Superintendent decision: statement by Patty Nolan

Superintendent decision: statement by Patty Nolan at special Meeting of the Cambridge School Committee on Superintendent vote, October 24, 2015

This decision is the most important any SC can make. The most significant of our term. At this point, we have narrowed the candidate list to two, and both both have tremendous strengths and would bring something to our district.

First, I want to say something about the process that led us to this point. Was it perfect? No. Was it better than the last one? Yes. There was a concerted effort at community outreach. WE had many opportunities for the community to weigh in on the superintendent profile. We held meetings across the city. We had more than 30 focus groups. And, we instructed the search firm to look for a variety of candidates with different backgrounds. The range of applicants, 42 in all, showed that we did attract some different types, and from far afield.

And yet, some in the community have been asking – after a nation search, how did it come down to three finalists, all in Massachusetts? Honestly, it could be a parochial attitude on our part – the SSIC thought Massachusetts candidates were better. Or, Massachustts could actually have been better. Remember, our state is the highest performing in the country and we are an extremely high performing district – understandable from that perspective that our finalists were all relatively local.

I approached the decision as I do other decisions – knowing that I needed to gather information, and push for answers. I started digging. I reached out to everyone I knew in Framingham, Weymouth, Boston, Worcester and Holyoke as soon as the three were announced. Once we decided to move forward with two candidates, and not continue the process with Dr. Stacy Scott, I focused my due diligence on Dr. Kenneth Salim and Dr. Sergo Paez.

I wanted to learn all I could from the people involved with the site visits – I went to Weymouth and met many people. I could not go to Holyoke, but I spoke with several people who were part of the site visit. In addition, I reached out to others – since we needed full information from people who were not chosen by the candidates. I spoke with leaders in each district, parents, teachers, and reached out to people in our larger community to see what they knew of our candidates.

For Dr. Paez: What I found were many strengths: a charismatic educator with tremendous personality, commitment and drive. His personal and professional story is compelling. His energy is evident. His work on early literacy in Holyoke is excellent. And there are signs his work in Holyoke was beginning to take root. There is a respect for his work from a number of people still in Holyoke. I also had many concerns, starting with the Holyoke situation. Obviously Dr. Paez did not create it. And he was only there for 1.5 years before the state took over. He is not responsible for Holyoke performance – not enough time to judge Paez. I understand that – but the concern was not only not enough time to show the results from his work. The Holyoke results are so far below CPS that I worried there was not enough experience with an already high performing district. And the MCAS and grad results that were presented as evidence were not compelling. I had been told that the ELA 3rd grade (a benchmark score) growth was exemplary, as well as an exemplary increase in high school graduation rates. Looking at the ELA 3rd grade – there was some positive change in scores. But the 2015 scores were about the same as 2012. That did not inspire confidence. Overall MCAS 2015 was ok – some up some down, not definite overall trend. And the SGP in Holyoke for 2015 for almost all schools was low. Combining low student growth with low proficiency – far below Cambridge – did not bode well in my view.

The high school graduation rates – when I asked how the increase compared to other district, I was told it was among the highest. So I checked (of course – trust but verify). The data was not very compelling. I downloaded all 2013 and 2014 graduation rates, for all students and Latinos (Holyoke is majority Latino) and looked at the increase. While Holyoke’s increase from 53.8% to 60.2% graduation was good – it was not the highest, even among urban districts. Springfield’s increase was higher, as was Peabody’s. And for Latinos, the increase in Holyoke from 47.5 to 53.2% was close to Cambridge’s increase. Yet Cambridge’s graduation rate went from 81.8% to 87%.

While these two bits of data are not the whole measure of a district, both of them showed progress but were not compelling. And both were cited as evidence of strong performance in Holyoke, which makes it appropriate to ask whether that holds true. Upon review, it seemed to me that Cambridge far higher performance on both and relatively same progress suggested a real question of whether Dr. Paez would know how to lead us to higher achievement.

And I reviewed the student growth charts – and Holyoke is not only extremely low performing by proficiency on MCAS across the board. The student growth, measured by SGP, was generally low also. Both lower than CPS – not something that gives me confidence.

And while the data wall controversy may have been overemphasized, it seems that it could have been handled better. The issue came up as a problem for a number of reasons. Not only were a few (maybe only a few) classrooms putting up “data walls” in classrooms with students’ names on it. [not in the teacher conference room, where data walls belong – but in classrooms.] When parents raised concerns, the administration role in promoting the data walls was denied. Again, it might be understandable why data walls found their way into classrooms. But to not own the mistake from the outset is troubling. We pursued the issue, and were sent some information – minutes from a School Committee meeting. However, when I checked for more minutes, I found additional information that supported the assertion that Dr. Paez had known about the walls and the concerns long before the press was involved. In other words, he could have avoided all the press. And he did not provide us with the full story. Not something that made me comfortable.

Dr. Salim:
His experience was a real strengths, since he started as a teacher and grew through teacher training and helping ensure better instruction in the classroom. One of his strengths was experience with Boston and Weymouth. Honestly, while Cambridge is not entirely unique, we are somewhat unique, so no one has experience with Cambridge – but there are many similarities. The fact that he was a leader in both communities impressed me. Boston has much greater challenges economically than we do. Weymouth is more middle and working class, without the racial diversity of Boston or Cambridge. HE has been in both, and it is clear talking to people in both that he navigated the process very well. His range of positions, always focused on teaching at the core prepares him well for Cambridge. His personal story also important, since he knows what being an outsider is. And his description of how teaching at Brighton High and seeing the low expectations for students in other classrooms was what motivated him to move into administration. That story stayed with me as I deliberated.

At the site visit, it was clear that with far less resources, he was doing many things we would hope for here. The ILP pilot is something I hope he brings. The Un-conference is something I hope he brings. The Parent University is like some of our programs – perhaps together we could build it up. He listened to staff, and was strong and clear about his vision, but willing to take input.

Meeting with a range of people, what struck me was that in them answering us about how something worked, we learned a lot about HOW he works. And the HOW was exactly what I think we need – a thoughtful leader who listens, takes input and is willing to change. And a leader who is strong enough to push back and keep pushing to make sure the decision is the right one. A leader who can identify good people to hire. A leader who is strong enough to build consensus and a real plan. And, very important, someone with energy, drive and follow-through. Dr. Salim makes sure things are happening and makes sure things are completed.

Are there any concerns? Yes – not to be ageist, but he is young, not a lot of experience. That can be an advantage: we want fresh ideas, an active person. It can also be a disadvantage – we will look to him to seek coaching and mentoring.

His emphasis on testing and technology – I see that we need technology but also see far too much of it in our lives already – our role will be to ensure that we jointly develop policies to ensure 21st century readiness without resorting to computers teaching our kids, or having them glued to screens. Testing – our community together needs to figure out how to navigate the need for accountability and assessment while reducing standardized tests.

I know it is a risk – I take it happily and hopefully. I will vote for Dr. Salim as our next superintendent.