The Grades Are In
Cambridge School Committee Fails Superintendent William C. Lannon
Cambridge Superintendant of Schools William C. Lannon will not be among those returning to school when the first bell rings next fall. After nine years at the helm of the 14 school, 8000-student system. Lannon has been dismissed by the Cambridge School Committee, and he will leave office when his current contract expires on August 15.
Lannon's tenure in office has been described by one teacher as "a series of crises after crises." Between 1975 and 1984, the Cambridge schools have come to grips with budget cutbacks resulting from the tax-cutting bill Proposition 2 1/2 with the upheaval surrounding the system's reorganization and desegregation, and with the controversies spawned by affirmative action proposals.
But in the same period, the city's only high school. Cambridge Rindge and Latin, has gone from a dilapidated, crumbling building--with a curriculum in far worse shape than its physical structure--to "a school we can hold our heads high over," as School Committee member Frances Cooper describes it. Attendance and test scores have improved across the board as well, and a series of special programs and "magnet schools" provide educational alternatives for every type of student.
The role that Lannon played in the changes has been the subject of much debate in recent months, as the school committee deliberated his fate in a series of public hearings in January and February.
Parents and administrators generally supported Lannon. The system is losing someone with a lot of courage in dealing with controversial situations and with a rate capacity to translate creative ideas into programs that work," says Diane Tabor. Rindge and Latin's assistant principal. "The rest of the world is laughing at us--it's like telling Larry Bird not to play basketball."
Still, despite widespread support. Lannon stepped on a few toes in making his changes, and some of them belonged to members of the school committee, the group of six elected representatives and the Cambridge mayor which determines over all school department policy and appoints all personnel.
"Lannon was just using the city to climb in his political career," says Glenn S. Koocher '71, the leader of the anti-Lannon contingent. "He catered to certain constituencies, the powerful ones, and left the poorer neighborhoods to take care of themselves," Koocher adds.
But both supporters and opponents agree that Lannon was instrumental in the numerous structural and curricular reforms that made the Cambridge schools what spokesman Albert Giroux calls "a model for urban education in the rest of the country."
While Boston dealt with anti-busing riots and racial turbulence when court-ordered desegregation started in 1978, nearby Cambridge gained nationwide recognition as one of the few communities to desegregate its schools voluntarily, without a mandate from the courts. The three-year process, completed in 1981, of evenly spreading minority students, who are 40 percent of the school's population, throughout the 13 elementary schools, has "worked out well," according to Giroux.
Instead of automatically registering their children in a neighborhood school, Cambridge parents apply to a central office which then makes school assignments. Demographics primarily determine the assignments, although the child's neighborhood and the parents' preference are also taken into account. Each family lists three choices of schools, and administrators try to give them their first choice.
Parents also have the option to request one of the several "magnet schools," which draw children from all over the city. The Graham-Parks School offers multi-grade open classrooms with an emphasis on parent involvement in forming school policy. "The Open School" at mid-Cambridge's Martin Luther King School stresses "individualized academic creativity," according to a school department brochure.
The newest magnet school, which opened its doors in September, incorporates computers into all aspects of the academic curriculum. Local business, universities and the federal government contributed funds and resources to set up the experimental program. "I hate to keep saying this, but it is a model," says Giroux. Secretaries at the school even answer phones, "School of the Future, can I help you?"
But some parents have complained about the lack of access to computer facilities for their children in other schools. Giroux says, however, that the new computer school provides workshops in computer education to teachers employed at other Cambridge schools, and that several computer companies have given the system samples of their wares, which are being set up on a city wide basis.
"Magnet schools give teachers the opportunity to upgrade their craft, and to influence the system at large," says Tabor. School committee member Rena H. Leib calls the diverse programs "a recognition that different kids learn in different ways."
"If you look at any school in Cambridge, it is pretty well integrated in terms of bodies," says Cooper, adding. "But the administration and teaching staff is much less integrated, and we're going to have to deal with this very soon." Administrators say only 14 percent of the teachers in Cambridge are Blacks, and they are concentrated in several schools such as the King School, with high minority enrollments.
In 1981, the Cambridge Teachers' Union filed a suit against the school committee for "violations of collective bargaining." The committee, the union charged, was exempting minority teachers from the system-wide proposed layoffs due to the tight budget constraints imposed by Proposition 2 1/2.
