Isabelle Agee-Jacobson

Fran Cronin, School Committee Candidate

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

Fran Cronin: I think what distinguishes me is my experience as an educator—as an education advocate—having already served on the School Committee and also working in City Hall, so I have a lot breadth to my experience. … So just as a parent—and I’m also a single parent, I’m a widow, [I] raised my kids here—I’ve had the experience of supporting the education of two very different children, very distinct learners.

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

FC: I’ll start framing it this way: I think the key goal is to have a high quality, inclusive school district that graduates successfully as many students as possible. So the goal should be not just to look at 95% of CRLS kids graduating from high school, which you know, is great, but what happens post-graduation? And I think we get kind of distracted; for some reason, we start looking at the achievement gap at CRLS. We start saying, “We have students who are not succeeding, and the achievement gap [is] at the high school,” but really the achievement gap starts way, way before then. You know, we could use the term opportunity gap, or access gap, you could call it a zip code gap—any way you want to define it, we have a very diverse community which we recognize and celebrate in the community … but that diversity is in our schools, and I think that we have not done a good enough job of getting past just celebrating the diversity and [instead] really tending to what it means to educate students in our schools. So everything that I do, and my advocacy for best practices, is really to support more students to succeed in school.

Like my daughter, [it] turned out she was an Honors student; I didn’t even know, I mean she was fine, but a lot of families can’t advocate for their student. So how do we support the more disadvantaged students, of which we have many? And I can pull out some wonky data and show you … We constantly miss the boat with economically disadvantaged kids, we miss the boat with high-needs kids, we miss the boat with students that have learning disabilities, we miss the boat with students of color, and [this] is consistent across a lot of metrics in terms of discipline issues, absenteeism, and whether or not we make our benchmarks. These are all quantified, and we miss the boat consistently across all those metrics. So I think that’s where the focus needs to be, and it starts with early childhood education, and it’s a way to systematically support students all the way through.

RF: Can we look at the data?

FC: Yeah. So these are from the state’s DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] … The way the state looks at data, we look at six years out. So [these are] kids from 2008 who could’ve graduated in 2014. This is the most current data…. So I’m first going to talk about all students, and so we look at a six year cohort post-graduation. So the state tells us how many kids from CRLS, after six years from graduating, have achieved any kind of degree. This is for all students. So they’re saying%. Just 40%. If you look at the same benchmark for low income students, it falls to 35%. … So this is not encouraging data. And there’s some data that … has the numbers being even worse. So that’s just an interesting factor.

One of the key things I talk about is greater and expanded access to early childhood education—we know that it’s the best investment we can make and families with the highest need have the least access. So I did a white paper, I did a lot of research, I had a forum. [I looked] at the data, which again is all available, public data, of the incoming 2016-2017 class of kindergarteners, of which there are 597, at enrollment. 245 of those students are already identified as high-need. That’s almost half of the class. Almost half of them. It begs the need for more intervention before these kids come to kindergarten, and not so much around whether they are able to read, but around social skills. Social-emotional skills to be able to interact with other kids appropriately, be able to take their turn, raise their hand and ask a question, just kind of those social norms that are appropriate at school. A lot of these kids have not had access to that. If you’ve been babysat by a TV, you’ve not had access to that. Another benchmark that is critical is 3rd grade reading proficiency. 3rd grade is really important because it is the demarcation between learning to read and reading to learn. At graduation from 3rd grade, a third of our students were not proficient in reading. So that means that a third of those students, when they started 4th grade, were not able to read to learn, they were still learning to read.

And so when you talk about the achievement gap, you start extrapolating, when kids are behind, you can see how hard it is to catch up when you’re already behind. So this makes it tougher and tougher and that gets wider and wider. I think we really need to frontload a lot of interventions and supports to try to make as many kids at grade level as possible by 3rd grade. You know the city has, [and] does appreciate, the zero to 3rd grade partnership, but I would say it is not aggressive. … I would say that it’s not a very robust initiative … I would very much like to support that, to accelerate that, to help us have a better synergy between the city’s side of resources and interventions, and the school system, cause right now we have siloed. So poorly siloed money, siloed programs, [so then] how do we think more creatively, how do we merge our resources, how do we think more outside the box, to have more robust intervention and support.

Isabelle Agee-Jacobson

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

FC: Well one of our tremendous strengths is the resources that we have, without a doubt. One of the great strengths and frustrations is [that] we are an urban district, but we are small, and highly resourced. When you say urban, it is really, really unusual to say small and highly resourced. Plus, … not just in financial terms are we highly resourced—we have tremendous institutions around here, with … cutting-edge research, think tanks, all that kind of stuff. We have tremendous intellectual capacity to draw upon as well. So that is a huge asset, in terms of the wealth of opportunity and access that we have, but the frustration is that despite these resources, we have a very persistent achievement gap and our numbers have not budged for at least a decade, if not more. So there’s a frustration, and I think we have been reluctant to be laser-like in looking at [it] or being honest with ourselves that we are not successful in certain areas.

To the world, Cambridge has a fantastic reputation. And that’s great news, because we can attract really talented people, but I would say that our practices have not kept up with the research or best practices, or what we think is really cutting edge pedagogy. So, I think that we have not been, within our leadership team, honest enough to say, “This is what we need to do.” We need to change our practice, just to be really clear about expectations.

… And we still have an affinity for what we call autonomous schools, and I think it’s been hard for us as a district to acknowledge that standards-based is different than standardized. And that having systemic expectations is not a refutation of autonomy. Nobody wants to tell a teacher how to teach, “your students are supposed to learn x, y, and z, and that’s your job.” They’re not telling [them], “This is how you have to do it,” but, “This is what they do need to learn.” I think we have gotten kind of hung up with having that kind of honest conversation.

