Kathleen Kelly, School Committee Candidate
Register Forum: What distinguishes you from the other eleven School Committee candidates?
Kathleen Kelly: What distinguishes me is that I have a social work degree, and I’ve worked in social work, and I have an MBA, so I have a balance of both understanding what all families and students need in the system through the lens of social work—where you’re really looking at the child, student, or family in the environment and how to create a community of support around them. With my MBA, for the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve been co-chair of the budget, and I’ve made some significant change in how the budget is done this last time, which also included sort of [a] social work focus because I started with us having discussions about what we considered the most critical needs at the elementary level, the middle school level, and the high school level by bringing the district in, district leadership with the School Committee, and then leadership from the school so we could talk through what would be the initiatives that needed to happen to most support the teachers and the students.
RF: What did you change about the budget?
KK: So what I really changed is…the process used to start October 1st, and very quickly after that, a certain amount of money would be put in place and what would happen is that we [would] go through the process and hear about several different things going on in the school over those several months and it would get to be about February and someone would say, “Well this really needs to go in,” but the problem with having it come in that late in the process is that then something else has to come out to make the balance. But what we did with the process this year is we started with what we thought were the most critical needs first in those discussions, and then by having workshops with just the School Committee members and then going around—by workshop, I mean, basically, everybody got to talk about what they thought was most critical, and then out of that discussion we could come to a consensus on the direction we wanted to move and how to influence the direction of the budget. And we ended up having the largest increase that we’ve had in over ten years, 6.9% in the budget—typically it’s around 2%—which is basically keeping with inflation with a new superintendent and a new city manager, and we also had a unanimous vote in favor by all the School Committee members, which isn’t typical, and a unanimous vote by the City Council. So because it was so well-structured and so transparent … we ended up with that 6% [increase].
RF: So what would you consider to be your greatest success over your two years on the School Committee, either as a Committee or you individually?
KK: Well the process I just described and the outcome of that, I consider to be one of my greatest successes. I also worked with the mayor, we did a city-wide committee—we worked with representatives from the city, with non-profits, and on the city-side around the issue of sexual harassment and assault. And some of that came out of the women who were in the Feminist Club talk[ing] about what was going on at the high school. So we brought in Transition House, [and] BARCC—because BARCC actually does the professional development for students from kindergarten through 12th grade—to help teachers, when they’re standing in the hallways, actually have appropriate responses when they see what’s going on, because it’s critical to intervene in those situations, because if you don’t, then it just keeps on going. So, that’s one of the things I worked on.
And then I did a lot of work with the SEPAC, which is the Special-Ed Parent Advisory Council to reconnect with the district leadership around hiring a new assistant superintendent for student supports—that’s the special-ed department—and to ensure that what they felt needed to be included in the strategic plan framework would get put in. We had a committee meeting with the superintendent and the planning officer and the leadership of Special-Ed. So those are three things I did this year …
The other thing, one of the other major pieces I was involved in earlier in my term, was gender identity … I realized that all of our rights and responsibilities handbook, and also all the other documents related to that, were out of compliance with the state because we didn’t have that in there as a protected class. And then I worked with Melanie Brasso, who has worked on the Welcoming Schools Initiative for a number of years and with Ed Byrne, who runs the PT10 [Project 10 East: Gay Straight Alliance at CRLS] to come up with a policy to educate students and professional development for teachers, because teachers wanted assistance in ensuring they were creating a welcoming atmosphere in their classroom for those students.
RF: On the things that you have done in your term, in the Cambridge Civic Journal you mentioned that you stopped suspensions for three months…
KK: So what that was about was I worked with the previous superintendent on getting a certain amount of principals in the district, it was a majority but not all, to stop using suspensions so we could get a sense of what were the behaviors that were occurring both on the teachers’ part and on the students’ part and then have more appropriate interventions.
RF: One question could be, why do you see that as a good thing to do? And another would be, since then, what has been done to further address that problem?
KK: So, I saw it as an important thing to do [for] two reasons. One is suspensions take you out of the classroom, and for students who are struggling already, whether it’s social-emotional or with academics or not being engaged within the class, and then you get suspended, say for one or two weeks, you lose a significant amount of academic time, and it’s hard to make up that time when you’re falling behind. The second piece of it is, for suspensions, with parents who are accustomed to advocating for their children, which are most likely white students and those with a higher socioeconomic status, [they] will go in and advocate and go up the chain to get a suspension removed, [and] that rarely happens among the parents of color or [of] lower socioeconomic [status]—it doesn’t even occur to them that they could go in and advocate for their child.
So we see that separation developing there, and that’s a big concern. So what’s happening with it now is we’re looking at, well, it’s absences and tardies, but the violation policy [in general] and how can we turn that from being the punitive policy that it is at the time … [There] used to be an automatic failure policy, but that’s not going to happen all in one. It’s not like we’re going to get together in one meeting and that’s going to get turned around, because really we need to look at the entire [violation policy] document, and I think also we need to create a document that’s a summary, that’s approachable for families and students in terms of understanding what’s in the document, because usually that’s legalese and some of that can’t come out of it because there’s state law that’s written into the document.
RF: So another thing you talked about—that you focused on and hope to focus on the mental health of students. So what do you think Cambridge Public Schools are lacking in that regard?
