How CPS Parents Helped Stabilize the School System

(Revised June 26, 2015)

As the 2014-15 school year concludes, it’s worth noting that it was four years ago, March 2011, that the Cambridge school committee approved, by 6-1 vote, the switch from a JK-8 system to a JK-5 and middle school model.  We are now coming to the end of Year 3 of the new district structure, and Cambridge is not a JK-8 system anymore.  We now have a surprisingly stable system of eleven preK-5 schools feeding into four middle schools, one JK-8 Spanish immersion school, and one comprehensive high school with an embedded vocational/technical program (RSTA) and an off-site High School Extension Program.  Unlike after the Consolidation of 2003, when enrollment dropped from 7,100 to 5,800 in four short years, we have not seen major flight from the school system, even at the middle school level.

How to account for the relative stability of CPS only four years after a community process that pitted parent against parent and teacher against teacher? A process in which one-third of parents spoke in favor of middle schools, one-third spoke in favor of JK-8 schools, and one-third seemed left out of the conversation all together?

This column is about how the collective efforts of Cambridge parents contributed enormously to the current stability of the school system, and to some of the undeniable positives that have come from the new structure.  Because, as always happens with big change, there have also been some undeniable negatives, particularly due to the transition process itself.  Without the parent efforts described below,  we could easily still be enveloped in district-wide rancor, more families might have left, and the district could be in much worse shape.

Of course, CPS teachers, paraprofessionals, liaisons, other educators, staff, administrators, principals, and vice principals had the most difficult task and deserve the most thanks.  They first created 16 new schools in less than 18 months; and then pushed them forward. Some did a better job than others, as humans tend to do, but all did their jobs under difficult circumstances.  CPS students also rose to the occasion. Unfortunately, the CPS teachers have been rewarded for their hard work by being given the major blame for our achievement and opportunity gaps; and we lost some excellent teachers who were not willing to put up with that disregard.

In terms of parent efforts:

Most parents kept their kids in CPS.  Some did opt out, most with the plan to skip the stumbling new upper schools and rejoin at high school; we don’t know how many. But most parents stayed, and even those who spoke out most fervently to retain more JK-8 schools accepted the situation and worked hard to make the new schools work.  Even incoming families who never experienced the JK-8 system jumped in to make the 16 new schools into real communities.

Parents did jump in, some by creating new councils, committees, and traditions at their new schools, others by creating district-wide parent groups. Some of these new groups were issue-specific: LMP, CALA, PANGEA, Citizens for JK Access, and the local chapter of Citizens for Public Schools.  (See list under “Resources” on the homepage.) These groups pushed for better staffing and practices, insisting that parents deserved more voice in the newly structured district.

Another new group, CSAG, was designed to connect parents across all the schools, preK-12. (CSAG=Citywide School Advisory Group.) The only reason we now have CSAG, the first all-district parent council in decades, is because a group of parents met on a Cambridge playground and refused to accept the parent enmities expressed during the restructuring debates.  Seeing the need for cross-district parent bonds, these early founders of CSAG designed an organizational structure, recruited representatives from the now-seventeen schools, assembled a steering committee, and started monthly meetings. Parents traveled to school buildings they had never been in before, for discussions with parents from schools they knew little about. Three years later, CSAG is the established district-wide parent council, beginning its fourth year in September.

We have never had so many parent groups in Cambridge, and they have made a huge contribution to this district.  They have given more parents a way to engage with district policy, and they exist only because parent leaders put in hundreds of hours creating and sustaining them.

Parents created new structures to support students and the schools.  At the high school, two CRLS parents started up Friends of CRLS (FOCRLS), which grew quickly into a major fundraising organization that raises tens of thousands of dollars every year from individuals and businesses. Cambridge School Volunteers, though not a new organization, created afterschool tutoring programs for the new upper schools.  Beyond the Fourth Wall theater, which had been created more than a decade ago by a CPS parent, started up a middle school program to help with upper school community-building.  One elementary school parent started the Weekend Backpack Program, addressing the unthinkable reality that there are CPS students who experience hunger at home. One result of the Backpack Program was to reduce student absences, a rarely discussed problem in our schools. In only a few years, the Backpack Program grew from one school to many, following the pattern of other programs that have been started or supported by parents, including City Sprouts and Science Club for Girls.

