Rachel for Cambridge

Three Quick, Important Updates!

Dear Friends,

I hope your summers have started well.

As I mentioned in my June newsletter, this is *not* a sleepy summer for the School Committee.  Here are a few brief but important updates:

First, the School Committee gave Superintendent Greer a “needs improvement” rating on her annual evaluation.  We appreciate her leadership in significantly moving student academic growth, as reflected in iReady data.  We also are pleased to see progress in making Universal Pre-Kindergarten a reality, an undertaking that requires deep partnership with the City.  At the same time, we continue to have significant concerns about hiring processes, community relations, management, and communication.  We want Dr. Greer to be successful and are working to support her growth in these areas.  If you’re interested in the details, the full evaluation is here.  (Our individual evaluations are also public documents.  As Vice-Chair, I coordinated this process and wrote the composite – my takeaway is that the Committee was exceptionally unified in identifying strengths and growth opportunities.)

(Vassal Lane Upper School Students shared research and recommendations about changing the school’s name at a June School Committee meeting.)

Second, the Boston Globe recently posted an article on Math instruction in Cambridge Public Schools.  The journalist quotes me from a recent meeting where I noted that the School Committee has not backed away from a commitment to all students receiving Algebra I in eighth grade.  He also wraps the piece by quoting Benjamin Moynihan, Executive Director of the Algebra Project, who said, “Even despite the pandemic, is it possible?  The Algebra Project would say yes.”  I will have more to share on this topic in the coming weeks.

(With my daughter at the Election Commission – I am “preliminarily certified” to appear on the ballot this fall!)

Finally, if the governing excitement were not enough, the campaign season is heating up!  As you probably know, Fred Fantini, whom we affectionately refer to as the Dean of the School Committee, is retiring after 40 years of dedicated service.  On top of which, Ayesha Wilson is running for City Council!  In part because of these developments, there are many new candidates running this cycle.  I need your help reminding voters that I am a thoughtful, effective leader, one who truly collaborates with students, educators, and families.  Please donate here to help us get the word out!

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Get Ready for Summer! Graduations, negotiations, evaluations, and campaigns

Dear Friends, 

I hope this finds you and yours well.

Before school lets out for summer, I ask that you stay tuned in over the break.  While usually a quieter time, the next couple of months promise to include important developments in the School Committee’s ongoing negotiations with our teachers' union, the Superintendent’s annual evaluation, and (drum roll, please) election season.  I am running for re-election and need your support!

Reading at Peabody Porchfest

In the meantime, I am delighted to share how inspired I’ve been by our students and the educators who guide them.  The end of the school year includes many occasions to appreciate what our children have learned and accomplished, and others to come together to celebrate the distinct and diverse identities in our community.  Here are a few of my highlights: 


I’ve attended multiple educational events at The Foundry in the last month.  The top right photo is of students from the Cambridgeport School who shared games from their families’ cultures at the Asian Festival.  The adults pictured are Superintendent Greer and Danielle Allen, who is both a professor and Director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.  The Center partners with CPS to engage our young people in civics education.  I was at The Foundry to hear students describe their civics projects, which included leading consent workshops (how to ask for permission from others and express one’s own boundaries) for elementary students and families, compiling and distributing resources about addictive substances and services, and advocacy for required Black history courses.  The third photo is from a CPS Community Social.  It shows an activity CRLS students designed to begin the conversation about consent – I watched an elementary student use a special deck of cards to engage on the subject with near-peers, who make wonderful educators.

With Chief Equity Officer Manuel Fernandez at Peabody Pride

The Peabody School invited School Committee Members to both the Peabody Porchfest (reading aloud in classrooms) and the first annual Peabody Pride (June is LGBTQIA+ Pride Month).  At these events, I was moved to hear fifth graders speaking about the need for more gender-neutral bathrooms, and to see many families affirming and celebrating diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation.

