© 2019 by Bernette Dawson for Cambridge School Committee Vote #1

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After spending 9 years in CPS, I have first hand and diverse experiences in being a CPS parent. I know that the IEP process is confusing and difficult. I know that meeting the academic needs of our advanced learners feels impossible. I know that our district often misses the mark in really understanding students of color. I see how hard our teachers work and still don’t have the additional in class hearts and hands they ask for year after year. I know the value of social emotional learning as part of a well rounded curriculum. I know that every parent, regardless of income or education level, loves their child and wants the best education for them.  

To change this, we need to focus on:

Prepare 

Excellence for all CPS Students

I believe CPS’ mission to provide students with rigorous joyful learning must also include a high standard of excellence. 

Support

Teachers and Administrators

I believe we should finally deliver more in-class hearts and hands to help teachers with differentiated learning and student social emotional needs. 

Launch

Universal PreK

I believe Universal PreK is critical to narrowing the achievement gap that exists as early as age 4. It is unjust that a portion of Cambridge children are locked out of a JK experience because they are born after April 1.

Advocate

Families and Students

I will be a brave voice for  families frustrated with CPS that include: Students of Color, Students on IEP, Special Education, Structured Academics, LGBTQIA, and Advanced Learners. 

Communicate

Families and CPS

I believe we need more transparency, improved access to information and opportunities across our district. 

Top Priorities

I will be a brave voice for CPS Students, families and teachers. My friends and family share that I am not afraid to tell it like it is. I like to think that I bring a folding chair to the table to ensure that my voice is heard. I plan to do that as a member of the school committee. As a member of the CPS Sense-Making Team, our working group was tasked with asking some of the hardest questions around race and developed thoughtful proposals that spoke to the needs that we identified through peoples’ stories. That experience was critical in motivating me to run for Cambridge School Committee. I thrived meeting families, learning about and sharing our diverse experiences with CPS, and setting forth proposals to improve our schools. I feel strongly that our administrators and school committee don’t tap parent networks effectively, and I would like to bridge the two groups to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table.

 

Although my priorities are numerous, much of my action plan rests in being a facilitator of discussions and collaborating with teachers, parents, and administrators to develop program improvements that center on the following areas:


 

Raising the Level of Excellence

 

The Innovation Agenda and Upper Schools

I plan to focus on ensuring that the school committee and district administrators are delivering on the Innovation Agenda. My eldest son is an 8th grader at RAUC and I see what is working well (upper school enrichment opportunities) and what isn’t (lack of robust advanced math program). Time and time again, I hear families say “just put up with the Upper Schools until high school. CRLS is much better.” I think there is something seriously wrong that our families feel like they have to get through Upper Schools before their kids can hit their stride and thrive at CRLS. It’s time we look at the upper schools closely and make improvements so that our students thrive all the way from JK through grade 12. 

 

Advocate for Advanced Learning Needs

I plan to work with the families of advanced learners to assess where the district is doing well and where we need to improve. I believe that we need to evaluate the current screening process for advanced learners to make sure we capture gifted students who may not have parents advocating on their behalf. 

 

Supporting An Increase in Teaching Staff

 

In-Class Hearts and Hands are Worth It

Listening and supporting the needs of teachers, specifically increasing “hearts and hands” in classrooms. So much of where the district is struggling could be addressed with smaller class sizes or additional in-class teacher support. The challenges of difficult student behavior, delivering meaningful differentiation and academic intervention for different types of learners, and the achievement gap could absolutely be improved if we listen to and deliver what teachers request. 


 

Launch Universal JK

 

JK for All, Once And For All!

I also plan to push for Universal JK. The school committee has studied this issue and has yet to move on it. It’s time that we give all students a year of JK. I believe in Junior Kindergarten for all. A portion of our 4-year-olds are left out of the Cambridge Public School System with the March 31st cut off. It’s unfortunate that a portion of our 4-year-olds get a free quality Junior Kindergarten experience and the other portion either stay at home, in-home daycare, or parents have to pay for a private school that could average between $11,000 - to about $28,000 a year. If we want to close the opportunity and achievement gap, we know we need to start at an early age.



