Saturday, July 13, 2024

There was much discussion about the high school’s “climate” at a Monday budget meeting held by the School Committee, including references to student fights and chaotic hallway behavior. These are not new issues, but have certainly become far worse in recent years. It’s critical for the community and taxpayers to read the attendance policy that, in my view, is at the root or at least demonstrative of a chosen lack of structure at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. 

When a student accumulates 15 or more tardies, has five or more absences – excused or unexcused – or has a combination of the two in the same class during a quarter, a student will earn an attendance violation, the policy says.

At the very end of the policy, it says there will be no reduction of a student’s grade as a result of an attendance violation being issued.

I am told homeroom was eliminated because kids were not showing up, but homeroom has always been critical to prepare students for the day and in spotting behavioral red flags. On top of this, I am told “absent” is interpreted as meaning missing 40 minutes of a 90-minute block schedule – so missing 39 minutes of a 90-minute class is not “absent.”

For those not driven to go to college, supported by private tutoring after school, college coaches and family expectations, a lack of structure and accountability is very tempting. Yet students tell me frequently they do not have to go to class – that it’s not part of their grade.

As an advocate and coach working from outside CRLS, it’s really tough to overcome kids’ perceptions of what is allowed, but there is no more important life skill than showing up and being on time.

One has to wonder if staff got tired of enforcing attendance and just threw up a white flag? Or is this the philosophy of the principal?

I get it: Arguing over kids’ use of phones and walking in late is exhausting. I go home exhausted on many days after working followed by coaching young people. I agree strongly with sentiments that staff have to be coached, supported and inspired to do this work. They also must be driven to help kids individually, and they must be culturally competent to engage. It’s very hard work, and we should give them the resources to do it. Leaders also have to set the example; superintendents, deans and principals must walk the walk.

I am sure many staff members are not happy with the climate of CRLS as well. 

A more detailed conversation about student-staff relationships is long overdue, including on when and how staff are expected to build relationships with students and caregivers outside of class time. Every meaningful intervention I had in high school with an administrator or teacher that I remember was one-on-one; interactions for which staff went out of their way on their own time proved to me they knew and cared about me. These relationships and communication out of the classroom are everything in terms of motivating underperforming students, but I have yet to hear “personal relationships” or “follow-up with individual students or caregivers” as a budget priority. We instead increase funding for the supports that have proven to not reach underperforming students, and if students don’t show up for an after-school homework center appointment, what is the response? If caregivers don’t show up at curriculum night or log on to Aspen, does the principal lay out an action plan to staff to reach them?

The current culture rooted in policies such as the one on attendance translates into very low expectations for children who are traditionally coming from behind. This will not change with fancy new five-year PowerPoint presentations. Leadership must inspire and support staff and hold them accountable. 

We have many great teachers and staff throughout Cambridge Public Schools, and if a student happens to encounter them, it’s amazing. I can name many of these wonderful educators who are personally inspired, culturally competent and care about kids. But I want their approach to be systemic, and for every child to experience them building personal relationships; holding children accountable; and communicating with kids and caregivers outside class. All this must be carved out, demanded and integrated into every facet of the system. Logging into Aspen and going to curriculum nights or coffees with the principal are awesome, but for the chronically absent students and disengaged caregivers, these strategies must be heavily supplemented.

We cannot say it’s okay to not show up, then expect kids to think we really care.

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.