School Fights Achievement Gap

At Cambridge Rindge and Latin, test scores lag behind those at similar Mass. schools

Unnamed photo
Carlton E. Forbes

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students Corina McCarthy-Fadel, Teyahnie Boone, and James Fish stand in front of the high school, situated only two blocks away from Harvard Yard.

Lucas R. Toffoli ’09 has fond memories from his high school days at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS).

“It’s a really diverse school ethnically, but also in terms of class and culture,” Toffoli said, speaking from his room in Greenough, less than two blocks away from his other local alma mater. “There’s really a bit of everything there which is nice.”

Nestled in Harvard’s shadows, CRLS annually sends several graduates to Ivy League universities—10 students matriculated at the College last fall—and has a reputation for keeping pace with the educational cutting-edge. But test scores still lag behind neighboring communities, and the school will lose its second principal in five years this spring.

The school’s façade, with its paintings of children in shades of blue, fuchsia, and orange, offers an artistic parallel to the challenges facing today’s CRLS. The colorful design pays tribute to the school’s commitment to diversity, but the odd color scheme also points toward the difficulties in coordinating resources for 1,800 students with a vast range of needs.

“We’ve made great strides over the last couple of years and we continue to see improvements,” said Cambridge Public Schools Information Office Director Justin Martin.

But current principal Sybil Knight acknowledges the school has had a troubled history.

“Everyone knows that when I came in it was at a very crucial time,” said Knight, who has been at the school’s helm for four years.

Her predecessor, Paula Evans, resigned in 2001 amidst a controversial restructuring plan. In 2003, early into Knight’s tenure, CRLS was placed on probation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Knight said the accreditation committee cited several violations, including the school’s lack of a mission statement.

But while Knight noted the hurdles she faced as the new principal, she added that she saw a silver lining to the challenges.

“I looked around and saw a way to make sure that there was an opportunity for us to do better as far as opportunities for kids,” Knight said.

She also noted that the re-accreditation process forced CRLS to take a “deeper look at curriculum, taking a look at what kind of position we had in place to maintain good student achievement scores.” Knight said the school revamped its curriculum and adjusted its “learning communities,” subdivisions of the student body intended to provide students with a more intimate environment.

Last year the school was re-accredited in record time, according to Knight.

NUMBER CRUNCHING

While re-accreditation was a positive step for the school, Knight noted that the achievement gap—the national disparity between test scores of white and minority students, which usually falls along class lines—affects CRLS and has proved difficult to fix.

Only 25 percent of low-income students at CRLS scored at either the advanced or proficient level on the 10th grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) English exam last school year. Twenty-eight percent scored at advanced or proficient levels on the Mathematics exam.

“If you look at our city, it’s broken up into different classes,” said Krishana House, a CRLS senior. “We have areas that are very similar to suburbs; we also have areas that are very similar to inner city things. So it’s like you see the diversity of our city in this one building.”

Knight also cited the academic difficulties stemming from Cambridge’s polarized population.

“The student demographics are from very low income to very high income without middle, so our gap is even wider,” she said. “In some systems you have the middle income that balances things out, but we don’t have that here.”

Knight said the test score disparity persists despite the school system’s relatively generous expenditures. Cambridge Public Schools spent an average of $13,363 per regular education student last fiscal year, about $5,000 more than the national average. According to school officials, those figures have risen to over $16,000 for this fiscal year.

Several students lauded the advantages of their school’s diversity.

“We have people that are just coming into this country who are the poorest of the poor in the country, and the richest of the rich live down the street. We have some people whose parents teach at Harvard. We have some people whose parents clean at Harvard,” said Corina McCarthy-Fadel, a junior. “That’s the diversity of our school.”

McCarthy-Fadel noted that the diversity of the school was an advantage that other cities in the area might not offer.

“We have a lot of opportunities that aren’t offered in the city right next to us, because we are so diverse,” she said. “We have a lot of different opportunities, like just to know different cultures and to know different kinds of people.”

