Friday, May 28, 1999
An inner-city public school that really works
With so much soul-searching and hand-wringing about the state of American public schools, it is refreshing to talk to Lynn Stuart of School Street. Stuart is principal of the Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a new K though 8 school she helped found in 1991. Cambridgeport is a Professional Development School associated with Wheelock College and other Boston area universities. "Our school," she explained, "was designed to be small like a healthy family, where people stand by each other, celebrate together and we all know everyone by name." Stuart added, "I wanted to create a school where there is a sense of belonging, a sense of welcoming...a place for everyone."
Cambrigeport School, which is located between the B. U. Bridge and Central Square in a former Catholic school, has a student population of 250 which has grown steadily, and at the completion of its growth phase in 2001 will have 340 students. It is organized into multi-grade classes, 1 through 6 (first and second, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth grades together) with partial multi-grading in seventh and eighth grade. "The multi-grade classroom emulates a family, valuing that kids are different," said Stuart. "There are 20 students in each kindergarten class, 22 students in most other classes, with 25 as a maximum. For each class there is a teacher, a para-professional and a student teacher.
A kindergartner may start school as young as four years and five months and is known as a junior-kindergartner. Five-year-olds start as senior-kindergartners. Kindergarten may be a one or two-year experience. "You're just not old enough for first grade, is what we tell them," said Stuart. "Early childhood education makes a difference in life," continued Stuart, agreeing with what educator John Silber stressed in a recent talk given in Carlisle. "It helps build a child's self-confidence, learning to work collaboratively. Kindergarten shouldn't be overly academic. This is a time for early language enrichment, and where socialization outside the family is important."
Stuart believes K through 8 is an ideal structure for a school, but she also sees it as a challenge. Addressing the older students in her school, she continued, "The school makes children in grades 6 through 8 feel comfortable. There is no dislocation at a time when they are growing and changing and pushing people away. They still have an anchor. They have an opportunity to help out and the contact between the older and younger children is very important. It provides the older children with a sense of belonging and doing something useful."
Half the students at Stuart's Cambridgeport School are children of color30% African American, 10% Asian and 10% Hispanic. The other 50% are white. Twenty-five percent to 30% of students are on a free or reduced lunch program, an indicator for urban schools. The recent elimination of rent control in Cambridge has had an impact on schools city-wide, with families moving away to towns like Wakefield and Brockton, causing enrollment decline, said Stuart. Cambridgeport, a progressive school which operates on a lottery system for entrance into kindergarten, has not been affected by this trend. The school attracts students from working-class and professional families, as well as poor and immigrant families.
"Having the finest teachers is the single most important feature of a school," stressed Stuart. "When we start to look at what matters most in education we usually look at the curriculum or the structure...but it's the teachers...they are the least looked at. We need to develop a system of recruiting good teachers."
Stuart is concerned about the shortage of teachers. "The average age of a teacher is in the mid-fifties. Many will retire in the next ten years, at the very time there is more immigration to this country and a rise in the number of students who will be entering school." In the near future, Stuart predicts two million teachers will be needed nationally.
On the average, teachers leave their jobs after five years. Why? Stuart feels there are several reasons. "They are asked to do too much. They lack support and respect, and it's the overwhelming nature of the job, struggling with unruly behavior...teachers need to be able to teach." Where Stuart parts company with John Silber is in his claim that any educated housewife could teach. "Very few mothers who have been raising children are qualified to teach," claimed Stuart. "Teaching is so complex. He is diminishing the preparation of teachers. Saying anyone can teach is not doing justice to the profession and the education of our children....Teachers deserve a reasonable salary...It's the most precious of professions and if I could, I'd pay them in the six figures!"
"Parents need to be heard. Building good relationships with the parents is very important," acknowledged Stuart. "Parents want the best for their children. We are living in such a competitive society and parents want to be heard. They need to be able to talk about their child."
"Parent support is critical. On the other hand," continued Stuart, "it's important that they don't overstep the bounds of the school. It's the school's responsibility to create the curriculum and organize the classes. The school needs to set boundaries at times and parents need to respect this. When a parent comes to you and says this is what my child needs, they sometimes don't see the larger principle, which is, every child is important."
A special community
During our three-hour interview, Stuart reflected on the factors that make her school special. Cambridgeport starts with city and state curriculum frameworks and moves on to project-based learning. As she explained it, there are two or three big projects per grade-level each year. "Typically, one starts in the sciences and may double back into the humanities and another may do the opposite...We try to let one project emerge from the students and teachers....Here's where child and teacher interests are allowed to flourish. Often these interests are integrated into the planned curriculum.... Because of multi-graded classes, curriculum is planned on a two-year cycle."
Other ingredients that go into making her school special include a highly respectful and professional atmosphere that attracts good teachers."I have the finest cadre of teachers in the world," said Stuart. One-half of the faculty are persons of color and almost one-third of the faculty is male.
"I have the ability to make decisions and lead and I can make curriculum decisions after following the state curriculum. I encourage teachers to dig deeper and take responsibility," added Stuart. "As a principal, I support them to the ends of the earth. I have tried to create a school where teachers feel intellectually alive; where they can work together as a team."
There is no tracking at the school and only 15% of the student body is involved in special education, which is low for Cambridge and nationally. Stuart urges her teachers to fine-tune what they are doing with students and to use different approaches with difficult students. Teachers defer evaluation of problem students for four weeks, asking parents to try different things at home, while at the same time teachers try different approaches in the classroom. "Instead of retaining kids, a team of three teachers working with problem students in a classroom can individualize instruction a lot. We don't believe in retaining kids; it accelerates dropouts," repeated Stuart. "We want them to be with the same age groupbelonging is so important."
Stuart believes in computers and is aiming to have five in every classroom at Cambridgeport. She wants technology-literate teachers who can integrate them into the classroom and can make computers a comfortable part of each child's day.
Cambridgeport is a controlled choice school maintaining a racial balance, with 40 seats in the kindergarten each year.
Stuart wants the parents to trust the school; she doesn't want an adversarial relationship with the parents. "We created the school with the parents and hired all the teachers. It's a powerful partnership and we had no problems finding teachers."
Stuart is passionate about keeping public school education strong. "Public school education embodies the notion of democracy. Keeping public education strong is so important for all students. It needs to be changed if it is not working. People need to understand the complexities of public schools. If we haven't responded enough," continued Stuart, "maybe charter schools will give us a nudge." In Cambridge, she reported, the middle class has stayed in the public schools.
"I want to make public schools stronger. Change has to come from within. An island of excellence isn't the only answer," added Stuart. "We have to keep trying."
Asked about the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, she responded by saying they were one of many ways to test children. She sees the state standardized tests as a snapshot on a single day that can be added to her students' portfolio. "We shouldn't focus on a single test instead of yearlong learning. The MCAS are blown way out of proportion," emphasized Stuart. She understands that the state puts money into the schools and wants to know if they work. She also finds nothing wrong with teacher recertification, for she sees many professions requiring it.
Yes, children are overprogrammed and the issue of latchkey kids is a problem. Stuart worries even more about the poor and truly disenfranchised children who leave school and end up in prison. She believes if we want a safer society we will have to have better public schools.
On the other hand, Stuart wants people to hear about the good things that are going on in public schools. "We need to hear these stories," she stressed.
For those of us who live in Carlisle, we hear lots of good stories about our public schools. The story of Cambridgeport, a little public school in Cambridge, is one of those good stories, too. It was a story that Stuart enjoyed recounting, and one I hope you enjoyed reading, too.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito