Luc Schuster

Luc Schuster
2007 Candidate for Cambridge School Committee

Home address:
65 Eustis St.
Cambridge, MA 02140

Contact information:
Tel: 617-276-5759

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Friends of Luc Schuster
65 Eustis St.
Cambridge, MA 02140

During my first year and a half on the School Committee, I enjoyed the balance of working as both a Committee member and as a teacher at GED Plus in Boston. I have also taught in Cambridge: I began my teaching at four different CPS summer school programs, I spent one year as a paraprofessional at King Open, and I just finished directing the Turner Leadership Program's service-learning projects at Fresh Pond this summer ('07). I now work as an organizer with the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education, leading workshops and coordinating advocacy campaigns with GED, English for speakers of other languages, and adult literacy programs. Other relevant experience:

  • Attended Agassiz, Longfellow, and CRLS ('98)
  • 2007 Co-Chair Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party
  • American Friends Service Committee Peace and Economic Security Committee member
  • Multicultural competency trainer with the NH Minority Health Coalition
  • Youth Organizer with the American Friends Service Committee in NH

Top Priorities:

  • Promoting active civics education
  • Starting a new middle school option
  • Teaching to the student, not to the test

School Department Administration:
We must make a distinction between school-based administration and central administration outside of schools. There is no educational justification for our central administration being larger than that of similarly sized school districts; our bloated central administration is a remnant of years of political patronage and is slowly being scaled back through attrition.

Conversely, generously funding school-based administration is educationally sound and is critical to our small school model that sets us apart from neighboring districts. It is unheard of elsewhere to have elementary schools of 300 students with a principal and assistant principal, as we do in Cambridge. Similarly, CRLS has a principal and assistant principal for the whole school as well as two separate deans each for our four small learning communities. Students in our schools know these administrators well and this model is critical for making schools personal, particularly for our 1,500+ student high school.

Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn's Contract - Based on what you know today, would you support an extension of this contract and, if so, for what term and under what conditions?:
I am proud of the role I played last summer in restructuring Superintendent Fowler-Finn's contract, rewriting three major provisions and giving him a shortened one-year extension without a significant salary increase (for more detail on my thinking please go to Entering our deliberations I was leaning towards voting against an extension but it quickly became clear that the School Committee was not collectively on the same page and that there was little certainty we would agree on a better replacement. Some members, for example, talked publicly about their interest in bringing in non-educators such as business and military leaders. I was not comfortable with any of this and realized that 1) the district had been moving forward and changing leadership would be extremely risky; and 2) I had no confidence that we would be able to agree upon a better leader.

Making a decision in isolation while campaigning is very different from making a decision while part of a seven-member board. Our School Committee is the smallest form of legislative body in the nation; we have the opportunity to make many of our decisions by consensus. At no time is this more important than when dealing with the Superintendent. Seeking consensus does not mean that we will always reach complete agreement, but it is an important goal for developing as unified a vision as possible for our schools. Traditionally, School Committee members have worked with the Superintendent on an ad hoc basis, having separate conversations off line and making demands of him individually. Governing in this manner has never been in the best interest of our students. I am working to change this dynamic.

Briefly, here are my personal feelings about Dr. Fowler-Finn: I believe that he has brought some important order and systems to the Cambridge Public Schools. The new teacher evaluation system is vastly improved and is better focused on both supporting teachers and providing documentation for letting bad teachers go. I think that the district's work with Harvard professor Richard Elmore in supporting principals as instructional leaders, not just disciplinarians and administrators, has been groundbreaking and has led to a fundamental shift in the way principals lead their schools. Additionally, we would not have the new Tobin Montessori if it were not for Dr. Fowler-Finn.

On the other hand, I find Dr. Fowler-Finn to be an uninspiring leader who has a much narrower vision of public education than I do. I worry that he does not get the most out of his administrative team, because he insists on making most of the calls. I also am firmly opposed to his district-wide periodic assessments-standardized tests that he forces on our teachers in order to ensure that they are teaching to the MCAS.

In sum, determining the future leadership of our district will be a critical decision for the next committee. I believe that we have a good, yet deeply flawed, leader right now and my decision will hinge on my sense of the likelihood of us finding a clearly superior replacement.

