Education Officials Discuss Enrollment, Tests with Parents

School district administrators met last night with parents to address concerns of declining enrollment and standardized tests.

For the first time this school year, the behind-the-scenes players in the Cambridge education department fielded open-ended questions in a panel discussion, sponsored by Cambridge United for Education, a local parent group. Superintendent of Schools Bobbie J. D'Alessandro and seven of her top deputies comprised the panel.

Lenore Prueser, one of the deputies and director of the district's Family Resource Center, addressed concerns about declining enrollment. Her office manages the registration process for families who are new to the district or who have children entering kindergarten.

Yesterday the district mailed notices to parents with children entering kindergarten telling them which elementary school their children will attend. This spring, 460 parents applied for kindergarten slots for next fall ranking their choices.

The district uses quotas to ensure racial balance.

Prueser said 85 percent of the 460 families received their first choice among the district's 15 elementary schools.

According to district statistics and exit interviews with families who withdraw their children from the district, she said, the parents who choose to send their children to private school do not do so out of anger over getting their second or third choice school.

"We acknowledge that [middle school] is where we are losing students in the city," said Lenora M. Jennings, the district's executive director for student achievement and accountability.

D'Alessandro said the district needed to train teachers "how to teach in a true middle school model."

Most of the district's schools have four middle school teachers, one for each of math, science, language arts and social studies. D'Alessandro said those teachers should have more time during the school week to confer about students' progress.

Prueser said she believes that parents who can afford to send their children to private school will do so. Those who cannot afford private school are finding it increasingly hard to pay to live in Cambridge and eventually leave the city. Consequently public schools have fewer and fewer students.

According to Prueser, most parents say, "We have many options and we have decided we like this private school over the Cambridge Public Schools."

With the battery of standardized tests called MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, coming up later this term, Superintendent of Schools Bobbie J. D'Alessandro urged parents to have their students take the test but acknowledged it was "difficult on children."

Many parents say the test is too long and puts too much pressure on elementary and middle school students. Some parents prefer that their students not take the exam.

"We have said we will not punish parents" who refuse to let their children take the MCAS, D'Alessandro said. "That is unpopular in the state because we've been asked to do something more critical of parents."

D'Alessandro said she expects more parents to refuse this year than last and is concerned about state policy that counts students who didn't take the MCAS as having failed the test.

"It has a significant effect on how your data looks to the public," she said.

D'Alessandro said the district keeps its own MCAS statistics--which account for students who didn't take the exam--to measure the progress of elementary schools' improvement plans.