Globe North Letter

Article missed the mark on Somerville’s quality schools

May 15, 2011

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We are writing in response to the terribly incomplete May 5 Globe article on the Somerville public school system entitled: “Should they stay or should they go?’’ The article takes a potentially interesting topic — resident perceptions about the quality of our school system — and then unfortunately fails to add anything in the way of depth or perspective. For instance, the article makes little effort to square parental perceptions with reality.

No mention is made that Somerville High School was just named Innovative School of the Year by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, or that, for the last three years, Somerville has been named one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People by the America’s Promise Alliance. The article also fails to mention that 71 percent of Somerville High graduates go on to college.

While Somerville does not post high MCAS scores, the district’s numbers have been steadily improving. Yet we do not believe that MCAS scores provide anything more than a cursory look at the district.

As the article notes, 52 percent of Somerville’s students enter school primarily speaking a language other than English, and 68 percent receive free or reduced school lunches. While these students may take tremendous strides during their time in the system, it does not always translate to high standardized test scores.

Somerville also provides an exceptional vocational program out of its high school, because we value students who wish to work with their hands every bit as much as those on an academic track. Other communities send vocational education students to regional schools.

The result is a far more diverse school system — culturally, economically and socially. Somerville is not an enclave; rather it is a true melting pot. We are not a school district exclusively populated by middle-to upper-class students, all on the college track since the day of their conception. If you look at the performance of middle-class students in Somerville, what you’ll find is they score as well on standardized tests as students from nearby, higher-scoring districts. And Somerville sends students to a Who’s Who of the top universities in the nation.

Somerville boasts a 12.4 to 1 student-teacher ratio, which beats the state average of 13.3 to 1. The district has a student-computer ratio of 2.3 to 1, compared with the state average of 3.6 to 1. Ninety-eight percent of the teachers in the district rank as highly qualified. Some 12.2 percent of Somerville high schoolers take Advanced Placement exams and 78 percent score high enough to earn college credit (compared with only 52.1 per cent at Prospect Hill Academy).

If you are a child from a well-educated, middle-class family, you will get an excellent education in Somerville. If you are a child from an immigrant or low-income family, you also will get an excellent education in Somerville. We have taken on the challenge of providing a rich educational experience for every type of student.

That value system means that Somerville does not charge students for instrumental lessons or to participate on school sports teams. Somerville also provides free pre-K and full-day kindergarten. Last year a survey of our grade 6-12 students administered by the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations found that an overwhelming number reported a high level of motivation, with about 90 percent reporting a belief they can be successful and 81 percent saying they work hard to reach their goals.

Children in this community are being given the broadest range of opportunities as part of a curriculum that lays the foundation for a lifetime of success.

We also take exception to the unexamined reporting of our school enrollment. Yes, the numbers are down, but that is because the numbers are down statewide. It has nothing to do with the quality of education in Massachusetts, which is the best in the nation. It is because the children of the baby boom generation have largely passed through the school system, and now it is the children of the smaller Generation X who attend. On top of that, Americans are having smaller families.

However, Somerville is experiencing a localized baby boom. Kindergarten registration for next year is already at its highest level since 2004-2005, and 2008-2010 saw Somerville families post the highest number of babies born since the 1980s. It is entirely possible that Somerville will be bucking a state and national trend in the coming years.

In short, Somerville does not have an easily categorized school system. The shallow coverage offered up by the Globe on May 5 glossed over most of the district’s strengths and took a rather ugly, elitist stance that a diverse population somehow counts as a negative. We know better. A diverse population enhances the educational opportunities for everyone involved, providing our students with a much broader life perspective and an invaluable real-world experience.

We are proud of our schools and our students. We are also proud to see the response to this article has been staunchly in support of our schools. It’s too bad the Globe missed the true story here.

Joseph A. Curtatone
Somerville mayor

Tony Pierantozzi
Superintendent of schools

Adam Sweeting
School Committee chairman

Rebekah Gewirtz
Board of Aldermen president