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I am the 44-year-old mother of two children, who attend the King Open public school. I have served two terms on the School Committee.
Prior to my relatively new career in politics, I worked as a journalist for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Harvard Education Letter and many other publications.
I got involved in the Cambridge public schools in 1996 when my husband and I were trying to pick a kindergarten for our oldest child. My research turned into a book project -- "The Parents Guide to Cambridge Schools"-- which was published twice in book form and also on-line. (At www.nancywalser.org).
Before getting elected to the committee, I help found CUE (Cambridge United for Education), an citywide parentís organization which focuses on the system as a whole, is committed to improving all our schools, and provides information to parents through forums and newsletters. I was (and am) a volunteer at my childrenís school.
I come from a family of teachers: my father is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas, my mother is a former 2nd grade teacher and reading specialist, and my maternal grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1920s. I have been an ESL teacher in Tokyo, Japan.
I was raised in Austin, Texas and I consider Cambridge to be my adopted home -- the city that my husband and I chose to work and raise our children. On the school committee, I have been the co-chair of the budget subcommittee for two years in a row and have served three times on the teacher contract negotiations subcommittee.
Role of the School Committee:
In the last term we did all three: The School Committee accepted its responsibility to children and the taxpayers of Cambridge when faced the reality of eight years of declining enrollment and escalating budget shortfalls ($1.2 million in FY 01-02 ; $1.6 million in FY 02-03; and $3.8 million in FY 03-04). At the urging of all the elementary principals, five members (including myself) of the School Committee voted a plan to close two elementary schools and merge two others. Also, last term we hired an experienced superintendent, the most experienced in Cambridge in over 60 years. I am proud of my leadership role in these accomplishments.
In addition, School Committee members need to be advocates for public schools within their communities and at the state and federal level. They also need to work hard to communicate well with the superintendent, with each other, and with the public, especially about what is working well in the schools.
Elementary School Consolidation:
I am the only school committee member whose children were directly affected: the school my children go to is now on the other end of the city from our home.
Here's what I see this fall as I tour schools: I see principals and teachers who are relieved to get a break from the annual cutting of their budget; who have more support services and better facilities than they ever had before and who don't have to worry about what might happen to their school for a third year in a row. Class sizes are at or near the recommended size. Principals and teachers are focusing on their students, curriculum and the new teacher-driven assessments to be implemented under the leadership of the new superintendent.
I see parents who have thrown themselves into building new communities and a School Committee that has spent its first three meetings of the year talking about important educational issues (i.e. MCAS and SAT test scores, goals for the superintendent and negotiating a new teacher's contract.) vs. turf issues (i.e. Whose school should close, and whose budget should be cut.)
Most importantly, I see hundreds of children who were not being served well before, now attending better schools.
Restructuring of the High School:
I believe the most important reason to do the redesign was to improve teaching and learning and give all student more individualized attention, especially struggling students. My view is that more time has been spent debating structure and ideology at the high school than discussing how to improve teaching and curriculum. I believe the focus will change now under the leadership of the new superintendent. I support the superintendent's position that "dead-end" courses should be eliminated, that all students should be able to enter a college if they want to upon graduation and that more students --especially students of color--should be encouraged and supported to take honors and AP courses.
Academic Excellence and Goals for the Cambridge Public Schools:
The key to academic excellence for a school system is its people -- having well-trained, caring teachers, and administrators who will support them. This has been my top priority ever since 1999 when I first ran for school committee. Back then, the system had 11 goals. I lobbied hard for one goal: Excellent instruction in Every Classroom. The committee unanimously adopted this as the single goal for our system.
Through my work on the budget and on the teacher negotiations subcommittees, I have worked to increase professional development, increase accountability and reallocate millions out of central administration and into the classroom.
What to do?
The city of Cambridge gives its schools enormous financial support, and it would be educationally irresponsible to just cut the budget for cutting's sake. At the end of October, the School Committee will vote on a list of four goals for the new superintendent to accomplish in one year as part of his contract and evaluation. Next spring, he will submit a budget recommendation in line with what he has promised to do. He may recommend eliminating or adding positions. The former is much harder than the latter. Am I willing to stand by the superintendent if he comes back with a recommendation to eliminate positions? I have and I will.
I would also add that because we consolidated elementary schools, it will be much easier to lobby the City Council and thus, the City Manager, for additional resources to upgrade school facilities (which need more work) and to cover loss of state and grant funding.
I'll go back to what I said above: the primary focus should be on hiring, developing and retaining well-trained teachers who can motivate children with interesting, rich curriculum that also teaches skills from the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks -- the English and Math being most important. If we succeed in doing this, and pay attention to the progress of all children in our classrooms, Cambridge will see its MCAS scores rise. In fact, we are seeing this now.
I believe in civic participation, I believe in public schools. That is why my children attend Cambridge public schools. I believe we can have the best public schools in the country. I want to continue to serve on the School Committee to make that happen.