Progressive Democrats of Somerville, 2013 Questionnaire

Submitted to the Progressive Democrats of Somerville in response to the 2013 Questionnaire, in advance of a PDS-hosted Candidate Forum on July 9, 2013.

1.  What do you see as the greatest strengths and the greatest challenges of the Somerville Public Schools?  In your answer, please specifically address the elementary, middle school, and high school levels.

The greatest strength of Somerville Public Schools is also their greatest challenge: the wide-ranging diversity of the students who differ by language, culture, parent education, and family income. Many parents enroll their children in Somerville specifically to give them the opportunity to get to know children from backgrounds that are different from theirs. Other parents have less choice about where to educate their children but these children, too, stand to benefit from knowing children from a wide range of backgrounds. But the different languages, cultures, educational backgrounds and incomes of families make it harder for school staff to address the needs of all children and engage all parents. These challenges are most felt in our elementary schools where early development is so critical for building a foundation for later successes.

With this wide range of students and divergent needs, Somerville needs more funding. The city government, to its credit, has given the schools more than the state-required local contribution, but the failure of the state to do its part combined with Somerville’s low real estate tax base means the schools do not have the kind of staffing and extra programming that Cambridge, also a diverse city, is able to offer.

A further challenge for Somerville is that Massachusetts state law allows for more money to be sent to charter schools in districts in the lowest 10 percent as measured by test scores. Somerville is roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to “student growth percentile” – a measure of how much progress students can be expected to make each year on the MCAS. But the state so far has used absolute MCAS levels, which penalizes communities with low-income families and especially students who are not fully fluent in English. The state has indicated it will relax this focus on absolute MCAS levels in determining which districts are in the lowest 10 percent. But in the meantime, being in the lowest 10 percent on absolute scores contributes to a concentration on teaching students to answer MCAS questions that many teachers feel goes far beyond what is actually of long-term benefit to those students.

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2.  Somerville public school students are economically and ethnically diverse, including children of middle class families; children eligible for free/reduced-price lunches; children with highly educated parents; children with working class parents who never went to college; and children from immigrant families who speak one of more than 50 languages other than English at home. What principles should guide the school system in its effort to provide the best education for all Somerville children?

The diversity of Somerville Public Schools leads many families to choose Somerville Public Schools, and to choose Somerville for their families. As such, this diversity should continue to be nurtured in our communities and in our schools. The first principle that should guide the school system in its effort to provide the best education for all Somerville children is one of equality: no child should receive a lesser quality of education due to any particular dimension of diversity, from language to culture, parent education, or family income. This applies to both students and their families, and should be reflected in strong communication between SPS and families of all different backgrounds.

The second principle that should guide our efforts is one of opportunity: in a classroom of students with a range of needs, we must design a system that offers many opportunities for student learning through a variety of methods. One way that we are currently addressing different needs is through the newly implemented X-Block in 1st through 8th grade, which has been positively received by students and their families. Now we can take what we’ve learned and build upon it in an effort towards continuous improvement.

Recognizing that educational success is not simply measured in standardized test scores, we should continue to focus on character development through sports, music, and arts for students of all backgrounds. Not only do these programs provide opportunities for students to develop skills that can’t be learned in a classroom, they encourage a different kind of interaction between students that leverages Somerville’s greatest strength: our diversity.

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3.  What is the city doing well and what could it do better with respect to reaching out to and engaging the parents/guardians of Somerville school children?

Housed at Argenziano, the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative is an example of a program that is successfully engaging parents/guardians. As the single largest factor influencing student success, parental engagement in Somerville is one of the most critical efforts we can focus on to help students reach their potential. The SFLC provides English courses for parents, as well as computer literacy courses. The simple act of opening this line of communication with the school system, as well as empowering parents to coach their children at home on homework, is an example of success in SPS that we can celebrate together. Outside of SFLC, we can stand to improve this communication as well. Many parents have described not hearing enough from their children’s teachers, not being able to access their children’s homework online, and not feeling heard by school administrators. Developing systems to facilitate that communication on a regular basis in a way that further empowers parents to support their child’s learning is an area we can focus on improving together.

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4.  Beyond the basics and state mandates, what should an education in the Somerville schools include? Are the Somerville schools offering those additional elements of a complete education?  If not, what changes are needed?