In the out-of-court settlement, the committee promised to make a "good faith effort" to reach the goal of 25 percent minority teachers and administrators in the system, says union official Roger O'Sullivan.
Meanwhile, Cambridge currently faces three empty principal's offices and vacancies in five other administrative positions, in addition to the post at the top. Cooper says she hopes at least some of those spots will go to minority candidates, and Tabor adds that a complex system devised last year governs the hiring of principals, and will ensure "that the system recruits a good pool of qualify of minority candidates."
Another recent development is the idea of "multi-cultural curriculum" currently gaining momentum in the schools. School administrators say Cambridge's diverse ethnic population of Hartians. Greeks and Portugese as well as Blacks necessitates an education reflecting the city's make-up.
Another major accomplishment of Lannon's tenure was an extensive reorganization of the city's high school. After combining the students and faculty at the Rindge School and Latin School into a newly-constructed building on Broadway. Lannon started a series of programs to break the large student body, which comes from all 13 elementary schools, into smaller individual groups.
The 2656 students in grades eight through 12 are randomly assigned to one of four "houses," each with its own headmaster. During the first year in the school, students take most of their classes with others in their "house," and the four groups compete in intramural athletics and academic contests.
In addition, the high school sports a number of alternative programs for students of all abilities, from the highly motivated to those who need extra help.
The Pilot School, started in 1969 in conjunction with Harvard, provides a loose framework with which students can create their own educational programs. "The Pilot School is one of the few open-classroom programs started in the '60s that is still functioning," says Giroux.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Fundamental School gives about 400 students a program stressing the basics--reading, writing, speaking.
Two alternative programs emphasize career preparation. The Occupational Education Program gives students a vocational training curriculum to addition to academics. Students in this program take regular classes in the morning, and spend their afternoons working at a trade. The Enterprise Cooperative, another alternative, stresses business preparation.
"The high school course catalogue is more diverse than some colleges," Leib says, adding." Now we just need to strengthen the requirement and the academics."
School Committee member Jane Sullivan also criticizes the academic program. "We need to use more testing to monitor our students, because some are moving along even though they are not academically prepared," Sullivan says. Several committee members add that the emphasis on the high school in recent years has caused the elementary programs to suffer.
Tabor admits that the elementary programs need attention "in terms of scope and sequence." Tabor adds that school officials are considering several approaches to attacking the problem. "We need some solid lone range planning," she says, remarking. "We can't operate on a crists mentality."
One possible resource for the schools, which has remained virtually untapped up to now, is the institutions of higher learning so prevalent in the Cambridge community Schools officials say, how ever, that the university have been less than enthusiastic about helping out their younger siblings. "It's hard to judge the overall picture, because when they're forced they come through, but they have not been particulars forthcoming," says Leib.
Cantabrigians derive some benefit from having institutions such as Harvard and MIT in their midst, if only because the children of professors and graduate students attend the public schools. Although Leib points out that this increases the transient nature of the student body and puts a strain on the schools, most school committee members cite the benefits of having academically oriented and diverse students in the system.
"People come to Cambridge from all over the world, which gives us a unique student body," Sullivan says.
And Harvard has recently fostered a number of volunteer programs within the city's public schools, involving University students to help out with tutoring and coaching sports for the elementary and high school students. Lesley College also draws praise for its student teaching program. "The university school interaction could be increased it somebody bad the time," Cooper says.
Another problem in the school system is one of "access and equity" --what to do about the unequal distribution of funds among the elementary schools. Sullivan says the Cambridge school system is lucky, because it has a $45 million budget, "enough to afford nearly anything we want." But other members of the community charge that the large resources are allocated only to certain schools.
"Parental involvement is the key to getting funds, and it varies from zealous to non existent," says Koocher, adding that the involved parents tend to come from the upper-middle-class neighborhoods, where families are more education minded. "Our highest priority for the future should be seeing that all kids in the city get equal resources," Koocher says. Koocher has accused Lannon of catering only to certain influential parents.
Because it is the school committee that allocates funds each year in making up the budget, how ever, that body must also share part of the blame Indeed, the committee has come under criticism recently for not listening to parental concerns. During the Lannon hearings, for instance, the strong parental support for Lannon seemed to have very little effect on the final decision, parents say.
"With a weak state school board, and little monitoring from the community at a local level, there is no mandate for Cambridge citizens to make sure the school committee represents its constituency," Tabor says, adding. "The system is susceptible to politics."