 
Advocate for families frustrated with CPS that include: Students of Color, Students on IEP, Special Education, Structured Academics, LGBTQIA, and Advanced Learners.

 

A Brave Voice For All

All of our students deserve to have their voices be heard, no matter who they are, what their needs are, or how they are showing up in the classroom every day. All students deserve adults advocating on their behalf and alongside them to ensure all their needs are being met. We know the students of Cambridge have diverse needs. They need leaders who will see beyond a one size fits all approach to education.

 

District-Wide Cultural Proficiency Training And Meaningful Anti Racist Work

I will continue to hold the district administrators accountable to ensuring that our teachers and staff have extensive cultural proficiency training. I am not afraid to call things out as they are. Implicit bias exists in our schools, regardless of how proficient and kind our administrators and teachers are. Our entire district, from the top down, needs to show, not tell, that we want to dismantle white supremacy and racial inequalities. In my years as a parent in this district, I have seen families of color and students of color do the heavy lifting of addressing racial inequalities. I had to discuss with teachers at my son’s school why a book that contained images of slaves and a slave auction was culturally insensitive for a 7-year-old student. The students in the high school’s Black Student Union have led the district to do some serious inward thinking; we need school committee members to support them. 

 

Improve Transparency, Communication, and Access to Information

CPSD is a giant system and, too often, families and students aren’t heard. Navigating CPSD can be daunting, especially for families facing additional challenges, whether they have recently immigrated, are in a lower income bracket, or have not completed as much education themselves as others in the district. I have made my way through the district as a mother of a child on an IEP as well as an advanced learner, and we’ve also seen the challenges faced by families of color in the district. I will be a voice for all families to ensure that they all have a seat at the table. We spend a lot of time talking about the achievement gap; I also want to focus on the opportunity gap and make sure all students have access to the remarkable programs and opportunities available here in Cambridge.

On The Issues

Here are my responses to the Cambridge Education Association survey questions.

What do you hope to accomplish in your role on the school committee?

I plan to be a brave voice on the Cambridge School Committee. I plan to focus on ensuring that the school committee and district administrators are delivering on the Innovation Agenda. My eldest son is an 8th grader at RAUC and I see what is working well (like the electives offerings) and what isn’t (the Step Up math program). It’s time we look at the upper schools closely and make improvements. In my 9 years as a CPS parent, I’ve come to understand that the system, as it exists, doesn’t work for every child. I have had to advocate for both of my sons and see that meaningful differentiation, although of great importance, is difficult to execute. I plan to call for increasing teaching staff to meet the needs of all students. I plan to work with the families of advanced learners to assess where the district is doing well and where we need to improve. I think that we need to evaluate the current screening process for advanced learners to make sure we capture gifted students who may not have parents advocating on their behalf. I also plan to push for Universal JK. The school committee has studied this issue and has yet to move on it. It’s time that we give all students a year of JK. I will also continue to hold the district administrators accountable to ensuring that our teachers and staff have extensive cultural proficiency training.

 

How will you address racial inequities and white supremacy culture in our schools and district?

I am not afraid to call things out as they are. Implicit bias exists in our schools, regardless of how proficient and kind our administrators and teachers are. Our entire district, from the top down, needs to show, not tell, that we want to dismantle white supremacy and racial inequalities. In my years as a parent in this district, I have seen families of color and students of color do the heavy lifting of addressing racial inequalities. I had to discuss with teachers at my son’s school why a book that contained images of slaves and a slave auction was culturally insensitive for a 7-year-old student. The students in the high school’s Black Student Union have led the district to do some serious inward thinking; we need school committee members to support them. 

 

How will you make decisions about what is best for our schools when you are not in schools on a daily basis?

As a School Committee member I would build my schedule around visiting our schools as often as possible. I’d plan to sit in on school council and Friends/PTA meetings, attend special school events, and host parent coffees. In my time as a Baldwin parent, I can recall two members of the school committee visiting our school. Each school has its unique school/family culture—I believe that you need to have your finger on the pulse to truly understand the concerns of the community. The best way to get a feel for a school, to understand what is working or what isn’t, is to talk with teachers and families. I plan to continue to do a lot of that!

 

How will you ensure equitable staffing to support all students?

