We’re off and running, with both the school year and the electoral race! My heart has lifted as I’ve welcomed students back to school and heard the happy sounds of young friends reuniting. Last week, I was pleased to see most of the ninth-graders in the classes I visited give thumbs up about their first days at CRLS.
(Gorgeous art at KLo and new students at VLUS)
One of the good things to come out of this COVID era is the expansion of voting by mail. In Cambridge, the Election Commission sent every registered voter an application to mail in their ballots. I wholeheartedly support this expanded access to voting. It does, however, mean that Cantabrigians begin casting their votes THIS WEEK, so time is of the essence in letting your networks know you endorse my candidacy!
Please let me know how you can help between today and November 2. Here go some options:
- Meet voters at their doors
- Host a backyard or Zoom house party
- E/mail your networks of friends, neighbors and colleagues to encourage them to vote #1 for Rachel
- Take a visibility shift and hold a sign on Election Day
In our proportional representation system, incumbents are not safe. I need your help securing #1 votes so that we can continue the work we’ve begun towards making our schools antiracist, more rigorous, and more full of joy and collaboration!
Click on this image for a 3-minute reminder of my values and goals.
As always, I welcome your questions and ideas.
I write this while thinking of our siblings in Haiti and Afghanistan. The world holds so much pain, and we each have to find our way to respond. The classic “Think Globally, Act Locally” bumper sticker is a helpful frame for me. Those able to support Haitians and Afghanis financially in these moments of crisis might consider contributing to Fonkoze, Hope for Haiti, and/or Women for Women.
Rally For Our Youth, organized by My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge 8.2.21 - Wicked Local Staff Photo/Ann Ringwood
Locally, our young people are experiencing an uptick in violence. I’m grateful that My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, Councilors Simmons and McGovern, Vice Mayor Mallon, and Mayor Siddiqui have convened various meetings to address the shootings in the Port as well as tensions between young people in North Cambridge and the Port. I continue to believe that, if we were to provide every child with a champion -- an adult who helps them navigate school, connect with opportunities that excite them, and secure needed resources -- we would effectively prevent most violence amongst our teenagers and emerging adults. I remain committed to advancing this cause in our schools and community, and I’m also eager to support complementary efforts.
As our children get ready to return to school September 9, we continue to work to protect them and everyone around them from COVID-19. I have been pleased to see the recommendations from Interim Superintendent Greer and her team, which have included universal masking inside school buildings and outdoor lunch as much as possible. The School Committee has passed these proposals unanimously.
On the Committee, I have been the most vocal advocate for mandating vaccines for anyone in schools who is eligible and does not have a medical or religious reason not to get vaccinated. You can read the joint Cambridge Chronicle OpEd piece City Councilor Patty Nolan and I wrote on this topic here (or the shorter letter to the Boston Globe editor here). I know that many of you have weighed-in with the City Manager and School Committee about a vaccine mandate - thank you for speaking out.
In closing, the stretch between Labor Day and Election Day is peak campaign season! Your campaign help could make the difference in sending me back to the School Committee. Please sign up to write to your friends, knock on doors, and/or host a yard sign. Strengthening our schools and improving outcomes for our children will take all of us. I am very grateful to count you as partners.
As always, I welcome your ideas and questions.
I hope you and your loved ones are well and enjoying the summer.
In this moment, having just lost both a community elder and another young person, let us again recommit to crucial racial and social justice work. We give thanks for the life of Civil Rights giant Bob Moses and we grieve Robert Favreau, who was killed without the opportunity to reach his potential.
In related news, this month has brought two notable shifts in my School Committee experience. First, we welcomed Dr. Victoria Greer as she began her tenure as Interim Superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools. Earlier this month, the Committee had an initial retreat with Dr. Greer. We focused on how best to work together, including protocols and timelines for communication. The energy in the room was good and I left the day optimistic about our future collaborations.
Dr. Victoria Greer, Interim Superintendent
A key piece of being an effective leadership team for the school district is having a short list of shared goals and objectives. As you may know, largely due to COVID, we have been working within the framework of an outdated district plan. As part of Dr. Greer’s entry process, we will be defining short-term goals and developing a timeline for adopting a new, multiyear district plan. I look forward to honing in on these shared priorities and working together to advance them.
