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School Committee Hopefuls Debate Budgets, Testing

Event draws 12 of 13 candidates for posts

By Elizabeth A. Gudrais, Crimson Staff Writer

Next month's school committee election is heating up.

Twelve of the 13 candidates faced off last night in a forum at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Candidates across the board advocated tightening the district's policy of teacher evaluations by school principals, a policy that has been loosely enforced until now.

The pre-arranged questions focused on teacher evaluations, the student achievement gap and district budgets.

Audience questions raised concerns of school mergers, standardized tests, recruiting enough new teachers, the level of authority held by the school committee, parent involvement in schooling, and reorganization of the high school.

"Every parent deserves a competent teacher in front of their children and deserves a nice teacher in front of their children," said candidate Fred Fantini, who served on the committee from 1981-97.

Jamisean Patterson, a first-time campaigner but a lifelong resident of West Cambridge, urged early retirement programs for longtime teachers whose instruction had grown stale.

Several candidates made the point that if the evaluation system is to work, teachers' negative attitudes toward it must change.

"One of the ways an employer shows respect to an employee is to give them timely reviews," said candidate Melody Brazo.

"I like the system," agreed incumbent Susana Segat. "I think it's a positive thing, and I think it's important for teachers to see it that way."

Incumbent Alice Turkel linked the student achievement gap to budget concerns, suggesting that resources be reallocated into the city's lower-achieving schools.

"At some of our most expensive schools, we're not seeing results," she said. "We're just pouring money into the problem."

Turkel pointed to a program already in place at one Cambridge elementary school whose students had particularly low reading ability scores on standardized tests.

In the program, "reading recovery teams" were hired to give extra help to children in grades three and four.

"I'm not a big test score person, but what we're seeing now is that we have no kids in the third grade...and no kids in the fourth grade...failing," she said.

Candidates also lamented the effects of the discrepancy in parental resources between schools. At some neighborhood schools, more affluent parents are able to contribute greater amounts to classroom funds.

"It's not fair that students in North Cambridge have computers in every classroom, while kids in Area 4 are taking home photocopies because there aren't enough books," Patterson said.

Candidate Nancy Walser pointed to sociological evidence as both a cause of the discrepancies in student performance and as an impetus for change.

"The single best predictor of academic success is the mother's level of education," she said.

Candidate Elizabeth "Tad" Kenney said caring teachers are the deciding factor when financially disadvantaged kids succeed anyway.

"At some point in their education, they had a teacher in the classroom who believed every single kid was capable of excellence," she said. "That's great, but how do you get teachers like that?"

In addressing matters financial, Segat urged the district to re-evaluate its general tendency to choose the "Cadillac model," citing one new after-school program that cost the same amount of money Boston schools used to finance 19 similar programs.

Candidate Alvin Thompson was absent from the forum.

There will be three more candidate forums: a joint forum with city council candidates Oct. 13 at the Howard Johnson Hotel on Memorial Drive; Oct. 14 at the Haggerty School; and Oct. 28 at Rindge and Latin School.

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