With February vacation behind us and wintry weather’s arrival, you may be hungry for updates that will warm your heart! Here are my top three inspiring Cambridge Public Schools events from the last month:
#1 - Celebration of Cambridge Educator Pathways cohort
A few weekends ago, I was thrilled to join the first cohort of graduates from the Cambridge Educators Pathways program, a partnership between CPS and Lesley University. Through this program, current paraprofessionals and teachers can obtain their Masters degrees for free. From where I sit, this is one of the most effective strategies for racially diversifying our teacher workforce - with educators who are already committed to our students, schools, and city, no less. Each graduate spoke at the ceremony, many remarking that they would not have been able to afford graduate school without this program. Mayor Siddiqui and I joined the graduates in appreciating Member Fantini, who spent years building this initiative. The next cohort has 18 educators enrolled!
#2 - Upper School Mock School Committee
(Photos by PAUS student photographer R. Hawlader)
Dozens of upper school students convened a few weeks ago at CRLS to discuss their priorities for the district. Supported by students in Tufts Action as well as by our own CRLS Student School Committee Members, these sixth, seventh, and eighth graders made important observations and recommendations about school buses, the quality of school meals, and recess. Member Hunter and I were impressed with all the young people involved and look forward to their continued leadership and partnership.
#3 - CRLS Student Budget Meeting
Student School Committee Members Clemente and Escamilla-Salomon organized a standing-room-only lunch meeting for high school students to learn about and weigh-in on the district’s budget. Most of the School Committee attended, registering an abundance of thoughtful feedback and enjoying an inspired game the Student Members created for their peers. It was a truly informative, engaging, and important conversation.
I hope you find as much joy and optimism from reading about these events as I did from attending them. Stay tuned for more policy updates in the weeks ahead.
Pain and Promise
I’m struck by how much pain and promise there is in our community right now.
As the world reels from the police murder of Tyre Nichols, locally we grieve further tragic losses, including the police killing of 20 year-old Sayed Arif Faisal and the death of a CRLS student. Losing young people so tragically is heartbreaking. Our schools continue to have counselors available for students and to share resources with families. I hope we will all lean on one another, and that we can share perspectives on how to improve behavioral health supports with City leaders, including the School Committee.
Within a week of the grief-stricken community meeting at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School pictured above, I was back in the building for the joyous occasion of Putnam Ave Upper School students sharing their “Stories of Self.” I was inspired by the students’ writing about their lives, and grateful for a team of educators working to build pride in students’ identities while skill-building. Among others, I heard from a sixth grader who almost fell in the Charles River, a seventh grader whose art is their passion, and an eighth grader who immigrated from Bangladesh to the United States. Our young people have so much talent and potential!
[This photo is from the CRLS Astronomy class’s final project day - students created games, incorporating their content knowledge and using 3D printers at the Hive.]
In other news, the School Committee and administration are deep into the budget process. We’ve had multiple workshops, held three community meetings, collected 500+ surveys, connected with 120 families through the DHSP Community Engagement Team… and there’s more to come! Superintendent Greer will present her proposed budget to the Committee on March 14th, and there’s a public hearing on March 21st. If you haven’t already weighed in, I hope you will email the Committee your thoughts and/or sign-up to speak at the public hearing.
[Dr. Greer speaks at a Community Budget Meeting last week.]
Finally, I want to take a moment to remember former Mayor and State Representative Alice Wolf, who passed away last week. Alice lived a full and extraordinary life, starting as a child in Austria during the Holocaust, and continuing in Boston where her family fled to escape its horrors. She went on to build a wonderful family and have a deep impact in our community, on topics ranging from the environmental quality of the Charles River to LGBT+ rights to developing our Sister Cities program and helping advance dozens of other progressive priorities. I had the privilege of interning for Alice in her first term as State Representative, when now-Representative Marjorie Decker was her legislative aide. Alice later advised me on my campaigns for School Committee. I will always be grateful for her service to Cambridge and her personal mentorship.
As always, I welcome your reflections and questions.
School Committee Communique!
I hope you and your loved ones are well.
As we move into the holidays, I want to share a few headlines with you:
First, we have a new School Committee Member! Ms. Caroline Hunter officially joined the Committee on December 6th (filling the seat vacated by Akriti Bhambi). Many of you will remember Member Hunter from her years serving as a CRLS administrator, or will have heard of her leadership during the anti-apartheid movement. I’m excited by the chance to work with her.
Committee Members, from left: Student Member Escamilla-Salomon, myself, Member Hunter, Member Fantini, Mayor Siddiqui, Member Weinstein, Member Wilson, Member Rojas, Student Member Clemente
Second, many Cambridge Public School caregivers, teachers, and administrators are engaged in a heated conversation about how we teach young children to read. Without getting into the arguments on both sides, I will simply say that the School Committee has heard serious concerns about the Reading Recovery program, as well as heartfelt expressions of gratitude for the program and its staff. When a related grant came before the Committee earlier this month, we sent it back to Superintendent Greer for further recommendations about how to transition from Reading Recovery to an approach that places greater emphasis on decoding words. In the intervening days, Dr. Greer has communicated that CPS will not eliminate the program mid-year, and will have a thoughtful transition planned for SY23-24 (read her message here). I support this approach.
The Visual and Performing Arts Department and our high school students received a standing ovation for 9-to-5: The Musical.
Finally, the Committee is engaged in two routine, but important processes. We have been working with the Executive Leadership Team on the three-year District Plan, most recently having a thoughtful and productive conversation about setting student outcome goals. As you can see here and hear here, we are aiming for high levels of student growth for all students, with even higher growth rates for those currently furthest behind. We also are beginning the annual budget-development process. I will share more information on that in the months ahead, but in the meantime here is a draft calendar that includes community meetings on the CPS budget.
May your holidays be healthy and joyous!
Headlines and Happenings
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.
Back to School...Committee!
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
Safety Preparations, Labor Negotiations, & lots of Celebrations!
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.
March Mask & Budget Developments
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.
Strengthening Student Safety - and our new Superintendent!
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.