Rachel for Cambridge

School Observations at Year's End

Dear Friends,

I hope you’re staying cool! 

‘A few brief updates before school lets out for the summer:

First, our School Climate Subcommittee visited Cambridge Street Upper School this month as part of our series of school visits focused on upper school culture and climate.  Our observation included a fabulous art class in which students began by breathing and stretching.  The displays in the hall were representations of their strategies for calming.  We also had a rich conversation with 8th and 6th graders who were paired for a mentoring program.  The students shared what made them feel dis/respected, as well as insights about social groups and trusted adults.  Thank you to Principal Sohn and her team for organizing such a meaningful visit.

Second, I am grateful to have participated in a walkthrough of the Cambridgeport School and in 8th grade portfolio presentations at the Rindge Ave Upper Campus.  At Cambridgeport, Vice Chair Hunter, Member David Weinstein, and I joined central office leaders to observe classes.  The group discussed effective strategies teachers used, as well as available resources for a student struggling to focus.  At RAUC, graduating eighth graders shared their strengths and challenges, highlighting particular pieces of work in each subject area.  I was very impressed with the candor and maturity of the students, who seemed ready for high school.  My thanks to Principals Jean-Michel and Sizer (whose grandfather, Ted Sizer, was a favorite college professor of mine!) for inviting the School Committee to these events.

(One of the impressive RAUC graduates)

Thinking back on my own CPS experience, one of the highlights was being in CityStep, a program in which Harvard undergraduates teach dance theatre and social-emotional skills to CPS students.  Given how current students’ social-emotional development was interrupted by the pandemic, CityStep is a more needed resource than ever.  In the decades since I enjoyed the program, it has refined and further strengthened its approach to building both individual confidence and classroom community.  A couple of weeks ago, I was truly honored to receive an award from CityStep, recognizing my “fierce advocacy for children.”


Finally, although school ends this Monday, the School Committee will continue working over the summer to appoint an Interim Superintendent for SY24-25, someone who will lead the district while we conduct a longer search for a permanent Superintendent.  The search for the permanent hire will include community input, so stay tuned for opportunities this fall.

Congratulations to the CRLS Class of 2024!

Wishing you a healthy, peaceful, and joyous summer,

Rachel


Several Significant Developments

Dear Friends,

Recent months have been challenging for our school district. After much deliberation, the School Committee decided to part ways with Superintendent Greer, who will wrap up her service this summer. To be clear, I appreciate that Dr. Greer shepherded our schools out of pandemic-era schooling and oversaw gains in student achievement. Our views diverged on a number of matters, but I know Dr. Greer to be a strong, hardworking leader, and wish her all the best in her next chapter.

With my colleagues Member David Weinstein and Vice Chair Caroline Hunter at RAUC

In other news, I’m pleased to chair the School Climate Subcommittee this term. I truly believe that the vast majority of students need to feel safe and seen in order to progress academically. Since the subcommittee focuses on upper schools this term, we are reviewing data from the Teen Health Survey as well as visiting each school. Last month, we visited the Rindge Avenue Upper Campus (RAUC), where we used a social-emotional learning tool to observe classes.  We also met with a group of students to hear directly from them about their experiences of school culture and climate. I was quite impressed with educators and students at RAUC – among other things, we saw

  • Young people engaging with their peers to tackle academic challenges
  • Teachers explicitly asking about emotional responses to content (attending to social-emotional learning while also discussing intellectual matters)
  • Students giving thoughtful, candid feedback to the school principal, who was eager to hear both kudos and constructive criticism from them.

High school students in SHADE sharing plans for a Shade is Social Justice site at Donnelly Field

A significant school climate question I continue to grapple with is the role of Youth Resource Officers in our schools.  Coming off of the accidental gun firing by a Youth Resource Officer in April, I requested a discussion at our May 7th meeting with the Cambridge Police Department and CPS leaders.  I remain impressed with the YRO program’s impact on reducing youth arrests by approximately 80%, and its stated aim to break the school-to-prison pipeline. I have personally witnessed the rapport YROs have built with our students and am grateful for their dedication to our community. At the same time, it’s notable that the first time a firearm went off at CRLS, it was that of an officer.  That raised questions about what dangers are greatest and how we mitigate risks.  CPS has an internal Safety and Security team charged with addressing daily safety matters.  The Committee approved a few new positions on that unarmed team in our FY25 budget.  In advance of the meeting, I asked CPS leaders to include the City’s new Community Assistance Response and Engagement (CARE) Team in conversations with CPD and to look at alternatives, which they did.  I appreciate Commissioner Elow and her team for their service, candor, and commitment to continuous improvement.  We are fortunate to have a police department that has made dramatic culture shifts in recent years.  

