Blog - Rachel for Cambridge

Connection, Creation, and Coalition

Dear Friends,

I hope this finds you and your loved ones well.

I’m pained to start by sharing tragic news: We lost a young woman last week to suicide.  Sina Ball was a sophomore at CRLS.  Her family, friends, educators, and community are carrying profound grief while showing up for one another, learning and working.  Sina’s death underscores the urgency of ensuring we have the relationships with students to know who is struggling and the adequate mental health resources they need.

This week, many students returned part-time to in-person learning for the first time in almost a year.  And, many students continue to learn remotely.  We must redouble our efforts to support the mental health of each and every child, regardless of where they are sitting.

With Principal Cook outside the Baldwin School

Concerned about the impacts isolation was having on our students, in late 2020 I stepped outside my policy-making role to see what a coalition might be able to provide for students who were struggling.  A trusted Youth Resource Officer who had worked with My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge on outdoor programming last summer suggested offering safe, social opportunities.  Building on this idea, I convened a small group of CPS educators, community partners, and parents* to consider how we could help children connect with peers and caring adults during this time. The group decided to focus on tenth and eleventh graders, believing they were less likely to be returning to in-person learning soon.  We also knew that the most effective opportunities would be designed and led by the young people we wanted to reach.  Those who worked directly with students (including School Committee colleague Ayesha Wilson, wearing her Work Force hat) recruited a small team of student designers.  In a few short weeks, we were ready for an initial gathering.  We were delighted that the staff of Starlight Square** was eager to collaborate with us.  Working within the state guidelines for outdoors, on January 17 we welcomed 22 CRLS students to Starlight Square. 

CRLS scholars at Starlight Square, writing reflections on their experiences during COVID.

At Starlight, students greeted friends, listened to music mixed by one of their peers, and responded to prompts about how they were feeling and what supports they wanted, both in writing and through art. The youth designers led a walk through the neighborhood and around Sennott Park, during which students reflected on the concepts of connection and caring. As the event came to a close, Mayor Siddiqui addressed the group, and each student shared their hopes for future gatherings. While some students suggested particular activities, others were explicit that it was the opportunity to be together safely that mattered to them most; the content of the event was mostly irrelevant.  

The young designers are now planning monthly gatherings throughout the spring.   All will be outdoors -- and participation limited to enable social distancing.  Some will focus on the arts, and others group games or movement.  The February gathering included a personal check-in, rounds of Pictionary and Heads Up!, and sharing reflections and requests with the Student School Committee Members and CRLS Principal Smith.  My heart was truly warmed to see young people playing, laughing, and connecting.   


Closing circle at Down with Design 

While monthly gatherings are a small innovation, the students and adults in this emerging Cambridge Collaborative hope that we are creating a model for future youth-led, coalition-supported efforts in our school district and city.  Transforming our children’s educational experiences will require us to break silos, risk failure, and work in different ways.  In the meantime, we are grateful to be providing social connection for some of our wonderful students.

Coming soon: reflections on the search for an Interim Superintendent, which is just getting underway.  Stay tuned!

As always, I welcome your ideas and questions.

In collaboration,

Rachel

* Extra thanks to Youth Designers Amarah, Elijah, Henry, Jaden, Rosie, Sara, Yossan, STARs teacher Sharon Lozada, district Design and Innovation Coach Angie UyHam, Co-Director of the Agenda for Children Khari Milner, Debbie Bonilla in her Friday Night Hype capacity, parent innovator Jeff Goldenson, CPD Youth Resource Officer Daniliuk, Tony Clark and Ty Bellitti from My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, as well as B Kim in the Mayor’s office, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and School Committee Member Ayesha Wilson.

** Starlight Square itself is the brainchild of a CPS graduate, Nina Berg, and the community coalition which is the Central Square BID.  We are very grateful for their generous partnership.

Student School Committee Members Killian and Vera DeGraff with Member Wilson and myself at February’s gathering.


Never A Dull Moment

Dear Friends,

I hope your new years have started sweetly.  For me, the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris was a needed infusion of goodness.

[Getty Image by Joe Raedle]

You have likely heard the recent Cambridge Public School headlines, namely that 

  • Superintendent Salim submitted his resignation for the end of this school year,
  • the School Committee approved plans to expand in-person learning to additional students beginning March 1, and 
  • the teachers union voted no confidence in both the Superintendent and School Committee.

 

These developments have emerged from challenging and tense times in the Cambridge Public Schools, with almost everyone experiencing pain of some sort:  

  • Many children learning remotely are struggling with isolation, facing mental health and/or academic setbacks, though many of their peers are thriving in remote classrooms. 
  • Many educators and staff are feeling afraid, disrespected and demoralized as they prepare to return to school buildings.  All are grieving the Covid-related death of Jimmy Ravanis, an employee of the schools and beloved colleague for thirty-five years.  
  • The distrust between our Superintendent, Committee and educators is palpable.
  • And, on our home fronts, caregivers and families are experiencing a range of emotions, from fear about school safety, to concern about their children, and exhaustion from parenting and working at the same time.

 

 

That our community is frayed is a tragedy that didn’t have to be.  Ideally, the Covid Task Force and multiple associated working groups would have provided spaces for teams of administrators, educators, caregivers, staff, and community partners to develop a shared vision and shared plans for the school year.  As a Member of the Task Force, I can attest that it did not.  We missed critical opportunities to transform the way we work together, developing goals and centering the voices of educators and caregivers of color.  This has meant that, though we have layers of Covid-19 protections in place, critical segments of our workforce and families - including populations that have been disproportionately impacted by Covid - are not on board with the plans.

Personally, I struggled with the hard choice between moving forward with a plan that emerged from a flawed process or keeping children isolated for what I calculated would be the rest of the school year.  Either way, we would risk harm to loved ones.  I decided to (paraphrasing Stacey Abrams) compromise on my actions, but not my values.  After conversations with many in our school community, an imperfect but practical way forward became clearer.  As I came to see it, principals, who generally have the trust of their teams and families (and have incentive to maintain strong relationships for the years ahead), should develop school-based strategies for expanding in-person learning.  Our principals respond to staff concerns with empathy and a collaborative problem-solving approach.  The Superintendent was headed towards school-based planning and, seeing additional reasons for this, I advocated for principals to have decision-making authority. 

Another concern I had about the in-person expansion plan was the difficulty of ensuring equitable resources for students who will remain remote.  I wanted to officially underscore our need to, at a minimum, maintain current staffing ratios for students who will continue to learn from home. 

As I said before our vote Tuesday, when the Committee considered amendments reflecting these changes, this is the best of bad options.  Only a few weeks ago, I did not appreciate the value of pushing staffing plans to the school level, as I feared for inequities between schools.  But, given the competing needs, on the one hand, to offer struggling students in-person experiences, and, on the other, to honor educator voices, I now believe this is our best way forward.  



On a happier note, this year is full of great potential for the Cambridge Public Schools.  In the coming weeks, teachers should receive their first vaccines.  My School Committee colleagues and I are committed to working with the union, all staff, students and families to rebuild trust.  And we have the opportunity to hire our next Superintendent, one who must bring a collaborative approach and new vision for how we transform our district in the months and years ahead.

With the stakes so high, many people I love and respect see things differently.  To state what I hope you already know, I am always grateful to hear your perspectives and experiences.  They truly inform and guide my decisions.

Wishing you health, love, community and joy throughout this year,

Rachel


Here Comes 46!

Dear Friends,

I hope this finds you and your loved ones well and safe.  

The scenes at all levels of society are tangled.  Globally, we hold the hope of vaccines soon to be administered simultaneously with concern about the dramatic surge of new cases.  In our school district, we are planning to expand opportunities for in-person learning, while temporarily going fully remote because of the number of people who have tested Covid positive recently.  Within this context, I want to share a few School Committee, Cambridge Public Schools, and campaign developments.

(FMA Scholars reading together)

Last month, the School Committee sent a letter that I wrote to Governor Baker and our state delegation urging them to close other venues prior to closing schools (you can read the correspondence at this link, just below the related motion 20-283).  We felt that, if students are truly our priority, we should be managing community spread by limiting indoor gatherings elsewhere.  We also encouraged colleagues in other jurisdictions to send similar letters.  In the absence of federal leadership, such critical decision-making has been left to individual states, and our children are paying the price.

