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Our test scores are finally at the state average, for all subgroups — but Patty is positive we can be at the top, across the board. This should be expected given our community resources, our institutions (Harvard, MIT, Lesley), our families, and our budget — $20,000 per student ($25,000 counting expenses like transportation & out of district tuitions).
On the issues
Top Priorities and Issues
Social Emotional Learning Honestly, there are many issues — early education, the achievement gap, making sure the new superintendent can be effective. However, increasingly I see one overarching issue central to all we do — addressing in a comprehensive way the social-emotional needs of students. WE know now , thanks to solid research, that the relationships in the classroom, the feeling of safety, the sense that the student matters, the conviction that the teacher cares, is a prerequisite for student learning. Students must feel safe and that it matters. Once those conditions are met, the student is open to learning. Plus teachers feel more like whole human beings, and see students as whole human beings. If we consciously focus on ensuring that teachers are given the support they need to build relationships with students and have the resources to create a safe classroom environment, many of the “behavior” problems we see would disappear. And, intimately tied to this issue is standardized testing. Overtesting and an overemphasis on standardized testing is harming the social-emotional needs of students, making it harder to help them learn. We are doing too much and it is hurting our students and disheartening our best teachers.
Continued implementation of the Innovation Agenda. Easy to say, not so easy to do. Honestly, while change takes time, it is long past the time when we should expect well functioning upper schools. Our upper schools now have additional staff, thanks to school Committee leadership, and some electives. Yet the dream of a much richer and robust set of electives, and vibrant engaging classrooms filled with high expectations is still a work in progress. We also need to make good on the promises of the IA for elementary schools, including world language. A larger cohort in the middle schools has improved some aspects of that experience for our middle grade students. Based on feedback from families and students, the goals of increased rigor and greater engagement have not been met.
My continued service would ensure a forceful voice advocating for research-based decisions, broad-based input and transparency. The IA will not achieve the vision of balanced, engaging schools if we don't work together to: focus on outcomes, honor effective teachers and create respectful classrooms.
Universal Junior Kindergarten or Preschool for all 4 year olds
The issue of ensuring that every four year old in Cambridge has the opportunity to be in a high quality educational setting has been discussed for years. The community has increasingly supported the idea and now is the time for us to act. The reason is based on research that the achievement gap starts early, and can be prevented with a focus on caring educational settings during the first years in a child's life. The Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education and Care in 2010 (co-chaired by School Committee member Marc McGovern and City Councilor Marjorie Decker) provided excellent summary of the issue. We waiting for the report by the joint Task Force — originally scheduled for releast a year ago, and now expected in November, 2015. The School Committee team further built on the idea that we should expand our offerings. With my colleagues, I have worked to champion and improve early education in Cambridge. The pledge must be for high quality and affordable early childhood programs. If re-elected, I will continue to work with both the school administration and the city to ensure that Cambridge prioritizes early childhood education. Currently the age of entry into our public schools is about 4 1/2. Yet research has documented that children who have successful early experiences establish a foundation for future success. Instead of starting behind, children from impoverished backgrounds or households where books are not available or English is not spoken can start on a par with their peers. Early intervention also can reduce the need for and/or intensity of special education services later.
The effort to have all 4 year olds in excellent programs can be accomplished through a partnership between the city and the school department. I invite everyone in the city to join this effort. With all our resources, this idea is one we should be implementing now. Although concerns over where such programs could fit, in light of a space crunch in our schools, I believe that if we commit to the program, we will find a solution. Other cities have built early education centers, which might e a better solution than trying to add junior Kindergarten classrooms in every school. And I believe it will be stronger if the city and school department work together — and house it in early education centers, not school buildings.
Better Use of the $27,000 per student we spend
We need to use our dollars more effectively and efficiently. I have successfully led a change in our budget process which focused more on effectiveness and consciously examines ways to spend money to greater effect. The issue is not our spending level, but are we getting expected results? We spend an astounding $27,000 per student, twice the state average. Yet we are not (yet) considered the best district in the state in all areas. In fact, compared to ALL districts anywhere near our size, we spend LESS as a % of our budget on classroom teachers and more on items not tied directly to effective teaching, which all research says matters the most. We need to carefully look at what supports are needed in our classrooms to address the needs of all children. And by all children I mean both those not at grade level, which is as many as half our students, but also those in need of greater challenge. Engaged learning reaches and invigorates children across the ability spectrum.
I believe that we should consider spending more in the classrooms, putting effective adults (whether they're teachers, aides, tutors, as long as they're effective I don't care what level or title they have) working directly with our students.
