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.
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!
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!
Rindge Avenue Upper School graduation tassel
Happy Juneteenth! Happy Pride! As the school year wraps-up, it seems like an appropriate moment both for joyous celebration and for reflection on the broader context of public education in our state and country.
Let’s start with the bigger picture. At the national level, the racist murders in Buffalo and the school shooting in Uvalde have, naturally, raised anxiety amongst our students, staff, and families about safety in CPS buildings. We are fortunate that Massachusetts has some of the best gun safety laws in the U.S. Still, we want to be sure we are prepared for worst-case scenarios. A few caregivers reached out to the School Committee with questions about our safety protocols. I discussed these concerns with Superintendent Greer, who had also been thinking it was time to update them. Her team will be reviewing our active shooter protocols over the summer.
(My remarks on the sanctuary resolution are at the 3 hour 5 minute mark of this video)
Another concerning national trend is the legislative attacks against transgender children and families in numerous states. I am grateful to the CPS paraprofessional who brought the Committee Pride flags and suggested that I introduce a motion in support of Massachusetts becoming a sanctuary state for trans youth and families. I’m pleased that the Committee passed this unanimously. #WeWontBeSilent
Compared to other school districts in the Commonwealth, Cambridge has extraordinary financial resources. Students in most of Massachusetts’ public schools are not so fortunate, which is part of the reason I proposed the School Committee endorse the Fair Share Amendment that will appear on your November ballot. If passed, it will allow Massachusetts to improve its public education and transportation systems in particular by requiring that the wealthiest among us pay their “fair share” – a 4 percent tax on annual income above $1 million. Only people who earn more than $1 million annually will pay this tax; 99% of us won’t pay a penny more. And we’ll all benefit from better schools, roads, bridges, and public transportation. Learn more and get involved at https://www.FairShareMA.com. (Pledge to vote for Fair Share at https://raiseupma.us/pledge.)
At the local level, I have good news. Having spent many hours this spring on labor negotiations with educators and food service workers, I’m pleased to report that we have settled contracts with our substitutes unit and food service workers, and have a tentative agreement with our teachers and administrators. If union members of the latter two units vote to accept the contract, I expect the School Committee will as well. (I will share the details once the agreement is ratified.)
The CRLS Class of 2022!
I have truly enjoyed being in community with students, families, and educators the last few weeks for a variety of year-end celebrations. From theater productions to capstone project presentations to the CRLS and High School Extension Program graduations, the love and pride our community has shown for our young people has warmed my heart. Outside of our school buildings, I have been inspired by events the Cambridge Families of Asian Descent and the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition hosted at Starlight Square. I want to give a special thanks to the educators and families who organized CPS’ First Community Pride Day earlier this month. While the workshops were exclusively for students, I was delighted to join the outdoor fair, which included an LGBTQ+ book giveaway, cookie decorating, and more. May this be the first of many.
For now, I wish us all a healthy, joyous, growth-filled summer.
I imagine we’re all grateful to see spring blooming. I’m also very grateful to see more students blossoming at school – how wonderful it’s been to get back to classroom visits!
Last month, I had the pleasure of attending an eighth grade English Language Arts Symposium at the Putnam Ave. Upper School. In a lesson designed to showcase argumentative writing and public speaking, Ms. Federico’s and Ms. Escamilla’s students responded to prompts about critical race theory or proposals to name a school after Malcolm X. The young people had clearly done their research and presented clear, compelling arguments. It was an inspiring event.
I also had the opportunity to stop by the high school’s Readathon, where students were selecting the next School Book to be read by all students over the summer. Our all-star librarians and teachers at CRLS had developed a process that engaged students in reading multiple novels over the course of a day, with breaks for hula-hooping, silly photos, and food! The event, which went until midnight, included a sports-like tournament bracket of the final books. What a fun and wonderful way to build buy-in for the School Book while simultaneously building community and a joy of reading.
CRLS Readathon silliness and book bracket
At the policy-making level, I’m pleased to report that the School Committee passed Superintendent Greer’s proposed budget unanimously. I believe Dr. Greer’s budget was made stronger by incorporating significant community input and building upon the findings of the process she used to assess the state of the district, her “entry plan.” The City Council voted to adopt the CPS budget last Wednesday. We will build upon the priorities in this document as we embark on the district planning process this year.
I’ve mentioned previously that the Committee has been working with students to advance gender equity. Mayor Siddiqui, Member Bhambi and I have been in close collaboration with the Title IX Aurelia Advocates (a student organization) that has resulted in an updated Title IX policy for the district. This policy comes back to the full School Committee tonight for what I hope (and expect) will be its official adoption.
One area where the district has not made as much progress as I expected is the review of the Rindge School of Technical Arts. After the administration presented its plans for that review last month, I spoke with the Mayor and Superintendent about needing more oversight and frequent updates on this initiative. We have added quarterly roundtable meetings to the Committee’s calendar in order to monitor this effort more closely. I look forward to sharing more with you as the review and plans unfold.
As always, I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.