(A talented teacher shows us amazing insect art by Baldwin scholars!)

My sense of urgency to offer students opportunities for in-person learning, or at least occasional wellness activities, has grown stronger.  This is a result of hearing from children and families suffering from isolation, as well as of hearing from those who have witnessed how the return to school in October dramatically improved their children’s wellbeing.  I was fortunate to visit in-person classrooms at the Fletcher-Maynard Academy, Baldwin, and Tobin Montessori schools last month.  It truly warmed my heart to see young scholars learning to read, working on art projects, and connecting with their peers and teachers.  (Our teachers, both in-person and remote, are working incredibly hard!)  After brainstorming with a number of CPSD caregivers, including a School Resource Officer, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital, and a parent with a track record of supporting student-led innovations, I drafted motion 20-300 to explore use of the Field House at the high school for academic, wellness and/or social opportunities.  I believe that, when safe, even weekly time with peers would benefit our children’s mental health and increase their ability to engage with academics.

(Tobin Montessori scholars working on art projects.)

In closing, working for our children, families and staff this year has been a privilege.  Of course, I would welcome the opportunity to serve when we are not in the midst of a pandemic, too!  That, however, requires a successful re-election campaign in 2021, and I have not had time to fundraise this year.  So, as I turn 46 this week and we welcome our 46th President soon, I ask you to contribute $4.60, $46, or $460 to the campaign before the end of the calendar year.  Here is the link!  I am deeply grateful to be in community with you and appreciate your support.

In collaboration,

Rachel


What is Not Enough: How Matters too -- even during Covid

Dear Friends,

Imagine what school would feel like if all our children sensed that their teachers expected them to achieve at high levels and saw those teachers actively collaborate with their caregivers to enable real success.  

With over a decade of working in the field of education, I have come to believe that we could go on (re)trying a long list of reforms, such as changing the length of the school day or implementing new assessment measures, and still see student outcomes improve only marginally.  I hold that a more promising way to dramatically advance and sustain student success is through culture change.  

With colleagues and community members, I have championed a number of symbolic and substantive culture changes in hopes of making the School Committee more welcoming and inclusive.  We have replaced gendered titles with “Chair, Vice Chair, and Member.”  We have invited students and families to speak before educators, administrators, and elected officials in some public conversations.  Member David Weinstein, Member Wilson and I have imported the practice of using a “progressive stack” in our subcommittees to hear first from those whom society most often dismisses, a practice we learned about from the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition.  




Member Wilson and I want to see inclusive processes even in the current, pressured time of response to a pandemic.  She and I wrote the following opinion piece about this for the Cambridge Chronicle.


By Rachel Weinstein and Ayesha Wilson / Cambridge School Committee members

Last Thursday, Nov. 5, the School Committee held a special meeting to consider a proposal revising the COVID-19 metrics that determine whether the district stays open for in-person learning. Scientifically, it is a sound proposal, developed by five exceptional Cambridge Public Schools parents who are also epidemiologists and scientists. However, at least for the two of us, the fact that we were being asked to vote on the proposal when a critical process step had been ignored made for a problematic situation.

To be clear, we believe Cambridge Public Schools are, at least currently, stronger at delivering in-person instruction than remote instruction. We know our young people need time with peers. We know our buildings are safe. We want those who are in-person to be able to continue at school, and for more students to be able to switch to in-person learning.

We do take issue with the process, however. Since the start of this pandemic, the Educators of Color Coalition, the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, NAACP Cambridge and allies have rightly been asking to be centered in this conversation. While, over these past three months, the School Committee and superintendent have repeatedly acknowledged the disproportionate impact COVID has had on communities of color, we have yet to convene a meeting with these groups who have so much at stake. Our scientific volunteers even came up with relevant proposals, but they have not been discussed with the broader school community. That is a failure of the district, not the volunteers.

We spoke out because the conversation about the virus’ impact on Black, Indigenous and other people of color should take place before another vote on metrics is held. That would both benefit the decision-making process and represent a further step toward building trust with communities that have felt alienated from our schools for generations.

