Patty Nolan, School Committee Candidate
Register Forum: What distinguishes you from the other eleven School Committee candidates?
Patty Nolan: Well what distinguishes me from all of them, I believe, is that I have a deep experience with strategic thinking and financial planning that is part of the key role of the board which is what the School Committee is; it functions as a board of directors for the school district. I think the other thing is the combination of experience I bring because I am a parent of kids who were in the schools K-12, [and] there’s other [School Committee members] who have that. I’m someone who spent a lot of time working in a range of professional settings that ranged from large companies that were wealthy and well-resourced to small struggling nonprofits that were working in large urban settings to create jobs for people coming off of welfare. And what’s interesting is I reflect on that and that is kind of what Cambridge is. It has this range of people and residents that span this wide range of racial and socioeconomic and educational experience, and my professional background is such that I have worked in non-educational settings but in other settings with those types of people. I think that’s a broad range of experience that serves me well and distinguishes me from others. And the third thing is, I believe, that I dig really deep into the data without losing sight of the fact that our role is still governance. So, I dig into the data not to manage the district, but to understand what we need to understand at the level of governance that we’re at.
RF: You already brought this up a little bit, but how do you aim to close the achievement gap?
PN: Oh man, you know, the simple answer, which in a way is simple and simplistic, and in another way is very deep and profound, is raising expectations. I believe so much of the achievement gap is a combination of students themselves having what’s called “stereotype threat,” … The idea is that they’re told so often by so many people, especially the larger society, that they’re actually not as smart as others or they don’t belong in a certain educational setting. Just like girls, whatever we tell them—that they’re succeeding in STEM—they [still] get a message from too many people that, in fact, they’re not good at math. So that’s called the stereotype threat and I think that needs to be consciously addressed.
I also think that a lot of our teachers, in trying to be sensitive to the range of difficulties that students bring to school, can sometimes err on the side of being too sympathetic and saying, “You know what? We understand, Patty, that you come from a home where it’s difficult for you to even study,” which is true, so you want to be sympathetic. But what you don’t want to do is not give the message that we also know you can succeed and we’re going to provide you with the support. So [it’s about ] setting expectations and then backing them up with the support [for] students who don’t have the advantage like my kids had—you know, parents who provided them with books, kept asking them to read, who said, “Are you done with your homework?” and maybe sometimes I’ll even check if you’re not. It’s not someone else’s fault if they don’t have that, so we have to provide support for a range of kids. I’m not naive enough to think that if we just say we have high expectations across the board it will solve something, because it won’t.
I do think the other element of it is, we can do some during the school day, but I think out-of-school time is a huge piece of this achievement gap puzzle. A combination of addressing summer-time learning loss and the fact that often after school programs … there’s lots of opportunities for kids in Cambridge to do some internships or other things in out-of-school time, but we’re not as conscious about making sure that the kids who need them the most get them, do them, access them, and not only are encouraged to apply, but end up being in them. Because, if you look at the research, during the school day, teachers do a lot to keep kids along with their peers and really educate. The problem is the school is six hours a day, so it’s that out-of-school time, that’s another level I think we have that we could really use to the benefit of all of our students addressing the achievement gap.
RF: So I guess this is an answer to that, but what do you see as a strength to Cambridge Public Schools that the Committee could emphasize, and what do you see as a weakness that the Committee could fix?
PN: Ooh, that’s great. You know, I think a strength of our school district is that we have—this would actually be two sides of the same question—I think a strength is that we have a number, not 100%, but a number of truly gifted educators and passionate and focused teachers and other staff and professionals who are really good at teaching kids. I think our weakness is we don’t know how to ensure that those teachers get the support and the creativity they need to manage this difficult balance of “we want consistent standards but we don’t want to crush out the individual creativity of teachers.”
