those are in the elementary and upper schools. It’s a 6.8 percent drop from the 7,236 students enrolled in the 2019-2020 year, a recent peak, and enrollment is projected to slightly decrease each year over the next five years.

This takes into account the city’s projected growth in housing, CPS officials said, but also the long-term impacts of Covid and a drop in birthrate that began more than four years ago. The coming lower enrollment numbers of junior kindergarten and first-graders will ripple through the system for years, Spinner said.

The thing that caught councillors’ attention most was not a budget item, but a two-year equity audit that is underway to see if the budget process and resource allocations are “aligned [to] encourage equity and success for all students,” Spinner said. It was proposed by the Cambridge Community Foundation, which has committed $150,000 to fund the audit by the Thrive! consultant firm.

District initiatives

Meanwhile, the budget is bound tightly to a district plan setting out a dozen priorities to work through over the next three years. This year the focus is on four initiatives that include individual “student success” plans, improving family access to resources and universal pre-school.

Councillors praised the universal pre-school initiative. Superintendent Victoria Greer and City Manager Yi-An Huang are working on rollout plans, supported by an ad hoc group of council and committee members, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said.

Huang noted that the project requires many operational changes, including examining current and future budgets and extensive planning by the city and school district to ensure a smooth rollout. The School Committee plans a roundtable in the next several weeks to discuss progress.

Targets the district hopes to meet by July 2025 include “aspirational” goals of reducing the number of chronically absent students each year and that 95 percent of students complete grade-level milestones.

Math achievement

One of those yearslong goals is to improve student achievement in math, which shows signs of slippage since the Covid pandemic: The district has long wanted all students completing algebra in the eighth grade, but councillors noted that only 14 percent of ninth-graders tested out of having to take Algebra I in 2022, a stark contrast to the 44 percent that tested out the previous year.

Councillor Quinton Zondervan expressed concern that the district would wait until mid-2025 to improve math achievement, but Greer said that was not the case.

“Statistically we could not in one year have all students proficient,” Greer said. “Some students are so far behind that the ability to attain and build skills will take more time. It is very individualized, and it is going to take some students longer than others to get to the proficiency level that we want or need and desire for them to be.”

The district is reviewing its math curriculum, beginning at the elementary level, Greer said, and some teachers are trying new curriculum to address challenges.

The district is working with upper school math teachers and instructional coaches to find out why students are falling short, and comprehensive information about eighth-grade math will be released soon, Greer said.

Vocational education

Vice mayor Alanna Mallon asked about a work-based learning coordinator position that had been funded but not filled.

Hiring for the position was delayed due to changes in the Rindge School of Technical Arts program, said Greer, with a new executive director redefining the role toward being a career-pathway coordinator for both the high school and upper schools.

The district is partnering with local organizations and companies to provide insight into ongoing local employment needs, including giving input during the RSTA review, Greer said. If a student wants to study a trade that isn’t offered by the district, Greer said students can attend programs in partner districts.

Community engagement

Councillor Dennis Carlone, curious about how community members shaped the proposed budget, was told the district held four community meetings at varied locations, in-person and virtually, to gather resident input. An engagement team contacted 120 families, and 519 people completed an online budget survey as of Jan. 30, officials said.

“One of the things that we’ve been focusing on for a number of years was not just quantity of people, but that we actually have a diversity of voices that come to our meetings,” Spinner said. This year the district piloted holding meetings at different locations, providing child care, food and limited transportation.

The district plans to release its findings to the public, and plans an after-action review to increase participation.