There is an imperfect but good path forward at this point -- one that reflects both the urgency of deciding about in-person learning and the importance of creating an inclusive process. The mayor has called a special meeting dedicated to conversation with scientists, students, educators, families, and community members who are BIPOC about the metrics. It is quite possible that we will land with the same metrics proposed last week, but we will have built more trust along the way. Since this meeting is scheduled for Nov. 12, the committee should be able to consider updated metrics before the expected fall surge might trigger closure of our schools, based on the current, seemingly outdated, reliance on regional and state metrics.

As history is being made nationally, let us engage locally in this matter without delay, but with care -- and together!

 


In-Person Learning, Racial Disparities, and Pandemic Staffing

Dear Friends,

Yellow school buses are rolling down our streets again!  We welcomed our youngest scholars and those with special needs back into Cambridge Public Schools for four days of in-person learning per week (Wednesdays are virtual for everyone), with many more scholars continuing remotely.  Given that my colleagues and I spent the last seven months taking crash courses in pandemic management and school building health, I was relieved to hear reports from elementary school students that their first days were, in the words of one second grader, “amazing, amazing, amazing!”

I have learned a great deal about the physical challenges Covid-19 brings by participating in Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee meetings, talking with local scientists, absorbing public comments, and reading articles.  In all candor, at first I was unsure we would be able to provide sufficient protections to meet the level of safety standards needed to send children and staff into buildings.  I am grateful to feel confident that the physical spaces are safe.  Every room being used has at least four air exchanges per hour, teachers participate in surveillance testing, scholars are physically spaced six feet apart, and CPSD has a plethora of personal protective equipment (PPE).  The evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, is that these layers of protection work. (I recently heard from a friend who teaches outside of Cambridge.  Her co-teacher tested positive after an exposure outside of school, but neither she nor anyone else at the school contracted Covid-19, presumably because they had protections like these in place.)   

(I participated in walkthroughs of four of our oldest school buildings before they reopened.  Pictured here is signage, PPE, and an air scrubber at the Tobin Montessori School.)

While attaining physical safety in our schools represents a sort of pandemic milestone, it by no means signifies a return to easier work.  In fact, my experience working with schools has shown me that it is often easier to address operational challenges than cultural ones.  We must persist in grappling with the more difficult challenges.  For example, what does it mean that white families chose in-person learning disproportionately over Black and Latinx families?  What is the district doing to better understand the concerns of families of color?  What adjustments can be made so that in-person enrollment mirrors the demographics of our student population?  I continue to push our Superintendent and administration to connect with families of color in order to address inequities.  

Becoming an antiracist district will take all of us excavating, examining, and unlearning biases we have absorbed from society.  I am pleased that my colleagues unanimously passed resolution 20-255, to protect Asian American students from the racial bullying and abuse the President has inspired.  Mayor Siddiqui brought this resolution forward and invited me to co-sponsor it.  We also passed motion 20-250, which I introduced and Members Rojas and Wilson co-sponsored.  The three of us were moved to bring this motion forward as a way for the School Committee to officially acknowledge multiplecomplaints of racial harm done by Members.  After witnessing a process that I felt went off-the-rails last year, and then seeing the variety of ways we responded to the Educators of Color Coalition this year, I felt it critical that we develop a transparent, predictable process for responding to future incidents.  Member Rojas’ Governance Subcommittee will bring a proposal back to the full Committee in the weeks ahead.  

There is always more to share - and I’m told my newsletters are text heavy already!  With so much in flux, at last week’s School Committee meeting I rattled off a dozen questions about staffing, such as:

  • How many teacher and paraprofessional positions are currently vacant?
  • How many children are being assigned new teachers when in-person learning starts?
  • How many second and third grade in-person classrooms are being staffed primarily by paraprofessionals rather than lead teachers?  

There was not time for the Superintendent to respond to each of my questions, so I am waiting on written responses.  (I will request that the written answers be posted with the meeting summary online.)  I also co-sponsored Member Wilson’s motion 20-251 to convene a roundtable with elementary school principals to hear directly from our school leaders about what is working this year and what challenges remain.  Principals have critical information and perspective on how to support our children.