P.S. For those of you curious about our labor negotiations, I share this statement from the Committee: The Cambridge School Committee has a strong commitment to providing an inclusive and productive learning environment for its students, and a supportive, respectful workplace for its employees. The Cambridge School Committee has negotiated and reached agreement on successor union contracts with five (5) of the eight (8) bargaining units of unionized staff and continues good faith negotiations with the remaining three (3). For Units A&B, the teachers and administrators bargaining unit, the Cambridge School Committee continues to engage in good faith negotiations directly with the Cambridge Education Association (CEA) with the shared goal of reaching agreement on a Units A&B contract as soon as possible. The School Committee and CEA have several upcoming bargaining sessions scheduled with the hope and expectation of continued mutual progress toward an overall agreement. The School Committee respects the collective bargaining process between the designated bargaining teams and, accordingly, does not want to make public comments about the details of negotiations at this time.
I hope the emergence of spring is lifting your spirits!
As you likely know, students and staff are now allowed to choose whether or not to wear their masks in the Cambridge Public Schools. For many, this is a relief and great joy. For many others, concern about COVID safety at school persists. My inbox is filled with heartfelt messages from both perspectives. While I wish we were done with COVID, it is here for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, the School Committee directed the Superintendent to shift to managing schooling with the existence of the virus, rather than to go on trying to prevent transmission entirely. The Committee, Superintendent Greer, and Chief Public Health Officer Derrick Neal are committed to continuing many safety protocols (surveillance testing, symptomatic testing, improved ventilation, etc.) and to monitoring the virus carefully. We will adjust as needed.
The end of winter and start of spring means we are also deep into the budget season. Superintendent Greer’s proposed FY23 budget is organized around her entry plan findings. For example, she lists budget priorities around mitigating and recovering from COVID, supporting healthy students and school cultures, and building educator capacity. I am particularly eager to further discuss the efforts included in the Strengthening Academic Outcomes priority. Dr. Greer includes better coordinated work-based learning and expanded partnerships with local employers under this heading. I want to see such initiatives advanced, as I know our students benefit greatly from internships and other work-based learning. There’s more to say about the budget than I have space for here, so you may want to review the budget presentation in its entirety. The public hearing on the budget is this Thursday, March 24 – please add your voice as you are moved to!
(You can hear more of my initial thoughts about the proposed budget here.)
As always, I welcome your questions and ideas.
There’s a lot moving in the school district right now – I’m excited to share updates with you on a few issues I’ve discussed in the past, as well as on some new issues.
First, I am pleased to report that the School Committee unanimously voted to revise our high school graduation requirements to include a second semester of Health and to end the waiver for scholar-athletes to opt-out of Health classes (students can still opt-out of Physical Education classes if they participate in sports teams). These changes were included in my motion 22-21, a response to the CRLS student walkouts regarding sexual assault and harassment, as well as to related student requests to add more education about consent. The stellar team that drove this change included Student Members Killian and Vera-DeGraff, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Turk, Health/PE/Wellness Curriculum Coordinator Jamie McCarthy, as well as Mayor Siddiqui and Member Wilson.
The Title IX Aurelia Advocates testify at the Feb 1 School Committee meeting.
A second development of note – also an outgrowth of the CRLS student walkout this fall – is that a group of impressive, dynamic students calling themselves the Title IX Aurelia Advocates have dived into research about Title IX (the federal regulations that prohibit sex-based discrimination in schools) and identified a number of opportunities for strengthening our district’s practices.
Thirdly, you may recall that the 2021 Teen Health Survey revealed that our students who identify as LGBTQIA+ are struggling with well-being disproportionately to their peers. I wanted to hear directly from more of these students about their school experiences, so I met with Project 10 East, the high school’s gender and sexuality alliance. Here, too, our young people moved me with their insights and recommendations. I am concerned about LGBTQIA+ students feeling unsafe and about their having to shoulder the burden of teaching their educators and peers about their identities and experiences. I am committed to working to address this situation at all grade levels, so stay tuned!
Finally, my December newsletter referenced updating Dr. Victoria Greer’s contract. If you haven’t heard, she is now Superintendent Greer, as the Committee voted to drop the “Interim” part of the title and extend her contract through June 2023. Both the Superintendent and Committee have to let one another know by the end of this June if we are interested in renewing the contract for a longer term.
As always, I welcome your questions and recommendations.
I hope this finds you well and warm!
Though we are less than a week into the New Year, there is an abundance of news, so I wanted to share a couple of quick updates.
First, the new School Committee was sworn in on Monday. I am humbled and honored that my colleagues voted unanimously to name me Vice Chair for this term (2022-23). As Vice Chair, I will appoint subcommittees and work more closely with the Mayor and Superintendent to coordinate the Committee’s work. I am eager to use this opportunity to help improve our students’ experiences and academic outcomes.
(The new Committee took our masks off for a quick photo. We were masked and distanced throughout the inauguration itself.)
Second, I appreciated that Interim Superintendent Greer, with guidance from the Cambridge Public Health Department, decided to postpone the opening of school by two days in order to test students and staff for COVID. This was a seemingly prudent move that required long hours of work by teams in both departments over the winter vacation. Unfortunately, a number of missteps on multiple fronts resulted in students and families waiting multiple hours for tests in below-freezing weather, as well as incomplete lab results. Yesterday, Mayor Siddiqui and I released a statement reflecting on this troubling start to the year. You can read the full statement below this message.