Two big takeaways from our conversation:

  1. A school climate where young people trust teachers, staff, and police is the number one preventative factor in school violence.
  2. Cambridge police are uniquely positioned to divert young people away from the criminal justice system.  This is what they do now and should continue to do.  

Moving forward, we need to continue to build school climates where students trust educators and administrators as much as they trust YROs.  I also think that the school district can rely more heavily on our Safety Specialists within our school buildings and lean on YROs for activity outside of literal school walls.  While I do not see these being rigid or exclusive deployments, I encourage district leadership to revise our working agreements with this orientation. 

In closing, I was delighted that Tutoring Plus recently recognized Khari Milner for his decades of service to our community.  Khari exemplifies what it means to center students and families furthest from privilege; to work explicitly on racial justice; and to collaborate deeply with young people, caregivers, educators, and community partners.  Whether backing his efforts to establish remote learning pods at out-of-school-time organizations (during pandemic schooling) or as a caregiver in a team of the Building Equity Bridges movement that he co-led, I have learned a great deal from Khari.  I welcomed the chance to recognize him publicly with a resolution at our April meeting.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Policy Updates and Investigation

Dear Friends,

True to the month itself, this March update brings a mix of sunny and stormy news.

Starting with some sunshine, this week the School Committee unanimously passed my motion to update CPS’s Basic Instructional Program policy to add “accessing, analyzing, and evaluating information in written and digital media” to the list of fundamental skills we teach.  In today’s world, students and graduates have access to facts, figures, and calculations at their fingertips.  What they need even more than content is the ability to discern reliable information.  Many of our educators teach these skills already, and district policy now reflects this priority.  (Side note: it was a constituent who brought this suggestion to me.  Please reach out with your ideas!)

What a treat to celebrate the Lunar New Year with the Chinese American Association of Cambridge, and many others!

As for the cloudier updates, some of you will remember my work with students and educators in 2021-22 which resulted in the then-Committee updating high school graduation requirements to include a second health course after ninth grade.  When we adopted this change, we specifically planned for the first students to be impacted to be the CRLS Class of 2026 (then in eighth grade), so that they could plan their four years accordingly.  However, as came to my attention this fall, the district did not adequately communicate this change to students when they were in eighth or ninth grade.  The  list of graduation requirements on the website was not updated.  I heard from families who were surprised and upset to learn that their children would have to revise their plans.  While I believe this class – collaboratively developed by students and educators – to be an important response to the troubling mental health conditions of our students (reflected in the Teen Health Survey, student walk outs, public comments, and anecdotally), I agree that it was unfair to learn about this mid-way through high school.  This week, the Committee decided to make the course optional for all students currently in high school, and directed the administration to communicate the new requirement to the class of 2028 (current eighth graders) multiple times.

What a pleasure to speak with Harvard Undergraduates in the Institute of Politics program of former Student School Committee Member Nuriel Vera-DeGraff!

On a different and troubling note, I’ve heard many concerns from the Graham and Parks community.  The district has engaged an independent law firm to review the concerns related to school climate and a toxic work environment, as well as the concerns raised regarding the hiring process for Dr. Smith.  The Committee is not privy to how the investigation is going nor when it is expected to wrap up.  The personnel aspects will remain confidential.  What I continue to do is ask questions about process, timeline, and communication with families and staff.

As always, I welcome your questions and ideas.

In collaboration,

Rachel


January School Committee News

Dear Friends,

We have a new School Committee!  This month, I’ve enjoyed getting to know my new colleagues, Mayor Denise Simmons, Member Elizabeth Hudson, and Member Richard Harding.  I also was delighted to nominate and join my colleagues in electing Vice Chair Caroline Hunter.  I’m confident that the Committee will continue to be a team that works together well, even when we disagree on particular matters.

Inauguration Day (I go by “Member Rachel,” since two of us have the last name Weinstein!)

January also means that the budget season is ramping up.  The Committee has reviewed the budget process, enrollment, and financial projections.  At this stage, my top priorities are:

  • Securing appropriate funding for implementing new curricula, which – to be successful – take extra training in the first few years.  With CPS’ adoption of Illustrative Math and Fishtank for English Language Arts, we must provide our teachers with the time and support to make these significant shifts in instruction.

 

  • Seeing sufficient resources allocated to launching Individualized Student Success Plans, with Navigators (adults who connect students with opportunities and resources aligned with their interests and needs) perhaps working with students in a particular grade band.