The second big shift recently has been the official start of the campaign season. As of this writing, there are 10 candidates running for the six School Committee seats. There may be more before the August 2nd deadline arrives. Between the crowded field and the tumultuous term, it promises to be a competitive race.
My daughter joined me to pull papers at the Cambridge Election Commission.
If you are a monthly reader of this newsletter, you know that I have worked tirelessly over the past 19 months to ensure that our students are healthy, connected with caring adults and peers, learning in antiracist classrooms, and challenged academically. Whether working with high school students, families, and educators on the Interim Superintendent process, or pushing for more funding for family engagement, I have always striven to approach the work collaboratively and strategically. There is so much more we need to do to ensure that all our children graduate from the Cambridge Public Schools prepared to thrive in their postsecondary and civic lives. I hope to have the privilege of serving a second term and continuing this work with all of you, but I can’t win without your help. Please take a minute to pledge your #1 vote, sign up to volunteer, and donate to the campaign!
Happy Summer! Happy Pride! Happy (almost) Juneteenth! I sense a collective lifting of spirits as our fortunate community becomes vaccinated and the days become longer.
This month’s newsletter is more of a photo update, rather than a written reflection. That’s because you can read my latest thinking on this exceptional term in the Cambridge Chronicle.
Click on this image or here to read the OpEd.
No doubt, part of the reason my own spirits are lifting is because I’ve been able to connect with more of you in person in recent months. Here are some recent highlights:
A few weeks ago, we held our last Down with Design gathering. These Mental Health Awareness Month t-shirts were donated by Mayor Siddiqui - and the beautiful logo was designed by CRLS student Lisa Jones!
City Councilor Sobrinho-Wheeler, Councilor Zondervan, School Committee Member Ayesha Wilson and I were honored to support the CRLS students kicking off the Cambridge chapter of the Sunrise Movement.
Vice Mayor Mallon, Mayor Siddiqui, and I were delighted to connect with many CPSD families and community partners at the district’s and Mayor’s Resource Fair last weekend.
Last but not least, a big CongRatuLationS to the CRLS and High School Extension Program seniors who graduated this week! Completing high school is always a milestone, but this class has overcome more obstacles than most. My hat is off to them, their families, and their educators.
In closing, this month marks the end of Dr. Kenneth Salim’s five year tenure leading the Cambridge Public Schools. I am thankful to the Superintendent for his dedication to our district, round-the-clock service through COVID-19, and wish him all the best in his future endeavors.
As always, I welcome your questions and ideas.
Flowers are blooming, vaccines are going in arms, and we have a new Interim Superintendent of Schools! Last night, the School Committee voted to appoint Dr. Victoria Greer to lead our district for a year beginning July 1. I look forward to working with Dr. Greer, particularly because I’ve heard that she consistently prioritizes student needs in each of her decisions. In speaking with her references, Mayor Siddiqui and I heard that, even when they disagreed with her, Dr. Greer’s determinations centered students.
The students who interviewed Interim Supt candidates gave us all insight into the three finalists.
In addition to enabling a good interim appointment, I believe the selection process our community and School Committee used will help shape the search for a permanent superintendent. After conducting separate interviews with panels of students, family members, and staff, we posted the forums on the CPSD website with subtitles in multiple languages. We also invited community members to share their reflections and questions in a form that was public. I’m proud to have played a central role in this process, working closely with Mayor Siddiqui and Member Rojas.
The Committee’s conversation Tuesday night about providing remote learners social opportunities can be found here at the 1:27 mark.
In other news, while most of our students have returned to in-person learning (and more high school students will return Monday), I continue to be concerned about the roughly 30% of students who are staying remote until September. If you have read this newsletter for a few months, you know that I put my policy-making hat aside to work with students and partners on monthly gatherings for CRLS students. I remain frustrated that our district has not done more to offer all remote students chances to connect with peers and adults outside and safely. Having unsuccessfully advocated for school-formed pods in the spring of 2020, outdoor learning and walking tours (an idea from parents) last summer, and supervised recess for remote learners (an idea from a teacher) last fall, I brought a policy motion forward this week requiring schools to invite remote learners to gather with in-person learners and school teams at least twice before the next school year. Members Weinstein and Wilson co-sponsored this motion, which leaves the specifics about when and where outside to schools. Our intent was to ensure that students who have been remote for close to 15 months are able to see friends and reconnect with their schools before the end of this school year. We believe that this will help their mental health over the summer and reduce anxiety about returning to in-person learning in the fall.
