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Council Debates Middle School Reform

Throughout Bobbie J. D’Alessandro’s tenure as superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools, she presented a series of consolidation proposals to the School Committee to resolve the district’s budgetary crisis, the first of which included creating a standalone middle school.

According to Nancy G. Walser, who was a member of the committee at the time, the idea went “nowhere so fast that there was no vote, no extended discussion, no hearing.” She said that the majority of the committee did not appear to be interested in pursuing the plan because it was based on a financial, rather than educational, rationale.

The idea to restructure Cambridge’s K-8 system, which has been brought up only informally to the School Committee since then, is one of the issues that has been formally raised in the present middle school discussion—this time as a way to resolve the long-standing concern about the quality of the academic and social experience of the city’s sixth, seventh, and eighth graders.

Currently, the comparatively lower scores for students in middle school grades on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the competition for pupils that arises between middle schools with different academic programs, and the resulting social isolation experienced by students and challenges for teachers at smaller schools remain hurdles for the system to overcome.

Last fall, the Blue Ribbon Commission was created after a market research study initiated by the School Committee revealed that resolving the ongoing middle school debate should be a priority.

In June, the Commission released a report outlining the challenges that face Cambridge’s elementary schools, which includes one K-6 school and 11 K-8 schools.

“Those issues that are in the report today were pertinent 13 years ago,” said Joseph G. Grassi who is currently serving his eighth term on the committee. He also served as the co-chair of the Commission with former superintendent Thomas D. Fowler-Finn.

The School Committee was originally scheduled to decide this month what structural changes, if any, the schools should undergo.

Now, with the district undergoing a search for Fowler-Finn’s replacement, School Committee members are uncertain as to when their final decision will be made.

INTERNAL COMPETITION

For the most part, parents, educators, and administrators agree that schools across the city are doing well for elementary and high school students.

But according to School Committee member Marc C. McGovern, “You start to see discrepancies around the middle grades.”

Each school offers a different middle school experience based on its educational philosophy.

Some programs, such as the academically rigorous Intensive Studies Program—in which accelerated courses are offered to students—at the Kennedy-Longfellow School and the Andrew Peabody School could contribute to the divergent results between the test scores of schools that have the programs and those that do not.

On a measurement of how close a school has come to attaining proficiency for all students, the Kennedy-Longfellow School received a score of 73 out of 100 for seventh-grade students on the 2007 English Language Arts MCAS exam. The school received a 34 for the same students on the mathematics exam. The Fletcher/Maynard Academy received a 63 for seventh grade students on the English exam and a 19 for the same students on the mathematics exam.

Beyond test scores, the disparate popularity of the programs between the schools contributes to enrollment imbalances, as some parents send their children to schools that place a greater emphasis on academic rigor.

“This is the only thing that we have that’s a little bit geared towards more academically-oriented students,” said School Committee member Patricia M. Nolan ’80, referring to the ISPs.

Of the schools without an ISP, the Morse School had just six or seven students apply to an ISP each year since 2005. For the 2007-2008 school year, Morse had 85 middle school-aged students.

School Committee member Luc D. Schuster said that because the district does not have neighborhood schools, parents base the decision of where to send their children on the availability of these programs.

In fact, Schuster, who went through the Cambridge public school system, said his parents transferred him when he was in the sixth grade from the Maria L. Baldwin School to the Longfellow School—one of two schools that later merged to become Kennedy-Longfellow—for its ISP option. According to Schuster, the upper grades at Baldwin were not perceived to be as academically strong at the time.

SMALL WORLDS

Because requests for such transfers are often fulfilled, some K-8 schools are left with significantly smaller student bodies in the middle grades.

Due to a generous district budget, all schools in the city are able to offer small learning communities, but some wonder how small is too small. Many parents and faculty said they worry that small middle school populations do not give students the chance to participate in extracurricular activities like orchestra, theater, and sports.

“There are middle schools that don’t have enough kids to have a basketball team,” Schuster said.

Even when extracurricular activities are available, students sometimes feel pulled in too many different directions, said Patricia A. Beggy, the principal at Morse.

“When you have a small group of students, if the students are in student government, the same ones are in the drama club, the math club, the sports teams,” she said.

Beggy added that although small classes are good for academic reasons, they can also be socially isolating.

“It’s hard to make a new group of friends if you’re on the outs and there’s only one group.”

In addition to the social consequences that low enrollments have for students, they also affect teachers’ experiences. Fowler-Finn said that some middle schools are so small that there are sometimes not enough students to warrant a full-time staff member for a specific subject, discouraging some of those part-time teachers from staying for long.

“A number of schools are upset that they have had more turnover than they would like to see in their schools,” Fowler-Finn said at the Oct. 1 session about the options he presented for the district’s future course of action.

Beggy said that Morse is struggling with turnover of middle-school staff, but the school’s small size is not the reason teachers are leaving.

Rather, the turnover rate at her school is related to conventional factors like retirement or promotion, she said, but “when you only have one science teacher or one math teacher, then you really feel it.”

Schuster also said that when there is only one teacher per subject at a school, the opportunities for collaborative work among teachers are limited as well. Some full-time teachers are also asked to teach more than one subject or grade, making it difficult to hire and maintain qualified staff, especially because teaching multiple subjects requires multiple credentials.

THE ROAD AHEAD

At the School Committee roundtable discussion last month, Acting Superintendent Carolyn L. Turk announced that, based on feedback from all community groups, the two most popular options for the district were to maintain the K-8 model or to adopt a hybrid one.

The hybrid model would move students from the smallest K-8 schools to schools that are performing well. The remaining schools would be converted to K-5.

For many, this preference did not come as a surprise.

Jack C. Haverty, the president of the Cambridge Teachers Association who taught at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School for three decades, said that he didn’t really see a need for the creation of an independent middle school.

“We never had a standalone middle school in Cambridge—I don’t think you’d see too many school systems make radical changes like that,” he said.

Schuster said that throughout the process, parents said they were “disturbed and very concerned” that the district would completely abandon the K-8 model.

“There’s not a single person that I’ve heard in this discussion who’s ever proposed eliminating all the K-8, because we recognize that many of our K-8 schools are working,” he said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Cody Doucette, a senior at Rindge and Latin and a student liaison to the School Committee, said he enjoyed his middle-school years at the Graham and Parks Alternative School, a K-8 school.

“I really liked having my kindergarten teachers around,” he said. “That was a good experience.”

The School Committee has not yet decided when to vote on the future plan of action.

Turk said that discussions will continue, but a final decision will not be made until after Fowler-Finn’s replacement has been selected.

“The real issue is the committee and the next superintendent,” Grassi said. “Are they going to act collectively to resolve the problem? We have to.”

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