And I think that is a weakness. I think we go back and forth on that. We say, on the one hand, we need consistent standards so we’re gonna make it so that every 3rd grade on the second Tuesday of October is going to be doing this thing in math. That in some ways makes sense because we want people to make sure that they are learning the same thing, but it’s also not great because if I have a class of kids and I’m not so ready for that, then I should be allowed and be respected enough as a professional to alter my instruction as long as I’m meeting the standards. I really think the strength is the teachers.
RF: You acknowledge that school choice, especially controlled choice, is a complex issue with no one answer. However, in your opinion, what’s the importance of school choice in Cambridge today, and how do you see the relationship between Cambridge Public Schools and charter schools developing or changing in the future?
PN: OK, so those are two related questions but a little different. So, the controlled choice I’m really clear on. It started as a deseg [desegregation] plan. We were under two pressures. One was we looked—this was 25 years ago, maybe even 30—we looked across the river, Boston was starting desegregation, and there was white flight, it was race. Cambridge said, ”We don’t want that to happen, how do we prevent that?” [The response was] “Well, why don’t we just have a system of magnet schools,” so it was a deliberate strategy to keep white, and also middle-class, [families] in the schools. To a large extent it’s worked, for that.
I think we have to be really clear about that, open about that, and say that’s what we want as a city. I think the issue with controlled choice is that we’re not doing the hard work that that policy requires. We are supposed to take that policy and say, “You know what, here’s the choice.” When a school is under-chosen, we’re supposed to help them be more chosen by bringing in a program so that everybody—or, enough—people will choose it as opposed to people who are signed up. That we can do, we know how to do it, we know that the immersion programs are over-enrolled or more people want to get in than can get in. We know that at Graham and Parks—which is in my neighborhood—and the Baldwin, some of that is geographic, you know, there are just more kids living in that neighborhood who want to go there. But since we know that, and since we know the montessori is wildly popular, [we should] say, ”Gee, if there are schools that aren’t attracting people, let’s bring in a program.” And I am game to doing that, I think it is only politics that have prevented us from doing that.
And then, on the question of charters, I have always believed, I support choice and that includes charters. My feeling as a Cambridge School Committee member is, who am I to say that the folks who are choosing charters in this state and this city, who tend to be disproportionately low-income students of color who have said, “The regular schools don’t seem to be providing what we need, we’re choosing this,” who am I to say they shouldn’t have that choice? I just can’t say that given so many other people I know who are not low-income students of color, when they feel like it’s not working, they either move to Lexington or Brookline, or they choose a private school. So it’s always been clear to me it’s about family choice. It’s also really clear to me that charter schools don’t start in districts where people feel happy with the public schools. So for me, I want us to be a district where so many parents feel like our regular schools are working for them that they don’t even choose the charter because the charter literally can’t get any funding unless someone picks them. No one is assigned to them. So I am committed to making our district be as best as it can be …
RF: OK so this is my last question and probably the most controversial, but you’ve said that you advocate for a longer school year…
PN: It may be structured differently than just adding another month to school, which is what I think Europeans do, you know they have two or three more weeks. … My vision basically would be SummerBridge for all. Although, maybe not six weeks and maybe not full-time, but every single student has three weeks during that summertime when they’re in some kind of program that enhances their skills. And it may be through creative play, I mean honestly my dream would be like a makerspace … So the idea, for me, how I would implement it, it would be very challenging, I know it wouldn’t be easy. However, what’s cool about Cambridge is we’re so small, we could do it. We’re only 7,000 students. Even if we drew back a bunch of people from charter and a bunch of people from private, so we’ll be 8,000 students. I think we should be able to handle some time in those, what, ten weeks off in the summer for every student to have at least a couple weeks when there’s a clear program. And maybe it’s five modules of two weeks each, or maybe not…that we just intentionally make sure that everybody’s doing something because it’s so critical for the achievement gap. To me, it’s inequitable to not be doing that …
So, to clarify, a longer school year to me means some sort of program during the summer that is focused on joyful learning. And again, it could be play-based, but it has to be in the context of some kind of developmentally appropriate activities.
