As district leaders hesitate, Cambridge School Committee pushes on middle school algebra - The Boston Globe (2024)

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In a statement Friday, district spokeswoman Sujata Wycoff said district leadership realized in the second half of the school year that the timeline might need to be shifted due to the need to properly sequence math instruction.

“Despite the positive intent, CPS recognizes the impact that this potential shift may have on family plans and is thoroughly examining different ways of meeting the intended plan,” Wycoff said. “It would be premature to share details of what some of these options could look like, however, the district is deeply committed to designing and implementing a plan that upholds our commitment to providing equitable opportunities to complete Algebra 1 prior to 9th grade.”

Related: Cambridge schools are divided over middle school algebra

Community pushback was swift, with Janina Matuszeski, a parent of two rising seventh-grade students, telling the subcommittee she was “shaking with anger.”

“This was promised to us, and if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be furious,” Matuszeski said. “It still needs to happen.”

The School Committee seems poised to make it happen. At the subsequent full meeting of the committee on June 18, members Elizabeth Hudson — who was elected to the board in November after campaigning on bringing back middle school algebra — and Richard Harding, Jr., introduced a late motion that would require the district to provide Algebra 1 as an option during the school day in 2025-26, even if it is not taken by every student.

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“We’ve punted on this a number of times,” Hudson said. “We’re not trying to divert from that plan.”

The committee did not pass the motion — other members said they didn’t want to rush it — but they referred it to the curriculum subcommittee and appeared to have a majority in support of some sort of action.

Jacob Barandes, a parent of a rising sixth-grader in the district who was vocal last summer about the need for change, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that a solution would be found.

“People really recognize that we have to solve this problem,” Barandes said. “They’re very openminded about this — they just don’t know what to do.”

Related: Cambridge school leaders plan for universal eighth-grade Algebra 1 by 2025

Middle school algebra has been a long-running issue for the School Committee, with Mayor and committee Chair Denise Simmons noting that she had passed a motion decades prior that intended to ensure access.

“I feel like I’m having déjà vu,” Simmons said. “I’m stunned.”

But the latest round of discussion dates back to the period immediately prior to the pandemic, when Cambridge gradually ended a policy of tracking middle schoolers into either “accelerated” or “grade-level” math. District leaders were alarmed by stark disparities in who was taking advanced math: Students in those classes were overwhelmingly white and Asian, while the grade level math classes were mostly comprised of Black and Latino students.

But the pandemic prevented the district from implementing the other half of that policy: adding algebra into the new universal grade eight curriculum.

Matters came to a head in the spring of 2023 when the district told families that middle school math staff would not “be recommending that any scholars place out of algebra 1″ in ninth grade.

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District leaders said that with students still reeling from the pandemic, they could not rush to add more advanced content in middle school. Critics complained that without taking Algebra 1 in middle school, it’s more difficult for students to reach advanced classes later that would better prepare them for STEM college degrees and career paths. In the absence of an in-school option, only students with the family resources to pay for outside classes would have that opportunity without “doubling up” on math classes in high school.

Related: David Murphy appointed as interim Cambridge schools superintendent

Isaac Goodman, a rising ninth grader, described just such a scenario at the June 11 meeting, noting he was privileged to take a calculus class through a private program.

“I think it’s a really big problem that someone who had the same aptitude at math as me but who came from a lower income family who couldn’t afford that class would be stuck doing Algebra 1” in high school, Goodman said.

The School Committee was on the verge of forcing the issue last August when the administration presented its plan: Algebra 1, for all eighth-grade students, by 2025. The committee, satisfied with the plan, ended up not voting at the time on a similar motion.

But the administration has since decided they can’t pull it off, saying it simply requires compressing too much math into too few school days — the 2025-26 eighth grade class would have to miss over 120 lessons of the existing grade 6 to 8 math curriculum.

The district does offer a 10 week online program, Bridge to Algebra, that students can use to place out of Algebra 1, but Hudson said at the June 18 meeting the feedback she has received on it has been negative.

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“I don’t want to continue to have a system where certain students are accessing it and others are not,” added Harding.

Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.

As district leaders hesitate, Cambridge School Committee pushes on middle school algebra - The Boston Globe (2024)
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