Florida Native Takes Helm of Cambridge School District

* D'Alessandro urges change, plan for middle school

Flowers are piling up at the Harrington School as Cambridge School district mourns the death of ten-year-old Jeffrey Curley, and among the mourners gathered to light candles and link arms, none is more conscious of the call to action this recent tragedy has issued than Bobbie D'Alessandro.

"I received my doctorate in counseling, so I'm here to offer comfort to parents, students and teachers affected by this," she said in a brief interview before the Cambridge School Committee meeting last night.

D'Alessandro assumed the helm of the Cambridge School District as superintendent Oct. 1, replacing interim superintendent Patrick Murphy, and bringing to an end a summer search process that divided the Cambridge school committee, parents and school staff.

Murphy became interim superintendent after Mary Lou McGrath resigned this summer, deciding not to renew her contract in June after serving for nine years.

Both D'Alessandro--an import from Ft. Myers, Fla.--and Murphy, who were both candidates for the vacated post, stood watch together at the Harrington School early this week, comforting parents, students and teachers and promising change.

"We're a real team," Murphy said last night, gesturing to D'Alessandro.

"Patrick and I have a common belief system," D'Alessandro added, "We both believe in focusing on the individual child."

The Search

The superintendent search process consisted of an 11-member search committee chaired by school committee member David P. Maher and composed of committee members, parents and district staff.

The final four candidates selected by the search team were D'Alessandro; Murphy; Arlene Ackerman, the deputy superintendent in Seattle, who dropped out of the race in August to accept another position; and Marya Levenson, superintendent of the North Colonie Schools in upstate New York.

School Committee member Joe Grassi said visits to the candidates' home districts helped him decide whether each had developed the skills needed to work with key problems in the Cambridge schools.

"The basic premise was finding a way for the school system to address the needs of students that are achieving at the low end of the spectrum," Grassi said.

"She [D'Alessandro] had really worked to design a strategic plan that redirected budget resources and helped the [Ft. Myers] community."

Parents raised protests early in the search process, alleging that Murphy was the early favorite because of his Cambridge background.

"Let's be honest--he was the only in-house candidate and there were many people who wanted anything but an in-house candidate," Maher said.

What Maher called a "small group" of parents criticized Murphy during the candidate evaluation process--which included eight panels of community members including parents, students and teachers--for never having held a superintendent post.

Murphy, who said he holds no hard feelings, did say that a small minority of parents received a disproportionate chunk of media attention during the selection process.

"I thought the process overall was wonderful," said Murphy. "What was unfortunate was that [those] parents were quoted [in the Cambridge Chronicle] paper, while a lot of parents felt strongly about myself and other candidates."

Sentiment in favor of Murphy and the other candidates was so strong, in fact, that the decision to hire D'Alessandro came only after Grassi cast a decisive swing vote that won her the majority of the selection committee.

Grassi said D'Alessandro's experience cutting costs and increasing the efficiency of a large district similar to Cambridge convinced him she was the ideal candidate for the job.

"All the candidates were well qualified--they all had excellent credentials," said Grassi.

"But we tend to have an achievement gap in the Cambridge school system between students at certain schools and certain neighborhoods, and I don't want to see those students falling through gaps. They need to get the attention they deserve--that was a major influence on my decision," he said.

Seeking Change

A Florida native and graduate of the University of Dubuque in Iowa, D'Alessandro has been working to reduce educational disparity at schools within Florida school districts since 1966.

As superintendent of the Lee County school district (her first superintendent position), D'Alessandro spent the last few years devising a Controlled Choice program with Harvard's own Professor of Education and Urban Studies Charles V. Willie, which takes effect this year.

Controlled Choice--which has been in place in Cambridge since 1981--allows students to rank schools in order of desirability rather than attend a neighborhood school.

Based on an examination of Controlled Choice in Cambridge schools, D'Alessandro developed a similar program last year with Willie and Robert Peterkin of the Harvard Urban Superintendent's Program.

Willie, who served as a consultant to the Cambridge School Committee in updating Controlled Choice in 1995, traveled to Lee County last year to assist D'Alessandro with her own program.

"She's a first-rate educator and a first-rate educational planner," said Willie. "I was impressed by how dedicated she was to making sure all students, regardless of race or class difference, had access to the districts' resources. The fairness phenomenon is the bottom line for delivering education."

The new superintendent said she will struggle to maintain a sense of fairness and perspective, particularly when reviewing the budget. D'Alessandro, who will be the 17th superintendent to preside over Cambridge, a school system of 8,000 students that spends about $11,000 per student, said she is undeterred by the need to cut costs and is optimistic about working with Murphy, who returned to his post as deputy superintendent Oct. 1.

"I want to do a needs assessment and get about 10 goals in place so that the community can come together and work on improvement," said D'Alessandro.

In Lee County, D'Alessandro's fouryear. "Contract for Success" program resulted in lower drop-out rates as well as increased test scores and parent participation. At the same time, D'Alessandro managed to cut the district budget by about $10 million.

"I started by focussing on children, their achievements, attendance and where to improve," D'Alessandro said. "Once you set goals and tell the public what's going on, parents and teachers get involved."

Possible changes ahead for D'Alessandro in Cambridge include reorganization of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School administration, and the addition of a middle school structure (Cambridge has no middle school currently).

"These changes are already in motion," said Grassi of the high school and middle school plans. "She'll be working with [the School Committee] to fine tune."

D'Alessandro said she hopes to have a five-year plan for changes and goals in place by January.

"We definitely need to restructure and adapt the middle school system," said D'Alessandro.

"I've been informing her of what's been happening with the [high school and middle school] initiatives," said Murphy, explaining that the two hope to coordinate the five-year program together.

"Like I said when I called to congratulate her the night of the election, she's always been my second choice," Murphy joked, "She's got lots of energy and great ideas."