Well-Staffed Schools and Classrooms

My comments at the first CPS Budget Hearing on the FY17 Budget:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about next year’s budget. We are doing a great job educating many of our students, and we have the potential to do a great job educating all of them. But I’m worried about the future of our public schools for two reasons.

First, I’m worried about the charter school cap. We are in a pro-charter state with a pro-charter governor. If the cap is lifted via legislation or a referendum, we could see another 400-500 students leave our district for charter schools. Not only would that cost the city another $10 million, but we would be losing more students and families who could benefit from and contribute to our public schools.

I’m also worried about what I call “pop-up” private schools. Schools like Wildflower Montessori that don’t cost a lot and can be run out of a storefront with the whole city as their campus. We’re going to see more of these schools popping up because the new generation of parents is entrepreneurial. If they aren’t satisfied with our public schools, they will create their own.

How can we compete with charter schools and low-tuition pop-up private schools?  How can we continue to educate 80% of Cambridge school-age children in our public schools?  By making sure that every one of our 17 schools is an exciting and creative place to teach, is well-staffed, has a strong faculty that is as diverse as its students, and that every classroom is a joyful, challenging, and well-organized place to learn.

Last year our elementary, middle, and high school teachers told us they do not have enough staff to teach all their students well. The numbers back them up. The student-teacher ratio for general education teachers at CRLS is higher than at Newton South High School, and our guidance counselors have case loads of 220 students each. We have 30% fewer classroom aide hours per student than we did five years ago, when we laid off paraprofessionals to save money. Our most critical grades for learning to read–first and second grade, have some of the largest class sizes in the system. One parent last year told me her child’s first grade was a “Lord of the Flies environment” because there were too many kids and not enough adults.  Our current class size policy is for kindergarteners to have a 10-to-1 student-adult ratio, but for first and second graders to be in classes of up to 25 students and only one full-time adult; with a classroom aide available a couple of hours a day.  That doesn’t make sense developmentally, and certainly doesn’t make sense if our goal is to ensure that all kids learn to read by the end of 3rd grade.

Parents I’ve spoken to who have left our schools for private schools, which includes white parents and parents of color, left because their child’s classroom was too chaotic and their child wasn’t getting an appropriate amount of attention. When a classroom is chaotic we automatically blame the teacher–“poor classroom management skills.”  The best way to have an excellent teacher in every classroom is to provide excellent teaching conditions in every classroom: small enough class sizes, enough planning time, and enough paraprofessionals, specialists, and other educators in the school to support teachers’ work.

We might be tempted, this year, to say, “No staffing increases until the new superintendent starts.” With the charter school cap being discussed every day in the State House, we should resist that temptation. There is abundant evidence from educational research, from our teachers, and from parents and students that we are understaffed in most if not all our schools. Understaffed relative to our student needs, understaffed relative to the financial resources of this city. According to DESE, we currently spend as much per pupil on classroom and specialist teachers as the Salem Public Schools. Unlike Cambridge, though, Salem is not the epicenter of a global tech boom and has not seen its municipal revenues increase by 70% in 15 years.

We don’t need to wait for a new superintendent to tell us that we need more educators in our schools. Our new superintendent, Dr. Kenneth Salim, is an urban educator. I’m sure he will agree with Richard Milner, Professor of Urban Education at the University of Pittsburg (2015): We need smaller class sizes and more adults in our classrooms.  “Although critics may suggest that reducing class size plays only a small role in raising test scores, it is unreasonable to suggest that class size doesn’t matter from a broader, more holistic perspective–especially for school-dependent students” (p. 54).

I hope the FY17 CPS budget provides enough funding for every classroom to be a joyful, challenging, and well-organized learning environment.  And I hope ten years from now we are still educating 80% of Cambridge students in our public schools. Or at least 70%.

Milner, H.Richard (2015).  Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.



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