Grace Ramsdell

Will MacArthur, School Committee Candidate

Register Forum: What distinguishes you from the other eleven School Committee candidates?

Will MacArthur: So I see the committee as a body that sets a vision for the district, and I think that what distinguishes me is the experience that I had recently as a student in the district. I think that that’s the thing that is sometimes missing from the School Committee dialogue, and I think that’s something that I can contribute that no other member can. I also think that my platform and the level of commitment that I want to bring to the School Committee, specifically to equity in the Cambridge Public Schools and the opportunity gap and making sure that everyone is supported and feels supported regardless of gender, gender identity … I think that the level of detail in my platform and the level of specifics that I have in my platform set me apart from the other candidates this year.

RF: So that was my second question: How do you plan to solve the achievement gap?

WM: So first, I think it’s important for the School Committee to acknowledge that the ability of Cambridge Public Schools to completely close the opportunity gap [is] limited. And for that reason I think it’s important that we are willing to work together and are able to work together with other government bodies. I think it’s important that we work much more closely with the City Council on issues like this, to make sure that [we recognize that] the obstacles that CRLS and Cambridge Public Schools students in general face go beyond just academic obstacles. People are facing housing insecurity and food insecurity, that’s something that we need to be collaborating with the City Council to address. So, second, I think that a lot of how, for CRLS, a lot of how people end up in CP and Honors classes is something that we can address at the middle school and high school levels … first of all I support the leveling up plan as it was initially proposed by teachers in the…

RF: Could you say what that was?

WM: So the initial iteration of it involved de-levelling, or leveling up, history and English in the 9th grade and then having one access class for it, and I think that would have been a great approach because I think that it’s important that before we ask students to make a decision about “what track are you going to be on in high school?”—that can have a pretty big impact on how you experience Rindge—I think it’s important that people experience what a high school class is like, and the fact that classes are leveled right from the moment you get into Rindge makes it hard for people to do that.

In terms of closing the opportunity gap across the district, there’s been a lot of discussion and a lot of research to back it up, about the importance of having teachers of color and, more generally, having teachers who have access to high quality cultural competency and trauma-informed training in general. I think that having a strong teacher force in the district is something that’s really important, and it doesn’t necessarily mean getting lots of new teachers. I think that we should have a growth mindset about how to be able to engage with these issues and to be able to give them the professional development that they need specifically to be effective as teachers dealing with student populations that have experienced trauma.

RF: How do you think the School Committee could become more effective?

WM: It’s important that members of the School Committee keep in mind that it is a body of six people, and that each of those six people has very important perspectives and qualifications that should be present in the dialogue. I don’t think that I have all the answers for the Cambridge Public Schools and I wouldn’t want six of me on the School Committee. I think that the School Committee functions best when it is six different perspectives that work well together, and so I think that people need to approach it from a place of humility that acknowledges the incredible qualifications that each member has.

RF: What do you see as a strength of Cambridge Public Schools that the Committee could emphasize, and what do you see as a weakness that it could fix?

WM: Cambridge Public Schools have a lot of strengths. One of the strengths is that when they work well for someone, they work incredibly well. I think that I got the best education that anybody could have gotten in Massachusetts at Cambridge Public Schools and I think that’s a testament to the amount of opportunities that they have and the commitment that they make to having high quality opportunities available to as many students as possible.

The weakness of Cambridge Public Schools, going off of that, is that for all the opportunity that we have, there’s not a commensurate level of access for everyone. I think when someone is and feels shut out of opportunity at CPS, we don’t do the best job that we could be doing to get them back on track and using everything that we have to offer. The focus of the School Committee right now shouldn’t necessarily be trying to make the Cambridge Public Schools even better for the kids who it’s already great for, although that’s obviously important. The focus should be on making sure that every student experiences the schools as positively as the students who currently experience it very positively. Frankly, I think, too often somebody’s experiences at Cambridge Public Schools are dictated by what intersecting identities of privilege and intersecting identities of marginalization they have, and I think that’s something that indicates the district has a lot more that it should be doing to make sure that…I think that that’s something that the School Committee needs to address.

RF: How do you respond to people who say why run now, why not just wait until you’ve graduated college? Why do you feel such an urgency to run now when you very plausibly could in another two or four years?

WM: For several reasons. First, I think a trait of public education is that two years means 1,200 students [entering or leaving the district], and I’m running now because I feel a sense of urgency—well, not exactly 1,200 depending on what you count because we have fluctuations in the size of cohorts in the district, but anyways.Two years means roughly 1,000 students, and I’m running because I feel a sense of urgency around district improvement, specifically around issues of equity now, not in two years. 

Second of all, I’m running now because I think one of the most important things that I bring to the table is recent experiences with students, and I think that even if I gain new perspectives in the next two years, I’ll never feel more like a CRLS student than I do now, so I think [I need to run now] in order to try to bring that perspective before CRLS changes even more, and it changes fast. My experience is more relevant now than it will be in the future.

Grace Ramsdell

RF: So going off of that, in your thirteen years in Cambridge Public Schools, what changes have you seen to the district that you either liked or didn’t like, wanted to fix, or…

WM: … In terms of broader, more non-structural changes, I think that the population that specifically CRLS serves is changing somewhat. I’m very proud to have gone to a school that lots of parents who have other options, like sending their children to private school, now see as a viable option for their students. I think it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that in fall 2011, there were five students who went from private school in 8th grade to public school [CRLS] in 9th grade, and in fall 2016, there were close to 60. That’s a huge increase, and I think it’s important to think about [how] for all the changes in our schools population, it’s important to maintain the focus on being a public school and that we should be a school that focuses not just on kids who have other options, but on kids who don’t and making the district work for all of them. So a change that I’ve seen is that the schools have moved slightly more towards trying to compete specifically with schools like BB&N rather than seeing ourselves quite as much as a school that exists as a public school to serve all of Cambridge.

