Cambridge may reduce its middle schools to 4

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / February 1, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — After 18 months of community soul searching, Superintendent Jeffrey Young will unveil an ambitious plan tonight to reconfigure the district’s middle school education to emphasize academics and consistent standards for all students.

The superintendent’s plan would slash from 12 to four the number of schools that serve 11- to 14-year-olds, a move intended to centralize instruction for the 1,200 students in grades 6 through 8. The effort is aimed at narrowing disparities in class size, teacher training, and resources available to students at different schools. The disparities tend to shortchange minority students and those who are foreign-born or have special needs, Young said. Many arrive at high school poorly prepared.

“We think that this is largely about uplifting every child in his or her performance,’’ said Young, who will present his “Innovation Agenda’’ to the School Committee today. “For the ones who are excelling, we want them to do even better. For the ones that are struggling, we want to support them to reduce and eliminate the achievement gaps.’’

The number of middle-school-age students at the worst-performing schools has tended to be low, as parents opt to remove children from the system. With few students in those grades, schools have devoted scant resources to them, Young said.

His plan would consolidate those students in four schools, where class sizes would be more even, teachers can more easily collaborate, and academic offerings would be more rigorous. Special needs students and English language learners would receive more attention than in the past. Teachers would undergo more training, and the district would work with institutions like Harvard and MIT to design better math and science classes.

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the plan this month, and the School Committee will vote on it March 1. If the plan is approved, city officials say, it would go into effect during the 2012-2013 school year.

Over the years, the district has suffered flight as well-to-do families have opted to send their children to private schools. What remains is an uneven and, some say, broken system. While some Harvard and MIT professors send their children to the public schools, roughly 45 percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunch. Schools with few students in a grade tend to have higher proportions of minorities, special needs, or foreign-born students.

As an example, Young pointed to the John M. Tobin School, which has 11 students in the sixth grade, eight of whom have special needs. Ten are African-Americans, and one is Hispanic.

Cambridge has long grappled with how to improve its middle grades. School Committee member Patricia Nolan said that in 2003 the district closed or merged eight of its 15 schools and lost hundreds of students as a result.

Four years later, a city-commissioned panel examined middle school education in Cambridge and found several weaknesses, including inconsistent curriculums and activities, class sizes, and staffing.

Young, who has been on the job for 18 months, has made improving the middle grades a central goal of his administration. He had previously proposed creating a single middle school, but scrapped the idea after a deluge of concerns from residents.

He then created three teams in the fall to study educational programming, facilities, and the controlled choice program.

Mayor David Maher hailed the plan, saying Cambridge has long been willing to take a hard look at itself.

“What we are saying and what has driven . . . this is that we are not satisfied. We know we can do better,’’ he said.

Already, Young’s initiative is getting a cool reception from residents who have not seen it.

Lisa Downing, a parent who has been active in the community discussions, said she worries that the plan could sacrifice good programs at schools slated to give up middle-school grades.

“I’m afraid that his efforts to make things equitable and equal will make things the same and eliminate the programs that have been successful,’’ said Downing.

Nolan, who has not seen the full plan, said she hopes it will explain why the changes are needed and how they would improve learning and teaching.

“I understand there are plenty of things we can do with a larger cohort of kids, but you wouldn’t disrupt the entire district for that alone,’’ Nolan said yesterday.

“What we really have to have is a plan that addresses very directly the teaching, learning, and high expectations of all students.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at