Controlled Choice, Student Assignment Policies, and the "Achievement Gap":
I commend the superintendent for getting us talking about Cambridge as one cohesive school district, rather than as a city with twelve independent elementary schools; however, I differ with the superintendent's means of unifying our system. It is important to have expectations for which broad content areas are taught in our elementary schools, but I do not support the emphasis on standardized assessment tests. For example, the new periodic assessments, implemented by the superintendent, are terribly burdensome on our teachers. An emphasis on testing with young kids sends the wrong message about schooling's purpose and introduces an added element of pressure that looms over students all the way through high school.

Due to the recent Supreme Court decision overruling the use of race in certain school desegregation plans, many districts are looking to Cambridge's 5-year old controlled choice model of assigning kids based primarily upon socioeconomic status. The idea behind our plan is that socioeconomic integration is critical to overall student achievement and that socioeconomic status serves as a close proxy for race. I support our model but feel strongly that it needs modification. Far too many families do not get placed in their first choice neighborhood schools and our plan still does not achieve a desirable socioeconomic balance in many schools.

The success of our school choice system depends upon parents having meaningful choices. The system breaks down when the vast majority of parents rank less than half of the elementary school options in their top three choices. Adding Tobin Montessori is precisely the sort of programmatic change we needed to make in order to support meaningful parent choice.

The "achievement gap" is related to student assignment policies because research shows that student achievement is positively correlated with socio-economic integration in schools. Unfortunately, we can only directly control who enters our schools, not who leaves. Starting a new middle school would help us desegregate the upper grades, where our schools have become the most segregated, because it would give us another entry point into our controlled choice system. Starting a middle school would therefore give us an additional opportunity to ensure greater diversity.

Enrichment Programs:
Public schools exist to do so much more than just promote academic achievement. A robust extra-curricular menu is key to cultivating well-rounded young people who have opportunities to develop personal interests.

I would like to address in particular the issue of pushing for greater rigor in our schools. I absolutely agree that our kids must be challenged and that we must confront the plague of low expectations. But we must not ratchet up rigor simply by assigning a greater amount of work. A more pressing matter, in my mind, than making school more rigorous is making it more relevant. Public schools must engage kids in meaningful projects that prepare them to follow their individual interests so that they will reach their potential, contribute meaningfully to society, and become active participants in our democracy. Even basic day-to-day issues like financial literacy go mostly ignored in our schools. When schools are relevant to real world challenges, students and teachers will sit up and take notice. Only then will kids care enough about their learning to challenge themselves.

Enrollment and the Marketing of Public Schools vs. Charter Schools and Private Schools:
One of my first accomplishments as a new committee member in early 2006 was to push for commissioning a comprehensive market study of Cambridge families with school-age children; this study involved extensive focus group interviews and phone surveying. We were in the midst of a precipitous enrollment decline unparalleled by any neighboring community. This study was designed to give us a clearer understanding of the causes for this decline so that our policy making could address the concerns of parents who are withdrawing their children. Different theories abounded, including the high cost of Cambridge housing, a perception of declining quality of education, and an increase in the available charter school options, but we lacked data to weigh accurately the relative importance of these and other factors.

We have now received some preliminary findings from this study-which has sections on parents in the system, parents who left the system, and parents of 0-4 years olds considering entering the system-and we expect to see a conclusive report sometime in the next couple of months. Unfortunately, the marketing firm did not complete the survey with parents who never entered CPS and have been in private schools from the beginning.

One exciting piece of news is that enrollment is up for the current school year for the first time in over a decade. Much of this is due to interest in the new public Tobin Montessori school that opened this September. I was a strong supporter of this change from the beginning and it is exciting to see a previously failing school change so rapidly. Montessori represents a commitment to early childhood education and is a model that fosters intellectual curiosity in even the youngest children. Adding exciting new programs like Montessori is the sort of proactive approach we need to address our enrollment decline. Parents need meaningful options so that they get a top choice school and do not leave us out of frustration.

Charter Schools:
Charter schools are a difficult issue for me because so many teachers I know and respect are involved in starting them and teaching at them. They are disgruntled with the state of public education and feel strongly that they can more effectively reach children by running their own schools. It is problematic that many people now view private charter schools as the only option for creative education. The exodus of energetic young teachers to charter schools is both a cause and effect of the perception that public schools discourage creativity.

I, too, am disgruntled with the state of public education. That's why I'm running for school committee! But Cambridge schools are not failing and I am working to see that there are creative options within Cambridge's public schools so that excellent teachers and concerned parents will not opt out.