This slide made my heart sing - it’s like my slogan of a Champion for Every Child.

  • Completing the third year of summer camp scholarships for families with low incomes.  The district previously committed to using ESSER funds (COVID relief from the federal government) in this way through summer 2024.

 

Of course, I haven’t seen the Superintendent’s proposed budget nor heard from community members yet, so I reserve the right to amend the list of items for which I advocate. 🙂

The best part of the job remains seeing students and teachers engaged in learning.  I greatly appreciated visiting with sixth graders at PAUS, who shared their Stories of Self, as well as with the many CRLS students who participated in Youth Equity Summit assemblies, resource fairs, and workshops.  Thank you to the high school administration; Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging; and the many teachers who supported our students in this effort.

2024 Youth Equity Summit at CRLS

As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions.

In collaboration,

Rachel 

P.S. Do you have time to help people in Cambridge and/or fight to preserve our democracy?  Here are two volunteer opportunities:

We are so excited to be launching Cambridge for Biden/Harris and look forward to working with many of you in the coming months! Please write to both Nancy ([email protected]) and Maura ([email protected])  to let us know about your interest and availability. We will be working to ensure that Biden receives a very large turnout in the Massachusetts primary on Super Tuesday, March 5. This is a priority for the Biden campaign, given that there are two other candidates on the Democratic ballot in MA. While Biden is certain to win here, we want to see him win BIG!! 

Once the MA primary has taken place, we plan to begin partnering with a location in New Hampshire, as well as with the Biden campaign overall, to start holding regular phone banks and canvasses. There is also an open Governor’s race in NH that we will likely be coordinating with. In addition, we hope to support people who would like to go to other swing states to coordinate with each other. We will keep you posted on all of this as well.


Year-End Headlines

Dear Friends,

I hope this finds you and your loved ones as well as can be. During this time of such horror, including the unmitigated violence in Gaza and the traumatization of both Palestinians and Israelis, I am quite concerned about our Cambridge Public School students. The young people I have spoken with feel unsafe and misunderstood, regardless of their different religions, nationalities, or politics. I am in frequent communication with the administration about what we can do to provide students (and staff) with spaces to listen to one another, process together, and learn through building community. I hope to have more to report on this front in the coming weeks.

Students and Math Coach Ms. Vincent at CPS’ Math Pop-Up last week

Holding on to small successes and joys is critically important in moments like this. I’m grateful to have numerous pieces of positive news to share with you!  Since Election Day, we have:

  • Settled the contract with units A &B in the Cambridge Education Association. The new contract provides teachers with raises totaling 18.8% over three years. It also ensures that teachers have more time to collaborate with colleagues, and K-8 students have 30 minutes more of instruction four days a week. Here is the full agreement.

I was inspired observing this Mandarin immersion class at the MLK school recently.

  • Adopted a new policy regarding transgender and gender-nonconforming students. As the lead sponsor, I am proud that we are taking new measures and making other practices official to keep our trans and gender-diverse students safe. (You may recall that CPS data is in line with national data. For example, more than half of our upper school students who identify as trans or gender-nonconforming report they’ve considered hurting themselves in the last 30 days.) I'm deeply grateful to the students, caregivers, and educators who contributed to the language of this policy, as well as those who contacted the Committee in support.

 

  • Renamed the Vassal Lane Upper School the Darby Vassall Upper School, changing the honoree from a man who enslaved people to a man who, after enslavement, went on to advocate for civil rights and educational justice.  This is the final stage of a long process, which began with VLUS students a decade ago, included school community conversations and student research last spring, and culminated in a School Committee decision. Students, educators, and community members, such as those in the Cambridge Black History Project and the Slave Legacy History Coalition, have been instrumental in this process. At our meeting Tuesday night, when talking about why I authored this motion, I quoted the writer and poet Clint Smith: “Symbols and names and iconography aren’t just symbols, but are reflective of the stories that people tell. And those stories shape the narratives that communities carry, and those narratives shape public policy, and public policy shapes the material conditions of people’s lives.” 

 

In addition to this policy news, two longtime pillars of the Cambridge Public Schools and its School Committee have retired in the last month:

I will miss sitting next to Dr. Turk at School Committee meetings.

  • Dr. Carolyn L. Turk was Deputy Superintendent during my tenure on the Committee, but has held many positions in our schools, including that of a student! I often refer to Dr. Turk as the heart of the district, because she has cared and tended to countless students, staff, and families. Her retirement party was, appropriately, filled with love. (Stay tuned for a school space being named in her honor.)

