Anna B. Shin, whose second-grader attends Graham & Parks School, attended last month’s school council meeting for an “open discussion” about her child’s education.
But instead of active dialogue, Shin was met with Principal Kathleen M. Smith and other school administrators rotely writing down parents’ questions and concerns, pledging to return with answers.
The responses, Shin said, never came.
In interviews, eight parents of Graham & Parks students said they had deep concerns about a lack of transparency from Smith. They said they were confused about the future of Graham and Park’s project-based learning approach, upset by rearrangements of assistant teachers in classrooms, and put off by the police presence outside of school.
But as Cambridge Public Schools has engaged a law firm to investigate allegations of toxicity against Smith, parents who support Smith praised her for advancing systemic changes that aim to improve student performance and reduce inequality at the school.
Graham & Parks’ School Council parent representatives wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that “Smith has shown immense fortitude by refusing to let us look away from the stark reality we face as a school.”
Anger against Smith has been brewing for months.
Since her arrival to Graham & Parks in July 2022, parents have harbored concerns about Smith’s leadership. Parents claimed she is uncommunicative and questioned why, during the hiring process, negative accounts of her employment as the principal of a Newton elementary school did not cast doubt on her fitness to lead Graham & Parks.
Last year, a group of anonymous parents formed the G&P Caregiver Coalition to voice their frustrations. On Dec. 4, the Coalition sent a petition signed by 116 parents, guardians, and caregivers to Smith and CPS officials demanding Smith be more transparent with parents about her decision-making processes.
On Jan. 2, the coalition followed up with a letter to the School Committee, which included a 2019 report from the Newton Public School district that found Smith had fostered a toxic workplace environment when serving as principal of Underwood Elementary School.
In the letter, the coalition claimed that the same problems existed at Graham & Parks, adding that Smith “has not learned from her experience at Underwood or improved her leadership practices.”
“Our school is facing a crisis that requires immediate action,” the letter read, calling on CPS Superintendent Victoria L. Greer to remove Smith.
Three days later, Greer responded to the Coalition in an email, writing that the district has engaged a law firm to conduct a “thorough review” into the allegations of workplace toxicity.
In an emailed statement to The Crimson, Cambridge Public Schools spokesperson Sujata Wycoff wrote that “the district has contracted with an impartial external review of all the concerns raised and allegations made by this small, yet vocal group of parents.”
“The district does not, has not, and will not comment or respond to inquiries involving personnel matters,” Wycoff wrote. “Following the completion of the confidential review, the matter will be addressed in a manner that aligns with the appropriate employment laws and district policies and procedures.”
Parent frustration has largely centered around concerns that Smith failed to embrace the school’s long-standing emphasis on project-based learning. Project-based learning involves “hands-on investigations, content-area research, fieldwork, and meetings with local experts in relevant fields” working toward a final project or product, per the school’s website.
“She never was clear” that she supported the project-based model, one parent and Coalition member said. “Graham & Parks’ focus has always been project-based learning and a lot of the parents send their kid there for that reason.”
In their petition, the Coalition called for a public forum to address “the status of G&P’s 50-year tradition of project based learning, explore how PBL can be used to continue to build equity, and listen to feedback from the whole G&P community.”
But Christian G. Henry, co-chair of Graham & Parks’ School Council and a Graham & Parks parent, disagreed with the characterization that Smith has moved away from a project-based learning curriculum.
Rather, he said, she has “inspired a reexamination of all the ways in which the structures and the policies and the practices of the school allow us to fulfill as a school.”
In their statement, the School Council parent representatives wrote that “our school has been underperforming for some time” and that Smith has actively communicated about “the necessity of reallocating resources to address our highest areas of need.”
According to Cambridge Public School’s 2022-2023 math and English/Language Arts testing results, Graham & Parks’ students performed slightly above district averages, though only 58 percent of students across grade-levels met or exceeded school expectations on both tests.
Henry said Smith has clearly communicated her plans at School Council meetings — which are held monthly, according to Graham & Parks’s website — and has hosted events such as “principal’s coffees” for parents and teachers to speak with her about school culture and policy.
But six parents, including Shin, said Smith largely avoided answering parent questions in these School Council meetings and other structured opportunities to correspond with parents, such as the principal’s coffee hours.
One parent and member of the Coalition described the lack of room for discussion in such meetings as “upsetting.”
Another said Graham & Parks parents have become accustomed to asking questions of and providing feedback to school administrators. By contrast, Smith “didn’t want to hear, didn’t want to engage that way, didn’t want to answer questions,” another parent and Coalition member said.
Parents also objected to Smith reassigning paraprofessionals — school employees who work under certified teachers to support students — whom they said have traditionally been a staple in Graham & Parks classrooms.
According to one parent and Coalition member, Smith divorced many paraprofessional and teacher pairings.
Another said that paraprofessional and teachers’ longstanding pairings were “integral” to Graham & Parks’ project-based learning approach. Many of the pairings lasted several years, the parent said.
The reason behind reshuffling the paraprofessionals was unclear to parents.
But Henry, the School Council co-chair, said paraprofessionals were redistributed across classrooms due to budget shifts and to meet the particular needs of students in those classes.
“My sense is the reassignment of paras was based on limited resources,” Henry said. “Not every classroom would or even really should expect to have two adults in every classroom.”
Still, he said, the changes were poorly communicated to Graham & Parks parents, who were accustomed to the old system.
“It has been tradition here” to have both a teacher and paraprofessional in each classroom, Henry said. “It was a change that parents noticed, and a number of people were confused.”
“That communication — what was happening, when it was happening, or why — didn’t reach all the parents,” he added.
Several parents said they were also intimidated and confused by the presence of police during drop-off and pick-up at Graham & Parks, which they said had occurred only in the past two school years.
In an email, Cambridge Police Department spokesperson Robert Goulston wrote that “the principal of the school often requests a police presence during drop off and pick up because it gets congested with parents picking up and students walking and busses coming and going.”
One parent said the culture at Graham & Parks has led them to consider pulling their child out of the school. In their Jan. 2 letter, Coalition members also raised fears about teachers leaving.
In their statement to The Crimson, members of the School Council urged parents not to select “one perspective or story to guide your judgment of the situation,” calling on them to instead engage directly with the School Council.
The school’s future, Henry said, depends on caregivers’ ability to engage in respectful conversation.
“I appreciate and understand that not all parents are going to see see the situation the same way. We don’t have to,” Henry said. “I think part of what’s at stake here is how do we behave when we disagree?”
—Staff writer Darcy G Lin can be reached at email@example.com.