Fred Fantini, School Committee Candidate
Register Forum: What distinguishes you from the other eleven School Committee candidates?
Fred Fantini: Well, I’ve been on the Committee for 34 years … I went to the Cambridge Public Schools, I grew up in Cambridge, I’m a lifelong resident of Cambridge, I have a degree in accounting and finance from Bentley College …I have a twin brother, two older brothers, and a sister—so the whole family went to the Cambridge Public Schools. You know, I’m a lifelong resident of Cambridge … I have a masters degree in management from Cambridge College, and while I was working for Arlington I was the president of my union. I also was the treasurer of SEIU 888, which oversaw a lot of the unions.
So, in sum, it makes me uniquely qualified to be a good manager, and to be a good manager and to be a good negotiator for the Cambridge Public Schools. I served both on the management side, in the town of Arlington, and I’ve served on the union side, dealing with unions. So, you know, I’m placed in that unique position of … having the experience on both sides of the table and therefore being a skilled negotiator and to, you know, get to [a] consensus.
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 the Committee could fix?
FF: Well the strength is that it’s a diverse school system. I’ve been knocking on doors since July 1st, so I’ve knocked on thousands of doors already, and what people say the strength of our school system is, is really the diversity. On our worst day in Cambridge, the diversity that we have in our school system and the [way the] kids learn how to relate with one another provides them with so many skills that you wouldn’t get in any other school system. And it allows them, frankly, to travel throughout the world and never feel alone and always feel that they have the confidence to survive anywhere.
Our diversity is really a strength, and the willingness of the city’s leaders to support that diversity and the willingness of the city leaders to spend the resources to make our schools the best they can do to make, not only our schools … The city does a lot of work—you know we have a College Success Initiative at the high school, and with the Early Childhood Task Force—to always spend the resources to make our school better. So, you know, I think that’s our strength.
RF: And then what do you see as a weakness that the School Committee can fix?
FF: Well, the weakness, you know, … is that we have to make sure that everybody gets a high standard of education. You know, ELL students, immigrants, or low-income students, you know, we have to do better for those children. We have to be a school system that educates at high levels, without exception. Because it’s not good for me, and I hear this as I knock on doors, that a child who graduated from our school system had to go to community college, take the Accuplacer exam, and had to take remedial courses. You know, that’s a death sentence for kids. We need to be better than that. And I think we’re on that road, and I think we’re on that path—in a very positive and smart way.
RF: You kind of touched on this, but how are you aiming to close the achievement gap?
FF: One of the things we’re going to be doing is providing culturally responsive learning, which is part of our vision. And so, one of the reasons that I voted to change our school system to a K-5, 6-8, system was to ensure that each of those areas provide focus on getting kids to learn at a higher level. And that when they’re done with [fifth grade], they’re ready to do middle school work, and when they’re done with middle school work, they’re ready to do high school work. So this district plan that we have now, what’s significant about it is that it’s going to be assessing on a timely basis.
When I say that we’re going to be doing culturally responsive learning, it’s not social justice, it’s not cultural literacy. Culturally responsive learning—the key to that is that children are going to learn. We are going to measure their progress and there are social-emotional issues that go into that as well. So, we’ve got a plan in place; you know, goals like reading at 3rd grade is one example of how we would begin to close the achievement gap. By dealing with the whole child and inviting city resources in.
I mean, I think we’ve found out by now that the School Committee can’t do stuff alone. It needs families, it needs students, it needs partnerships, because there are so many other issues. We have a lot of homeless kids in our district. So there are housing issues, there are health issues, financial issues, and we have to be cognizant of those. But we absolutely, absolutely have to provide the tools so that kids can learn. I think the administration needs to do a better job at this and the School Committee has gotten better at this. The achievement gap is really a non-negotiable with me. So that is going to be a regular topic at School Committee meetings—to get progress updates on how those students are doing. Because I can go to parks in Cambridge at night now and see kids who are 18-24 hanging out at those parks who haven’t gone to college and are no longer working, and that’s just unacceptable.
RF: So, this plan was made with the School Committee and the superintendent?
FF: Actually, this plan… What’s different from most district improvement plans that I’ve made [is that] this plan is made from the bottom-up. It’s a whole different approach [that] the superintendent has taken. So the superintendent has taken tours, he’s done focus groups, he’s gone to exercises, he’s met with the unions, he’s met with all of the teachers, he’s met with students, he had a planning committee, and so this is a plan that’s from the bottom-up. So what you have with a lot of plans is that they’re top-down. The School Committee does a plan with the superintendent and we force it on everybody. This plan is from the bottom-up. … School committees have a resistance to change. They are one of those bureaucracies that resist change. So my hope is that because this plan goes from the bottom-up, that, when there is going to be some bold initiative that eventually has to come with this, they’ll be compliant because the bold initiative is from a plan that was created from the community. So, I think there’s a far better chance that we’ll be successful in these initiatives. I think this is the year—the year where the action phase starts—and we’re going to start moving in and getting these accomplishments.
RF: So you made this plan last year?