Finally, but most importantly, please VOTE!  Every registered Cambridge voter can vote early in-person, starting this Saturday and running through October 30th, at the Longfellow School, the Water Department, or the Valente Library.  Street addresses and hours are linked here.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Here We Go! School Starts

Dear Friends,

Today is the first day of school in Cambridge.  Like every parent - and policy maker - I have a larger range of questions and emotions than in most years.  How will our children engage, learn, and connect with peers?  When can everyone safely return to in-person learning?  Can we meet the growing mental health and social needs of our young people?  How will we sustain our educators and staff?  Despite a spring and summer full of School Committee work, there are many unknowns, most of which are the result of the broader uncertainties in the world, but some of which are of our own district’s making.

Here are a few key developments since I last wrote:

  • We are preventing the spread of Covid-19.  In early August, the School Committee passed the Superintendent’s reopening plan with seven contingencies.  In short, we said that no one would return to learning inside of school buildings until it was safe.  CPSD has more sophisticated health metrics than most districts and a much stronger surveillance testing plan, thanks to Mayor Siddiqui’s months of pushing for it.  The School Committee will soon take up air ventilation thresholds and mitigation measures.

 

Just last night, we heard updates from the Superintendent on planning for substantially separate special education classrooms, supervised remote learning spaces, and social emotional learning, which we required be collaboratively designed with scholars, families and community partners.  To get a taste of the wisdom of our young people, check out their recommendations in the series of School Climate Subcommittee meetings I facilitated on supporting the mental health of our youth.

[Hear these CRLS scholars and others here.]

  • The School Committee also completed its annual performance review of Superintendent Salim.  You can view our conversation here.  I am eager to see the Superintendent (and all his successors) benefit from feedback from cabinet members, principals, and teachers, as well as caregivers and community partners with whom he works closely, rather than only from Committee Members.  The Vice Chair will be appointing an ad hoc committee to put together such a “360 degree” process.

 

  • We had the pleasure of hearing from Educator Collaboratives earlier this month.  The Collaboratives are teams of teachers in a particular elementary grade or subject area working across the city’s schools to develop standards-aligned curricula and lessons that are rigorous, joyful and culturally responsive.  These teachers have created documents that will help families understand what their children are supposed to be learning at each grade level.  As someone whose other job is supporting collaboration between district, charter and Catholic school educators in Boston, I believe that these collaboratives exemplify the best of using this crisis as an opportunity; we will do a better job supporting and retaining teachers simply by giving them time to learn from one another, and our children will benefit. 

[‘Some of the Cambridge educators participating in Educator Collaboratives.]

The challenges ahead are plentiful.  And, tired as every caregiver, educator, administrator and elected official is, I remain deeply committed to helping our young scholars learn and connect.  Knowing that growth is rarely linear, I expect there will be further bumps as our administrators try new scheduling techniques, educators refine their remote practices, and school staff start routine check-ins with families.  Our School Committee has additional work to do, too, in healing racial harm to CRLS students from last year and to the Educators of Color Coalition last month.  As I think about the organizational culture changes I want to see in our district, I remain interested in having the Committee, administration and schools adopt more restorative practices.

Much has been said about how the Covid-19 pandemic and the era of racial reckoning have exposed our interconnectedness. Let us use these crises to build the relationships that support our young scholars, the adults who guide them, and the community which we collectively comprise.  Time to build back our district better!

In collaboration,

Rachel

 

(From left: Mayor Siddiqui, myself, and Member Wilson at a Back to School Resource Fair)




Where to Start (School)?

Dear Friends,

Where should we start?  The School Committee is considering many important policy items, the most timely among them being the forthcoming recommendation from Superintendent Salim for how our young scholars and educators return to school next month.  Will they spend some of their days at school and some at home?  Will we begin all instruction remotely? 

The Superintendent’s proposals have evolved in recent days in response to critical feedback from the Educators of Color Coalition, the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, scientists on the COVID-19 Taskforce, and countless others.  This slide outlines options his team is evaluating.  They are likely to be revised further before the School Committee meets tomorrow.