 

  • Fred Fantini, the Dean of the Committee, has retired after 40 years of service. I’ve learned a great deal from Fred. I will be ever grateful for his collegiality, mentorship, and friendship. I will continue to call him for advice, but first we’ll celebrate his legacy!

 

May we bring peace, health, justice, and joy to 2024.

In collaboration,

Rachel


THANK YOU

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your support and work on our campaign.  Because of you, voters across Cambridge reelected me to the School Committee.  Not only that, but we topped the ticket!

I'm honored and humbled by your confidence in me.  I promise to keep working hard so that all our students receive the education they deserve.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Statement on Violence in the Middle East

ICYMI, here’s the statement Mayor Siddiqui and I put out about the violence in the Middle East.  With antisemitism and Islamophobia on the rise even locally, it’s critical that we hold space for everyone’s pain and work to build bridges in our own community.






September Success and October Opportunities

Dear Friends,

There is so much to share!

First, this is the peak of the campaign season.  I’ve seen mail-in ballots arrive at homes I’ve canvassed.  There are events and candidate forums and and and… I was delighted to be joined by many of you, including Mayor Siddiqui and “the Dean,” retiring School Committee Member Fred Fantini, at our campaign coffee a couple weekends ago.

Second, I continue to hear from educators and families troubled about our elementary school schedules.  While there is widespread agreement that our students should have the same amount of instruction in core subjects across all our schools, teachers and caregivers remain concerned that the lack of transition time and recess is making adults and children unnecessarily anxious.  I’m pleased to share that the School Committee unanimously voted to adopt my motion clarifying that the guidelines are just that, and not rigid mandates.  I will remain engaged on this topic as the administration takes action in accordance with that motion.

Third, last week’s School Committee meeting included a review of the Cambridge Public Schools’ 2023 MCAS results.  While standardized tests are an imperfect metric, the results do point to continued systemic challenges in CPS.  Yes, as a recent Boston Globe article noted, Cambridge is one of few districts in the Commonwealth to return to 2019 achievement levels.  However, while the aggregated averages of our students are back to pre-pandemic levels, there were huge gaps correlated with demographics before the pandemic and they’ve WIDENED.  Disaggregating the data shows that we are continuing to fail our students who are Black, multilingual, disabled, and/or from families with low incomes.  This holds both for achievement and for student growth. (Here are summary slides the Superintendent's team presented last week.)  At the meeting, the administration presented plans to align curricula and implement strategic tutoring, which makes sense.  Also, though, I believe more is necessary if we are going to truly prepare all our children for success after high school.  My personal theory is that we are not approaching instruction with the needed equity lens, accounting for our own implicit and explicit biases to the degree needed.  I shared this view at our meeting, and was pleased to hear Superintendent Greer say that she has instructed our Chief Equity Officer and Chief of Academics to be attached at the hip.

Less than four weeks remain until voting closes!  If you are able, I would LOVE to have your help canvassing and/or holding a sign on Election Day.  Please reply to this email to sign up.  Thank you!

In collaboration,

Rachel


Updates...and an Invitation!

Dear Friends,

I hope your school years are off to a promising start.

I am sorry to share that the CPS community is in a period of mourning, as one of our students, Jaden McDaniels, passed away last week.  My heart goes out to Jaden’s family, friends, and educators.

On a much brighter note, I’ve enjoyed seeing excited students, families, and educators on their first days and at Mayor Siddiqui’s & CPS’s resource fairs.

(Photo credits for two of the pictures go to Elizabeth Pierre, Mayor’s Siddiqui’s Office)

Many of you have asked for updates on the new elementary school schedules.  I introduced a related motion last week that would address some of the concerns I’ve heard from our community.  Here is the text:

Whereas the administration developed elementary school schedule guidelines to ensure that students receive adequate instruction time in core academic subjects; and

Whereas the guidelines address significant differences between individual Cambridge Public Schools’ instruction time for particular subjects; and

Whereas schools have created their SY23-24 schedules accordingly; and

Whereas some have interpreted the scheduling guidelines as detailed mandates rather than guidelines, resulting in concerns over rigid learning conditions; and

Whereas caregivers from every CPS school have contacted the School Committee and Superintendent with concerns about reduced play, nutrition, rest, and transition times; and

Whereas the Superintendent’s team clarified, at the August 8 meeting, that the guidelines would neither prevent extending class meeting times when students need longer nor providing requisite transition time between classes; now therefore be it 

Resolved that the administration issue written communication to CPS staff confirming that the elementary schedule guidelines are advisory, and that principals and educators have the trust of the Committee and Superintendent to adjust as they see fit. 

