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By Zachary R. Heineman, Crimson Staff Writer

In a move that would place Cambridge on the vanguard of educational reform, School Superintendent Bobbie J. D’Alessandro wants to redistribute city public school students on socio-economic, rather than simply racial, lines.

D’Alessandro has proposed a plan to consider whether students qualify for a free lunch—an indicator of socio-economic status—when assigning them to elementary schools.

At a public hearing last night, she heard for the first time how city residents feel about the new plan, which would be the first change to the system of “controlled choice” since 1989.

The Cambridge Public School System was among the first in the nation to voluntarily desegregate when its controlled choice system, concentrating on racial balance but incorporating other factors, was implemented in 1980.

Now the district is poised to be one of the first to attempt to balance along class lines.

“It’s cutting edge,” D’Alessandro said. “We’re one of four school systems in the country that’s considering it.”

D’Alessandro points to current discrepancies between schools—and evidence that when poor students are grouped together they suffer from dimished performance—as a defense of the changes she proposes.

At the Harrington School in East Cambridge, 80 percent of students qualify for a free and reduced lunch, while at the Cambridgeport School, only 20 percent do. The city average is 47 percent.

After more than a year of research and planning, D’Alessandro wants to pass the new plan and put it in place for the 2002-2003 school year, requiring a school board vote before the end of the year. Both incoming kindergartners and transfer students would be affected.

Last night’s hearing had been rescheduled from last Tuesday, an indication that behind the scenes D’Alessandro has been working to gain more support from School Committee members. At the hearing, Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio, the School Committee chair, suggested a unanimous vote was possible if the plan was further refined.

Indeed, the most recent draft—and the presentation last night—focused heavily on improving schools that have traditionally been underselected by parents. Audience members were supportive of the plan on the whole, but questioned whether it was possible without making the less popular schools more desirable.

One of the main concerns with the new plan is that number of mandatory assignments to elementary schools may increase.

“If this really increases the number of mandatory assignments, then [School Committee members] have something to worry about,” said Lenore A. Prueser, director of the system’s Family Resource Center, which is responsible for administering the school assignments.

Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor for The New York Times and author of the popular Fiske Guide to Colleges, said it was important to make all school options attractive.

“You can’t have choice if you don’t have choices,” said Fiske, who is researching school diversity in Cambridge for the Century Foundation.

He said he thought that pressuring less oft-selected schools to improve would be beneficial to education in the city as a whole.

“A rising tide raises all boats,” he said.

A working draft of the plan—translated into Korean, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish—was distributed to audience members.

Harvard education professor Gary A. Orfield presented his study of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) 12th-graders that indicates students benefit from the diverse environment created within the school system.

His findings are part of a larger national survey, to be released next week, that demonstrates the educational benefits of racial diversity.

Orfield said in recent years the courts have hurt desegregation efforts, but using socioeconomic factors could be a suitable replacement for programs that focus primarily on race.

He said he has seen a correlation between race and poverty in his work.

“It is very important that they have a system to maintain racial diversity that can be legally upheld,” Orfield said in an interview.

“They should be able to achieve diversity through socio-economic considerations,” Orfield said.

The presentation by D’Alessandro showed a correlation between performance and income status at a given school.

“A high concentration of low-income students causes low performance regardless of how much money is put into a school,” she said.

The plan hit home with many in the audience.

“I think it’s time the elementary schools addressed disparities, just as the high school already has,” said Deborah Downes, a staff developer at CRLS whose son attended Cambridge public schools.

Many audience members said they were concerned that 30 percent of Cambridge children were not enrolled in the public school system.

“Those who do not get their choices do not stay in the schools,” one audience member said.

In 2000-2001, only 13 of 43 students remained in their mandatorily assigned school; the year before that none of 41 did; and two years ago only one of 31 did.

The rest left the system or placed themselves on waiting lists.

But School Committee member Alfred B. Fantini challenged the 30 percent number, asserting that the number was more like 15 percent.

Cambridge City Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves ’72, who was in the audience, questioned whether it was important to focus on students and parents who would be upset by a mandatory assignment.

“Are we spending too much time thinking about kids who might be leaving and not enough time thinking about kids who graduate and don’t read?” he asked.

Reeves called for a reconsideration of neighborhood schools, a concept that School Committee member Joseph G. Grassi re-proposed later at the hearing.

Reeves, talking a good deal longer than the allotted three minutes, at one point compared the new controlled choice plan to “rearranging chairs on the Titanic.”

But most said they think the plan is well-intentioned.

“Cambridge tries so hard to achieve diversity,” Prueser said. “It’s not a catch word around here.”

—Staff writer Zachary R. Heineman can be reached at heineman@fas.harvard.edu.

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