The successes and outcomes of education in Somerville are currently measured by the results of the MCAS, which should remain one way that we measure success, but successful adults display many more attributes than are measured by a standardized test. These attributes can be summed up as ‘character,’ including things like integrity, social intelligence, creativity, and self-regulation, among others. We have a system that touches on these things in, for example, our excellent stringed-instrument music program that provides an instrument to every 4th grader who wants one. The ability to pick up an instrument a child knows nothing about, to practice diligently over time even when they don’t really want to, and then to see their own progress in the applause at an end of year concert teaches kids something that can’t be measured in the MCAS, and yet is vitally important. Music has also been shown to help with brain development, the same way learning a foreign language at a young age does, which contributes to parallel successes in other subjects.

We live in an area rich with resources, especially in the three main universities surrounding Somerville: Tufts, Harvard, and MIT. Tapping into those communities and the programs that exist within those universities, as well as other organizations, will provide opportunities for students to grow in ways that will create graduates who are empowered to pursue their goals, professional in actions and demeanor, in demand because of their critical thinking skills, and career ready in a competitive workforce.

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5.  What are the strengths and weaknesses of the city's after-school programs? What would be your priorities for strengthening programming? In your answer, please specifically address the elementary, middle school, and high school levels.

After school programs offer opportunities for Somerville students to build character outside of a standardized test framework. This is something I care very much about and is critical to the development of children who will be successful parents, employees, and citizens of Somerville. As we support students in their development, there is an opportunity to place stronger focus between a students needs in the classroom and outside of the classroom. For example, a student who has been identified as needing a little extra help in a particular area receives that help through teachers and volunteers during the school day. However, there is not a strong enough coordination between the school day efforts and the after-school programs, which creates a missed opportunity to continue a student’s growth in that area. El Sistema is an example of an after school program for 3rd and 4th graders that has shown promising results in its first year. In addition to music instruction, El Sistema has also focused on communication and leadership in a way to further develop character. Our sports programs at Somerville High School have continued to provide excellent opportunities for growth outside the classroom. This is most evident seen in a recent student’s selection as the Boston Globe/Will McDonough Male Athlete of the Year for his excellence on the track. Also a soccer player, this student has done exceptionally well in academics no doubt in part because of the discipline learned in sports.

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6.  What can the City do to increase the percentage of students who graduate high school and enroll in college?  What can the City do to support those students in completing their college education?

There are a variety of life and family reasons that factor into a student not enrolling in college, many of which I see in my day job, as Director of Operations at Year Up, helping young adults from low-income communities gain the skills needed to fill employment needs of top employers in the area. I think there is strong potential for additional partnerships with employers in Somerville to ensure that the skills of our graduates match the human capital needs of those employers. A partnership with local employers who show a commitment to hiring local talent would include incentives that support recent graduates in pursuit of their bachelor’s degree.

Many in our community will be the first in their families to attend college, and being open to the many different paths towards that goal will ensure that college gradation numbers rise. There is not a one-size fits all approach, but rather a variety of options from which a student and their family could choose from. Community college offers a lot of flexibility for those families or students who may not see a full time, four year institution as ideal.

Lastly, to increase the number of students who do choose full time college, we must use an ‘all hands on deck’ approach that emphasizes college from elementary school and beyond. Developing a single, unified message across grades and across schools on college as a goal worth pursuing, which SPS will support in reaching, will be a small but important first step from which we can build. College attendance and graduation for Somerville students is a milestone that we want families to encourage for their children, with the unwavering and comprehensive support of our schools, our school committee, and the City of Somerville.

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7.  Does SCALE programming represent an adequate commitment to adult basic education and English instruction for non-native speakers? If not, what changes are needed?

The Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences (SCALE) serves an important role in our community, enabling continuing education for nearly 1,000 adults every year, and has been doing this work for the last 39 years. The programs offered at SCALE, from GED to ELL, offer opportunities for adults to pursue their dreams, often simultaneously with their children in SPS. Enabling parents to model the importance of academics in their own personal and professional growth sends a strong signal to their children, a signal that will ensure that students continue to strive for excellence in their work. Given the important difference SCALE represents in the lives of so many every year, I believe that this program is a strong representation of the Somerville’s commitment to adult education and English instruction.

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8.  Interest in charter schools increases when parents become concerned that public schools cannot provide the education their children need. What is your stance on charter schools?

Somerville Public Schools have been blessed with an increased budget near 7% over the last two years, and this commitment to focusing our resources on improving our current school system is the right way to go for Somerville. Increasing outcomes, only some of which are represented by the MCAS, requires us to take a hard look at which programs are producing the outcome we want and how much each outcome costs our taxpayers. At the same time, it is important to allow space and resources to run small pilot programs within our ten schools based on learned lessons around the state and country.  