RF: You talk a lot on your website about the combination of highly educated families in Cambridge alongside the many families who might not have had as much education, as hardworking as they may be. Do you think it’s possible to have a school that addresses the needs of all of these students, regardless of where they’re coming from? How do you do that?

The answer to the first question is: I really hope so. I think education is transformative, and there’s no one who would say that their education didn’t have an impact on who they became. So for us to say that because we have differentiation, we can’t educate some students but we can’t educate others—I’m not buying that. Our job, [and] I’m not saying it’s not challenging, is to make sure we educate students to their potential to the best of our ability and graduate students that can be successful in life. That’s a non-negotiable as far as I’m concerned. [But] it is challenging. … I have one other thing that I want to say. I think there’s a lot of opportunity, again systemically, to look at our guidance. How are we supporting kids in different development stages? I really have a concern. people always say we need more guidance counselors in the high school; maybe we do, maybe we don’t, I can’t speak to that. But I do think we need to have more guidance equity, and by that I mean we know we have a lot of kids who are vulnerable when they come into the high school, and we do not have good support for them in their 9th grade years. A lot of our counseling is very 12th grade [and] end-of-11th-grade focused. …. But again, how do we support our incoming students [in a way] that will help keep them on a track [to] graduate successfully, in something that is meaningful to them? I just want to add that.

RF: Could you explain why the priorities that you stated on your website are important to you? You touched on some, but why have you chosen to focus on early education, science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) partnerships, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) programs, and teacher residency programs as your priorities?

FC: We’re a two-thirds, one third [district]: one third white, two thirds minorities. … Right now, we have talked about inclusion, or that we are an inclusive school district, but administratively, with pedagogy, we’re not. We have siloed our General Education and our Special Education. We have not really blended how we teach our kids. It’s been very challenging, and [it’s] not that there hasn’t been conversation around it. If you look at the way we’re structured, there’s the office of student services, [with] its own administration, its own budget, [and] we have General Education, [with] its own administration, its own budget.So how do we better blend our pedagogy, the skills, how do we support our teachers? And I think a lot of it comes down to the toolbox of our teachers …

RF: Bouncing off of that, how do you ensure that racial and cultural backgrounds don’t supercede the quality of teachers?

FC: Well I think the major criteria is quality—we want to have highly qualified teachers. So I think that’s the basic criteria. I would never say that to our students, our teachers, our families, there’s no benefit to hiring someone just because they fit a quota. That is a huge disservice. Or retaining someone, just because they help us fit a quota. That is not OK. So that’s why I … talk about recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching poll, because there are feeder opportunities around here that I think we’ve not taken advantage of. Maybe some of them aren’t as experienced as we’d like, but maybe we think they are highly qualified—have the potential to be really talented. So how do we support them, develop a pool of talented teachers—or highly qualified teachers—who can really achieve the talent that we think will support our educational needs well? …

RF: How exactly do you make sure that teachers’ backgrounds aren’t superseding quality? I get that they’re both very important…

FC: Well, there are a couple of measures. Obviously you get references, [and] you should make sure you see a teacher in front of a classroom before you hire them, [see that] they actually work, and you make sure you really respect a three-year probation period. We have that [system]. And I don’t think we use [it] well. That gives us the opportunity that if a teacher is not of a caliber that we think is appropriate for our schools, either we do intervention, we think that they could be a good teacher [so] we ask them to do professional development, or we say, “This isn’t working, thank you very much,” and we part ways. After that three-year period, it gets really difficult.

RF: Do you think that that is a problem?

FC: I do. Evaluations are important. Continuous evaluations. And just in terms of pedagogy, one thing the school district has talked about is cultural-competency-based pedagogy, and that’s for teacher development. I don’t know how it’s evaluated. Are we doing a good job or a bad job—I don’t know. We’ve got tremendous talent, and just we have to be as smart as we expect ourselves to be.

RF: You’ve lived in Cambridge for how long?

FC: 20 years.

RF: You were on the School Committee before. What have you been doing now?

FC: So I lost [in a School Committee election]. I ran in 2013, my first time, and I won. … I am very proud of my track record, you know I [got] phonics in the elementary schools, I got funding for a teacher in charge of SEL, I got funding for supports, you know EnRoute, in the high school? That was not funded by CPS, it was a nonprofit that supported them, and so I said, “Those are our kids, we really need to support them.” We can’t rely on the vagaries of the nonprofit, I don’t think, so they now rely on permanent funding …

I was really proud of what I was able to accomplish during that time. I lost my second election by 33 votes. David Maher was mayor when I was serving on the School Committee, so when he transitioned out of being mayor to being an elected city councillor, he asked me to be his aide, so I moved into that position. I work in City Hall, which has been terrific, because I do constituency service work everyday. I’ve gotten to know all the different city departments, the people in [Brookline High School], who do a lot of community service work [and] support the kids in our schools, so there’s a lot of overlap. I’ve gotten to know how the city works, I’ve gotten to know the city manager, and we’ve had a lot of conversations about how we can work more together [and] how we can provide our services more efficiently—more efficient support of our families and students. So I feel very comfortable in that space and that conversation, so it’s been great. I feel very engaged.

RF: So losing the election ended up being a good thing?

FC: Yeah, as I say, I lost, but I wasn’t defeated. It’s been really terrific.

RF: And now you’re going back at it.

FC: Well, I’m hoping to. Hoping to. I’m working really hard.

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