I wish us all a healthy, joyous year full of learning and community.
CPS students, families, and staff,
This was not the way we wanted to start 2022. We are truly sorry that you have had to bear the brunt of others’ mistakes. From long, freezing lines to get tested Monday to delayed results and difficult decisions about sending your own children to school Wednesday, we hear you and are responding to these challenges. We recognize that Cambridge Public Schools and Public Health staff have been working around the clock and appreciate their commitment to our students and families.
We and our colleagues on the School Committee have been in frequent communication with Interim Superintendent Greer this week. We will have an action review about how plans (and contingency plans) were made and communicated. We are committed to learning from this difficult experience to ensure that families are never put in this position again. As we debrief with the School Department, the Cambridge Public Health Department, and CIC Health, we will continue to push for safe, in-person learning and better communication.
CIC has taken full responsibility for mismanaging the testing results and, with the support of the state, provided additional testing teams from the National Guard to conduct rapid tests for us today. Additionally, routine surveillance testing for staff and students has restarted.
Please know that we are dedicated to seeing the district do better as we move forward over the days and weeks ahead.
Do not hesitate to reach out to us with questions or concerns.
Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui
Vice Chair Rachel Weinstein
As we finish 2021, I wanted to share a few recent Cambridge Public Schools headlines with you.
First, I have received a couple questions about the postponed meeting regarding Dr. Victoria Greer’s contract. The proposal that the Committee will consider is to extend Dr. Greer’s employment for a year and to drop the “Interim” qualifier from her title, officially making her Superintendent through June 2023. In our original contract, we included a clause which allowed us to stretch the interim position for a second year. I have been pleased with Dr. Greer’s leadership, and hope that having the title of Superintendent will better position her to drive timely, needed change in our schools. I look forward to hearing your thoughts via email, phone, or public comment at the meeting.
Hundreds of high school students at the walkout
The second headline is not a happy one, nor is it a surprise: our students are struggling with mental health and general well-being. Beyond the data from last spring’s Teen Health Survey, our students have been vocalizing their concerns in real-time, organizing events such as a walkout at CRLS to protest sexual assault and a Day of Silence at one our upper schools to educate peers and the school community about what young people who are LGBTQIA+ experience routinely.
I continue to be impressed and inspired by our young people’s activism and leadership. I also continue to work to learn how, from my perch as a policy maker, I can help make our schools dramatically safer, more welcoming and affirming environments. At CRLS, my immediate action, having attended the walkout and spoken with a few of the organizers, was to amplify and endorse the student requests, all three of which struck me as entirely reasonable. The students asked for adult-facilitated conversations about sexual assault, an incident-reporting system that followed-up with each individual who filed a complaint, and a mandatory consent curriculum for all students. At my request, Dr. Greer updated the Committee and community on these requests at our December 7th meeting (minutes 0:41-1:03).
Breaking ground for the new school building
Finally, the end of the calendar year coincided with the symbolic transition from an old school building to a new one, as elected, city, and school officials gathered to break ground for the building that will house the new Tobin Montessori School, the Vassal Lane Upper School, and four preschool classrooms run by the Department of Human Services. As a parent in the old building for a full decade, I will always remember that the foreboding exterior concealed the warmth felt by young and adult members of the communities inside. I am excited for our students, educators, families and community members who will have a beautiful, healthy, thoughtfully designed new building in which to thrive, come 2025.
I wish you and yours a healthy, joyous 2022 full of learning and growth! I look forward to our work together in the new year.
P.S. The new School Committee will be sworn in on Monday at 6p. With COVID precautions, the in-person capacity is quite limited, but you can catch the live-stream at www.cpsd.us or Cambridge Educational Access TV Channel 98/99.
Whether you marked Thanksgiving, the National Day of Mourning, Hanukah, or none of the above, I hope you were nourished by friends, family, and community this past weekend.
Believe it or not, though I last wrote to you with election results, I’m reaching out to you today about another election in two weeks. I have endorsed Lydia Edwards for the First Suffolk & Middlesex Senate seat, and this district includes Cambridgeport! This is a special election, and we need Lydia Edwards to win.
For those of you who are not yet familiar with her, you can meet Lydia through this education OpEd she wrote last week.
Will you commit to voting for Lydia on Tuesday, December 14th? Early voting starts in one week, and voting by mail starts even sooner! Learn more at LydiaEdwards.org/Vote. Sign up to help get your neighbors out to vote -- hop on a phone bank or knock on some doors!
In other timely news, the School Climate Subcommittee, which I chair, is meeting tomorrow (Tuesday, November 30 from 6-8p via Zoom) to discuss results from the 2021 Teen Health Survey. To say our middle and high school students are struggling is an understatement. I hope you will join us to make sense of the data and explore policy and systems improvements. Please note that you can watch the meeting live without registering, but participating in the conversation requires signing-up here by 5p tomorrow.
As always, please reach out with questions, concerns or ideas.