Top photo is with School Committee Student Members (and graduates!) Escamilla-Salomon and Clemente, as well as Member Caroline Hunter.  Bottom photo is of RSTA students at their Health Assisting Pinning Ceremony, joined by the educators who guided them through the program. What an impressive group! 

It was a joy to hear  8th-grade capstone presentations at the Cambridge Street Upper School and Equity Fellowship grant recipients’ share-outs, as well as to see the talent on display at the Fletcher-Maynard Academy Talent Show.  In addition, of course, recognizing our students graduating from high school is always a delight!

With some of the students and caregivers that planned and staffed the wonderful Asian festival! (Photo credit: Cindy Weisbart)

This summer includes many opportunities for you to share your perspectives, as well as help elect a thoughtful School Committee.  Our July 11 special School Committee meeting will focus on the Superintendent’s annual evaluation, and you are welcome to email the Committee your thoughts about this or any other topic at [email protected].

In terms of my upcoming run for a third term, I would be honored to have your help, whether that looks like going door-to-door with me in your neighborhood, making a donation to my campaign, or hosting a house party.  Please let me know how you want to be part of the team!

As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Spring Policy Update

Dear Friends,

I hope you are enjoying the May flowers!  

(Cambridgeport School students plant a tree for Arbor Day.)

Since my April newsletter, the School Committee unanimously passed the FY24 budget.  Last week, the City Council approved the school district’s budget, bringing the annual undertaking to a close.  I am taking the feedback you shared into our after-action review conversations and am committed to continuing to improve upon the process.

As for policies beyond the budget, the School Committee recently passed two policies that I introduced:

  • After Register Forum reporters approached the Committee about antisemitic graffiti at CRLS, I reviewed our related policy and decided it needed elaboration.  My motion 23-047 updated our policy on “non-tolerance of hate crimes” to include text reflecting our belief in the importance of affirming and celebrating the diversity in our schools.  The revised policy calls upon our schools to use hateful acts—and acts of unconscious bias— as teachable moments, to invite those involved to opt-in to restorative practices, and to offer counseling to students.   (Here is an update from the Register Forum writers.)  

 

  • In the absence of sufficient federal gun control, it falls to us locally to do all we can to protect our students, staff, and families from gun violence.  I am grateful to Moms Demand Action for partnering with us in this effort.  I learned from local activists that secure firearm storage practices are associated with a 78% reduction in the risk of self-inflicted firearm injuries and an 85% reduction in the risk of unintentional firearm injuries among children and teens.  Also, I learned that in incidents of gun violence on school grounds, the US Secret Service found that 76% of shooters under age 18 acquired their firearm from the home of a caregiver, relative, or friend.  My motion 23-058 directs the Superintendent to inform families yearly about how to safely store any firearms.

 

(I had a wonderful visit to the Peabody School, where I observed classrooms with Principal Sepulveda and Dr. Madera.)

In addition to these motions, I authored policy orders urging our state delegation to support legislation funding school meals for all students in the Commonwealth, and a bill that would address systemic barriers to credentialing more educators of color.  I also joined School Committee colleagues in bringing forward multiple local proposals, including those to expand space, staffing, and transportation for Department of Human Services Programs after schools; to strengthen CPS’ policy regarding access to free menstrual products in school bathrooms; and to assist students with scholarships for field trips.  

I anticipate having more to share about Math instruction and hiring processes in future newsletters.  In the meantime, you may be interested in viewing the roundtable meeting we had on Math last week (my questions and comments about Algebra One start at around 1 hour 39 minutes).  Mayor Siddiqui and I pushed for this conversation, which proved illuminating.

As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Final Days of Budget Development

Dear Friends, 

I hope your spring is starting sweetly.

