Juliana Vandermark

David Weinstein, School Committee Candidate

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

David Weinstein: Well I think our values are all, I would say, pretty well-aligned. What I think distinguishes me … is my experience in education. … There’s a range of really valuable education experience represented by the other candidates. What I bring to it is the experience of five years as a full-time classroom teacher. I taught primarily high school English, but I also taught art—K-12, both in New York and in Massachusetts—in a range of public schools. So I think that’s important when you’re setting policy and evaluating policy, because so much of it comes down to the classroom and that kind of on-the-ground firsthand experience of what it means to be teaching and responsible for the safety, well-being, [and] academic success of students.

Really feeling that responsibility 24 hours a day all year long I think is important. … And, in addition to the education experience, my work in nonprofits and in higher education in the past fifteen years—I think [that] will help me be effective as a School Committee member because having the right goals is important, but it’s [just] as important to be able to move the needle forward on those goals. So, you know, I have experience managing projects and launching programs and communicating, which actually, especially in a district as large and diverse as Cambridge, is really important towards, you know, success, … bringing people together, working through, you know, questions and decisions, and then implementing whatever’s decided..especially because there will never be a decision that everybody agrees on, but communication is really important.

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

DW: I mean, I think … there’s a few things that are important [to be effective]. Working together, you know, in a collaborative way I think is important—and being able and willing to challenge each other in a respectful, collegial way…understanding that everyone there has essentially the same goal. But it’s hard work and involves looking really carefully at policies and how they are being carried out. Being ready to question and reconsider anything that’s going on, really. … I think that the School Committee needs to approach this work with a real sense of urgency. Every kid only gets one shot at this.

My daughter is in 5th grade now, and it seems like just yesterday she was in kindergarten, and in a couple of days, it feels like she will be graduating from high school. She and her peers cannot afford to wait. At the same time, I think [the] key to the success of the School Committee and … the district is balancing that [while] keeping the long view in mind. This is difficult at times. But I think we need to be making sure that we are consistently looking at what we are doing as a district—policies, programs, structures—and evaluating, tweaking, … and supporting things so that they can be successful while at the same time acknowledging that sometimes things need to be cut or added. There is a tendency to pile one new thing on after another, and this isn’t just in Cambridge, without really looking at what’s happening with the things you’re doing already, or whether there is a program or an initiative that has maybe been going on for 20-30 years that maybe needs some more support or needs to be modified, whether or not it was started in Cambridge.

RF:  How are you aiming to close the achievement gap?

DW:  The achievement gap or the opportunity gap—it’s one of the most important challenges facing Cambridge [Public] Schools. Unfortunately, it’s not just an issue facing Cambridge, but all schools nationally. And there are a lot of factors involved and the schools are not going to be able to close that all by themselves. But we have a lot of resources in Cambridge to address this—unmatched anywhere, I think—in terms of, within the schools, with our funding, faculty, staff, administration, families, community, [and] the human services organization in the city. So it’s going to involve bringing everything together on this.  

All the things I outline in my materials as priorities will contribute to that. I don’t have all the answers, but I think that the fundamental piece that will get us there is to hold ourselves accountable to that goal consistently. That might mean that every School Committee meeting involves having an agenda item where we’re looking at the progress that we’re making or not making. And we’re looking at how the other things we’re considering and working on are making a difference or not. Some of the specific policies I’ve been talking about that I believe will make a difference are expanding junior kindergarten to four-year-olds, and the next step will be looking at, I think, expanding public preschool.

The upper schools are more established in part to ensure that everyone comes to the high school equally well prepared. They’re still relatively new and there’s a lot of wonderful things happening at the upper schools. … I think we need to make sure we’re continuing to support them as they establish strong school cultures and make sure that they are supported to achieve that goal, including, by the way, hiring full time family liaisons for the upper schools. The elementary schools have family liaisons, the high school does. That need for family engagement doesn’t go away in grades 6-8. It’s a simple step [that] we can take to support family engagement, which supports students.

I support the district’s goal of having 30% teachers of color. What I think will be important is to ensure that we are not only hiring excellent teachers of color, but that we are supporting them and retaining them. And there is a lot involved in doing that. But I think we need to make sure that is part of our focus. And I really feel like 30% is just a starting point. … We also need to look, within that goal, as much as possible to reflect the diversity of the district in the diversity of the staff.

Our student population is about 60% students of color. Meeting this goal, I think, will be important for everyone’s learning. I was fortunate to grow up in a community that was similarly diverse with a very diverse teaching staff and administration, and I know the impact that [that] had on me as a white student, as well as on my friends of color. So I just really believe that that will be important. And, again, looking at closing the opportunity gap and making progress on that is a key goal that we are holding ourselves accountable to. … I do think it’s interesting when you asked [about the] achievement gap, [because] a lot of times it’s referred to as achievement gap, other times opportunity gap. I do like talking about this as an opportunity gap because I think it focuses our attention [on] what we’re doing to support students, what we’re doing as a community, [and] what we’re doing as a school district. Because I think it’s suggesting that that gap is not reflecting the difference in ability or ambition—which is true—so we need to make sure that the opportunity is there to succeed and that we’re supporting students. Somebody in one of our forums, I think, also referred to [it as] an engagement gap, and I think that’s a really powerful way to think about it, too. But, again, I think the School Committee and everyone in the schools … need[s] to hold themselves accountable for really working [in] a focused way on this.

Juliana Vandermark

RF: What do you think is a strength of the Cambridge Public Schools that the community could emphasize, and what do you see is a weakness in CPS that the community could fix?