 

 

You may be wondering how I think we should return to school.  As with all of my colleagues, my priorities are to keep our loved ones safe and healthy and to build the relationships and learning communities that will help our young people grow.  Having followed the scientific news and had the privilege of conversing with local epidemiologists in recent months, I understand that we need to create layers of protective measures so that, if one fails, the others will still protect members of our community.  The district has been working tirelessly and has some of these protective measures in place.  For example, the Chief Operating Officer has secured upwards of 27,000 masks.  His team also has installed hand washing stations and sanitizer dispensers all over each of our schools.  

 

[Image from “What Back to School Might Look Like in the Age of Covid-19,” illustrated by Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, NYT July 29, 2020]

 

Two other protective measures that would increase my own confidence in in-person learning are Covid-19 testing and the improvement of air ventilation.  We are incredibly lucky that the Broad Institute is part of our community and stands ready to help us with surveillance testing.  We should take advantage of this resource.  Knowing that the virus can remain afloat in a room that is not well ventilated, we also need to ensure each classroom, common space (including bathrooms) and work space has adequate air flow before we send our children and dedicated staff into buildings.

[Image from “What Back to School Might Look Like in the Age of Covid-19,” illustrated by Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, NYT July 29, 2020]

 

I agree with Dr. Salim that we probably will not want to remain in remote learning mode until we have a vaccine, as that could mean another 18-24 months of learning from home.  While I am not ready to send our loved ones into buildings in early September, I do believe we can return them there when we have the above safety measures in place, assuming local transmission remains at its current level or lower.  In the meantime, I will continue pushing for students who are not well served by remote learning to convene in schools in small groups (outside of buildings as much as possible), and for all families and teachers to connect individually.

That is my current thinking.  I reserve the right to revise my recommendations as we all learn more about how this virus works.

Tomorrow night’s School Committee meeting (agenda item 9) includes two policies I’ve drafted that flow from what I’ve outlined above:

  • Motion 20-207 calls upon the district to engage an HVAC and respiratory pathogen expert to review our school ventilation systems.  It also requires the district to provide public school-by-school data on air quality in each room as well as plans for mitigations.  Mayor Siddiqui co-sponsored this motion.

 

  • Motion 20-206 updates district policy so that programs like First Work that provide stipends will give priority to young people who qualify for free or reduced lunch and other income-based supports.  If adopted, this motion also would encourage CPSD, City and non-profit partners to generate additional opportunities for stipending young people whose families have low incomes.  Possibilities include paying high school scholars for mentoring younger children, stipending student members of boards and commissions, and underwriting training costs for Red Cross babysitting.  Mayor Siddiqui and Member Wilson co-sponsored this motion.


[Committee via Zoom]

Working collaboratively with my colleagues, I’ve co-sponsored additional motions to:

  • Engage the Broad Institute in surveillance testing.
  • Coordinate childcare during remote learning days.
  • Inventory spaces outside of CPSD that could be used for teaching and learning.
  • Extend the MCAS (standardized testing) moratorium another year.
  • Define a set of “power standards” that teachers use for instruction this year.

 

There is much more that caregivers, scholars, educators, scientists, administrators, and elected officials are discussing.  Many of us have been pushing to make shifts to anti-racist teaching as we grapple with Covid-19.  We were dedicated to dismantling the district’s white supremacy culture prior to the pandemic, and the pandemic may help this work, since we have to rethink school from top to bottom now. 

 

 

In closing, while local community leaders have taken a crash course in public health, I believe we would not be in this predicament if we had reliable federal leadership.  I encourage you to VOTE in the primary on September 1st -- and to do so safely by mail.  The deadline to register for a mail ballot is August 26th.  You can reach the Cambridge Election Commission at (617) 349-4361 with any questions. Vote in memory of Representative John Lewis. Vote like our lives depend on it, because they do.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Big Challenges and Big News

Dear Friends,

I hope this finds you well, safe and energized to make change!

Many of you have questions and concerns about the coming school year.  While I do not have concrete answers for you yet, I want to provide some information about the process underway. 

As you may know, CPSD is required to submit three plans to the state, one for fully in-person learning, one for fully remote learning, and one for a "hybrid" of the two.  Superintendent Salim presented his two emerging hybrid proposals to the School Committee last week.  