As we enter the final stages of developing and adopting the Cambridge Public Schools’ annual budget, I thought you might appreciate an update.  The Superintendent presented her proposed FY24 budget in mid-March.  Her $245m budget draft includes many recommendations that I support, such as the expansion of the Educator Pathways Programs I wrote about last month, the Math department’s growing partnership with the Young People’s Project and use of Flagway, and a cybersecurity specialist.  While I was troubled to see the Design Lab and summer scholarships eliminated in the Superintendent’s first draft, I am pleased that Dr. Greer has since reinstated funding for both.  In addition, I was grateful that the Superintendent heeded my request to fund school meals for all students, but have since agreed that we should shift that $700,000 to the Fletcher Maynard Academy and King Schools Extended Learning Time programs for School Year 2023-24, as the state just informed districts that it will no longer provide support for select longer school days, and schools and families are already planning for next year.  I am now lobbying our state delegation to have the Commonwealth fund universal school meals, which appears to be a real possibility.

 

(CRLS 9th graders consult during the Social Action Summit)

 

The top four budget-related concerns the Committee has heard are that (1) the community wants more time to review and comment upon the Superintendent’s proposal, (2) we need to make the budget document accessible to speakers of languages other than English, (3) families want staff positions allocated equitably across school communities, particularly at the Kennedy-Longfellow School, and (4) families and educators would like to see CPS expand its partnership with the Cambridge Math Circle.  I took this feedback to heart and, with my colleagues, added another meeting specifically for public comment on the proposed budget, as well as pushed the Committee’s vote back by a week.  We also asked the administration to post the Superintendent's proposed budget on the website, which has a widget for translation.  These are process changes we will continue to improve upon in future budget cycles.  

 

(I had a blast sharing a favorite book with first graders at the Kennedy-Longfellow!)

 

As for the staffing questions, Dr. Greer and the Chief Financial Officer responded to the Committee’s inquiries in this helpful document.  

Regarding Cambridge Math Circle, please allow me to clarify my stance.  I think CMC is a wonderful program.  I have concerns about our internal process for funding partners generally, not about this particular partner.  For four budget cycles, I have asked that we have a clear timeline, as well as a set of criteria for awarding and evaluating grants to local organizations.  District leaders suggested that we update this funding process with a new District Plan, which we now have.  I will continue to advocate for a transparent grantmaking process for the roughly $1m the district invests in community non-profits.   

 

(CPS' amazing Family Engagement team at Rollin' & Summer Resources)

 

Finally, the Committee unanimously pushed for less funding to go to central administration and more to student-facing positions.  When the Superintendent brought her revisions back to us this past Tuesday, she had cut 1.5 full-time positions from the administration and added a paraprofessional to the KLo.  She also allocated $60,000 for schools who have a higher proportion than the state average of students considered “high needs” (students with disabilities, who are multilingual learners, and/or from a lower socioeconomic status).

The Committee is now scheduled to vote upon the revised budget proposal next Tuesday, April 11th.  If you would like to share additional perspectives or requests, please email the full Committee at [email protected] or sign up for public comment here.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Heartwarming Updates

Dear Friends,

With February vacation behind us and wintry weather’s arrival, you may be hungry for updates that will warm your heart!  Here are my top three inspiring Cambridge Public Schools events from the last month:

#1 - Celebration of Cambridge Educator Pathways cohort

A few weekends ago, I was thrilled to join the first cohort of graduates from the Cambridge Educators Pathways program, a partnership between CPS and Lesley University.  Through this program, current paraprofessionals and teachers can obtain their Masters degrees for free.  From where I sit, this is one of the most effective strategies for racially diversifying our teacher workforce - with educators who are already committed to our students, schools, and city, no less.  Each graduate spoke at the ceremony, many remarking that they would not have been able to afford graduate school without this program.  Mayor Siddiqui and I joined the graduates in appreciating Member Fantini, who spent years building this initiative.  The next cohort has 18 educators enrolled!

#2 - Upper School Mock School Committee 

(Photos by PAUS student photographer R. Hawlader)

Dozens of upper school students convened a few weeks ago at CRLS to discuss their priorities for the district.  Supported by students in Tufts Action as well as by our own CRLS Student School Committee Members, these sixth, seventh, and eighth graders made important observations and recommendations about school buses, the quality of school meals, and recess.  Member Hunter and I were impressed with all the young people involved and look forward to their continued leadership and partnership.