Nationally, charter schools on average have not produced outcomes that were greater than their public school counterparts, but have been given freedom to turn away the students that might bring down their average or require additional resources. Turning away students who are viewed as “problem kids” is not aligned with my values, and is not a morally or economically positive decision. Additionally, charter schools are often funded at the expense of a public school system, further decreasing the resources a school system can use to develop and teach their students. For these reasons, I believe we should focus our energy and resources on developing our students through our public school system, finding the successful programs and methods within SPS and spreading them across the system, and we should avoid the temptation to plant a new and resource-draining model in our city.

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9.  If additional revenues were available, what one or two school budget items would you recommend for increased spending? If revenue fell below the amount required for level funding, what one or two school budget items would you look to cut back?

In both a more restricted and a more bountiful budget environment, it is the responsibility of the School Committee and the administration of the Superintendent to continuously look for efficiencies in the system. When we are learning well as a system, we should see small savings in most programs year over year as we deliver the same services more efficiently. In times of scarcity and times of plenty, we should ask these questions of every program as we look for savings:

  1. What is the outcome this program is designed to deliver?

  2. Is this program doing what it’s supposed to do?

  3. How much does this outcome cost per student?

  4. Can we achieve the same outcome at a lower cost?

  5. How do we prioritize the outcome of one program against another at the same cost?

My priorities will always lie first with the student’s experience in the classroom, then with ensuring that we are including parents in a meaningful dialogue throughout the school year, then with character-building activities like sports, music, and art. I see these things as the core of what SPS provides to Somerville.

Somerville teachers are being asked to tackle significant challenges and should have the resources to do so. At a time when teacher morale is low and the teaching community consistently hears the message that they are failing, we can do more to empower their success. For example, building time into a senior teacher’s schedule to mentor and develop junior teachers will ensure that our newest educators are learning lessons from our high performers. American teachers have more student contact hours than teachers in any other developed country, but less time to learn from peers and develop their craft. Giving teachers more time to work together will improve morale and will yield positive results for our students.

I look forward to learning more throughout this campaign about how unique programs in our city enhance a family’s experience in SPS, and the range of ideas about how to improve them.

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10.  What are the top three school-related issues for parents/guardians and children in your Ward, and how will you take action on these priorities if elected?

Somerville schools have a lot to offer families and children, and should be a draw for families to move to Somerville, to stay in Somerville, and invest in their community. The quality of education perceived by families will always, rightly, be the primary driver for any family’s decision. How we engage parents to participate in the process is critical to incorporating feedback into our programs and in improving a family’s experience. The following three priorities will guide my work over the next two years if elected:

  • Communication between parents and teachers, administration, & school committee
  • Tapping into the wealth of resources in/around Somerville
  • Sharing & spreading each school’s successes with all Somerville schools

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11.  What else about your candidacy makes you a logical choice for a progressive voter?

Public education is a service we pay for in order to develop our communities, to build connections between families, and to enable students to truly reach their potential. This is no short order, but is one that we can achieve if we all commit ourselves to it. I grew up in a working class background and was raised by my single father after beginning my life in foster care. He emphasized education as the primary effort that will help me to succeed, and it has. Education is very clearly the most valuable service we can provide to our children and our community. I continued my service in the military and after five years and two long deployments as an Infantryman, I’m eager to continue my service in my community.

Many have asked why I’m interested in school committee even though I don’t have children in the school system. First and foremost, I want to have a family one day and I want to enroll my children in Somerville schools. Someone once told me that “there’s a time in one’s life when you start thinking about getting involved in the school system but by then, your kids are almost through.” I’d like to work now to build a foundation now in Ward 2, in my community where the impact will be felt most.

I also share a commitment to developing our youth. During my years of military service, the most lasting and fulfilling thing I did was develop young soldiers. Today, working at Year Up, a non-profit that helps young adults cross the opportunity divide between a high school GED or diploma to a good paying job, I am continuing that work. In tackling the many obstacles that our students who attend Year Up have experienced, I have grown a deep desire to remove those hurdles altogether. My current work helps students get over the many hurdles in their lives, but it is only through a school system that we can remove those challenges early on through a focus on child development and parental engagement. As a resident of Ward 2, I’d like the opportunity to focus my efforts where it matters most: improving our school system.

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