Rebels With a Cause

Kelley and Nolan ousted city incumbents. Can they reform Cambridge’s public schools?

Craig A. Kelley and Patricia M. Nolan ’80 took Cambridge by storm this past November when they ousted incumbents on the City Council and School Committee, respectively. In a city where incumbents have the job security of tenured Harvard professors, November’s election was a local political revolution. (A third challenger, Luc Schuster, also won a School Committee spot.)

Kelley and Nolan are shaking up the local political scene, and the two Cambridge upstarts have a lot in common. They’re both professional consultants, parents of two children, avid cyclists, and—most significantly—both share a deep-seated frustration with the city’s school system.

Over the past few weeks, Kelley and Nolan sat down for lengthy interviews with The Crimson in which they shared their concerns about Cambridge and their visions for its future.

Meet Craig Kelley and Patty Nolan—rebels with a cause.


Craig Kelley wants to jolt the Cambridge Public Schools system out of what he says is its long-term complacency. But he needs no jolt himself.

The energetic environmental consultant arrives—by bicycle—for a 7 a.m. interview at a Davis Square coffee shop, and he orders himself a decaf.

Or so he thinks.

After grabbing a seat, Kelley begins to tell how he came to live in the city he loves, and the problems he fears lie in its future.

He’s not a native of Cambridge—in fact, he was born and raised in the affluent, lily-white suburb of Wellesley, Mass. And after high school, he left the Boston area entirely. First he attended the University of Rochester on a Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship. Then he served for more than four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, trekking as far as Malaysia and the Philippines.

But he’s a true Cantabrigian at heart—a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and a lover of all things urban.

“I want my kid, at the age of 16, to be able to get on the T with a bunch of his friends and go and have dinner in the North End,” Kelley says. “That’s not the way you grow up in Wellesley—I probably didn’t meet a black person until I got to college.”

As the conversation turns from Kelley’s background to the city that he helps govern, he wants to talk about one thing and one thing only—the school system. And no matter the issue or question presented, he has a remarkable knack for tying everything back to the schools.

Escalating housing prices? “Gentrification is the main problem, so we need a public school system that middle class residents want to send their kids to.” Immigration? “Education is essential for upward mobility—people come here from all over, there are tons of Somalis and Ethiopians, for example, so we need a school system that ensures a basic level of literacy.” Race relations? “Direct conversation about race is so difficult. We have to have shared experiences, and this begins in the schools.”

And so forth.

To Kelley, the main problem with the Cambridge Public Schools is that the system does not have the faith of the middle class. He points out that of the three white city councillors with school-age children—Brian P. Murphy ’86 and Michael A. Sullivan are the other two—he is the only one whose children attend the Cambridge Public Schools.

While he says that Murphy and Sullivan have no obligation to send their kids to the public schools, he takes care to mention their race because he believes that school choices are contributing to racial division. De facto segregation between public and private education, he fears, will result in a system like Boston’s, where the majority of students who attend the public schools are minorities and where whites opt for private education. And this fear is being borne out, he says, by falling enrollment. The Cambridge system has shrunk by more than 1,000 students over the past three years, and the city’s schools have registered 11 consecutive years of enrollment decline.

Kelley has seized on this issue in his first five months on the council. In the midst of a debate on the school system’s $125-million budget last month, Kelley demanded to know why the system was “hemorrhaging students” even as the city continued to “throw money” at it.

“It’s a question of leadership, and the leadership at the top is lacking,” he says. “You have [Superintendent of Schools Thomas] Fowler-Finn going out there and saying, ‘We’re holding our own in terms of enrollment.’ We’re not holding our own! The first step to fixing this is some honesty.”

Kelley faces an uphill battle as he tries to bring his colleagues on board. He cast the only vote against the city’s budget, which included the allocation of funds for the schools.

So he’s looking beyond the council chamber for allies.

“I wish we could just go to some consulting firm that would work with us to give our schools an image makeover,” he says. “But what we can do to help build support is to make parents feel like their concerns are being taken seriously—there are issues with bullying and intimidation that are not being addressed—and get them involved early through partnership programs.”

It’s clear that Kelley does not have all the answers—nor does he profess to. He says his job is “to raise the questions that no one else is,” and to try to understand why families are losing faith in Cambridge’s public education system.