You can see the Superintendent’s slides here.  

I am eager to hear the administration's vision for the in-person and remote plans as well, knowing that, whatever plan we begin with, public health conditions are likely to fluctuate.  I am sending questions and recommendations daily to the Superintendent, as I listen to the many caregivers who want a full-time return to school buildings as well as the educators who are afraid of the risks associated with returning.  We are unlikely to be able to satisfy everyone’s desires, but we must meet the health, safety and educational needs of our children, families and employees.  We are incredibly fortunate to live in Cambridge, one of the few districts not to make budget cuts this spring.  Let us be creative and resourceful in working with our district’s talented educators, out of school time partners, other city departments, and, most importantly, our scholars and caregivers to find the best way through this unprecedented time.  (And, let’s push state and federal policy makers to prioritize a safe opening of schools, which likely means slowing the opening of some businesses, such as casinos and gyms.) 

 

One promising development is the passage of motion 20-144 last month.  This policy (which I authored, Mayor Siddiqui and Member Wilson co-sponsored, and the Committee passed unanimously) will mean that, for the first time, every scholar/family will have a weekly check-in with a trusted adult from their school to prevent any of our children from falling through the cracks at a time when we are creating new paths forward.  The administration will present its emerging proposal for how to implement weekly check-ins at each grade span (JK-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12) at our School Climate Subcommittee meeting on July 15th.  If you would like to participate, please sign up here.  

I hope you will add your voice to this conversation, either by emailing the School Committee ([email protected]) and Superintendent ([email protected]) or by signing up for public comment here.

As always, I welcome your feedback, questions and ideas.

In collaboration,

Rachel

P.S.  I promised my daughter I would mention her most recent activism and urge you not to shop at Whole Foods.  She and several other Cambridge Public Schools students have participated in protests outside of stores because the company will not allow employees to wear Black Lives Matter masks.  Whole Foods sends home any employee who will not remove their mask, and being sent home too many times is grounds for firing.  This is the epitome of hypocrisy, as the corporation states that they believe Black lives matter.



Summer Starts with Black Lives Matter, Budget and Voting

Dear Friends,

Black lives matter.  Black families matter.  Black scholars matter.  Black educators matter.

BLM rally

Elijah Booker, one of the young men who organized the powerful, peaceful rally with My Brother's Keeper on Cambridge Common this past weekend, called for leadership, accountability and action.  Young people deserve that and so much more - peace, joy, freedom, academic and financial success, just to name a few things.

Let us use this moment of global crisis, when racial and socioeconomic disparities are spotlighted and everyone is paying attention, to shift culture, policy and practices.  Let us be bold in our advocacy for opportunity and justice.  

My Sister-in-Service, Ayesha Wilson, and I wrote the OpEd linked here last week.  Our Cambridge Chronicle piece applies an anti-racist lens to the FY21 Cambridge Public Schools budget and to the current key hiring decisions.  It also points to the need to redefine school altogether in light of such factors as COVID-19 and the nature of real jobs in the twenty-first century.  The City Council approved the schools budget at its meeting last Wednesday.   

I am pleased to share that the School Committee unanimously passed motion 20-95, which I authored with sponsorship from Members David Weinstein and Ayesha Wilson.  The motion supports state legislation to strengthen voting by mail, encourages voters to register to cast ballots through the mail, provides 16-year-olds at the high school with voter pre-registration forms, and, because some of our schools are polling places, charges the School Committee’s Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee to work with the Elections Commission and Public Health Department to propose plans for both voters and school community members to stay safe on Election Days.   

Finally, if you missed our virtual town hall on supporting young people’s mental health in this challenging time, you can catch it here.  Our scholars did a great job leading a mindfulness meditation and asking difficult questions.  Our panel of therapists shared helpful perspectives and tips.  I am grateful to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui for convening the series of Mental Health Mondays in May.                                                                          

As we head into summer, our School Committee work will heat up this year instead of diminish, as it normally does in summertime.  We must plan for delivering stronger remote instruction, anticipating that at least some of the next school year will be remote.  I am eager for Superintendent Salim to answer numerous questions, including:  

  •       How does he propose we design our classrooms and schools to keep scholars, educators and families healthy? 
  •       How does he propose we make remote-learning more engaging for scholars? 
  •       How does he propose we meet the needs of scholars with special rights (due to disability or language needs)? 
  •       And, again, how will we utilize the opportunity in this moment to bring the institution that is “school” into the 21st century, both in terms of closing opportunity gaps and in terms of preparing our young people for success in life? 

