Fifteen Minutes: Trouble in the House

For the about 2000 students at Cambridge's only public high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), the house is home. When they enter as freshmen, each student is placed in one of the school's five houses: The Academy, Fundamental, House A, Leadership or Pilot. Each house has its own floor in one of the two buildings that comprise the school.

Deep problem plague CRLS: in spite of the house system, many students feel anonymous and, without rent control in Cambridge, the population is increasingly stratified.

"Folks of color are not succeeding as well as whites and Asians," adds Kimbrough.

Evans notes that in the past, administrators and teachers have assumed that with a lot of choice, kids would succeed. "The result of this shopping-mall high school was that students treated it like a mall and would drop in and out. Too many kids are not successful here, and we are not challenging the academically talented as much as we can."

CRLS was first incarnated in 1648, just 12 years after the founding of Harvard College. In its 350-year history, today's Cambridge Rindge and Latin School has existed as a variety of separate parts, most recently as the Cambridge High and Latin School and the Rindge Technical School. These two schools, located just 100 feet apart, merged in 1977. Just prior to this merger, the Cambridge High and Latin School had already initiated some major changes.

In 1968, The Pilot School was created, offering mixed-level classes, and other experimental teaching styles and course offerings. The Fundamental School opened six years later. Heralded as the anti-Pilot, Fundamental offered a "back-to-basics" diet of core classes.

Paula Evans, principal of CRLS, explains that "as a result of the two programs, people realized that the philosophy was secondary. What was more important was to provide a sense of belonging and community." The "school within a school" options expanded. Since the fall of 1990, all incoming freshmen have been offered the choice of five or six houses. These programs of choice differ in theme, emphasis and management.

Pilot, the oldest alternative school in the country, is the smallest of the houses, with 235 students in all four grades. The Fundamental School operates with a prescribed curriculum in a fundamental educational setting. The Academy emphasizes collaborative learning, through team-teaching and heterogeneous class groupings. 40 percent of The Academy's student are enrolled in the Bilingual Program (see Lost and Found in Translation, page 9). The Leadership School emphasizes community service and teachers try to educate everyone--including special needs students--together within the core subjects. In House A there are leveled classes where students are grouped by ability. Formerly the sixth house, the Rindge School for the Technical Arts (RSTA), started this year as a department for the entire school, equivalent to social studies or science.

The system for selecting a house is described as controlled choice. Students, together with parents and administrators, look at the houses and rank their top three choices. The final placement decision is determined by these choices and by the school's desire for geographical and racial balance in each of the houses.

One problem for teachers and administrators has been to combat entrenched stereotypes of all the houses. "House A tends to view itself as a mini-BB and N [Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, a private high school in Cambridge] and Fundamental wants to be Matignon [a Catholic high school in Cambridge]," notes bilingual program teacher Arnold Clayton. "The Academy's reputation is that it is a house for foreigners and immigrants. But we've had the salutatorian the past two years."

"People look at House A and The Pilot School as being the best houses," says Less Kimbrough, assistant house administrator for the Leadership School. "Kids choose based on the reputation. Perception is reality sometimes. If you think it, it is true." Kimbrough adds that Pilot has tended to attract highly educated parents. Small numbers and strong parent involvement create a tightly knit house with "a strong sense of community."

In the next year, Evans plans to restructure the school, possibly creating five autonomous schools, linked only by common facilities such as the cafeteria, library, gym, field house and dance studios.

"We want to create five equally attractive houses," she says.

Evans's vision is of houses where "each kid will be well-known and will learn about the responsibility of being part of a community for oneself and for others." Course choices will be limited to the offerings within the house, and teachers will teach within their house only.

She adds, "you can make structural changes, but they won't work unless you change the culture of the place, which is much harder."