RF: I don’t know if you have anything to add or any other topics you wanted to cover…
PN: … The only other thing I would add is I love the idea of us having more student voice. I feel like I learn, you know I now try to reach out to kids like you, which was a lot easier when my own kids were in the high school, but I still know a few. It’s really important for me to be able to touch base with students. I also believe I would love for every single teacher—that the state evaluation for every single teacher—now includes some form of student voice. I would love for that to be more evident, more regular, more routine for students at every age. You know, a first grader knows if they’re learning. If you ask the right question in the right way, it’s not about “do you like Ms. Nolan?” it’s really “does Ms. Nolan make you feel happy in class?” And there are ways to ask those questions, and I would love for that to inform all of our work as a school district.
An example of that—and I should actually now follow up on [it]—I had brought to the School Committee a question of using…you know the participatory budgeting? So the city now has $800,000 and citizens propose 150 projects and they narrow it down to thirty and then it’s 15 and then you vote on it and it gets funded. The high school should be looking at this. There’s a high school in Arizona that, five years ago, was the first one in the country where some funds within the high school were spent based on student voting.
So last spring, I asked, and the whole School Committee supported it, asked the high school that some amount of the money that’s meaningful—is it $5,000, $6,000—but some amount that’s meaningful and that will really make a difference, that a similar process be done with these schools. So that’s an example that I’d love to start at the high school, see where it goes, and then maybe the middle schools. You know, enough that it really builds up in students the idea of responsibility but also that they really can have an impact. Because one thing I think we’ve lost as a country, even in the people’s republic of the bluest of the blue, we, you know, even here we don’t see as much civic participation and activism as we could. In this election that we’re talking about, and that I’m trying desperately to get re-elected in, a high turnout will be 30% so…
RF: So on that topic of student voice, how do you make it so that it’s not just families or students that are always going to School Committee meetings or emailing School Committee people, how can you create a dialogue with families that either don’t have the time—
PN: Or the language.
RF: Or the language, or just—
PN: Or don’t feel entitled, there’s actually a big issue of disrespect…that I’m not supposed to—I send my kids to school, and one, it’s their job, and two, they’re the experts. So I think that’s a great question. I really believe we need to do better, and there’s an amazing book called Beyond the Bake Sale, because I didn’t understand it fully until I read it, and you don’t have to read the whole thing but just look up, there are two charts, [on] pages seven and nine, that talk about the types of schools to be and it goes from, I think, the fortress school which is like, ‘OK, we’re a school, we have locks on the doors, just drop your kids and leave” to the next one, I think [it] is like, “Come if we call,” like, “We’re a school, we’re open, come when we call you,” and then the next one is an open school and the final one is a partnership, and that’s where parents and families truly feel welcome. And in that kind of school families not only feel welcome but go to the school and use it. I think we as a city could do more to have our schools be more community centers…
I will also say, this is where I’ll get really controversial, because I totally get that I’m a white privileged woman who has totally benefited from education. However, what I don’t want us to do is, if a white privileged parent comes to us to talk, that they’re not only talking for their kid. I believe, usually, when they’re talking about what’s good for kids, they’re talking about what’s good for all kids. I think we have to be careful, we don’t want to only listen to those people, but we also don’t want to dismiss them totally because they’re white and privileged. Just like we don’t want to dismiss a family of color, or different religions or different backgrounds coming to us. We don’t want to say, “Oh, what are you talking about, you didn’t even go to college.” You know, that would be horrifying. So we shouldn’t say, “Oh you went to college, that means you’re privileged.” We just need to be sensitive that when we talk about all, we truly mean all.
I’m sure that could be twisted in different ways, but I say stuff like that, so. And I truly believe it; I’ve had some parents come to me and say they’re not comfortable [speaking up] because they don’t feel like they’ll be listened to because they are white and they are middle class, and look, we have to listen to you, and yet I recognize it’s harder for families of color that live in a system that has racism built into it and bias—it’s more challenging. And it’s probably more challenging for them to approach me because I don’t look like them. So I own that and don’t know how to get over that other than trying to do my best to understand how I contribute to that.