 

I hope you will add your voice to this conversation, either by emailing the School Committee ([email protected]) and Superintendent ([email protected]) or by signing up for public comment here.

As always, I welcome your feedback, questions and ideas.

In collaboration,

Rachel


Planning for COVID's Impact on Classrooms & the Mental Health Surge

Dear Friends,

I hope that the blooming of spring has boosted your spirits.  Please let me know if I can assist you with school-related - or other! - struggles.  We all are served by remembering that, in addition to wanting to show up for one another, we feel better when we help each other.

My heart was warmed learning that a woman who saw lunch distribution underway started making cloth masks for children and families.  Another stranger brought us Dunkin’ coffee on a raw, rainy day.

Since I last wrote, the School Committee postponed our vote on the FY21 school budget.  We wanted a deeper understanding of how the administration was adjusting plans based on the pandemic, since the proposed budget was created prior to school buildings closing.  Mayor Siddiqui called for a series of special meetings focused on COVID-19 response, of which the first two were held this week.  

Here are a few meeting notes:

  • At our regular May 5th meeting, the Superintendent presented what the district has done to date.  I introduced motion 20-71, co-sponsored by the Mayor and Member Wilson, that would have required weekly, individual outreach to all CPS students as part of the universal tier of intervention.  I know many of our teachers and schools are moving mountains to connect with students and believe every child would benefit from such connection.  From such outreach, staff could identify students who need further support.  Upon hearing from the administration and school leaders that they felt this was an onerous “one size fits all” approach, the Committee referred the motion to the Superintendent.  He is to report back with a recommendation of how to proceed at our regular meeting on May 19th.

 

  • At both the regular meeting and the first special meeting on responding to COVID-19, we heard a diverse set of personal truths.  During public comment, caregivers spoke to their concerns about their children facing irreparable gaps in education.  Principals and teachers spoke to how their jobs have transformed overnight and they are challenged to adapt despite their ‘round the clock work.  Members of our Special Education Parent Advisory Council, My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, and Building Equity Bridges spoke to the heightened issues of equity and need for inclusive planning.   

 

  • While the administration outlined the multitude of considerations that must be addressed in contingency plans at the first special meeting, most of the evening was dedicated to hearing what is happening currently in schools.  My colleagues and I requested detailed plans for multiple scenarios, including continued remote learning, a staggered return, and rolling closures.  I am eager to hear more specifics at the special meetings this coming Tuesday and Thursday.  You can sign up to watch or contribute public comment here.

 

  • I was honored to be a guest for Representative Marjorie Decker’s virtual town hall focused on education.  Former Education Secretary Paul Reville outlined the challenges and opportunities of this moment, many of which I have been discussing with caregivers and educators.  You can watch the one-hour session here. 

 

 

While my long-term sights remain set on how we can redesign school to be more engaging, inclusive,  and impactful, my short-term actions are largely focused on the widely-expected coming mental health surge.  I’ve heard from elementary school parents who report their children “wish they were dead,” and from upper school parents whose children are feeling increasingly isolated and depressed.  Some of our high school students are anxious about preparing for college, some are grieving the loss of an in-person prom and graduation.  Given this context, I’ve been partnering with Mayor Siddiqui and CHA to provide “Mental Health Mondays” throughout this month.  Last Monday, I represented the School Committee for an overview session.  This Monday, the panel will focus on mental health in communities of color.  For Monday, May 18th, I have been arranging a panel of therapists and teachers to take questions from students and families about enduring this difficult time.  Please submit your questions here and tune in to CCTV Channel 9 from 3-4p.

Connection and community will see us through this hard time, so please stay in touch!

In collaboration,

Rachel