Patricia M. Nolan ’80, a newly elected member of the Cambridge School Committee, said that numbers cannot explain everything.

“There are individual success examples right here in Massachusetts in schools which have very challenging demographics, frankly more difficult than Cambridge,” she said. “And they are doing much better than we are in a range of measures.”

According to a study conducted by Nolan, Cambridge lags far behind other middle class cities in the state. Waltham and Stoneridge, for example, enjoyed 70-to-75 percent proficiency rates on last year’s MCAS math exam, while Cambridge recorded a 40-to-50 percent proficiency rate on the math and English exams.

‘YOU HAVE TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF’

However, CRLS offers several educational programs to help its students close the gap. Honors courses are offered in all core subjects and world languages, and Advanced Placement classes are available for qualified juniors and seniors.

Students also benefit from the combined resources of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both of which sit in the school’s figurative backyard. Collaborations between the schools include Harvard CHANCE—a mentoring and tutoring program that helps advise students on standardized tests and college admissions—and a recent robotics competition that brought together MIT engineers and CRLS students.

While students at CRLS praised these resources, they also noted that not all students equally benefit.

One senior, James Fish, said students have to seek out the opportunities provided by the school.

“I think Cambridge Rindge and Latin is a pretty unique experience in the fact that if you want to be challenged you have to challenge yourself,” he said, noting that there are a “ton of opportunities here and they lay it out for you; you just have to find it.”

Some students attributed this disparity to a lack of communication between students and school officials during the early stages of implementing new programs.

“I notice that when they ask someone’s opinion in the beginning stages, they ask their leading students, their good students, their involved students; but that doesn’t necessarily represent the student body,” House said.

Toffoli, the 2005 graduate, also recalled this disconnect between students and school officials.

“The kids kind of on the bottom of the achievement gap, if they find help and find motivation, then they can really achieve,” he said. “But the problem is that doesn’t really happen with most of those kids.”

House pointed to the recent implementation of block scheduling as a potentially beneficial program that she says doesn’t affect all students equally.

“I know block scheduling is working for me,” she said, “but for my friends taking vocational classes, they say, ‘80- minute blocks of cooking isn’t really working for me.’”

The new scheduling system—called “college-focused” by Public Schools spokesman Martin—was implemented last September, and divides the school day into four 84-minute blocks. Students now take eight classes per year—four per semester—instead of the standard seven full-year courses.

“It allows for more detailed discussion and instruction in those classroom settings,” Martin said. “If you’re learning a book and you get into a discussion about a novel or a short story, the 82 minutes allows you to spend more time on exploring the underlying themes of the novel.”

LOOKING AHEAD

“We’ve gone through some challenges, but through the last few years it’s been pretty positive,” said School Committee member Joseph G. Grassi. “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The school has seen higher graduation rates and a 2 percent increase in SAT scores in the last year, bringing the average math subset score to 506 and the verbal subset score to 490 for a combined score of 996. The state and national combined score averages are 1047 and 1028, respectively.

Knight noted that good things will be in Cambridge Rindge and Latin’s future—though she herself will not. She announced in January that she will be leaving the school in June to take an assistant superintendent position in Pennsylvania.

“I’ve always wanted to be a superintendent. That’s my career goal,” Knight said. “I had not applied for anything but when this offer came up I...felt that it would be a good way to stepping in that direction to fulfill my goal.”

At recent meetings of the Cambridge Public School Committee, parents and politicians have discussed ways to further improve the lives of CRLS students. One proposal would give parents greater access to their children’s records via the Internet, and introduce a nutrition plan that would expand on the district’s past initiatives to curb childhood obesity and diabetes.

“We have a lot of people, teachers, coaches, who want to see [improvement] happen and who really have the best interest of the students at the core of everything,” Knight said.

Nolan was optimistic about the school’s ability to level its current academic disparities.

“Reform is hard but we should really be challenging ourselves to do better,” she said. “I want us to be at the top.”

—Staff writer Laura A. Moore can be reached at lamoore@fas.harvard.edu.