DW: Well, I’ll start by saying I’m proud of CPS, but I’m not satisfied. I think that there are a lot of wonderful things happening and the schools are really the key reason that my family is here in Cambridge. I’ve lived in Cambridge for 16 years. I’ve actually been studying in Cambridge for 18 years; I got a master’s in education at Harvard before moving to Cambridge, and it’s a wonderful community. But, it’s these schools in this community that are the reason I’m here. I think at every level—elementary, upper, and high school—there’s incredible teaching, … and support staff, and really amazing opportunities. It’s hard to think of another school district, especially one of this size, that has these kinds of opportunities. … The upper schools, now that we have this critical mass of students, we can do tiered [sic] opportunities. And the high school has programs across the board including the Rindge School of Technical Arts.

I do think that one thing we could do is get the word out more effectively. One area that I’ll mention, specifically at the high school level, that I think we could build on is, I know there [are] various opportunities for students to, you know, get out of the school and have experiential learning experiences and internships and things like that, and I think that is something where we could do more. … In terms of … weaknesses or challenges that the school faces, the high school is facing some challenges as a result of numbers: Making sure that there are enough teachers for students to take the courses they want to take is important. Making sure that there are enough guidance counselors to support every student—particularly the students who have fewer resources on their own—…throughout and especially at that transition of high school. I think that would be very important. As I mentioned, expanding junior kindergarten to all four-year-olds, I think, is an equity issue that would mean that families who don’t have the ability to find a quality child care slot at that age can get that. It is hard to find spots [and it is] hard to afford those spots.

And actually, there is something I was going to mention that is related to the opportunity gap. … I know that there’s been some work done recently in terms of restructuring courses, … particularly in the English program, and I think [that] that’s important and we need to look at how that’s working and build on that. I hear from a lot of students and families about a kind of “de facto segregation” happening in the classes at the high school. Clearly, ability and ambition don’t run along lines of race or class so, you know, students should not be in classes that are separated along those lines. I don’t think that [that] is the intention, but when that’s happening in practice, I think it needs to be addressed—for the sake of every student. I think that every student learns better in classes that truly represent all students. Again, that’s true for everybody. There’re studies that show this, and it’s true both academically and socially, and I think it’s also an important part of closing that opportunity gap. I don’t think we should place the burden on students to move into courses that will give them more opportunities to explore higher levels later on. By default, they should be in a situation where they can do that. So that’s going to involve looking at how course assignments happen in that entrance to high school …

RF: As far as community engagementwhich you’ve mentioned a few times in this interview and on your websiteyou wrote on your website: “Any family that wants to engage more with the schools should be able to.” But what will you do for the families who can’t participate as easily due to [disabilities], work, etc.?

DW: We, from the school’s point of view, need to make sure that every family can engage as much as they want to by making sure that we can address those barriers as much as possible.

[We need to make sure] that we understand why families are participating as they are and what are the issues. We can have meetings that are located throughout the city instead of always in one location. Are you providing child care consistently, even at School Committee meetings. … Are we doing all that we can do in terms of translation and interpretive services for families? Are we looking at as many ways as possible to engage families so that [we are] not suggesting to anyone that they somehow care less if they are not on a committee at the school or are not helping to run an event?  It’s just—families are juggling a lot of issues. Disability or language should never be a reason that a family can’t get involved. We need to make sure that we are always thinking about this and reaching out and making sure that we are checking in to see: … What are the reasons?

There is a diverse range of cultures in our schools—cultures and languages. … We are set up to, you know, bring families in  more, and so much of what we do is designed around that model. But realizing that, if that is our model, we need to really reach out and bridge those cultural differences [is important], as well. [We shouldn’t] assume that a family that’s not always in the building is not engaged. The way that some families are going to support their children is going to be checking in on the homework they are doing or [attending] one particular meeting. There’s a lot of different ways, so [we need to create] as many pathways as we can. And, as I mentioned, I think that the upper schools having family liaisons is really key. And, making sure that we have language support for family liaisons. I think guidance counseling also relates to family engagement as well, because I think guidance counselors can work with families to help them navigate [the] transition from high-school to college and career.

RF: Anything else you want to add about why you’re running?

DW: As I mentioned, I am proud of the Cambridge Public Schools. It is a key reason my family has made Cambridge our home. But I’m not satisfied. I think that there’s a lot that we do well, but we could do better. We say all the time, “All students succeed,” and, “Help all students succeed.” It almost becomes cliché, but I’m really focused on ensuring that we really are helping all students succeed. It’s been my commitment throughout my life, even as a student myself.

Even when I was in high school, [I was] engaged with decisions that we were making as a community in my district about how students are supported and how the school is structured. But [that has transferred] on to my career in education, … my studies in education, … my work in public schools, and now, [my] kids in school. My kids won’t be served well academically, socially, [or] emotionally, if they are going through a school system in which some of the kids that they’ve grown up with from kindergarten and early on are being left behind in any way. They won’t be served well, but more importantly, those peers won’t be served well.

I think my experience as a teacher and with studies of education, my experience as a parent, but also my work as a communicator developing and implementing programs together will enable me to be very effective in this role [School Committee member]. I think I will bring something to this Committee that will really help us make more progress towards the goals that we have set for ourselves. And [this] is an exciting time; there is a relatively new superintendent who has an ambitious, strategic plan developed with community input, but the implementation of that plan is going to be key. … I think that I can help us move forward effectively, in collaboration with the other members of the School Committee, and, of course, with the community as a whole—always listening, always learning, and always ready to challenge myself and the others involved with this project of education to do better.

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