Schools Change Quota Rules

Socioeconomic quotas for next year’s kindergarten classes will be based on current enrollment statistics—not the prior year’s statistics, as is normally the case—the Cambridge Public School Committee voted last night.

The change will stay in effect indefinitely, until a more comprehensive decision on Cambridge’s long-standing “controlled choice” policy is reached in the spring.

The district’s policy seeks to establish socioeconomic diversity at all Cambridge schools. In keeping with the program, the school district has required that each kindergarten class reflect the demographics of the entire incoming student population—which is determined by enrollment numbers in previous years—with a ten percent variance factor.

Justin Martin, director of the Cambridge Schools public information office, explained the program’s former standard by giving the example that if 60 percent of a kindergarten class received free or reduced price lunches this year, it would be acceptable for 50 to 70 percent of a kindergarten class at the same school to be in that demographic next year.

Controlled choice allows parents to submit their top three choices of schools, but due to required demographic ratios, some students are placed in schools that were not on their list. There were 70 such mandatory placements last year.

Committee member Nancy Tauber said that it is difficult to keep schools balanced while satisfying families, a conundrum that the rest of the committee acknowledged last night.

“Do we have the stomach for making the choices that need to be made if we truly want balanced schools?” Mayor E. Denise Simmons said.

Committee member Alfred Fantini suggested increasing the variance factor to 15 percent in order to decrease the number of mandatory placements, but some members were reluctant to approve the new motion because they said its efficacy could not be predicted.

“I’m frankly torn on this because we don’t have full information on what the impact of what this would be,” said committee member Patty M. Nolan ’80.

Other members questioned whether the discussion should focus on the larger issues surrounding controlled choice.

“Do our desegregation policies support our academic goals, or do our academic goals revolve around our desegregation policies?” said committee member Joseph G. Grassi.

But Simmons said that academic excellence is intertwined with socioeconomic diversity. She added that a school’s achievement level is often obscured by its reputation.

“I don’t know if it’s all about good schools versus bad schools, or about perception versus reality,” she said. “We have to dig a little deeper.”

—Staff writer Michelle L. Quach can be reached at mquach@fas.harvard.edu.