Sunday, June 16, 2024

I believe public education is a public and common good. I heard someone say recently they did not think public school parents had the right to weigh in on school issues – that this was a privilege they associated with private school where you “pay to play.” I strongly disagree with the sentiment because it perpetuates a mindset that feels pervasive in Cambridge Public Schools right now: that public education is not a public good, but instead a charity. And we should all just be grateful for what we get, sit down and shut up.

But what we are getting out of the district is mediocre at best, and we deserve the chance to talk about it. One such opportunity is coming up: a community dialogue for caregivers hosted by My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge and moderated by MBK’s Tony Clark on at 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on Zoom. I will attend to learn from other caregivers from around the district about their experiences and enhance my understanding of the challenges and opportunities we face now.

My concerns should not be interpreted to suggest that we do not have great educators and great programs in this well-resourced district. We do, and my son has benefited from having some excellent teachers in his short tenure in the district so far. But this essay is not about my son. Nor is my advocacy just for him. My advocacy is about saving our district from the path it has been on for the past several years: reforms that promote top-down decision-making, discourage community engagement, divest from frontline educators and promote narrow measures of student success that can exacerbate systemic inequities. This path has enabled the mindset of public school as charity, rather than as a public good that we all benefit from and should invest in for the health and future of our economy and fragile democracy.

Over the past two years I have been shocked at the way school and district leaders have shut out caregivers from hard conversations about how to meet the diverse needs of our students from all backgrounds without resorting to zero-sum thinking that pits some student populations against others. My journey to becoming a vocal advocate for accountability, transparency and open dialogue at our school and district began last year when my son entered kindergarten. At the start of the 2022-2023 school year I learned that our new principal was implementing scheduling changes that reduced lunch and recess times (this was a full year before the district announced the new elementary school scheduling guidelines in the fall of 2023). Then, just weeks into the year, the principal announced that our JK/K classrooms would no longer have “rest time” to increase time for literacy work. I was not thrilled with this decision, nor was my kid, but I felt powerless to do anything. And who can argue with wanting to improve literacy test scores?

Not long after learning of these changes, my son started coming home with stories of classroom evacuations due to “unsafe” situations. As I stumbled to figure out what questions to ask my then 5-year-old to explain what was going on, I learned that there were a few children in the class that were becoming so dysregulated that the teachers had to evacuate the class to deescalate. Or this is what I think was happening. I’ll never really know, because the principal prevented our teachers from sharing information about why our classroom was being evacuated sometimes multiple times a week. Eventually, after some months of regular evacuations, the situation calmed. I later learned that the school brought two additional adults into the classroom. The added support was crucial, it seems.

This is my understanding of what happened. I had to come to this understanding on my own with my kindergartener and through conversations with other parents because nobody in the school would communicate about what was happening. Turns out, at least one other JK/K classroom was having a similar experience. And when parents inquired, the principal maintained that she could not discuss what was going on to protect student privacy. I couldn’t help but wonder if what was happening in the classrooms was the result of the scheduling changes, and wanted a space to have that conversation as a community. I have an extremely active kid and so I know well the emotional dysregulation that can happen when he does not get the movement and rest time his body needs. Were changes intended to improve literacy outcomes among JK/K students in fact undermining their developmental needs? If so, was the elimination of rest time alongside reduced lunch and recess actually undermining student learning conditions?

Eventually, amid mounting pressure from frustrated parents, a “Principal’s Coffee” was scheduled at which district personnel briefly spoke about how to talk to children about what they were witnessing in the classroom – children throwing chairs, pulling teachers’ hair, throwing books, kicking, hitting and other typical behaviors when small children become severely dysregulated. I could not attend that event because it conflicted with my work. I requested that the information shared in that meeting be disseminated to the wider community, but there was never follow-up. I expressed my concern that the lack of communication with all families being affected by the classroom disruptions could pave the way for misunderstandings that could end up stigmatizing the children struggling with classroom expectations. The principal never responded. Eventually I grew tired of pressing and gave up – until this past fall, when I started meeting more caregivers at the school.

We shared frustrations with the lack of communication from school and district leadership on matters such as classroom staffing, safety and what it means to ensure that all struggling students get the wraparound services they need and deserve. I learned new and alarming details about the level of disruption our kids and teachers were experiencing in their JK/K classrooms. I also learned about challenges other teachers in the building face, such as inadequate classroom support to manage student behavior and learning, yet feeling fearful of school leadership and deterred from asking for support. And I learned that some families have struggled to get school leadership to take seriously their children’s needs for Individualized Education Programs. Before long I began to understand the issues we were facing went far beyond the kindergarten experience and realized that those being most harmed, besides our unsupported teachers working in fear, are our children.

Connecting with other caregivers at our school, and more recently around the district, has been critical to my investment in better understanding the many challenges our school and district face. I’ve come to appreciate that what’s happening at our school is not isolated (though the circumstances are unique, as reported here) but is a symptom of a broken public school system that has embraced a culture of silencing caregivers and teachers. I have my theories as to why, but I will not expand upon them here. Instead, I want to invite all district caregivers to consider joining in the MBK community dialogue. Many of us have asked for real dialogue with school and district leaders without meaningful response. While the School Committee hides from the public in silence about the future of our district and the superintendent’s contract, MBK has offered to create a space for caregivers to connect.

All caregivers from across the district are encouraged to attend. We need more advocates of all backgrounds to take a seat at the table to demand a reexamination of our priorities to give all our students the respect and resources they need to become the best versions of themselves for a better society and world.

Lilly Havstad, Granville Road, Cambridge

The author is a Graham & Parks School parent.