Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Appendix A: District Profiles

Cambridge Public School District

District Demographics
Enrollment 6,750
Enrollment Trend Down
Number of Schools 13
Population Type Mid-size central city
Subsidized Meals 48%
English Learners 10%
Special Needs 23%

In Massachusetts, certainly, and in much of the country,if you say "Cambridge," the automatic association is "Harvard." For some, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Radcliffe will also come to mind. This image of ivy walls, privilege, and academic achievement does not carry over to the city's one high school and 12 K-8 schools, however. Instead, the Cambridge Public School District serves a bifurcated student population, half affluent and half impoverished. While many students have family ties to the academic core of the community or live in private homes with an average value of over a million dollars, many others qualify for subsidized meals, live in public housing projects, or are homeless.

Although district administrators concede that the local housing pattern has largely eliminated the middle class, diversity has been actively sought in Cambridge schools since 1980, when the district voluntarily instituted school choice. Currently, the district's struggle is to maximize options that encourage students to stay in the district and to excel. Cambridge faces fierce competition for its students from private schools, a growing number of independent charter schools, and Catholic high schools.

A controlled choice plan was implemented in 1980 to create racial diversity in all of the district's schools. The plan worked to an extent, but all children were not receiving the same educational experience. Therefore, the district reviewed the plan in 2000 by asking a cross-functional team that included the superintendent to examine education research, relevant case law, and data from the district. The purpose of the study was to determine:

  • the effectiveness of the strategies used to recruit students to various schools,
  • which schools were overchosen and which were underchosen, and
  • why a school was consistently underchosen.

The team recommended that the district try to eliminate the high concentrations of poverty in specific schools through changes in the controlled choice plan. Beginning with the 2002-03 school year, Cambridge enhanced its strategies to recruit students to schools, implemented improvement processes for the schools that were not meeting student achievement goals or drawing diverse student populations, and instituted socioeconomic status as a factor in assigning students to schools.

The district is working to improve its communication with parents about optimal school placements. For example, the district is increasing the role of its Family Resource Center, which, in addition to referring families to a wide range of social services, helps with school registration, logistics, counseling, after-school placements, and transition programs for students needing extra academic support.

The district also sponsors an annual kindergarten tour, encouraging parents or prospective kindergartners to visit any number of schools, observe, ask questions, and consider the benefits of different placements for their children. To increase the number of low-income parents who take advantage of the tour, the district now sends the director of the Family Resource Center to local Head Start facilities to inform parents about their school choice options and to recruit them for the kindergarten tour.

The district's "junior kindergarten" pilot program at two schools, designed in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is another initiative to increase the number of low-income students attending high-achieving and predominantly high-income schools. The purpose of the program is to give an academic boost to children who might otherwise enter kindergarten unprepared for elementary school work; low-income parents may enroll their four- and five-year-olds no matter where in the district they reside. The only stipulation is that parents keep their children at the school for their subsequent year of regular kindergarten. The hope, of course, is that these children will feel comfortable, competent, and welcome at the school and will stay on through the elementary grades.

In parallel with efforts to motivate the enrollment of low-income students more evenly across the district, Cambridge is working to improve the appeal of its underselected, low-income schools, hoping to attract high-income students to choose them and further contribute to income diversification across the district.

One of the district schools avoided by upper-income parents is the Tobin School, which, with a population three times the district average has also failed to meet AYP standards. Tobin has established a volunteer relationship with MIT and Harvard, has a strong parent-mentor group in technology and science fields, and has won a grant to create a science and technology magnet program at the school. The principal reports that although affluent parents are not yet choosing Tobin, the emphasis on science has made Tobin a better school, and students' achievement scores have improved.

Cambridge has identified its particular challenges and is now moving forward with increased focus, new programs,and districtwide goals to leave no child behind.

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009