Register Forum (RF): What distinguishes you from the other eight candidates for school committee?
Caroline Hunter (CH): I think the fact that I’m an experienced educator separates me from everybody else … I’m also the parent of someone who went through Cambridge Public Schools K-12. I’ve also worked as a teacher and as an administrator within the public school system, so I’ve done everything that an educator has to do from writing curriculum to supervising students. I’ve supervised teachers, I’ve opened and closed the building, I’ve supervised custodial staff, and had a broad role in both the education of students and support for staff, as well as worked with paraprofessionals and custodial staff. So I have a very, very broad experience that I think is hard to match both in terms of the length of time—34 years within the Cambridge Public School system—and also the substance of the work that I’ve done.
RF: So do you think that those different perspectives would impact your potential approach to the School Committee?
CH: Absolutely, because I think oftentimes people don’t understand the perspective of the parent, the perspective of the teacher, the perspective of the administration, in terms of the various activities that the school and district are both required to carry out as well as have to carry out. So I think that is going to be an advantage for me, and hopefully for the School Committee as well.
RF: So on that note, how do you think the School Committee could be more effective?
CH: That’s one I really had to think about, because needless to say, I’ve been to many, many School Committee meetings … both as a parent, as a teacher, and as an administrator. I think the first way to improve anything is to be self-reflective … I think one of the ways to find out your effectiveness is to survey constituents … to find out from parents, teachers, and students what would make the School Committee more effective … I know looking at the site, it is very difficult to find out if you’re not in CPSD or on Cable TV how to get the link for the meetings, and I think it’s very difficult to navigate if you’re not a parent or not a tech-savvy person. So I think both making the site more user friendly as well as looking at the policies and practices of the body itself would be helpful.
RF: How do you aim to close the achievement gap?
CH: Well that’s a very tough one. I’ve worked on it in many, many ways. When I was a teacher within the district, I was also the head of a group called Concerned Black Staff. It was composed of the Black staff who kind of advocated for different things within the district, but we also raised money for scholarships for students. And three of us, based on viewing an assembly, going to assemblies—and this was during the 1980s—we realized that the assemblies for sports were very diverse and the assemblies for honors were not so diverse. So we did what was called the Concerned Black Staff Report … a statistical report about the disparity of achievement between Black, Latino, students of color, and the white majority kids. It was the first public data report done on achievement in the district … greeted with a little bit of shock, awe, disdain, but the then-Superintendent Bob Peterkin verified the numbers and the numbers were absolutely accurate … We made a recommendation for parent liaisons to be hired at the high-school level, which happened. We made a recommendation for access to algebra for all students. At the time, algebra was given in just a few 8th grades. We made recommendations around improving the giving of scholarships, because prior to that time scholarships were given to a very small pool of students. One thing I would advocate, if I were elected to the School Committee, is that annually we publish the statistical data about the performance of students… I think the first thing toward meeting the achievement gap is being transparent about what it is.
The other thing is to look at those things that impact the achievement gap. And we know that’s preparation, adequate preparation. And that’s from having students. We know that kids who can’t read from the 3rd grade are already behind … The next thing is access and information. All students and parents need to have access to the same kind of information. Not only about ways for students to achieve, but also about ways for students to receive support. Certainly in that is quality of teaching and uniform standards and expectations for all students. We need increased role models within the district, in terms of who’s teaching Advanced Placement courses. Back when we were involved in this, Dr. Bill McLaurin, who was also one of the authors of the staff report, when he as Assistant Principal taught Advanced Placement Biology, the numbers and success of students of color in Advanced Placement increased. When Julie Snyder, who was a teacher of Asian descent, was the teacher for Advanced Placement Biology, the enrollment and participation of students of color, not just Asian students but students of color in general, increased.
The district has in the past been involved in several programs. AVID, which I was one of the inaugural teachers of. Advance Achievement Through Individual Support, which is a national program. We were also involved in the Minority Students Achievement Network, I don’t know if we’re doing that as well … There’s a lot that can be done, but it has to be both in programs and a systematic approach to achievement.
RF: So you mention these different programs, how would these programs look different at different grade levels? Like, elementary school versus high school.