We will need to make thoughtful decisions, and be vigilant about basing the budget on proven programs, with well-researched evaluations driving decisions, and a comprehensive review of every non-educational aspect of running the district with an eye towards greater efficiency. The state's finance department compiles comprehensive budget information on all districts. That comparison shows a number of areas we should explore for re-allocation of dollars into educational uses. For example, we still spend more dollars on central administration this year than three years ago and FAR more than other districts anywhere near our size.
It is critical that someone with my background represent you, as we face these budget questions.
With the Innovation Agenda, we are spending even more on administration We need to make sure that spending yields more engaged learning.
Use our data on school choice to improve programs
As co-chair of the Controlled Choice Team, I worked very diligently and successfully to identify issues related to our policy of school assignment. Our team's work was instrumental in getting a number of improvements: some policy changes, new plan in process now for overhauling all our communication materials, the piloting of an online registration system, which will be expanded over time to all students. Our district needs to be more welcoming to families, and also provide the support to staff so they can be effective ambassadors for the district. The continued emphasis over the last year on this issue is a testament to collaboration among the entire School Committee.
Next term we will be discussing specific ways to improve the attractiveness of underchosen schools. Too many people opt out of our district due to worry about not getting their school of choice or trying and not getting it. The choice system has strengths, and its core value of the importance of having balanced schools is wonderful. A key strength of our district is the range of educational programming offered in our elementary schools. Building on that by expanding offerings in schools needing to be more chosen will lead to 100% of families getting into a school they want.
I see three programs that would attract families: another Montessori on the east side of Cambridge, another immersion school (French or another language), and an International Baccalaureate school.
The reason this issue is a top priority is that it feeds into our areas: the families who opt out are ones we fail — there is no reason families should not be confident that every one of schools would be a great place for their child(ren).
No one has worked longer or more consistently than I have on raising issues of choice, of new school models, of clear delineation of our enrollment numbers, of the complexities around discussing how choice plays out over the year. As we address the policy it is very important that the district and the Committee are thorough and equitable. Based on my past experience of providing the leadership necessary to avoid a potentially embarrassing policy change through diligence and collaboration, I am certain that I would be able to provide that leadership in future discussions and decisions.
School Department Administration & Superintendent
First, the single most important issue of any School Committee — the hiring and evaluation of the superintendent. I played a key leadership role throughout the search and supported Dr. Young to lead our district. However, while I supported Dr. Young seven years ago, I was the sole vote against him serving for a seventh year. IN my view, he was no longer the leader for Cambridge. I have lived up to my promise of holding him accountable, asking tough questions, and continually seeking best practices from outside Cambridge to help us improve. At this year's evaluation, I named a number of areas in need of improvement — documenting each one with specific examples. The superintendent did not meet most of his mutually agreed upon goals, was not evaluating staff, did not implement the educational elements of the restructuring very well. And this year he ignored a serious incident of plagiarism by a top administrator. With a heavy heart, I voted no (the vote was 6-1 in favor) of a new contract. And I rated him as not meeting the mark in his evaluation.
As for other district administration, we have some terrific staff. There are two main kinds of administration: in school administrators, like our principals and asst. principals, and out of school administrators, often referred to as central administrators. The main issue for me on school-based administrators is that they get the support they need and feel comfortable making decisions. They are central to our success as a district, and we need them to be the best. Currently, we have some weak leaders who need to be supported or moved out.
We need to give our principals, the frontline educational leaders, the full authority to do their job. We also need to have a stronger mentoring program for our principals, since many have little experience and all are facing the challenge of restructured schools. We should be setting policy and establishing goals. The superintendent should be ensuring that the goals and statewide curriculum frameworks be followed. The superintendent should also be providing support to principals, and holding high expectations for teacher and student performance.
The main issue on central administration is to figure out how to help the district improve the efficiency of those roles, especially since we may be facing deficits in the coming years. That would be a huge change from the past several years when we have had multi-million dollars surpluses in the school department each year.
School Department Budget and Capital Needs
This question of our budget could fill twenty pages. Our budget is phenomenal. When I talk to school board members in other place, we have an embarrassment of riches. We spend $27,000 per student. Other towns average about half that.
The most relevant question is now "why do we spend so much or where does our money go". The most important budget questions, given that we have enough money, are "Are we spending our money well? Are we getting our money's worth?"
