Cambridge School Committee Candidates Discuss Special Ed, Achievement Gaps, Math in Lead Up to Election

Cambridge’s 11 candidates for the School Committee discussed their views on special education, achievement gaps, and the mathematics curriculum during various forums leading up to the Nov. 7 city municipal elections.
By Sally E. Edwards

Voting for Cambridge municipal elections will take place on Nov. 7.
Voting for Cambridge municipal elections will take place on Nov. 7. By Sami E. Turner

Cambridge’s 11 candidates for the School Committee discussed their views on special education, achievement gaps, and the mathematics curriculum during various forums leading up to the Nov. 7 municipal elections.

The School Committee consists of a seven-member board, including six members who are elected at-large and the mayor. With two current members preparing to leave their posts, four incumbents and seven challengers are vying for the positions.

The candidates focused on the following topics:

Special Education

In an Oct. 15 forum organized by five Cambridge family affinity groups, candidates responded to questions about special education in the district. As the federal government continues an inquiry into the state of special education across the Commonwealth, candidates discussed Individual Education Programs and other institutional supports in Cambridge.

Richard Harding Jr. — a former School Committee member — said Cambridge Public Schools must work to ensure that all students can easily access the special education resources in the district.

“We have to have a real truth in our IEP system, so that people are getting exactly what the IEP say — and that families don’t have to fight, fight, fight for what’s supposed to be given to their student as a right,” he said.

At the same forum, candidate Robert V. Travers Jr. said that the district must provide “consistent services and support” for special education students, flagging the caseload of special educators in the district as an area of concern.

“We need to take a look at the appropriate level of staff caseload,” he said. “I’d like to get the information on what the average caseload is for student staff members in the district.”

Andrew King said when discussing the quality of education in the district, candidates must center the conversation around “the needs of our most marginalized students, our students with special needs, especially our students of color with IEPs.”

“In order to provide a high-quality, inclusive education for our special needs students, we have to provide the additional supports and adequate staffing necessary — as many people have said — to ensure they get access to the opportunity to reach their highest potential in a setting that makes them feel empowered, valued, and not stigmatized in any way,” he said.

Achievement Gap

Candidates also discussed the district’s persistent achievement gap in various forums, citing student scores on the MCAS, a required standardized test in Massachusetts. The results showed persistent achievement gaps along racial lines.

Incumbent Caroline M. Hunter said the persistent problem needs to be addressed by reviewing the courses available within the district and the ways achievement is assessed.

“When we talk about the achievement gap, we have to talk about the transparency of our data about how students are performing in the actual courses that we offer,” Hunter said. “We also have to deal with the fact that the achievement gap is growing.”

Frantz Pierre — who is running for both School Committee and Cambridge City Council — said that the district must readjust its curriculum in order to better engage its students.

“I think the disconnection that we do see within these students is these curriculums are boring to them,” Pierre said at an Oct. 16 forum hosted by Cambridge-based nonprofit My Brother’s Keeper. “They want to run for office, they want to do these things — but there’s no stairs to get there. There’s no one you can talk to that can actually give you that knowledge.”

In the forum hosted by parent affinity groups, incumbent José Luis Rojas Villareal said the opportunity gaps remain a persistent problem within the district. Rojas cited early childhood education, equitable access to mathematics, bilingual education, and an expansion of Montessori programs as potential solutions.

“Opportunity gaps have an immense impact on all of our students being able to take full advantage of a great education in our district,” he said.

Incumbent Rachel B. Weinstein agreed with her colleague, saying she believes “demographics do not determine a child’s capacity or potential.”

“I do agree with José Luis that the Cambridge preschool program will help close some early opportunity gaps,” she said. “It’s also my personal theory that it’s not just about curriculum and reform, but that we’re not approaching instruction with the needed equity lens.”

Mathematics Curriculum

Candidates also discussed initiatives around the mathematics curriculum in the district. After a summer marked by concerns about the limitations of Algebra 1 within district middle schools, the School Committee voted to advance a motion to establish Algebra 1 for all in eighth grade by 2025.

Candidate Eugenia Schraa Huh shared her concern about the perceived lack of data involved in making decisions surrounding the district’s mathematics curriculum in an Oct. 24 forum sponsored by the Cambridge Advanced Learning Association Parent/Caregiver Group.

“We’re making decisions without pushing back on the fundamentals of what’s going on,” she said. “The School Committee has got to start really pushing back and asking for the evidence that what we’re doing is the best.”

Elizabeth Hudson cited concerns with hiring processes within the district as they seek to establish Algebra 1 in middle schools.

“In the past three fiscal years, for example, we’ve added 17 new administrators and no new math teachers,” Hudson said. “Instead of adding additional math teachers, we have added more administrators.”

Incumbent David J. Weinstein — who jointly introduced the motion to expand Algebra 1 across Cambridge middle schools — said his term has allowed him to focus on equity issues, including the mathematics curriculum.

“What’s been gratifying this term is to be able to focus more on those pieces,” he said. “We do it with excellence, we do it caring for every individual child and making sure that no child falls through the cracks, but they’re always getting their needs met.”

Candidate Alborz Bejnood said, if elected to the School Committee, he hopes to prioritize Cambridge’s mathematics curriculum.

“I’ll consider my term successful if, in addition to the immediate reintroduction of algebra and middle schools, if by two years, we’ve advanced plans for a yearlong computer science course, additional language offerings at elementary school level, and greater communication with the community college for [Cambridge Rindge and Latin School],” he said.

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at sally.edwards@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sallyedwards04 or on Threads @sally_edwards06.

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