Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Cambridge Public Schools superintendent Victoria Greer delivers a state of the schools” address Monday. (Photo: Cambridge Public Schools)

The smooth sounds of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s jazz band set the tone as Cambridge Public Schools superintendent Victoria Greer gave the first “state of the schools” address to local officials, educators and students Monday at The Foundry community building in Kendall Square.

The address was “a moment to pause, to reflect and to uplift the meaningful work being done in each of our schools” and communicating “the challenges that we are facing,” Greer said.

Jeffrey Riley, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, gave opening remarks, noting that the district has impressed his staff, particularly its strategies to mitigate the impact of Covid. “In this imperfect world we live in, you may never get the honor and recognition that you would, but I’m here to say on behalf of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that we honor you,” he said.

School responses weren’t without controversy, he noted. “There are a lot of angry people in the world these days. Things are polarized,” Riley said. “I’ve told people there seems to be a silent majority that needs to stop being silent. When people can again agree on what the most important thing is, and I hope that’s our children, I think we can build back.”

Greer said in her address that the past several years of “unprecedented challenges” saw the school community “stretched further than any of us could have thought possible,” but the district’s celebration of initiatives was a sign of resilience.

The expansion of the school day, made possible by the city, the district and the Cambridge Education Association, was cemented in a contract for teachers and administrators signed this month.

Cambridge Public Schools had one of the shortest school days for elementary and middle students in the state, and “this disparity has presented a challenge for our educators as we strive to provide students with the enrichment and instruction they deserve,” Greer said. “The additional instructional time will allow for us to better be able to thoughtfully meet our instructional [needs], support students socially and emotionally and provide needed collaboration time for our educators and staff.”

The district continues to strive to be antiracist, Greer said, “continuously viewing our work through an equity lens.” The city’s unprecedented investment of $20 million to implement universal preschool is a key initiative in providing equitable access to high-quality education, she said. Aligning reading and math curriculums is another priority. While students in grades 3-10 have made progress in areas to near pre-pandemic levels of achievement, the district is updating its reading and math curriculum.

Challenges

The district faces challenges, Greer said. Overall student achievement is improving but the achievement gap is widening among black students and students receiving special education services. The district is examining enrollment issues, with some schools seeing declining numbers; an estimated 16 percent to 20 percent of fifth-graders leave the district. Chronic absenteeism has declined since last year but remains high, and there are growing social, emotional, behavioral and mental health needs of students.

Cambridge families have persevered despite profound losses during the pandemic, Greer said, adding that “our deeply committed and passionate community” continues to support the schools and has emerged stronger. “I truly believe the best for this district and community is yet to come.” The district want to make it easier for families and caregivers to contribute to the schools.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui reflected on district achievements and goals including revitalizing the Rindge School of Technical Arts program, investing in a stronger math curriculum and implementing universal pre-K. Other initiatives aim to make college more affordable, including a Early College Program and Cambridge Promise.

Even the youngest students can have a voice – each year Siddiqui asks kindergarteners how to make Cambridge better. “Their ideas include free food, providing money to families and a compliment robot that roams the streets of Cambridge and brightens your day with a free compliment,” Siddiqui said. “I think we should have that instead of street cleaning.”

Educator and staff spotlight

Chad Leith, director of professional learning and leadership, and Lendozia Edwards, chief of academics and schools, announced distinctions earned by district staff.

Nathan Whitfield of CRLS was named a semifinalist for teacher of the year by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education.

Tom Trainor of the Rindge Avenue Upper School won this year’s Don Salvucci Award for Excellence in Promoting Civics from the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies.

The high school’s Kristin Newton was a state finalist for the Presidential Award in Math and Science, one of six finalists in a national selection process that is one of the highest honors for teachers of math and science.

Karen Engels of the Graham & Parks School was a state teacher of the year semifinalist in 2022.

District staff spotlighted included Frantz Antoine, who has worked in the district for 24 years, serves in two roles at the Baldwin School: as cafeteria staff and as a traffic supervisor and crossing guard. He was awarded the state crossing guard of the year award in 2021.

Melissa Janvier works on positive relationships with CRLS students as a safety specialist and as adviser to the Haitian club.

Francis “Kakra” Brew-Smith, who has worked in CRLS facilities for 21 years, is a senior custodian at the Cambridgeport School, keeping one of the district’s oldest buildings a welcoming place for students.

Lina Braga of the food and nutrition department has worked at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., King Open and Putnam Avenue Upper schools for more than 23 years and retires at the end of the month.

Staff who earned teaching licenses or a master’s in education via the district’s Educator Pathway program were also celebrated: Zineb Allou, Paige Bacci, Julia Bosco, Michelle Cronin, Karina De Los Santos, Stefanie Gardner, Celeste McGhee, Vincent Orgeat, Rebecca Pearl and Stephanie Williams.

Student recognition and district heroes

Manuel J. Fernandez, the district’s chief equity officer, and Sam Musher, a youth advocacy specialist in the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, recognized more than 50 students for “incredible contributions to their community.”

Eleven students in the audience were highlighted, including Maya Conrad and Max Batchelor of the Putnam Avenue Upper School and Bennett Huggins, Onora Murphy, Kallie Alexis and Christopher Myers of the Rindge Avenue Upper School. Vassal Lane Upper School students who researched the historical context and social significance of the current and proposed new names for the school were Julie Moss, Theo Angelaikis, Farah Ahmed, Arsema Tesfaye and Zaida Pingitore. They presented their research to the School Committee in June.

Claire Spinner, the district’s chief financial officer, presented the “Homegrown Hero” award to committee member Fred Fantini, who was first elected in 1981 and served the city for 40 years, championing Cambridge students, families and educators and supporting the expansion of numerous programs in the arts, dual-language, career and technical education and early college.

David Murphy, chief operations officer, praised former deputy superintendent Carolyn Turk, who retired in the fall after 46 years of service and “perhaps more than anyone else, although I know she would be the first to say it was a team effort, helped lead the Cambridge Public Schools through the Covid-19 pandemic from start to finish.”

Attendees included committee members and members-elect Richard Harding and Elizabeth Hudson. Other attendees included state Rep. Mike Connolly and Tom Lucey, Harvard University’s director of community relations for Cambridge.