In my view, no. We do have amazing programs and we are all lucky — students, families, residents — to have such a well-funded school district. Much of the money we spend IS well spent. Some of our excess spending goes to things other districts only dream about: no fees for activities or buses, all day Kindergarten, an array of afterschool programs, early childhood programs. We also have relatively small classes and relatively big school buildings.
Add that all up, and it accounts for a portion of the extra we spend. We owe it to ourselves to be honest that our extra spending is not just about no fees. Nor is it mostly due to small class sizes. All our extra spending on non-school based staff is great if it's leading to higher achievement. Not great if it's because we have not evaluated programs and positions and cut those which are no longer needed.
For example, we spend three times the state average, on a per pupil basis, on professional development. We have done that for a decade. People say "it's great to spend so much on training and professional development." I ask "Is our spending on professional development effective? How do we measure it? If we have spent three times the state average for over ten years, why isn't our district improving at a far more rapid rate than the state?"
Numerous studies have shown that for all the cuts we have made, we are still one of the most top-heavy districts in the state. With the Innovation Agenda, we will be allocating even more dollars to administrators, and have less available for classroom teachers. We need to be sure that every dollar spent ultimately improves the education of all children. Should we be re-allocating some of our professional development dollars to more art or music or second language teachers? Or tutors? I believe that is worth exploring.
The research on effective ed reform demonstrates clearly that the path to excellence is through school-based management, and pushing authority and resources into the schools, not keeping much of it centralized. Over half our spending is in non-teaching areas. That is too much.
One area that hasn't been addressed systematically is how we're doing on being a technologically up-to-date school district in terms of management. In a number of areas, teachers have told me we're behind a lot of districts. For example, a teacher can't process a purchase order for something for the classroom electronically. That seems very inefficient to me, and worth examining.
Over the last six years, the school district has had to close multi-million budget gaps, due to rising staff and energy costs and small budget increases. Since we start from very high funding levels, we have been able to close gaps without cutting essential programs or staff. That luxury will likely end soon. It is critical that someone like me, who understands budgets and can quickly synthesize information and take a top-level view of the budget serves on School Committee.
It takes a village to raise a child, including one in a school district. We must all work together, instead of getting caught up in petty politics, to ensure our budget dollars are spent in the most effective way possible. I am very proud of the work Marc McGovern and I did as budget co-chairs a few years ago in getting the district's first ever budget guide out to every household in Cambridge. For a very modest amount of money - far less than we spend on some other publications, we send a comprehensive but readable guide to you, the city's taxpayers - who are footing the bill. The guide summarizes our budget spending, priorities, process and initiatives.
Buildings are important. CRLS is undergoing a very expensive renovation. And we have a very long list of elementary schools in need of renovation and repair. It will be very challenging to find the money to work on those buildings. But we must figure it out, since all children should be in buildings that enhance their learning, not ones in need of serious repair.
On the disposition of school buildings
The Upton Street building is now the Amigos School in the fall of 2012. The building itself needs major work if it is to be used for a school on a permanent basis (new fire codes, accessibility issues, no open space, few bathrooms). The funds need to be allocated, so all students in Cambridge, including those at Amigos, have access to appropriate educational space.
While I hesitate to compare any group to white middle class (which I am), the fact that there are such large disparities along both socio-economic and racial/ethnic line is troubling. The average gap between white and African American in Cambridge, as measured by the usual albeit limited measure, proficiency on MCAS in 2015, is over 25 points. For Low income, and Hispanic/Latinos, it's also almost as big. And for special needs students, proficiency rates are about 1 in 4. The proficiency of low income, Afr. American and Latino students in Cambridge is less than 50%. AND that gap is unchanged in nine years. I worked with the Cambridge NAACP to document the gap and ask for a clear plan to address it. That is what matters most to the implementation of the IA.
I note that while our achievement gap is unacceptably high for proficiency, our district has an enviable record of high school graduation for all, and an especially great record for a group very difficult to reach, African American males.
The answer is deceptively simple: higher expectations, balanced schools, and acknowledge the gap publicly, since that is always the first step to addressing an issue.
I have heard — all of us on School Committee have heard — about programs for struggling students, but have not ever had a report on programs for the other end of the ability spectrum. At the high school, we have a full array of courses, not only AP, but in science internships at Biogen and other companies which provide those students involved college level and beyond exposure and experience. If you complete through the math offerings, some students go to Harvard Extension. If you are ready for more than AP English or History, you have a range of options to ensure challenge.
Not so at the elementary level. It is an issue I have worked on, and plan to do more on if re-elected. A concern of mine stems from some research suggesting that if a district is not careful, the pressure of No Child Left Behind can be used to basically ignore those already proficient.