Elijah gives instructions during the scavenger hunt at last week’s Down with Design.
In closing, I have truly enjoyed recent visits with a Civics class, the Young People’s Project, and a workshop convened by the Intersectional Feminist Club. I’m looking forward to being allowed back inside schools to visit students and teachers in the same room!
As always, I welcome your ideas and questions.
I hope this finds you well and your spirits lifting with the arrival of spring and vaccines.
Last month, this newsletter noted the passing by suicide of a CRLS scholar. This month, my heart aches to share the news of the murder of Xavier Louis-Jacques, a recent CRLS graduate, artist and athlete. Xavier’s friends and educators remember his warmth, kindness and humor. The media often talks about gun violence in mass shootings, which are beyond horrific. According to Vox (3.23.21), mass shootings make up less than two percent of gun deaths in this country. We need real gun control.
We should hold one another in community.
On an upbeat note, next week, many more of our children will return to in-person learning, marking another pandemic milestone. It’s notable to me that this month’s newsletter is focused on our search for an Interim Superintendent and next year’s budget, topics that we would address in non-Covid years, too.
When Dr. Salim submitted his resignation in January, my colleagues and I decided to launch a search for an Interim Superintendent. The requirements for an interim search are different than for a permanent search. The School Committee has the authority to simply appoint an Interim Superintendent. Because we are committed to antiracism and closing opportunity gaps of all sorts, we wanted to incorporate some community engagement where possible, despite the quick timeline.
As a member of the ad hoc search committee, I have worked closely with Mayor Siddiqui, Member Rojas, and our Chief Talent Officer, Lisa Richardson, to design an abbreviated calendar that centers student, caregiver and staff voices. We have invited finalists to meet with these three groups of stakeholders for interviews that the stakeholders design and lead. On April 8th, the candidates will rotate through 45-minute sessions with each of these groups.
(Here is the link to watch the Committee discuss this process)
We know that the panelists in these stakeholder groups will ask critical questions of interim superintendent candidates. It’s also worth noting that, while we are observing how finalists interact with community members, we are also giving them an impression of what it would be like to work for our district and how we walk our antiracist talk.
To view these interviews, please visit the Interim Superintendent Search page for links. In the coming days, a new form will be added through which you can submit feedback on the candidates as well as suggest questions for the School Committee to ask when candidates come before us.
In other news, I am pleased to see the following items in the Superintendent’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2022:
- The expansion of the Early College program, which provides high school students with rigorous learning and college credits before they graduate from CRLS. I’m also glad to see we are seeking the state’s “Early College Designation,” as I expect that will require a larger program with proven results, especially for students who are the first in their families to attend college.
- Expanded funding for a full-time social worker at every elementary school. Our children deserve the social emotional support and case work social workers can provide, now more than ever.
- Increased capacity to provide language access to all families. In addition to addressing a clear access issue, we all will benefit from more caregivers participating in public forums (with interpretation services).
The additions to the budget that I’m seeking include:
- Increasing Family Liaisons to 40-hours per week at every school. The Family Liaisons do critical work to close opportunity gaps for students. Among other things, families routinely turn to them for help navigating food, housing, and after school care, all challenges that impact well-being and learning.
- Allocating more funding for intensive tutoring, enhanced after school programming, and/or another strategy to augment our existing academic supports as we emerge from remote learning.
Apropos of which, I am advocating for a process this year through which the School Committee will approve the use of federal recovery and rescue funds. In typical times, we approve such grants through a consent agenda. Since we anticipate upwards of $13m coming to the district, I believe the Committee should have more oversight of these significant resources dedicated to building back stronger.
Just as this Tobin Montessori poster encourages a growth mindset in students, we too must be persistent learning to close opportunity and achievement gaps.
We are fortunate to live in a city that has increased the School Department’s budget by an astounding 22% in the last four fiscal years. Now we must ensure that our academic and wellbeing outcomes reflect and go beyond that investment.
As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions.
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.
* 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.
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,
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.
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!