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School Committee Candidates Discuss Curriculum, Funds

By Claire A. Pasternack, Crimson Staff Writer

When the Cambridge School Committee voted last year to close three of the city’s schools after a year’s worth of divisive and heated debate, parents pledged to make the committee’s decision the central issue of this year’s election.

But at last night’s candidates’ forum, the turmoil surrounding last year’s consolidation stayed out of the arena as candidates attempted to define their platforms on a range of other issues, from curriculum to allocation of school funds.

Only the second in a series of candidates’ forums, last night’s panel gave the 40 residents gathered a chance to hear from all eight of the candidates—five incumbents and three challengers

Kathy Reddick, head of the Cambridge chapter of the NAACP, asked the candidates how they would fix the gaps in achievement of minority and low-income students—a problem she termed “resegregation” in Cambridge schools.

While he repeatedly advocated strong city-wide curriculum standards, incumbent Alan C. Price said that tailoring instruction to fit the needs of individual students would be the way for Cambridge to attain that goal.

“We need to have a curriculum that is individualized, “ he said. “That’s how we’re going to realize the dream.”

Making good on her pledge to involve the Graduate School of Education (GSE) in local education, Dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann sat on the panel that questioned the candidates.

“I think it’s what we ought to be doing,” she said in an interview before the meeting.

And with Lagemann’s presence, the city took an opportunity to ask for help from Harvard.

“We very much hope that you will help us in collaboration with our schools,” said Representative Alice K. Wolf, who moderated the forum.

Local universities’ involvement in the schools was a hot topic last night, as candidates discussed options for using resources from local institutions of higher education.

“We should watch out we don’t suffer from the Christmas tree effect,” said challenger Ben Lummis, likening the proliferation of disparate programs to ornaments on a tree. “We need to make sure all programs we get involved in are doing well by our students and teachers.”

Incumbent Alfred B. Fantini said he would support a “written promise” or “covenant” in which universities pledged support for Cambridge’s schools. He also suggested that universities offer scholarships to students who plan to teach in Cambridge.

“People who want to be teachers here should get a four-year scholarship,” he said.

But challenger Christopher Craig said the district would need to standardize and streamline its programs before university assistance could be effective.

“We have a very uneven school system,” he said. “If we want help from these world class institutions, we have to provide them with a world class environment in which to work.”

The challengers took the opportunity to tout their experience and pledge change.

“Parents need to know that no matter what school their child attends they’re going to be learning the same skills,” said challenger Marc McGovern.

Candidates also discussed the recent appointment of Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn—widely regarded as an experienced superintendent and Cambridge’s best hope for its ailing schools.

But committee member Richard Harding Jr. said the committee would still have to monitor Fowler-Finn.

“There does need to be leadership on the school committee,” he said. “Don’t believe that one person, however talented he may be, can move us forward.”

—Staff writer Claire A. Pasternack can be reached at cpastern@fas.harvard.edu.

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