School Merger Finally OKed
After a long and contentious meeting last night, the Cambridge School Committee unanimously approved the merger of the Fletcher and Maynard elementary schools, culminating months of debate. But the amount and source of funding for the merger remained unresolved.
The merger will be implemented this fall, revamping curriculum and staff at the two under-enrolled, poorly performing schools. Class sizes will be capped at 17 students and the new school will be exempt from the district's system of racial quotas.
Last night's meeting came one day after Superintendent of Schools Bobbie J. D'Alessandro met with City Manager Robert W. Healy to ask for as much as $15 million in municipal funding for extensive renovations of one of the existing facilities or construction of a new building. But Healy said the city could not afford those costs.
Under the measure passed last night, the committee effectively conceded it will not find the $12 to $15 million needed for extensive renovations or new building construction.
According to the measure, the committee pledged to push for funding to repair either the Fletcher or the Maynard building and to renovate to accommodate technology upgrades and additional classrooms. An architectural study currently underway will dictate the amount of funding needed, committee members said.
The committee will not vote until next month on which building will be the merged school's permanent home.
However, the measure passed last night does not guarantee funding.
"I don't want anyone to mistake a promise that we will work towards this as though we will be signing a check," said committee member Alice L. Turkel.
Initially, committee members E. Denise Simmons and Alfred B. Fantini had suggested making the merger contingent on getting funds for a new or renovated building.
"Are we willing to go before the City Council and tie ourselves to the new building?" Simmons said.
Under the final measure, representatives of the school committee and the City Council will meet in the coming days with D'Alessandro, Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio and Healy to talk about more moderate renovations to one of the schools.
In a letter to the school committee, Healy said his office would work "within reason" to resolve the funding question. But, the letter said, Healy believed a new school or major renovations could not be funded "solely with local tax dollars."
Members of the steering committee, a group of parents, teachers and district administrators that met weekly since the fall to draw up recommendations for the merger plan, spoke before the committee to urge members to vote for the merger.
They said they felt the committee had promised them money for a new or renovated building. But they said the school committee should let the curriculum changes go forward.
"We are very disappointed at not having the money for the capital funding," said Lenora M. Jennings, the district's executive director for student achievement and accountability and a member of the steering committee. "But we are committed to stay focused on the programs."
Last month, the school committee instructed D'Alessandro to request municipal funding for a new or extensively renovated school. She said she asked the city manager to include about $15 million in the city's capital budget for the building.
Last Wednesday, officials from Healy's office showed committee members preliminary budget numbers that included no money for the merger.
The measure added several provisions to the recommendations D'Alessandro had first presented to the committee. The measure includes more full-time teachers aides and calls for improved library facilities.
A Special School?
Committee member Joseph G. Grassi has long opposed the district's system of using quotas to ensure racial balance among its 15 elementary schools.
The Fletcher and Maynard are both located in Area Four, the Cambridge neighborhood with the highest proportion of black and Latino residents. That has meant busing many students from Area Four to other schools that would otherwise have too many white students.
"Maynard has borne the brunt of an ill-conceived plan," Grassi said. "We have to fix that now."
Exempting the merged school from the racial quotas will allow the siblings of students who currently attend the two schools to be accepted unconditionally into the new school. Since more black and Latino siblings have been bused to other schools, letting them come to the merged Fletcher-Maynard school would upset the racial balance.
The district will actively recruit white students from other areas to help restore the school's racial balance.
"We do not want the creation of a super-ghetto school," said Douglas Whitlow, a Maynard parent on the steering committee. He said he favors the effort to bring in more white students to the merged school.
The merger "will keep a school in Area Four and create a school with attractions for white children," D'Alessandro said.
The special status also means class size at the school will be capped at 17 students and that the new building will have full-time art and foreign language teachers.
Committee member Nancy Walser said having full-time teachers for those areas is a significant advantage over part-time instructors, whom she said do not become as involved in the school community.
Better Than The Core?
ATLAS refers to a general teaching philosophy that emphasizes using different teaching styles and various alternative assessments, like portfolios and exhibitions, in addition to traditional tests.
Core Knowledge is a standardized curriculum put out by a national organization that will customize its programs to the specific state standards.
The Literacy Collaborative is a reading program for the early grades. And NetSchools will focus on using computers and the Internet in middle school classrooms.
D'Alessandro said she believes the changes in curriculum will improve test scores at the merged school. Fletcher and Maynard students generally score below district averages on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the Commonwealth's battery of standardized tests.
"I think the reason our test scores were low is because our curriculum wasn't aligned" with the test, D'Alessandro said.
Though some other schools in the district currently use these programs, except for NetSchools, no school uses all of them.
At a meeting last week school committee members questioned whether the four components could be combined.
"It is not going to look like other schools in the district," said Valerie Spriggs, another district administrator.
"That's something the school committee charged us with and the steering committee took very seriously," she said.
Jennings told committee members that district officials had talked with representatives of the four firms that produce the programs to make sure the components will be compatible.
District officials acknowledge training teachers over the summer and during the school year to use these programs will be time-consuming and expensive.
For example, it takes a year and costs $17,000 to train a teacher to be a "literacy coordinator" capable of training other teachers in how to implement the Literary Collaborative program.