#3 - CRLS Student Budget Meeting

Student School Committee Members Clemente and Escamilla-Salomon organized a standing-room-only lunch meeting for high school students to learn about and weigh-in on the district’s budget.  Most of the School Committee attended, registering an abundance of  thoughtful feedback and enjoying an inspired game the Student Members created for their peers.  It was a truly informative, engaging, and important conversation.

I hope you find as much joy and optimism from reading about these events as I did from attending them.  Stay tuned for more policy updates in the weeks ahead.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Pain and Promise

Dear Friends,

I’m struck by how much pain and promise there is in our community right now.  

As the world reels from the police murder of Tyre Nichols, locally we grieve further tragic losses, including the police killing of 20 year-old Sayed Arif Faisal and the death of a CRLS student.  Losing young people so tragically is heartbreaking.  Our schools continue to have counselors available for students and to share resources with families.  I hope we will all lean on one another, and that we can share perspectives on how to improve behavioral health supports with City leaders, including the School Committee. 

 

Within a week of the grief-stricken community meeting at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School pictured above, I was back in the building for the joyous occasion of Putnam Ave Upper School students sharing their “Stories of Self.”  I was inspired by the students’ writing about their lives, and grateful for a team of educators working to build pride in students’ identities while skill-building.  Among others, I heard from a sixth grader who almost fell in the Charles River, a seventh grader whose art is their passion, and an eighth grader who immigrated from Bangladesh to the United States.  Our young people have so much talent and potential!  

 

[This photo is from the CRLS Astronomy class’s final project day - students created games, incorporating their content knowledge and using 3D printers at the Hive.]

In other news, the School Committee and administration are deep into the budget process.  We’ve had multiple workshops, held three community meetings, collected 500+ surveys, connected with 120 families through the DHSP Community Engagement Team… and there’s more to come!  Superintendent Greer will present her proposed budget to the Committee on March 14th, and there’s a public hearing on March 21st.  If you haven’t already weighed in, I hope you will email the Committee your thoughts and/or sign-up to speak at the public hearing.

[Dr. Greer speaks at a Community Budget Meeting last week.]

Finally, I want to take a moment to remember former Mayor and State Representative Alice Wolf, who passed away last week.  Alice lived a full and extraordinary life, starting as a child in Austria during the Holocaust, and continuing in Boston where her family fled to escape its horrors.  She went on to build a wonderful family and have a deep impact in our community, on topics ranging from the environmental quality of the Charles River to LGBT+ rights to developing our Sister Cities program and helping advance dozens of other progressive priorities.  I had the privilege of interning for Alice in her first term as State Representative, when now-Representative Marjorie Decker was her legislative aide.  Alice later advised me on my campaigns for School Committee.  I will always be grateful for her service to Cambridge and her personal mentorship. 

As always, I welcome your reflections and questions.

In collaboration,

Rachel


School Committee Communique!

Dear Friends,

I hope you and your loved ones are well.

As we move into the holidays, I want to share a few headlines with you:

First, we have a new School Committee Member!  Ms. Caroline Hunter officially joined the Committee on December 6th (filling the seat vacated by Akriti Bhambi).  Many of you will remember Member Hunter from her years serving as a CRLS administrator, or will have heard of her leadership during the anti-apartheid movement.  I’m excited by the chance to work with her.

Committee Members, from left: Student Member Escamilla-Salomon, myself, Member Hunter, Member Fantini, Mayor Siddiqui, Member Weinstein, Member Wilson, Member Rojas, Student Member Clemente

Second, many Cambridge Public School caregivers, teachers, and administrators are engaged in a heated conversation about how we teach young children to read.  Without getting into the arguments on both sides, I will simply say that the School Committee has heard serious concerns about the Reading Recovery program, as well as heartfelt expressions of gratitude for the program and its staff.  When a related grant came before the Committee earlier this month, we sent it back to Superintendent Greer for further recommendations about how to transition from Reading Recovery to an approach that places greater emphasis on decoding words.  In the intervening days, Dr. Greer has communicated that CPS will not eliminate the program mid-year, and will have a thoughtful transition planned for SY23-24 (read her message here).  I support this approach.