CH: Well, the AVID program is a middle/high school program, and the Minority Students Achievement Program, at the time they were both middle school and high school programs. But I don’t think it’s difficult to, as I said, I think the things we have to do at the elementary school level have to do more beginning with preparation. To strengthening the fact that, can we get, do we have the resources, do we have the willpower, do we have the support to get all 3rd graders reading at grade level? And that’s about, we know all kids don’t enter at the same level, can we provide the supports for all of them to get there at the same time? So I think we start first with that, with evening the playing ground, evening the achievement or performance level. And then we can talk about what kind of additional supports we can provide for students in the elementary schools, so they have something to achieve as they approach middle school.
RF: I think it’s definitely been a goal of the School Committee for a long time to even that playing ground, are there any specific steps you think the School Committee should start doing, now, to reach that goal?
CH: Well again, my first thing is transparency and accountability. That we publish the data, we let parents, kids, teachers, know collectively, by all the parameters the state is reporting by, how students are performing. Now we know, coming out of COVID and the pandemic, it’s not going to be good, but it wasn’t really good before. So, it provides an extra incentive for us to be very transparent about what needs to be done. It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck so that parents and kids can know what they need to do, teachers will know what they need to do, and we can find out where the particular supports are, and where we need to provide them.
RF: Last year, every student’s experience was different. Some students were remote, some were in-person or hybrid. How can the district keep in mind the different experiences of 2020, but also move forward for everyone?
CH: The district has to pivot should things get worse. I’m talking nationally and locally in terms of safety protocols. We need to do a better job of integrating learning through the classroom and technology. I know when I was in the district, everyone had SmartBoards. We weren’t giving students tablets, which I think the district does now. But we weren’t really doing a good job of integrating the technology with what we were doing in the classroom. And I think that’s not a blame thing, that’s a level of training and preparation. No one was prepared for the pandemic, but I think we know now that we have to be able to figure it out, because we may still have students who are home doing hybrid learning because of health concerns. So we have to be able to do a better job of integrating both the at-home learning and the classroom learning with our technology. And that’s both an issue of access, so that every student has access to free Wi-Fi if they don’t have Wi-Fi at home, and being able to provide the proper supports for that … It’s about improving both the bandwidth for students as well as how we integrate classroom learning with technology, and with the supports, so that there’s adequate training for teachers, for kids, and parents about how to keep up and how to be connected if and when it has to be.
RF: I read up a little bit about your experience as an activist; how has your experience as an activist impacted your approach to public education?
CH: My activism, I’m sure, will not only influence how I would serve on the School Committee, but it certainly has influenced me as to how I relate to students as a teacher. Prior to getting fired from Polaroid for activism, I had started to volunteer with adults in the industry who didn’t have their high school diploma. That was just a wonderful introduction to teaching, and a way to change and impact the lives of others. I subsequently was trained by Brandeis University and was a paid tutor at Polaroid’s inner-city plant, which was a place where adults who didn’t have a good work record could work in training in the evenings after work. I was paid to be there three nights a week to help them with adult education, and really got people ready for their high school diploma … I worked with young people in achievement programs, many of whom were in difficult circumstances, and realized the impact of the loss of their education in both adults and young people. When I started working at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, I had a tendency to treat my students more like adults. To say to them, I’m not the dentist, this shouldn’t be like pulling teeth, I can’t spoon-feed this to you, but you need to know that this education is beyond just trying to keep you off the streets and out of trouble. It really is about life preparation, and having seen the impact to adults and young people who don’t have an education, I can tell you how important these skills are, and that you can manage them, that they’re attainable … It helps me because I understand the power of people. I see my job when I was a teacher as to empower kids and parents to get their best out of the public education that we offer. And so I think those skills and that background with working with lots of people of different backgrounds, that understanding that when we work together, we can do more, we can do better, will help and will make me a better School Committee person.
RF: One last question, what do you see as the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Cambridge Public Schools?
CH: I think a strength of Cambridge is its resources. Unlike a lot of districts, we’re not short of funds. Our challenge is to place … and use those funds wisely and strategically, and to be less wasteful in many ways. In terms of the resources that we have for kids, they need to be targeted and used strategically.
When I think about the weaknesses, it’s that the district does not have a targeted approach to how to use these resources. How to capture them from within our district—when I talk about resources, we’re financially rich, and we are humanely rich in terms of the talent that the teachers and parents and kids bring to the district, and the resources that the administration brings to the district. But we also have a tremendous amount of resources in our city, the corporations and universities, and from the resources that they bring, not only physically, but the wealth, and the body, and the intelligence of the students and the faculty … I think that is our weakness, not being able to target and use all those resources for the betterment of our students, our parents, our teachers, our district, and our performance for our kids.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.