KK: … I will say first off that emotional disability and mental health issues have significantly increased throughout the United States, the state of Massachusetts, and Cambridge. We are not unusual in terms of what we’re experiencing. Part of the social-emotional learning commission statewide, with the Mass. Association of School Committees, which has been helpful for me because we get to sit down and talk about what other districts are doing and what they’re talking about, one thing that’s happened in the interim that’s very important is that a district-wide social worker was hired to oversee—particularly working with teachers and how they respond to students behaviors that come out of those traumas that the students experience coming out of the elementary levels,. So we now have seven schools that have social work support in them that we didn’t have before.
We started with two the first year, and that’s moved out, and we tend to do things that way, do a pilot and move it out, and that’s made a big difference. We also have a relationship with the guidance center, so we can refer families and students to the guidance center to get mental health supports for the family and for the students that are affected. So there have been major steps taken since the point that I was talking about [this issue] originally. I think we…I still have concerns that at times we wait too long before we get a child to services.
RF: Another thing—this is obviously one of if not the biggest issues a school committee faces—is how are you aiming to close the achievement gap, or narrow it?
KK: OK, here’s my answer on the achievement gap: You can put a lot of technocrat solutions on the achievement gap, you can say, “Look, I’m going to early childhood education, I’m going to make sure everyone is reading by 3rd grade, everyone is proficient in math by 8th grade.” One of the pressures that happened in terms of education…so when I was a young person, there were three departments that were brought together to deal with the issue of poverty, and it was health, education, and welfare. Health and welfare disappeared. What we’re left with is education as the means to overcome poverty, and education can’t do that alone. Education can boost families and kids, but the other part of that is that we have to pay much closer attention to who is falling behind and how far behind they are, so it’s less emphasis on MCAS, and more emphasis on ongoing assessments as to where kids are.
But what we’re really doing is asking an awful lot of the teacher in the classroom at this point, because other supports that existed overtime, say with the New Deal or the Great Society during the Johnson administration, have all driven into education as the solution. And, as a social worker who worked with adults at Shattuck Hospital, when you work with adults, you see the impact and trauma that comes out of families not having supports. It’s not just hunger that’s the problem, it’s not just evictions that are the problem, it’s not just that the minimum wage is so low—the combination of that together [makes it so] they’re kind of taping up their budgets at the end of the month to have enough for heating, electricity, [to] not get evicted, or to feed their kids. Because it’s sort of a spin, that’s not an excuse, that’s sort of saying that there are other governmental programs that need to deal with that.
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?
KK: So what I see as a strength in the Cambridge Public Schools is the diversity of families and the student body and what students learn from each other from being in those classrooms together. And I think that’s particularly profound at the elementary level, because the elementary level isn’t tracked at all, and I know that just in my experience as a parent in the system and being part of the School Council and just seeing the experience of my child over time.
RF: And then a weakness that you think the School Committee could fix?
KK: I think a weakness that we could fix is broadening the assessments that are used, using district assessment measures more than the MCAS to judge whether or not a school is successful, and [using] assessments that relate to social-emotional learning, that relate to climate in the school, and also to academics. And having that happen on a real time basis, with those assessments. The problem with the MCAS isn’t that it’s giving us bad information, but that we get basically certain information. So we get an idea of where a child is in the springtime on mathematics and in ELA, but we don’t get the scores until the fall, so there’s no direct way of using that, as opposed to having a district assessment that’s done every two weeks.
RF: I guess my last question would be: What are your hopes for the School Committee if you get elected for your third term? What are some of the things you would prioritize?
KK: I would prioritize the elementary school review and the mid-cycle special-ed review, and one reason I want to be a part of the mid-cycle special-ed review [is because] my child had an IEP from the time my child was three until the time my child was nine and then was put on an IEP again in high school, and so, although I don’t have the middle, I sort of understand that there are differences that occur at each of those levels.
Another thing I would like to look at is within the Learning Communities, I’d like to see the dean of students job switch from being discipline to being a community-building position. And that won’t be news to anyone in the district and probably to anybody at the high school, because I talk about it all the time—I’d like to see that flip.
And just the way subject teachers get together and get to talk with each other about what’s going on in their classrooms, I’d like a consideration for building support between the adjustment counselors, the school psychologists, the guidance counselors, and the social workers. I think that there’s an opportunity for there to be stronger service if they are communicating with each other and supporting each other in the support of families and students who most need them.
RF: That’s all the questions I had. I don’t know if there are any other topics you wanted to cover, things you wanted to add…
KK: I could talk about schools forever…There’s so much potential.
I would say this, this is just a little personal piece and I’m not going to get completely into the personal piece…I ran for School Committee for very specific reasons, and one of them was because my family went through a very difficult transition when my child was four and in one of the public preschools. My first husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the city sent two of the teachers in [my child’s] classroom to get professional development related to illness and death and its effects on young children, which was very helpful for me. I don’t have family in this city … And then I was offered a scholarship to make sure my son stayed in [school] until he transitioned to kindergarten that following September—my husband died that January before. I took advantage of the summer camps, I took advantage of the after-school [programs], and it made a big difference for my life and my child’s life.
I ran because it’s not related to just poverty, but there are all sorts of ways that students become vulnerable or families and their children become vulnerable at particular times, and I want to see that we put supports in place for families and students when they need those supports. That remains my major focus. I want every student to succeed after they graduate from CRLS, however they define success for themselves.