The Visual and Performing Arts Department and our high school students received a standing ovation for 9-to-5: The Musical.

Finally, the Committee is engaged in two routine, but important processes.  We have been working with the Executive Leadership Team on the three-year District Plan, most recently having a thoughtful and productive conversation about setting student outcome goals.  As you can see here and hear here, we are aiming for high levels of student growth for all students, with even higher growth rates for those currently furthest behind.  We also are beginning the annual budget-development process.  I will share more information on that in the months ahead, but in the meantime here is a draft calendar that includes community meetings on the CPS budget.

May your holidays be healthy and joyous!

In collaboration,

Rachel


Headlines and Happenings

Dear Friends,

There’s a lot happening in and around the Cambridge Public Schools right now!  Today, I am focusing on two headline developments, namely the program review of our Rindge School of Technical Arts (RSTA) and the (re)naming of the Vassal Lane Upper School.  (The photos here will give you a taste of other recent happenings.)

I am passionate about making RSTA the strongest career technical education Cambridge can provide.  That's for reasons I’ve written about in earlier messages, including offering students multiple pathways to successful careers, and thereby making our schools more equitable.  Early in my first term, having heard that RSTA was not delivering at its full potential, I worked with Members Fantini and Wilson to pass a motion calling on the administration to review the program.  We received some preliminary data, but then the district was overwhelmed responding to COVID, and the review was put on hold.  To make a long story short, through both official and informal actions, I’ve been pushing for routine, structured opportunities for the School Committee to both understand the RSTA program better and discuss options for improvement.  

(A few photos of the new Bob Moses MathTrail through the Port.  Bring your young children!)

Last week, we had our first of what will be a series of special meetings on the subject of RSTA.  We had known the program needed updating.  We had not known how badly it had been failing our students.  What the Superintendent’s RSTA review (which will be posted on the CPS website this week) documented was a range of systemic problems, such as the absence of required advisory committees and the inability to track students enrolling in a given course as part of a three-year path towards an industry recognized credential versus those taking an isolated elective.     

I felt compelled to express my frustration at last Tuesday’s meeting, but I now believe that in the coming months we’ll be making the changes our students deserve.  What allows me this optimism is that (1) the administration issued a brutally honest report, (2) the new leaders of RSTA and the district are prioritizing addressing the challenges the report brought to light, and (3) despite systemic failures, we have amazing educators coaching our students in RSTA.  The Committee expects a full list of recommendations, as well as timelines for implementation, in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!

(Mayor Siddiqui, my daughter and I have been campaigning for Yes on 1 as well as the Democratic slate.  What's your voting plan? Early voting is underway!)

Speaking of what our students deserve, our young people should not have to attend a school named after a person who enslaved other people.  Last week, I introduced a motion, co-sponsored by Mayor Siddiqui and Member Wilson, to begin a process to rename the Vassal Lane Upper School.  (In 2011, when CPS adopted the Innovation Agenda that established four upper schools, the new buildings were named after the streets on which they were located: Rindge Ave Upper Campus, Cambridge Street Upper School, Putnam Ave Upper School, and Vassal Lane Upper School.)  As Deputy Superintendent Turk reflected at the meeting, the very first class of sixth graders to attend VLUS researched the school’s namesake and proposed changing away from honoring John Vassal, who enslaved people both here in Cambridge and in Jamaica.  In the years since, multiple community groups have researched local involvement in slavery and have made recommendations for addressing our history – among others, the City’s Committee on Art, Monuments, and Markers and Harvard University’s Legacy of Slavery report.  

