** Budgeting from the Ground Up

Amidst the accolades to Mayor Menino this week, one commentator noted that what made him a good mayor was that he didn’t have a big “vision thing” going.  In his first term in office, rather than sketch out a grand plan for Boston’s transformation, he drove around the city calling in potholes for his DPW to fix.  His idea was to first shore up the foundations of the city–the streets, sidewalks, and neighborhoods, before “preparing Boston for the 21st century.”

I’d like to see Cambridge do this with our schools and the FY16 budget.  Before taking on another visionary initiative, let’s take a breather and check first if the foundations of the system are solid, that in all of our classrooms the students and teachers can come to school every day and have a positive, productive day.  That class sizes are small enough and there are enough trained staff in every school to meet the full range of Tier 1, 2, and 3 instructional needs of the students.  That the teachers have adequate materials and enough time to plan and meet with colleagues.  Before thinking about professional development, curriculum, cross-district teams, or leadership issues, let’s first ensure adequate learning conditions for every child in every classroom.

Another metaphor: When traveling in a plane with a child, an adult should always put on their oxygen mask first.  Same with schools.  If you want to make sure the kids are well taught every day, first make sure the teachers can breathe.  Especially in the elementary schools.  CPS teachers have told us in many ways that they are stressed, their morale is low, there have been too many big changes, and they want the administration and school committee to “just let us teach.”  I can imagine it is demoralizing to hear year after year how you and your fellow teachers are to blame for low test scores, meanwhile no one in the system asks you what resources you need to teach all kids well.

What I can’t seem to let go of, as someone who wants to live in a city in which children born poor can become civically and economically successful, is my sense  that we don’t have a system in place to serve students who need more intensive help, the majority of whom are from low-income families.  We have a solid system of numerically assigning 6,500 kids to classrooms limited to 25 students, but that’s where the “system” seems to stop.  When some kids start falling behind, as some inevitably will, that’s when the patchwork instruction seems to start, at least at the elementary level: maybe a Title 1 teacher if the school has one, maybe an intern, maybe an afterschool volunteer, maybe a retired teacher working on a per-hour basis, maybe a reading specialist (if the child is really lucky), maybe time on a computer program, maybe time with a student teacher, but all varying from school to school.  And yet we know, every year, roughly 20% of elementary students will be on IEPs, most of whom will be included in classrooms of up to 25 students, and another 15-20% will be academically below grade level.  That’s what poverty does:  It is not harmless.  And no matter how good our programs, there are always new kids coming into the district who are going to need more help. Yet year after year the JK-5 intervention system is ad hoc across the district, with students who are having the most difficulty sometimes taught by adults with the least training.  Not only the least training, but the least consistent presence in the classroom, which is required to gain students’ trust.

Yet students who are both poor and academically behind are the most difficult to teach, the ones with the most fragile deep-down trust.  Why aren’t the interns working with the easier-to-teach students while the trained teachers work with the most challenged learners?  My fear is that the reason we, as a society, assign the least experienced adults to provide interventions is that the students who are behind are more likely to have low-income parents who will not complain. A middle class parent whose child is behind in reading would not accept an ad hoc solution or an intern for an intervention teacher.  I don’t mean this is intentional school department or school committee policy.  I truly believe that every single decision-making adult in our district means well and wants the best for low-income students.  But there has to be some reason that CPS is putting all its efforts into revamping its curriculum and professional development system when there is not yet any solid intervention system for students who obviously need more help.  The struggling students of NOW.

This city has a lot of poverty.  These students are not going away.  But why are they always the last on the list, their learning needs always to be met TOMORROW?  What are the consequences for their future, and for our future as a city when we treat these kids as a tomorrow-concern?  When we act surprised every year at the number of elementary school students who need help, and then scramble to provide it.  And yet, when teachers are stressed and overwhelmed with too many challenged students in their class, it is the struggling learners who lose out the most, who fall even further behind. Why?  Because they are, by definition, the least resilient, adaptable, and independent.  Why is there no solid system for these kids?

Let’s follow Menino’s example and get the basic teaching and learning conditions right for every teacher and every student first, and then move on to the “vision thing.” In fact, let’s have that be the vision:  Staffing and resources, today, that meet the learning needs of every child, regardless of disabilities or home circumstances.  Starting with small enough JK-5 class sizes and enough trained and consistent adults whom the kids trust  You can’t build a great building on top of a foundation with pot holes that are patched up on a year-to-year basis.

That doesn’t lead to social justice, and we aren’t, as a city, taking responsibility for providing equitable opportunities to learn for every student in our public elementary schools.

Feel free to forward and all comments welcome,

Emily Dexter


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