Elementary Schools and Curriculum
I support our elementary schools, which include a range of choices. I would like to see us take a look at programs across the different schools to see which ones merit replication in other schools. I believe that we need to do additional market research to better understand what families in Cambridge want, in order to ensure our enrollment keeps going up. The same schools have been overchosen for 15 years now. It is time to address the need for a new program, so that 100% of Kindergarten parents get one of their top 3 choices. That is a very reachable goal.
The curriculum should not be dictated from above, but decided upon by an individual school community, as long as the outcomes are mutually agreed upon. At Amigos, for example where my children attended for 6 years, the nature of a bilingual immersion program does not always fit with curriculum that might work at another school. Amigos should do what's best for its program. Similarly, an alternative project-based approach is appealing to many — the Graham & Parks, Cambridgeport and King Open all have aspects of it. Are we losing the specialness of these schools? Let's make sure the answer is no.
A policy change I advocate is second language at every school K-5. Our students live in a world where exposure to a new language, and to different cultures is not a nice-to-have, but a necessity.
High School Programs and Curriculum
Our high school is highly regarded. The last few years, the ninth grade class has attracted a large number of students back to our district form private or other schools. The 9th greade class is 25% larger than the graduating 8th grade class. That is progress! WE have a high school that works for many kids, with some stellar programs, and a sense of school spirit. The climate is important, since a healthy, vibrant school culture of high expectations is the best predictor for a high quality school.
It is also time to evaluate the block scheduling. Currently, unless a student doubles up on math, they go 8 months without math. Same with foreign language. This gap in learning is educationally problematic for those two subjects.
The range of course offerings, the great quality in so many areas and the upcoming renovation all bode well for continued success of CRLS. The challenges for the future include instilling small school feel and attention when the small learning communities are not allowed to differentiate and are not separate schools. And, the overarching and critically important question of why the classes at different levels are so strikingly different by race and class.
There are other issues to address in the high school. We need to look at policies on AP grades and policies on use of technology in the classroom including when online and computer coursework is appropriate. I also believe that our discipline policy is too punitive and rigid. While we all like zero-tolerance, we also like forgiveness and support. Many of our policies sound too much like one strike and you're out.
Article after article, study upon study, research efforts across the board confirm: excellent schools invite, encourage, welcome and include parents and families. I will always advocate for participation and inclusiveness in discussions.
There is a new spirit of openness in the district. Let's build on the momentum coming from the new administration, and encourage families to be more involved.
Our communication efforts have greatly improved, but we have a long way to go. For a city which prides itself on being at a center of innovation, we have a school district that should be a top notch website and parent outreach program.
Due to my background and my passion, I have led the School Committee and school district towards greater environmental responsibility. My efforts led to the landmark hiring of our district's first full time Sustainability Manager. With the goal of a net-zero school for the King and Putnam Avenue Upper School, we continue to make substantive progress in this area.
With policies and practices, we are slowly moving towards high performance, sustainable district. The forum I put together on green school buildings with Harvard, MIT, and the state Green Schools program, led directly to some of the most innovative sustainable features of the CRLS renovation. Our school bus emissions program has helped alleviate toxic emissions from our buses daily polluting our air as they transport our children.
Our schools can and should be at the forefront of environmental education, building, and programs. Our city has made a commitment to being a city supportive of environmental sustainability. But we have not done enough to have a culture of environmental responsibility. I have been working in this area on a number of fronts, and if re-elected will continue this work. I bring my volunteer work in the community on environmental and energy issues — with Green Decade Cambridge, HEET, Green Streets — into my School Committee work. We do not yet live the ideal of incorporating sustainability into our practices as a district. We can and we should.
Explore extended learning time, including a longer school year
We need to have a community wide dialogue about how to avoid the summer backsliding that all kids experience. My colleague Richard Harding and I co-authored a column calling for extended school year for all CPS middle school students.
The summer backsliding is particularly acute for special needs students, for low income students and for students of color. Our school schedule is still based on a harvest that last happened in Cambridge more than a century ago. (Anyone know when?) Ask any teacher what kids lose over the summer. Answer: A lot. I see it in my kids, and their Spanish. They are the part of the Amigos family that is not Latino at all. Without Spanish over the summer, they lose a lot. It is as true for other subjects, from math to writing to science. Ten weeks with no academics is too long.
A recent national educational study demonstrated the positive benefits of academically oriented summer programs, especially for middle school students. We should be at the forefront of addressing this challenge.