Some of you have asked if we could rename VLUS after Darby Vassal, who, after being enslaved by the Vassal family, became a civil rights activist and advocate for universal education.  Our motion, which passed the Committee unanimously, called for the school to honor one or more local Black leaders.  I look forward to seeing what names students, educators, and the community put forward.  The Committee will adopt a new name by the end of the school year.   

(Clockwise from top: the inaugural gathering of the Muslim community of CPS, children engaged with Jenny the Juggler at the MIT Volpe Block Party, and the grand opening of the Foundry)

On a related note, as we necessarily complicate our previous understandings of local history, you may be interested in checking out the Here Lies Darby Vassall exhibit, which is looping outside Christ Church (Zero Garden St) 6-8p through November 6th.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Back to School...Committee!

Dear Friends,

I hope your school years have started swimmingly!  I’ve been heartened to hear educators reflect that schools feel better this fall, presumably because students were in-person last year, and therefore have less of an adjustment to large numbers of peers and classroom expectations.

(Colleagues at one of the resource fairs organized by Mayor Siddiqui's Office and CPS.)

The School Committee also has returned to a healthier rhythm, dedicating more and more of our attention to the policies that will address student learning and school climate (versus the pandemic).  This school year, we are poised to tackle some of the issues that motivated most of us to run.  Our main mechanism for this work is the emerging District Plan, which defines priority goals and initiatives for the next three years.  The Committee is collaborating closely with the administration to craft a plan that will guide everything from our budgets to professional development.  The strategic initiatives include individualized student success plans and supports (a variation on my theme of “a champion for every child”), career exploration and experiences, and universal Pre-K, which are three of my priorities.

District Plan Objectives

The School Committee and the CPS Executive Leadership Team (formerly known as the Superintendent’s Cabinet) are strategically calendaring meetings for the year and bringing an intentional equity lens to our plans.  Earlier this week, we held a joint retreat to discuss updating policies that will advance racial equity, as well as explore how we might amplify student and community voices in our processes.  We now have a draft full-year sequence of presentations for the School Committee meetings as well as days for subcommittee convenings.  My hope is that this will mean students, family members, and educators will have more notice – and therefore greater opportunity – to engage in conversations around policies and practices with us, particularly at the subcommittee meetings, which are usually virtual.  

Finally, shifting from the multiyear plan to the topics CPS families are reaching out to me about, please know:

  • I continue to advocate for masking recommendations after school vacations.
  • I continue to advocate for busing students who attend afterschool programs less than a mile from their school when CPS has bus capacity. (A related note: One thing that would reduce the need for transportation is a greater number of Department of Human Services’ Community School slots, which require additional staffing.  If you know anyone who loves working with children, DHSP has raised its hourly rates and offers a retention bonus.  Learn more here.)   

May this be a year of health, joy, and both academic and social growth for all our children!

In collaboration,

Rachel


Summer Special

Dear Friends,

This is a "Summer Special," because we have big news!  Last Wednesday, members of the Cambridge Education Association ratified the new contract.  On Thursday, the School Committee unanimously did the same.  I'm writing with a quick summary.  (All CPS union contracts can be read in their entirety here.)  

The agreement covers school years 2021-22 and 2022-23.  It includes an average increase of a 7.3% increase to teachers' base salaries, which translates to a mean increase of $6,642.  With this contract, over 60% of our teachers earn more than $100,000/year. 

 

Vassal Lane Upper School Graduation

The agreement also includes three more professional development days, ten hours for family engagement events, and the adoption of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s teacher evaluation rubric, with one indicator on hold.  In SY22-23, we will pilot every educator setting an annual student learning goal for their cohort.

In short, I believe this contract reflects the School Committee’s appreciation for our talented, hard-working educators, and will provide educators with needed additional training, time with students' families, and feedback, which should result in improved outcomes for our students.

I wish you a wonderful summer!

In collaboration,

Rachel

Rindge Avenue Upper School graduation tassel