Member Rojas exercised his charter right, which means that the discussion of the proposal was stopped until our next meeting, on September 19th.  In short, now is a good time to contact the Committee ([email protected]) if you have strong feelings about the new schedules.  Stay tuned!

In other news, the campaign is in high gear!  MARK YOUR CALENDARS to join us for coffee, conversation, and (for those who want) canvassing voters on Saturday, September 30 at 10 a.m. in Joan Lorentz Park (in front of the main library, by the corner of Ellery and Broadway). Please please DO bring your children!  It’s a crowded field of strong candidates, and I need your support to power through these last 8 weeks.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Abundant August Update

Dear Friends,

I hope you’re enjoying the summer warmth!

It’s unusual to have a five-and-a-half-hour School Committee meeting in August, but there were two controversial topics on the agenda last week, namely elementary school schedules and Algebra instruction.  Here are summaries of the latest developments (and a few photos of uplifting summer student showcases).

Elementary School Schedules

For context, Superintendent Greer informed the Committee months ago that her team was engaging in an independent audit of how CPS schools use their time.  In the last couple of months, through conversations with educators and families, we became aware that the administration had issued new scheduling guidelines for elementary schools.  As I stated at last week’s meeting, I am troubled that the Committee and the broader community (teachers especially) were not engaged in conversation about these districtwide changes earlier. 

At the meeting, we learned that there was a wide variation in how much time students in our elementary schools were spending on individual subjects such as Social Studies, Science, and Math.  I agree with the Superintendent that all our students should receive roughly the same amount of time on core subject instruction, and appreciate that this is a problem her team is trying to address.  I was further reassured that the guidelines will allow for interdisciplinary curricula, as well as teachers adjusting schedules in real-time to meet the social-emotional needs of their students.  

Photo caption: North Cambridge Courageous Conversations guided ten Mayor's Summer Youth Employment Program students in identifying issues and possible solutions through photography.

My sense is that these guidelines have been received as a detailed mandate rather than a guide.  At this point, I want to know that our educators understand they have flexibility – including flexibility about whether to pull students from "specials" (e.g. art, music) for interventions.  I also still have questions about ensuring that our students, particularly our youngest learners, have sufficient time to run around, as well as to rest and digest all they have experienced in the day up to that point.  I have requested further written communication from the Superintendent to educators, families, and the School Committee.

Algebra I in Eighth Grade

From many conversations with educators, alums, and families, I’ve come to recognize that requiring Algebra I in eighth-grade math classes throughout the city is a more complicated topic than it might seem.  On one hand, we want all students to have the opportunity to take Algebra in time to take the more advanced, high school math courses that would show colleges they are prepared for college-level STEM programs.  On the other hand, we’ve heard important cautions about how students who are struggling now might fall further behind.  CPS Math leaders and other educators have highlighted the fact that Math is taught differently from Math pre-2010: now, students are introduced to deeper learning concepts, including algebraic equations, in earlier years, without a specific course title related to algebra.

Makeda was one of the photographers in Not Just Screenagers.

For at least two years, I have been asking questions behind-the-scenes and at some meetings about this equity issue.  It got to the point where Members David Weinstein (no relation), Caroline Hunter, and I crafted a motion that would offer opt-in Algebra I immediately to all interested students and make eighth grade Algebra a citywide mandate in 2025.

A public School Committee roundtable meeting on this issue will take place in the fall with participation from Math education experts. 

Photo caption: Betsy Bard, Micaela Leon Perdormo, and Allison MacLaury worked with another team of Mayor's Summer Youth Employment Program students to create the moving We Were Here play about Polish women working at The Foundry in 1911.

I hope that implementing the Illustrative Math curriculum across grades K-12 will mean that all Cambridge students receive the rigorous Math instruction they deserve and we no longer can tell which feeder school a sixth grader attended by their Math proficiency.  Certainly, CPS needs to provide training and support for teachers as they adopt this new curriculum and to use it in heterogeneous math classes. 

Campaign News

This election cycle promises to shake up both the City Council and School Committee, with multiple incumbents deciding not to run again.  There are eleven(!) candidates vying for six seats on the School Committee.  While I love proportional representation for its democratic nature, it is dangerous for incumbents, as voters assume we’re safe and give their number 1 votes to new candidates.  I still need your #1 vote to be reelected!  If you have time to canvass voters, write to your friends, and/or donate, I would be grateful for your help.

In collaboration,

Rachel