Parents lobbied hard to get more staff and resources into the schools.  During the middle school debates, school committee members had asked for social workers, family liaisons, double math teachers in each grade, full-time librarians, and a large, first-year discretionary fund for each new upper school principal. They didn’t insist, however, on this level of staffing and funding.  Much to parent consternation, the budget for Year 1 of the new structure, which added four new schools and one new building to the district’s expenses, was only 3% more than the previous year’s budget.  As a result, the upper schools were skeletally staffed their first year, with the negative results that many parents had warned about.  In part due to persistent parent-teacher lobbying, new staff positions have been added to the upper schools every year since.  One no-nonsense parent, an officer of C-PAC (the special education Parent Advisory Council), presented data showing that the upper school psychologists had higher caseloads than their colleagues in the other schools.  “Unacceptable,” she said, and four half-time psychologists were added to the upper schools.  In the most recent budget cycle, nine more positions were added to the upper schools for next year, showing just how underfunded they were in their first three years.

At the JK-5 level, unfortunately, the inadequate staffing and blatantly inequitable staffing across the 12 schools has not yet been addressed by the school committee.  During this year’s budget hearings, elementary teachers asked for an 18-student cap on Sheltered English Immersion classes and more intervention staff in all the schools; but the school committee maintained the 25-student cap and added only three new elementary intervention positions.  The committee also continued to kick-the-can-down-the-road for the K-5 World Language program, an “eagerly awaited” part of the Innovation Agenda proposal. At CRLS, whose teachers asked for smaller class sizes and instructional coaches, no new positions were added for next year except those required for enrollment increases. Hopefully the school committee, in the future, will look at the budget through more than one lens at a time.

Parents insisted on transparency and asked that more funds be targeted directly to students.  Over the past three years, more parents started reading the budget and following how staff positions are created. Last summer, more than 100 parents, including some CSAG members, signed a letter protesting the creation of new administrative positions without the required school committee approval.  They also asked that more CPS dollars go to classroom staffing and less to consultants and central administration positions.  Over the past three years, parents have sent emails and spoken at meetings asking for either reduced overhead spending or a larger public school budget.  It may seem like a small success, but the budget allocation from the city for next year, for the first time in at least a decade, is a half-million dollars more than the amount required for maintenance staffing. For most of the 2000s, it was maintenance funding or less. Bit by bit, parents have chipped away at the tired canard, “Cambridge spends $20,XXX per pupil,” a misleading statistic that has blocked thoughtful discussion about the school budget for years.

Parents supported the teachers and the schools.  Though some decision-makers relentlessly criticized Cambridge teachers and existing curricula, most parents did not jump on the anti-teacher, anti-CPS bandwagon.  Instead, parents asked for specific, well-defined improvements, including more teachers and paraprofessionals, more diverse teachers, less unnecessary testing and assessment, family liaisons in the upper schools, a pilot K-5 world language program (a tiny request considering the overwhelming parent interest in language instruction), more time for teacher planning, full-time art and music teachers in all schools, and more attention to anti-racism in the classroom and curriculum.

It has been an intense four years for the Cambridge public school community: teachers, students, parents, and everyone else.  There is much more that needs to change. But we could be closing out 2014-15 with a much shakier school system; and we aren’t.  Parents should take a lot of credit for that.

Comments welcome, feel free to forward.

Postscript:

How well the preK-5 and middle school model is working five years from now is hard to predict. If CPS is successful retaining students through 8th grade, we’ll need larger or more upper schools. The bigger question is whether this structure will benefit all students, and not just those with solid socioemotional and academic skills.  We’ve heard that some students are thriving and love the larger schools; others are struggling and getting sent out of class. At the recent upper school Roundtable, one school committee member raised the question of whether we need a separate program for students who aren’t well served by a 300-student middle school model.  We’ll see how it goes.

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