Smiles, Not Tears, Greet New Cambridge Superintendent

The last time the superintendent of Cambridge’s schools addressed a packed room of parents, the frenzied atmosphere boiled over into tears, yells and accusations.

But last night, as newly-appointed Superintendent of Schools Thomas Fowler-Finn outlined his goals for the year and took questions from about 80 parents gathered at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the atmosphere was one of open discourse, smiles and even laughter.

Last night’s forum, organized by the parent group Cambridge United for Education (CUE), gave Fowler-Finn a chance to address parents on many of the same contentious issues that led to the ouster of former Superintendent of Schools Bobbie J. D’Alessandro last year.

When he was appointed to take the helm of the district last spring, Fowler-Finn was seen by parents and city officials as a savior for a city school system plagued by gaps in minority and underprivileged student performance, declining enrollments and a drawn-out battle over school mergers.

Fowler-Finn, known for his tough demeanor and a bent for statistical accountability, has had proven experience in closing gaps in performance as a school superintendent in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Fowler-Finn presented a tough attitude last night, and took a candid approach to the district’s problems.

Fowler-Finn said one of the first steps to closing performance gaps was to measure the social climate and student participation in extracurricular activities within the city’s schools.

“It’s not simply good teaching,” he said. “We’ve got to create the kind of environment that encourages kids to be successful. It takes more than just talk. It take repetitive experiences.”

Fowler-Finn placed a heavy emphasis on statistical data throughout the meeting, at one point launching into a detailed analysis of the district’s SAT scores as compared to those of the state and nation, saying that the city’s scores were not as low as they appeared.

He said he planned to discontinue use of the Stanford 9 standardized test, saying there was “no point to it.” In its place Fowler-Finn said he would find ways to assess student performance that were more closely aligned with the curriculum, including a writing test.

“We need to get a better picture of how our students really are performing,” Fowler-Finn said. “We just really don’t have a lot of objective information. It’s not what I’m used to.”

Fowler-Finn also said that he envisioned a more limited role in managing the schools for both the central district administration and parents.

When a parent asked what role parents could have in assigning specialists such as art and special needs instructors to schools, Fowler-Finn said that while the current process would be improved, “the role of parents is not choosing teachers.”

CUE co-chair and Cambridge parent Patricia Nolan said she approved of Fowler-Finn’s approach, saying that he differs from D’Alessandro in his honesty ability to take “decisive action.”

“That’s a pleasant change from an administrator who tells you what you want to hear but who can’t always follow through,” she said.

Most who attended last night’s meeting said they were optimistic at the prospect of change for the city’s ailing school system.

“It’s really the first time we’ve had somebody who has experience,” said school committee member Alfred B. Fantini. “I think we’re on the move.”

Other said they trusted Fowler-Finn to take action toward change.

But many also evinced a cautious attitude.

“Show me the money,” said Tory Preston, co-chair of the African-American Families Empowerment Organization. “He says all the things we want to hear. I want to see the end result.”

—Staff writer Claire A. Pasternack can be reached at cpastern@fas.harvard.edu.