The Cambridge School Committee approved a plan Tuesday to consolidate most of the city’s 6th through 8th grade students into four school buildings.
The Committee voted 6-1 in favor of the plan, proposed by Superintendent Jeffrey Young, that will establish four “upper schools” for 6th through 8th grade students in sections of what are now the King Open, Peabody, King and Tobin schools in September 2012. (See Young's "Innovation Agenda.'')
“We have a lot riding on this,” said School Committee member Richard Harding before voting for the plan.
Young’s plan will reconfigure all but one of the city’s elementary schools into junior kindergarten through 5th grade schools. Most of the city’s 12 elementary schools currently house junior kindergarten or kindergarten through 8th grade students. But under Young’s plan only one school, the Amigos School, will remain a junior kindergarten through 8th grade school.
The transformation will be undertaken to address disparities in class size, resources and training for 6th through 8th grade teachers in Cambridge schools. Some district schools house dramatically higher percentages of low-income students and minorities and the number of students in the 6th through 8th grades varies widely from one school to another.
Young has said the uneven distribution of students and resources in the schools has been hindering success. Under his plan, three of the new upper schools will house 75-88 students per grade, and one will house about 90-100 students per grade.
But his original plan raised some concerns because it did not create an upper school in they city’s Cambridgeport neighborhood. In response to the objections, Young decided to shift one of two schools he had been proposed for East Cambridge, at the Kennedy-Longfellow School on Spring Street to an new location on Putnam Avenue in Cambridgeport, where the King School is now located.
The only elementary school now slated to relocate under Young's plan is the Amigos School, which will move from Kinnaird Street to Upton Street and will remain a junior kindergarten through 8th grade school.
Young had originally proposed shifting students in the 6th and 8th grades at the Amigos School to an upper school campus, but he abandoned the idea after the school community raised concerns that it would disrupt a Spanish/English immersion program at the Amigos School.
The only School Committee member who voted against Young's plan Tuesday was Alice Turkel, who she said she needed a commitment that the district would not seek to separate students in the new upper schools into different classes based on ability.
Turkel said the ability grouping tends to separate students along socioeconomic lines and she could not support Young's plan if the grouping remained an option.
“I think this is simply a social justice issue and has to come down one way,” said Turkel, who cried while raising her objections to the plan.
Several other School Committee members said they also oppose grouping classes by ability. But they voted against ruling it out until the grouping had been studied more and a thorough discussion had been held with the community.
The School Committee also ordered Young to provide more information about the cost of renovating the district’s buildings to house the re-configured schools, as well as the cost of staffing under the new plan.
The cost of the renovations has not been determined. But Young’s revised proposal is expected to cost the district up to $650,000 more per year for additional staffing, including a total of about $400,000 needed to hire four deans or principals to lead the upper level schools.
The school district will spend much of the upcoming year ironing out the details of the re-organization before the upper schools open in 2012.
“This is, I think, a groundbreaking day for Cambridge,” said Mayor David Maher, who also serves as chair of the School Committee.
For more coverage, go to Cambridge Day.