Sunday, July 14, 2024

David Murphy, chief operating officer for Cambridge Public Schools, in a screen capture from a Jan. 2 meeting.

Cambridge Public Schools and the School Committee are considering changes to the district’s Controlled Choice policy resulting from its new Cambridge Preschool Program, formerly known as Universal Pre-K.

The changes, which could be accepted as soon as Tuesday, affect how kids get into and transfer within programs throughout elementary school. While current students will be exempt from the proposed policy changes, it could mean fewer choices, and less flexibility, for students who arrive in the fall.

Students would have a shorter window in which to change schools. An Oct. 15 deadline provides for around six weeks to see if kids and a school make for a good match; previously, a switch was allowed until December.

The proposed changes were presented at a committee meeting Jan. 2, the day after most members of the six-member body were sworn into office, with five of the seven members present. It was a “first reading” of the proposal, allowing for the committee to discuss the changes. If the committee adopts the revisions at a “second reading” it become official district policy.

Discussion began with some members not sure they had the current policy proposal – it has been tweaked three times in preparation for the preschool program – and a lack of clarity over what changes were under review. David Murphy, the district’s chief operating officer, assured the committee that they would get the current policy documents before the final vote. He provided an overview of the changes that will affect enrollment and matriculation at district schools, including the waitlist, transfer and hardship processes.

Despite comments that further review is needed, members who were present passed the changes unanimously to a second reading, scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting.

Arrival of a program

The CPP will provide free preschool for all Cambridge 4-year-olds and a limited number of 3-year-olds who meet eligibility requirements. The deadline to enroll for fall is Monday. The Kindergarten lottery closes at 4 p.m. on Jan. 31.

The Controlled Choice policy governs how students are assigned to schools, and aims to create classrooms that are socioeconomically and gender-balanced via the CPP and Kindergarten weighted lotteries held every January for the next school year.

The mixed delivery system for the Cambridge Preschool Program enrolls students at Cambridge Public Schools, the city’s Department of Human Service Programs, Head Start or select community-based preschool providers.

The program replaces junior kindergarten classes – for which students had to be at least 4 years, 5 months old – with 4-year-old preschool classes that may enroll students on their fourth birthday. It eliminates the district’s mixed JK and K classrooms, and means that the preschool students are not eligible for some city after-school programs due to state licensing age requirements.

Waitlist and transfer policy

Proposed policy changes that will affect incoming students include an earlier cutoff date to transfer schools, a limit on how long a preschool or elementary school student can remain on a waitlist and a limit of one transfer request during elementary school. The proposed changes will not apply to students already enrolled in the district.

The district’s current policy allows transfers between elementary schools through December of the academic year, with most requests granted under the district’s hardship request process.

Under the proposed policy, while a family can request a transfer at any time, transfers will be allowed only between the first day of school and Oct. 15, and only if a seat is available at the requested school. If a seat becomes available after the transfer deadline, it will remain open and unfilled until the end of the academic year. Any open seats will be offered to waitlisted students for September. Students can be placed on the school’s waitlist for up to two years.

If a seat does not become available within the two-year period, families would file a hardship request to transfer schools, Murphy said.

The district wants to stabilize enrollment in individual schools, particularly in light of enrollment projections that have not been released, and to address lapses in “instructional continuity” that affect individual students and classrooms when students transfer in December, Murphy said.

Murphy identified an additional issue concerning 4-year-old preschool students who are waitlisted but who do not transfer that year. Incoming kindergarten students are given priority for the seats, moving waitlisted students to the back of the line, he said. This reduces the students’ chances of transferring to the desired program.

He said a “very limited” number of families are “detrimentally affected” by this policy, and that the issue is under review by the registration team. Limiting transfer requests and moving the transfer deadline to October from December will create unexpected beneficiaries: Students from outside the city who enroll in the district after Oct. 15.

Due to seat ratios in individual school communities, there are “a number of barriers” to children from outside the district who enroll midway through the year, leading to more discontinuity in the system because they have limited options and are more likely to transfer schools, Murphy said. If there are open seats for families who are moving into the district, he said, it would give them a wider selection of school assignments.

“The transition of the execution deadline from December to October does not have an impact on seat availability,” Sujata Wycoff, the district’s director of communication, wrote in response to questions from Cambridge Day. “We believe that over time (as the current waitlists at schools where a waitlist exists are worked through) the institution of a two-year window by which to transfer based solely on seat availability will result in fewer backlogs and therefore increase the chances of seat availability for students coming into the district.”

Hardship requests

The district’s hardship request process, which dictates how families request transfer between elementary schools, is also under scrutiny. (There are different rules for upper school transfers.) Most requests are granted under the current system.

Murphy believes that there is a need to tighten the hardship process, including redefining what a “hardship” means and requiring school staff at the affected schools to be consulted regarding transfer requests.

“Irrespective of the changes that you all would be considering here,” Murphy told committee members, “there will be a need for us to tighten the process. There have been instances in which transfers have been granted without the knowledge of the leaders of the school communities that are affected either in the receiving or the sending. And I’m skeptical that serves the best interests of students.”

The proposed policy states that “in the absence of a genuine hardship, students will not be allowed to transfer from one CPS elementary school to another” with limited exceptions.

Member David Weinstein asked that if a “genuine hardship” will be required to transfer elementary schools, what are the guidelines and who makes the final decision?

“Ultimately, the point of the process is to try to be responsive to the concerns of a student or a family,” Murphy said.

A multidepartment team evaluates the circumstances around a hardship application, which can range from “in-school conflict to traumatic events in the child’s life to traumatic events affecting the family and having logistical implications for their ability to get the child to and from school, Murphy said. “It will always be a very broad range of circumstances.”

The hardship policy merits further discussion, David Weinstein said, noting that ambiguity could lead to the impression that the process is not equitable.

Still, the member who were present Jan. 2 passed the changes unanimously to a second reading, and approval Tuesday would make the changes policy.

Enrolling a child

The proposed Controlled Choice policy says that families who enroll a student in a 3-year-old preschool program may apply a second time via the preschool enrollment process for a different school for the second year of preschool (exceptions to this rule are Scholar College at the Fletcher Maynard Academy and the Tobin Montessori school, which are designed to be multiyear programs beginning at age 3).

The proposal has special caveats for the immersion programs at two elementary schools: the Chinese program at the Martin Luther King Jr. school and Portuguese program at the King Open School. Both have two independent programs: an immersion class in which the foreign language is taught for half the school day, and a non-immersion with regular but less intensive foreign-language instruction.

If a child with a sibling in the MLK or King Open immersion programs is not accepted because the class is full, the policy says the child will have priority status for a seat in the non-immersion program at each school and be waitlisted for the immersion program.

The district wants to maximize the opportunity for families to have their children in the same school for educational and logistical reasons, Murphy said.

The policy does not apply to the Amigos School, because all students participate in its Spanish immersion program.

Members present Jan. 2 included Rachel Weinstein and David Weinstein (no relation), the newly elected Richard Harding and Elizabeth Hudson, and Mayor E. Denise Simmons. Returning members unable to attend were Jose Luis Rojas and Caroline Hunter.