“It’s not going to be easy to fix this,” Kelley says, “but if we can’t make public education work here, there is no hope for public education in a diverse, urban environment anywhere.”

Just after 8 a.m. now, the coffee shop is starting to fill up, our cups are nearly empty, and Kelley suddenly realizes that I had taken the decaf and he had guzzled the real stuff.

“I’m going to be feeling this later,” Kelley says as he heads off to accompany his eight-year-old son’s class on a field trip to the Old State House.

On his way out the door, he adds: “And when you lose the middle class, you lose the chaperones.”


Though Patty Nolan is an active parent at the Amigos School, she didn’t join the School Committee to make friends.

Nolan, who sends her two children to the public, dual-language school on Putnam Avenue, is frustrated by the district’s perennial under-performance.

A management consultant who started her career with McKinsey & Company, Nolan is marshalling her skills from the private and non-profit sectors in an effort to address the Cambridge schools’ shortcomings.

In 2003, she led a bid to open an International Baccalaureate Charter High School, a project that was ultimately unsuccessful but piqued her interest in school reform.

She says that Cambridge enjoys “unbelievable resources”—two large research universities, an active parent group, and a very large per-pupil budget. The city spent about $13,400 per regular education student last fiscal year, $6,000 above the statewide average.

That budget is an “an effective blank check” to the school system, Nolan says, but the city is getting little bang for its buck. “We are very rarely pointed to as an example of a well-managed district.”

Nolan acknowledges that declining enrollment exacerbates the challenge schools face, but she says the decline is a symptom of a larger problem.

“The bigger problem is under-performance,” Nolan says. “I’m not a big MCAS freak,” she adds, referring to the oft-maligned Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. “But what MCAS, the 1993 Education Reform Law, and the No Child Left Behind Act have done is make us start focusing on improving scores and closing the achievement gap.”

In the last school year, 65 percent of white 10th graders in Cambridge scored “proficient” or above on the MCAS English Language Arts exam, compared to only 30 percent of their black peers.

Frustrated black parents are looking for alternatives and are turning to the pair of public charter schools in the city.

The student body at Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School is 95 percent black, and the population at the Community Charter School of Cambridge is 68 percent black. By comparison, the non-charter public schools in Cambridge are less than 40 percent black.

Nolan strongly opposes private-school vouchers out of concern for the separation of church and state, but she does support charter schools. Though the position puts her squarely in the minority on the School Committee—she was the only pro-charter school candidate this past year—Nolan points out that her stance “must not have hurt me too much” since she did win the seat in the end.

“Charter schools only arise where people are not satisfied with the school system—no one is calling for charter schools in Newton, Lexington, Belmont, or Brookline,” Nolan says, referring to some nearby, affluent towns with high-performing schools. “Charter schools give people who are not rich an alternative to their regular schools, and the threat of competition spurs the public schools to improve.”

Because charter schools are outside of the purview of the School Committee—charters are granted by the state—Nolan says that Cambridge should be taking other “bold steps” that have proven successful in addressing under-performance in cities across the country. Among them is increased tutoring for failing students, the hiring of more math and literacy coaches, and more teacher mentoring programs within the classroom.

And the first way to accomplish these steps, Nolan says, is to return the fiscal surplus to the schools and make sure more money reaches the classroom by reducing “the extraordinarily high” central administration expenses.

Nolan first raised eyebrows when she tried to act on this agenda item, proposing in January that $1.5 million in discretionary funds be sent to school principals. She argued that educational research shows that principals with more authority over their budgets produce better results.

“It’s about trusting our principals as individuals,” Nolan says.

While many of the School Committee members were shocked by Nolan’s proposal, she says that immediately after she was elected in November, she sent memos to her colleagues urging them to send $3 million to school principals so that they could hire math and literacy coaches for the spring.

“Then they all acted so surprised in January when I made the suggestion for the $1.5 million,” Nolan says. “I was like, ‘Did you read what I sent you three months ago?’”

Although her proposal was defeated after garnering only two votes in support—Nolan’s own, as well as that of Schuster, the other newcomer to the School Committee—she vows that she will renew her push to send money to the schools again next year.

“I’m looking forward to this next year,” Nolan says. “After that, we’ll see if I get reelected.”

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at


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