FF: It took a lot of people—a lot of people on the School Committee thought it took far too long to develop it—but I gave the superintendent a lot of leeway. It took a year to develop this. You know, most superintendents have done it in other districts in two [or] three months. This has taken an entire year. But the superintendent wanted this time because he wanted to know the school system and its children, its teachers, and its community better than anybody else in the system. And so I bought that, and I’m believing in it, and I’m hoping that it’s going to lead to an accelerated improvement in our system. I’m really hopeful and confident that we’re going to get there. … And I think the twelve School Committee candidates, from what I can see, they’re all pretty high level, so a new School Committee…I’m predicting that the next School Committee will be a far better Committee than this one.
RF: So, over your 34 years—or maybe a little more recent for our readers—what do you see as the biggest accomplishment, for you or the School Committee, that has happened?
FF: Well, for me, and I take great pride in it, we have a desegregated school system. We have a diverse school system. And it has not been easy. Most school districts across the U.S. have resegregated themselves, all across the nation. And Cambridge has not, and I think leaders need to have non-negotiables, and that has been a non-negotiable for me for 34 years. I take that very seriously. So, you know, sometimes there are vacant seats at some of our schools, and members of the Committee want to fill those vacant seats, but there are vacant seats in the schools because the schools aren’t balanced, so we hold those seats for low-income students.
Most people will say that it’s not educationally sound, or that you’re not using resources properly, but the point is [that] I want our schools to be balanced, and the answer is not to fill those vacant seats but to find ways to draw people into those schools. I draw the line in the sand and take it very personal if people try to mess with that system, because it can fall apart really quickly. Newer members forget the battles that were fought in the 80s to make our system diverse. They were tough battles, they were angry battles.
When I first got elected to the School Committee in 1981, the first issue that came before us was [that] we had to lay off 100 teachers. Like I said, I took the stand then that I did not want to lay off any teachers of color in the system; that was in ‘81. I had to negotiate with the union. Most unions support laying off people first-in, first-out. … I took the strong position that I didn’t want teachers of color to be laid off. I won that battle—I don’t say I won it, I negotiated successfully with the unions and the unions came on board, properly recognizing that that really was the right thing to do. And, you know, that really was the point where our school system started to become diverse and we started to value having people of color. So the fact that we’re number two in the state on hiring diversity is no accident. That’s been a non-negotiable for me.
I don’t make big deals and stuff, I like to operate behind the scenes to get things done. So that’s an accomplishment, but, you know, I felt that I really worked hard on that accomplishment. I like to do things; I think the best way to do things sometimes is to make progress slow and easy and then eventually, you get to a point where it’s at a good point. So that’s kind of what I’ve championed.
RF: A big debate has emerged about educators of color, so how do you plan—sounds like you’ve seen some progress in your 34 years—but how do you think, going forward, Cambridge should do more?
FF: We’re second in the state [in educators of color], but, actually, Boston is mandated under court order to hire a diverse staff. So in the 80s, when I was [on the Committee], we did it on a voluntary basis, so we’re really first in the state if you want to talk about a voluntary basis. These things are subtle, but they’re really important to set those positions. So, right now, 48% of our administrators are people of color, so many of those administrators are actually doing the hiring in our system, so we actually have a structure that, you know, people of color are doing a lot of the hiring. That’s a very good place to be. Secondly, we’ve changed our whole personnel. We’ve created a new position, which I give the superintendent a lot of credit on, because the model we had before with an affirmative action officer wasn’t leading to the accelerated improvement that we wanted. So, we changed the structure, and we basically have created a diversity coordinator, brought that person in to work next to our personnel director, which makes sense. … Our personnel department is where all the hiring is done, so strategically, it makes sense for that person to be there.
Now, in addition to this, … I think we want to grow our own teachers from the Cambridge Public Schools. We’ve tried to do that for a long time, but it hasn’t really gotten off the ground. We kind of have a relationship with Lesley University that they [are] actually—I need to double check it with them—willing to give deep discounts for people of color who want to be teachers within the Cambridge Public Schools. Now, [I’ve seen] in Denver [Colorado], they created a really robust program where they started letting seniors teach inside classrooms. Now that excited the students to the point where a lot of them are now on the pathway to be[coming] teachers. So, I think that the real answer is to grow your own. But to do it in a way where we work with Lesley. And to make it real, to not just have a club where you grow your own—that it’s a real program where kids feel valued, where kids will actually be doing student teaching as seniors.
Because, when you really think about it, nationally, people of color aren’t applying for teachers jobs. They’re going to private industry because they can make more money, they really dislike the testing that the state does. So, you know, there are significant structural issues that make it very difficult for people of color to even come into the teaching force. Nationally, there are so few people of color that are trying to get into the teaching force [that] it’s really a challenge.
RF: I’ve heard from a lot of School Committee candidates that a large part [of the Committee] is hearing input from families, students, [and] teachers. How do you plan to include all families and students and not just the ones who actively try to—
FF: Oh, so that’s easy. So, the way I try to operate as a candidate is [what] I call the “old-school” tactic. I visit schools. I am in schools every day of the 180 days [of the year]. And I’m meeting with—I mean I respond to emails, I respond to phone calls—but what I really do is I engage parents, I engage teachers, I engage students, every day, every day. … And I can say, quite frankly, that my constituency is a lot of low-income families. So, you know, I’ve got a vested interest in making sure their voices are heard. And, you know, they have enough confidence in me that they are confident in telling me what the issues are.