High quality public schools have an R&D mindset, carefully trying new things each year. Next fall, with the leadership of the new superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools, Kenny Salim, and Damon Smith, principal of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, CRLS English teachers will try something new: “leveling up” the required 9th grade English classes. This means all 9th graders will be enrolled in the high challenge Honors English 9 class, with an extra “Honors Access” support class for students entering with below average reading and writing skills. In the following year, 9th grade history will also be leveled up. It’s an initiative that has been carefully planned, prepared for, and budgeted for.
At the start of this year’s budget process, Superintendent Salim articulated five guiding questions about new initiatives, including: What are the expected results and how will they be measured? As a School Committee member, I have a few additional questions: Has the initiative been tried in our schools in the same or similar format before we commit a large expenditure to fund the project? Will the teachers be prepared and experienced enough to do a good job in the launch year, without too much fumbling and learning on the fly? Will there be enough staff and institutional bandwidth to ensure that the first year won’t over stress the system, has the best chance of succeeding, and won’t have to compete with other initiatives?
In terms of guaranteeing success, nothing is certain with homo sapiens, particularly the teenage variety. I’m reasonably satisfied, though, that the administration has met the above criteria for the 9th grade leveling up initiative. The goals are clear: 1) increase and enhance learning for all 9th graders, whether their entering skills are weak, average, or advanced; 2) decrease racial segregation in CRLS classes; and 3) increase the number of students who take advantage of Cambridge Rindge and Latin’s dizzying array of extracurricular activities. Why the third goal? Because when young people feel connected to their school and other students, they seek out extra opportunities to learn in the school setting. That self-initiated learning multiplies the effect of the initiative.
To prepare to teach the leveled up classes, CRLS English and history teachers have been working with a national expert on how best to teach an honors level class to students of varying ability. Not content with teacher preparation alone, CRLS principal Damon Smith has also set a goal of smaller-than-usual class sizes: 17 to 18 students for the honors English class and 13 to 15 for the support class. These small classes will increase teachers’ ability to get to know their students and to develop their classes into communities of readers and writers. Teachers will be able to assign more writing and students will have more opportunity to participate in discussions. Talking is critical to learning, but giving all students a chance to talk in class every week gets exponentially harder with each additional student.
Every English class will also have a special educator who will co-teach with the English teacher for half of each class period. If 9th grade enrollment is higher than expected, the Superintendent has included “reserve teacher” dollars in the budget that can be used to hire more teachers. As a School Committee member and former CRLS parent, I’m extremely invested in the success of this effort. I would have preferred a formal cap on the class sizes rather than just numerical goals, but if Damon Smith is committed to his own vision and does everything to meet his own goals, I can live with a couple of sections having an extra student.
Detracking the 9th grade English and history classes at CRLS is the right thing to do. Along with students, teachers, and other parents, I’ve pushed to have untracked humanities classes in students’ first year of high school since my older daughter started at CRLS in 2006. That the Cambridge Public Schools are taking this on with care and planning bodes well. Good school districts don’t respond to new ideas by listing the reasons they can’t be done. Nor do they grab at brass rings. Our new superintendent seems to understand that initiatives need preparation, resources, and the full attention of our school leaders. It’s a good start.
Emily Dexter is a first-term member of the Cambridge School Committee and a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.