Elementary Schools and Curriculum:
After attending all eleven elementary school graduations, and speaking at two of them, I am more convinced than ever that Cambridge needs a new middle school option. As reflected in the different graduation ceremonies, there is a great divide in the quality of the educational and social experience being offered at each of these schools. Some have healthy graduating classes of 35-50 students, whereas a couple other graduating classes were as small as 15-20 students. For the most part, these smaller upper grades lack vibrancy and do not provide a healthy transition for kids entering adolescence and preparing for a large citywide high school. Kids at these schools lack a peer group large enough to organize bands, plays, sports teams, and clubs. Additionally, teachers at these grade levels lack enough colleagues to collaborate and offer dynamic project-based learning.

The superintendent has floated a couple of different ideas for creating a new middle school option: 1) creating a 7/8 grade section in a separate wing at CRLS, emphasizing a smooth transition to high school and enabling interested middle school students to take high school courses; 2) creating a "hybrid" middle school at a couple of the larger elementary school buildings that would still be connected to the lower grades; 3) starting a new 7/8 grade middle school in one of the empty school buildings with a particular theme or educational philosophy. Each of these options would eventually force the closure of the weaker seventh and eighth grade classes and leave successful ones untouched. With any of these options, a new middle school in Cambridge would graduate fewer than 150 students a year, still much smaller than most American middle schools.

High School Programs and Curriculum:
I am thrilled about the leadership of CRLS's new principal, Dr. Chris Saheed, and am proud of the role I played in encouraging the Superintendent to hire him as the permanent leader - I co-sponsored a successful motion with Mr. Grassi that encouraged the Superintendent to avoid expending resources on an unnecessary search process when Dr. Saheed was already doing exceptional work as the interim principal.

CRLS has an impressive array of options available to its student, with a course catalog rivaling that of a small liberal arts college. The challenge at CRLS has always been making it feel small enough so that all students are sufficiently connected to plug into each of these opportunities. We have vast resources and must better ensure that each student has at least one close relationship with an adult at CRLS.

The School Committee made two important changes at CRLS in approving the last budget: 1) We have implemented a new coaching-based professional development model, where there are CRLS-based coaches in each of the major subject areas. Rather than sending teachers out of the school for remote professional development, we are now prioritizing teaching support that is tied directly to classroom instruction. 2) We created a new Service-Learning/Internship Coordinator position for CRLS, designed particularly to support 11th and 12th graders who have finished MCAS and are eager to enrich their learning in preparation for college and beyond. Service-learning includes community-service, but also integrates other key elements designed to provide a more lasting experience. It is a model that respects the intellectual abilities of young people and emphasizes real-world learning outside of classroom walls. It is critical that kids develop practical organizing skills so that they can lead our communities and our democracy.

School Department Budget and Capital Needs (including CRLS renovations), and the Disposition of Surplus Buildings:
I have been a consistent voice for reallocating money to the classroom during my first two years on the committee. Cambridge spends roughly twice what similarly sized school districts spend. Allocating this generous budget money so that kids in our classrooms really feel like $23,000 is being spent on them must be one of the committee's top priorities.

There are many explanations for where our extra money currently goes-small classes, small elementary schools with principals and assistant principals, full-day kindergarten, among other costs-but these do not account for all of the extra money. I believe that we should reallocate money from central administration towards funding additional specialist positions in each of our elementary schools. Since our classes are already very small, the best use of our extra money would be to hire additional social workers, subject-area coaches, librarians, etc. to support the instruction going on in our classrooms.

Patty Nolan and I have twice brought forward motions to reallocate money for specialists during the '06 and '07 budget cycles and, unfortunately lost them both 5-2. I feel strongly about this issue and have been willing to speak up and demand more reasoned budget expenditures. I am hopeful about making progress on this issue in the future.

CRLS Renovations and Surplus Buildings:
Plans for the 2009 CRLS renovation project are just now being finalized and, in order to avoid jeopardizing state funding at the 2003 level, ought to be fully in place before the next committee begins in January 2008. We will be adding much needed renovations to plumbing, walls, floors, lockers, kitchens, cafeterias, and bathrooms, and we are in the midst of extensive conversations with the City Manager's office to calculate the extent of additional city financing for this much needed work.

