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The Cambridge School committee interviewed the three top candidates for superintendent of the Public Schools Friday, giving city residents a first look at the potential next leaders of Cambridge’s ailing school system.
The three candidates—all former or current superintendents—hail from leadership positions in Fort Wayne, Ind., Andover, Mass., and Seattle, Wash.
And while they haven’t said who, several school committee members said last night that they have already have a favorite among the candidates. The committee will vote to pick a new superintendent on May 13.
“There’s one leading candidate in my eyes,” said committee member Joseph G. Grassi. “There’s a candidate that has a great depth of experience dealing with some of the issues we’ve been dealing with. There’s one that will serve the students of Cambridge much better than the other two.”
Friday’s slate of interviews came five months after the committee fired Superintendent of Schools Bobbie J. D’Alessandro, claiming that she had not moved quickly enough to address the schools’ wide disparity in performance along race and class lines—the so-called “achievement gap”—and that she failed to communicate adequately with parents and teachers.
And since the school system currently faces a $3.6 million budget deficit, whoever fills D’Alessandro’s shoes will have to immediately make tough choices on where to spend and where to skimp.
Mayor Michael A. Sullivan asked each of the finalists a series of seven questions that pointedly addressed the key issues facing the system, specifically grilling each candidate how he or she would address the “achievement gap” and make unpopular decisions.
Committee members and parents said they were pleased with all of the three finalists.
“They were three very well-qualified candidates—I was happy to see that,” said Cambridge school graduate Michael A. Nicoloro, who interviewed the candidates on Friday as part of a community panel.
But one candidate, Thomas Fowler-Finn—currently superintendent of the Fort Wayne Community Schools in Fort Wayne, Ind.—seemed to come out of the Friday interviews a frontrunner.
Several city residents said on Friday that he has won the hearts of the educational specialists and community members who interviewed the candidates.
In his interview, Fowler-Finn emphasized his experience dealing with the achievement gap in Fort Wayne, which has similar demographics to Cambridge—although it’s much larger—and where, he said, he’d narrowed the gap by 30 to 40 percent.
He has experience with redistricting and budget cuts like those that are looming for Cambridge, he said in his interview.
He is the founder and president of the Network for Equity in Student Achievement, a national organization that aids urban school districts in closing achievement gaps.
During his interview, Fowler-Finn addressed many of the issues that have loomed large in Cambridge.
“The problems you’re experiencing are not new to me,” he said. “If I were superintendent I would get through that.”
He also noted the need to build public confidence in the school district. The school committee recently voted to consolidate two elementary schools after months of protests and indecision.
“A number of people are really upset with the reorganization,” he said. “There’s some real community building that needs to be done.”
Some parents said they thought Fowler-Finn would be the best leader for Cambridge.
“He came out head and shoulders above the other two,” Nicoloro said.
The second candidate interviewed, Claudia L. Bach, is currently Superintendent of Schools in Andover, Mass., a small, mostly-affluent district near Boston which boasts high scores on the MCAS, the standardized test required of all Mass. high schoolers.
Cambridge typically falls among the worst in the state in MCAS scores.
Bach is also on the governing board of the Greater Lawrence Educational Collaborative, an organization which provides special educational programs to challenged students in her school system and other neighboring districts.
Bach—who wore a purple suit reminiscent of the bright colors D’Alessandro often sported—seemed acutely aware of district’s organization.
“She was definitely a kind of systems person,” said Joseph N. Petner, the principal of Haggerty School, one of Cambridge’s 15 elementary schools.
She spoke about the strong team of principals she works with and the leadership they provide in their schools and a strong system of evaluation.
“I take evaluation very seriously,” she said.
When asked how she would address a recent reorganization of Cambridge’s high school, Bach said she didn’t “know enough” to have all the answers.
“I think the high school is a priority,” she said.
Bach said she had hopes for increased potential in the system.
“This district can be not only corrected but it can be moved to a higher level of performance,” she said.
And she said she would be ready to tackle the challenges posed by Cambridge’s school system.
“I have long thought it would be a challenging and exciting and dynamic place with a lot of potential,” she said. “This district is very special.”
Mary Anne Kendall “MAK” Mitchell was superintendent of Shoreline School District in Shoreline, Wash. and is currently Director of Community Learning for the Seattle Washington Public Schools. She serves on the board of Treehouse, an organization that provides education and other services to foster children.
Mitchell spent much of her interview discussing curriculum and instruction, which Petner said appealed to him.
“We need to really think about curriculum and instruction particularly as schools are merging,” he said. “I thought MAK certainly does seem to exude a personal, accessible kind of demeanor.”
According to Petner, Mitchell discussed her efforts in literacy, bilingual education and communication with teachers and parents.
Sullivan said he and committee members will tour “at least one” candidate’s current school system, but would not identify which one or ones he would visit. He said he would announce the committee members’ destination tonight.
And committee members and parents alike said they eagerly awaited more information on the candidates that will come from site visits.
“I am not sure about any of them because I would want to know a lot about what their own communities think about them,” said parent David F. Hannon ’65, who served on the community panel. “What do the teachers think? What do the civic leaders think?”
—Staff writer Claire A. Pasternack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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