Taking the School Committee Back to School

Despite Changes, Committee Fails to Resolve Problems

Many Cambridge residents had hoped that the induction of a new School Committee and new mayor would initiate active measures against issues currently facing the Cambridge School District: the deepening budget deficit, the perennial student achievement gap, and organizational difficulties.

But progress in many of these areas has remained sluggish. The Crimson reviews the Committee’s past year, as well as the issues that will be brought yet again to the Committee’s table this fall.

MIXED REVIEWS

Nine months after the election of the new School Committee, members remain uncertain about how best to balance budget shortfalls with the need for greater professional teacher training, modified curricula to accommodate all levels of students, and increased focus on the middle grades—a heated topic on its own. But committee members, as well as Schools Superintendent Jeffrey M. Young, contend that tangible progress has been made.

According to Young, a focus on professional development in the past fiscal year has helped “increase [educators’] capacities to deliver a structural method to help all students, regardless where they are in the academic spectrum.”

“A lot of work that has been done, and the benefit of it you can see now,” Cambridge Mayor and School Committee chair David P. Maher says, pointing out that of the 22 high school seniors in the Cambridge school district accepted to Harvard this year, 16 attended Cambridge public schools. “This puts Cambridge in the top five communities in the world.”

A WIDENING GAP

Maher’s statistics may be promising, but the Cambridge district schools continue to grapple with gaping disparities in test scores between White and Asian students, and other minority groups. In last year’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing, poor overall scores placed the district in the “needs improvement” category for the first time ever, due to the low average test scores of Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students.

The gap has been attributed to uneven instruction throughout the schools and the lack of focus on the middle grades, as exemplified in Cambridge’s current lack of stand-alone middle schools.

The long-standing problem arose as a prominent issue during last November’s elections for members of the School Committee, as candidates loudly criticized the achievement gap plaguing the district and called it “unacceptable.”

In an effort to bridge the gap, current Committee members set aside a budget that would promote curriculum continuity in the jump from elementary to high school. In addition, the Committee has pushed training within the Cambridge Leadership Network, a group of leaders in the education community who focus on the improvement of classroom environment, teaching techniques, and feedback for teachers.

“We need to continue to focus on the middle grades and other issues including our curriculum construction and professional development of teachers,” School Committee member Nancy Tauber says.

THE PROBLEM MIDDLE

To help tackle the achievement gap, Young formally proposed the establishment of a middle school to supplement the city’s K-8-only system at a School Committee meeting in February.

“Not every child is getting exactly what they need,” Young said at the meeting, calling the achievement gap “immoral.”

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