RF: Back to you, now that you’re in college, have you noticed anything about students from other schools that’s given you a special appreciation for Cambridge Public Schools, and then have you noticed anything about other schools that you think Cambridge Public Schools lacks?

WM: Without just flaming all of my peers in college, I do think that Cambridge Public Schools gave a lot of CPS students a baseline understanding of the systemic inequalities in American society that I didn’t realize so many people lacked. I think a lot of what happens at Cambridge Public Schools is problematic and indicates that people don’t fully understand those inequalities, and I don’t fully understand those inequalities, but there is a baseline understanding and an acknowledgement of the existence of white privilege that I think students at Cambridge Public Schools have that [is lacking] in a lot of other schools in the United States.

Something that I think other districts do really well, specifically regarding students coming from Brookline, I don’t know if this model would be appropriate for Cambridge Public Schools, but they have a lot more flexibility in their high school when it comes to teaching and curriculum. They have something called the Brookline “school within a school” that seems like a great way in their district for students to have much more of a voice in driving curriculum and policy and for teachers to have a lot more voice. I don’t want to adopt their policy completely, I want to bring the focus that they put on having student and teacher voice represented to Cambridge more.

RF: A lot of racial and class division doesn’t only exist outside the classrooms but also inside, during lunch, extracurriculars, etc. How could the Committee transform the social division that exists while also transforming the academic division that exists?

WM: For extracurriculars, a big step in the right direction would just be documenting the gap as it exists now. In the past, I think the School Committee really erred towards referring the responsibility of documenting racial gaps in extracurriculars to the Student Government. Because that’s not something  the Student Government can legally do—they can’t look at student records—that’s a situation where if you actually want the data, you can’t give it to a body that can’t legally collect it, so I hope that the School Committee, at some point soon, completes that study in a real way and doesn’t settle for an approach that doesn’t actually have the data about extracurricular activities and race in CRLS, which is what they asked for and, from what I’ve heard from members of the School Committee, is not close to what they got. And I don’t blame the Student Government, they can’t legally do it … And that’s something I always felt for Club 4, and other activities I was involved in at CRLS—that there was a more systematic way that clubs could work with the administration to make their club a more inclusive space. I think even when there is goodwill among club leaders, there isn’t a structure right now that makes it easier to make clubs inclusive.

In terms of the lunchrooms, I agree it’s a huge problem—I think that it’s a manifestation of segregation in the district. People eat lunch with people they know. I think that the lunchrooms are a great way to diagnose the problem of segregation in Cambridge Public Schools. I’ve talked to people in 11th and 12th grade who just had no [knowledge] of the racial makeup of CRLS. They thought it was 80% white or 80% black, and I think that it’s an indicator that it’s not just a problem in classrooms. I don’t think the School Committee should try to force people to eat lunch with people they’ve never met before, but I think it’s an indication that we have a lot more to be doing in general in terms of addressing social segregation as well as academic segregation.

Also, before I forget, I want to say on the record that I’m going to take time off of school if I get elected.

RF: You talk a lot about engaging the community and students. How do you begin this, first with families and students, and second, how do you retain this dialogue throughout a family’s time at Cambridge Public Schools?

WM: It obviously has to start in elementary schools and continue in middle schools. I support the push for full-time family liaisons which a lot of middle schools have been taking. I also think, in general, when we’re talking about family engagement it can’t just be code for parent engagement. We have to acknowledge that students have a lot of agency in building the ways in which their families engage with the school, and I think, especially with families that speak a language other than English at home, students have the potential to be an incredible bridge between the schools and families if we work with the students…and I think that it’s appropriate to do that starting in middle school. You can’t just use students as, like, a vehicle for backpack express and put flyers in their backpacks and expect that that will somehow build engagement. Students and families know the obstacles to engagement, and it’s kind of a self-reinforcement thing, but if we ask them, working with students to build true family engagement in which both they and their parents feel welcome in the schools I think is important.

RF: What do you think in your platform is the one thing, or many things, that is most unique to you as a candidate that other candidates would not support or not think of?

WM: I think that, when I was writing my platform, I didn’t want to write something that only I would support. In my mind I was trying to be pragmatic and I don’t think there’s anything in my platform that I couldn’t work with other School Committee candidates to build a consensus around. That being said, like, in terms of really original thoughts, I think putting a substantial focus on teacher driven initiatives that goes beyond the pilot program and sets a…like the district already has the Cambridge Public Schools Design Lab which is great, but I think establishing a very clear framework—and I hope that some people would support this and I think that a lot of them would—but having a very clear and well publicized framework for when teachers propose an idea, not just getting a pilot program but getting an assessment of that pilot program and having a procedure to bring it district wide. And I think that’s something the city also struggles with. We’ve had composting in North Cambridge for six years, [but] they haven’t really spread it anywhere else. When we have a pilot program, we have to conceive it as a pilot. I think a framework that brings successful ideas to life would be a huge, positive step. I also have been really glad to find, while I am running, many areas where I agree with other candidates and I’d be willing to work with any of them in a School Committee capacity.

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