The 2003 plan is LEED Certifiable, a lower-level industry standard for containing elements of environmentally sustainable building. This ranking reflects significant improvements in environmental efficiency, but there is hope of us going much further, particularly as we tease out potential cost savings for making our buildings less dependent on fossil fuels. Over the summer we won a $100,000 grant from the Green Schools Initiative of the Mass. Technology Collaborative to explore additional green options and we eagerly await their findings. There is some hope that they would kick in additional funding towards their recommended improvements. I will insist that, as we look at financing for the renovations, we include potential cost savings of at least 5 years ahead for added energy efficiencies.

Once the CRLS renovations begin in 2009 we will need swing space for temporary classrooms. Thankfully, the school department retained the Upton St. building after the mergers/closings, giving us flexibility. The School Committee voted at our October 16, 2007 meeting to retain this building and the former Longfellow building for this purpose. In the longer term, I hope to renovate the Upton St. building, using it to create a new school. I expect that enrollment will continue to grow and we will need this space, possibly for a new middle school. If enrollment has not increased significantly by the time the CRLS renovations are finished, the City should explore relocating the Community Learning Center, which runs Cambridge's adult education programs, to this building.

MCAS and Measuring Student Achievement:
I am the one sitting committee member who has refused to divert budget money for remedial test prep courses during the school day, losing two votes 6-1 on this issue, including one to pay $25,000 Princeton Review to provide an SAT prep course during the school day. We must do more than just say we dislike standardized testing; we must put our money where our mouths are. The School Committee does have a role to play in supporting struggling kids to do well on these tests, but we cannot take away from them the rest of our dynamic high school curriculum. The regular school day is sacred and we cannot taint it with the poor instruction of test-prep courses. It is important to note that, in the spirit of equity, I do support some limited funding of test prep outside of the regular school day for students who cannot otherwise afford it.

While MCAS is mandated by both the state and federal governments, we in Cambridge do have important choices about how to prepare kids for this requirement. As a GED teacher, I understand that drilling students day after day in test prep courses is bad practice, plain and simple. Real learning does not happen in the anxiety-filled environment of high stakes testing. Students become proficient readers and develop critical thinking skills when they are engaged in projects, when they take a range of interesting high school courses, and when they are required to analyze critically the world in which they live.

Interestingly, many colleges are now ignoring students' scores on the SAT writing section because research has shown that it is a poor test that does not demand meaningful college-level writing skills. The test was designed to be easy to grade rather than to be the best possible assessment of students' skills. It's a shame that easy-to-grade computer tests are driving day-to-day instruction in our classrooms.

School Safety and Student Behavior:
The School Committee recently received preliminary findings from our market survey of Cambridge families (more on this later in my comments on enrollment). Overall, people seemed pretty satisfied with our schools, and this should not be forgotten. Of the concerns raised, I saw three common themes expressed by parents across the board: dissatisfaction with general academic quality, concern over the degree to which teachers are teaching to the test, and frustration with persistent behavior issues. I see these three issues as all being closely related. Over the long haul, teaching to the test sterilizes learning and turns kids off to school. And kids who dislike school and lack intellectual curiosity are much more likely to act up. Classrooms that have high academic quality, in my experience, have far fewer issues with disruptive behavior and bullying.

Parent Involvement and School Councils:
Regular, sustained parent involvement is critical to the success of students and their schools. School councils are a great way of involving parents in policy decisions about their schools, as well as in their day-to-day functioning. I have visited many of these councils during my first term and have been impressed by the work they do. I also appreciate that some school councils operate differently than others and I encourage them to make district-wide policy recommendations to the School Committee. I will oppose any changes to our School Committee rules that would restrict the authority of school councils.

Civics Education:
I am working hard to promote active civics education so that Cambridge youth are fully prepared to participate in our democracy. Let's put the "public" back into public education! The City of Cambridge spends over $130 million on our public schools and we deserve a strong return on our investment. There are pressing community issues-high housing costs, unaffordable health care, environmental degradation, violent conflicts-that desperately need attention by the next generation of leaders. In addition to giving our kids economic skills to compete in a global job market, we must also teach them the political skills to participate in our democracy and advocate for change.

WiFi and Digital Divide:
As part of our new subcommittee structure I was named chair of our committee on the Digital Divide. We have recently decided to roll our committee's efforts into a broader joint CPS/City Committee on the Digital Divide. Our challenge is to design a structure for providing computer hardware to Cambridge families who would not otherwise have access to the city's coming free public wireless network. As a first step we are discussing a pilot project where recycled desktop computers would be made available to elementary-age kids in Newtowne Court, the first location where the city's wireless network is up and running.

