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|Craig Kelley for Cambridge City Council in 2015|
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. . . few parents . . . want their kids to be the "guinea pigs" . . .
Successfully implementing Controlled Choice will be a challenge
When the Cambridge School Committee approved a slightly modified version of Superintendent Bobbie D'Alessandro's Controlled Choice Plan for assigning students in the Cambridge Public School (CPS) system primarily along socio-economic rather than racial lines, it made a momentous decision. I look forward to working with the Superintendent to ensure that this plan is a success, but it is clear that we all face a tremendous task. This new plan is an attempt to fix the massive socio-economic imbalances that currently exist within the CPS by balancing classes within, eventually, 5% of the overall district average for free/reduced lunch programs. Currently some schools have as many as 80% of their students receiving free/reduced lunch while others have as few as 20% receiving such lunches. The overall district average is 48% of students receive a free/reduced lunch while 52% pay full price.
The percentage of free/reduced lunches is a watershed issue for CPS. More families choose schools with a smaller percentage of free/reduced lunch students, to such a great extent that these schools frequently have waiting lists. Numerous performance criteria clearly demonstrate more academic success at these overchosen schools and most teachers seem to feel that these schools have better educational atmospheres. Conversely, the schools with a larger percentage of free/reduced lunch students are routinely "underchosen" and perform worse in various tests.
Poorer children to benefit from classroom exposure to more affluent students
The thought behind this new plan is that the kids from poorer, often less academically ambitious, families will benefit by sharing classrooms with kids from wealthier families, where high expectations of academic success are more likely. Peer talk of colleges and homework will, it is hoped, spur all students to perform better academically.
Unfortunately, few parents, no matter how liberal their ideology or what their political position, want their kids to be the "guinea pigs" as CPS experiments with improving lower performing schools. Hence, the CPS runs a real risk of having the overall percentage of free/reduced lunch students increase as wealthier families, who by definition have more academic options, flee the system rather than send their children to an underperforming school. Some such flight is probably unavoidable, but too much would fatally damage the Superintendent's plan. To keep wealthier families in the system, CPS must convince them that the school system will meet their needs, regardless of what school their children attend. A vague promise of "getting better" in a few years is not sufficient- those schools need to be sufficiently better this September. In particular, if some schools are so popular that they are oversubscribed, it seems logical to expand those popular programs to underchosen schools as soon as possible.
We are all part of the solution to Cambridge's educational woes
Anyone who cares about the Cambridge Public Schools needs to advertise the system. Councilor Galluccio, who, as Mayor, met with every 8th grader in the City and who received much credit for the new Plan's passage, needs to meet with the parents of every 4 year-old in the City this year. School administrators and the resource center must aggressively "sell" all schools. Excited parents need to talk up how wonderful their schools are. School Committee members need to make more of an effort to respond to concerned parents, who are disheartened by unanswered phone calls and emails. And last, but not least, the success of such typically "intellectual" groups as the High School's chess team needs to be touted just as much as the success of the football team.
Whether this new "controlled choice" plan is working will be evident when classes start in September, if not before. If there is any significant movement of paid students out of the system, the plan to integrate students by socio-economic status will be failing and we will all have to reconsider where to go from there.