I served on the Nellie Mae Grant Sense making Team and evaluated the data of the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. Several affinity groups have been formed to connect and support the expansion of more inclusive recruitment and retention efforts. In 2017-18 40% of new teacher hires were people of color, but in light of the progress we must continue to make this a major priority. I do feel like the district is on the right path, but with 60% of our student population being of students of color we must not only focus on the hiring of teachers of color but we must also make it a priority to retain them as well. The district has a goal to increase the overall number of teachers of color to 30% which in my perspective is a worthwhile goal that will require additional efforts to sustain these numbers. Creating and cultivating an environment that is well represented is key to building a stronger community. It is important to surround ourselves with people of shared backgrounds and experiences who also face or have faced similar challenges. This is even more crucial in the lives of our students. Representation matters and students deserve the opportunity to see themselves well represented at the educator level.

 

What role do you think the current MCAS/high stakes testing should play in our district?  How will you advocate for thoughtful, developmentally appropriate assessment practices? 

Teaching to a test doesn’t result in deep learning. We know that when we nurture students to be curious and deep thinkers who possess a growth mindset, we can impact test scores. I believe MCAS ignores many areas that reflect the actual learning that goes on in classrooms. I also believe that there is a place for assessments within our schools. Parents, teachers, and administrators must be able to assess a student’s growth and areas of development year to year, and it is important to be able to measure how well our schools are serving their communities. I’m ready and willing to work with teachers, administrators, and education experts to identify and implement the right evaluation system to ensure that all CPS kids are being well-served by our schools.

 

In terms of developmentally appropriate assessment practices, I would follow the lead of our district’s teachers. I believe in the abilities and professional expertise of our teachers. I would listen to what they had to say, follow up with my own research, and support their proposals. As far as assessments go today I would advocate for a different approach to the amount of assessments our students are given. We must utilize teacher feedback and district data to determine the appropriate number of assessments given per grade level to ensure that our students are not being tested more than they are being taught. Also, we want to make sure our teachers aren’t just teaching to a test but rather allowing them to creatively teach our students as they intend to. 

 

How will you advance the district’s commitment to meeting students’ social and emotional needs?

Social/emotional development is a huge component of a healthy life. I will advance the district’s commitment to meeting those needs by supporting an increase in professional staffing—I talk a lot about getting more “hearts and hands” into our classrooms. That means focusing some of our district resources on making sure there are more aides, interns, and other assistants in classrooms so that when a student has behavioral issues, a learning challenge, or a personal problem the attention of the teacher doesn’t end up constantly pulled away from the rest of the class. In addition to increasing staffing, I want to encourage an expectation of excellence: We must expect each student to produce their very best work, and support them in getting there.

 

How do you plan to involve educators in district policy decisions?

One of the key points of my platform is that I will support our teachers. Again, every year, during the budget process, teachers appeal to the school committee for, as they say “hearts and hands” in the classroom. Each year, our budget reflects a small portion of teacher requests. This, in my opinion is a failure of past members of the school committee. I plan to listen when teachers speak and work to deliver what they need. 

 

Do you support extending the school day? Why or why not?

While I can see the potential benefits of an extended school day—increased recess time, a longer lunch, access to world language, or increase teacher planning time—I am deeply concerned that by adopting an extended school day, we are closing the door on increasing those “hearts and hands” in classrooms that teachers continue to request. There is only so much money in the school budget and I want to ensure that it is wisely spent. 

 

How would you improve CPS’ ability to attract and retain educators of excellence, specifically given the high cost of living in Cambridge?

I understand the challenge of living in a high cost city. Many of us don’t have generational wealth, and didn’t have a chance to buy a home in Cambridge before housing prices sky-rocketed. We may be saddled with student loan debts and/or face high child care costs. Last year, our city saw average condo sales in the 980k range, making it impossible for an average teacher to buy a home in our city without outside help. I think that our city must explore some big ideas in order to attract and retain teachers. Can we offer loan forgiveness for teachers? Can we explore allowing teachers to enroll their children in our schools for JK through 5th grade, to simplify commuting while raising young school-aged children in another town? I would also seek to provide Cambridge teachers with the same priority for affordable housing as families with a child under the age of 5.