As a School Committee member I am pushing to have the city's pilot project tied tightly to the schools, preferably providing computers to families through their CPS children. One exciting example of this potential collaboration is employing RSTA students to staff call centers to address families' technical problems. This would provide RSTA students with real world experience and help families troubleshoot the myriad potential technical problems inherent in a project like this.

Safe and Welcoming Schools:
On June 10, 2006 I was honored to receive, on behalf of the School Committee, an award at the Annual Cambridge Lesbian and Gay Pride Breakfast. We received the reward in recognition of our successful efforts to include in the FY '06-'07 budget increased funding for the coordinator of Project 10 East at CRLS, Cambridge's gay/straight alliance created to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) youth in Cambridge's schools.

Our schools must provide a safe space for students of all races, religions, and sexual orientations. I support Project 10 East, CRLS's Gay/Straight Alliance, and will ensure that all students and school staff feel safe to make their sexual orientation public. I will support training to help teachers recognize and interrupt homophobic, racist, and sexist behavior and all bullying. Cambridge prides itself on being a diverse community. Appreciation of diversity must be taught and instilled through the school curricula and demonstrated in every aspect of the school community.

Military Recruitment:
I am proud of the role I played in rewriting our district's military recruitment policy. Military recruiters have a history of providing misleading information and making exaggerated claims about post-service educational support. The school committee has an important role to play in ensuring that our students make well-informed decisions about their future.

While local control over recruitment is restricted by the federal No Child Left Behind act, we were able to make two important changes: 1) Recruiters can no longer make drop-in visits and roam the hallways talking to kids one-on-one. They must give the Career Resource Center one week's notice so that the Peace Commission has the opportunity to visit the high school concurrently and present balancing information. 2) Student opt-out forms for withholding personal contact information from recruiters now last for all four years of a student's high school career, rather than for just one year.

Standardized Report Cards?:
A committee was formed prior to my time on the school committee to explore standardizing report cards for given grade levels across the district. This committee-composed of teachers, parents, and administrators, and excluding students(!)-has made some preliminary recommendations and a final decision on implementing district report cards will be made during the next term.

While I dislike the way that report cards are used as a tool for charting academic competition, I do believe they can be valuable for presenting constructive feedback. I fear that standardized report cards will depersonalize the feedback given to students and parents and, for this reason, I have consistently pushed for report cards that are based primarily on detailed feedback from teachers. The first draft we received from the report card committee confirmed my fears. It was filled with countless checkboxes for teachers to rank achievement through the use of obscure codes. Only at the end was there a section for additional written comments.

The best reason for standardizing report cards across the elementary schools is to make it easier for high school teachers to understand the report cards for all incoming ninth graders. Additionally, posting report cards online would enable all teachers to access previous years' report cards for all of their students. I believe we can find a compromise system that takes advantage of these potential benefits but still encourages detailed individual feedback and allows for unique additional sections at individual schools.

Adult Education:
I am a former GED teacher and a current organizer for adult education programs across the state (GED, English for speakers of other languages, and adult literacy programs). Fortunately, Cambridge has one of the country's strongest adult ed. programs in the Community Learning Center (CLC) based in Central Square on Brookline St.

Students at the CLC are often those who were most underserved by our public schools. They, more than anyone else, deserve strong educational programming. One immediate way the School Committee can help support the CLC is by advocating for a new building. The old police station is one possible location.

Additionally, the school department has much to learn from many of the CLC's innovative programs where, for example, evening classes are taught with parents and their kids learning side-by-side.

Special Education:
Despite being well resourced, our Office of Special Education has been a barrier for receiving services for far too many families. I also find it deeply problematic that students of color are over-referred to special education, particularly to behavior programs.

Fortunately, we have reason to be optimistic about change due to the hiring of Dr. Aida Ramos, our new Director of OSE. Dr. Ramos has hit the ground running and has compiled a list of needed improvements that are already being addressed. Last spring, the School Committee also voted to spend surplus budget money to hire two part-time parent ombudspersons to act as free liaisons for parents who cannot afford to hire private advocates and/or lawyers. These are positive improvements and there is more work to be done.

Candidate's 2005 responses 

Page last updated October 17, 2007 Cambridge Candidates