Alice Turkel

Alice Turkel
2009 Candidate for Cambridge School Committee

Home address:
12 Upton St.
Cambridge, MA 02139

Contact information:
Tel: 617-491-8436

Send contributions to:
Committee to Elect Alice Turkel
12 Upton St.
Cambridge, MA 02139

I'm running for School Committee to help make our schools places students want to attend, places faculty feel respected and supported, and places where parents and guardians are confident that their children's needs are being met.

I was first involved in the Cambridge School System as one of the parents who started the Cambridgeport School in 1990. I served four terms (1996 - 2003) on the School Committee, and then took a break to be home with my young son. My husband, Mitch Ryerson, and I have three children. Our daughters went to the Cambridgeport and King Open schools, and graduated from CRLS. Our son is in 5th grade at King Open.

During my break from politics I continued working for children and their families. I am an overseer on the board of the Boston Children's Museum and a board member of the Friends of the Community Learning Center (Cambridge's public adult education center), which helps parents of many CPS students improve their English language skills and work toward high school diplomas. I also serve on the Healthy Playgrounds Task Force for the City of Cambridge, working to create a variety of playgrounds throughout the city to challenge and engage all ages and abilities.

I have worked with the Public Heath Department on a range of children's health issues including producing two public forums on healthy/risky teen behaviors and on childhood obesity. I introduced Chef Vin Connelly to our school system and worked with him to make our school cafeteria food healthier and more appealing by adding new cooked-from-scratch recipes and more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Before becoming involved in local politics I taught woodworking in public, private and after-school settings for preschool through college level students. I have a Bachelor's of Applied Arts degree from Boston University in Woodworking and Furniture Design and received my Massachusetts certification as a kindergarten through 12th grade teacher of both Art and Industrial Arts at Boston University. I've worked in cabinet shops, as a theatrical carpenter and have sold furniture I designed and constructed through galleries and by private commission.

I am eager to work full time for Cambridge students and their families. With a new superintendent in Cambridge and a new administration in Washington, there are a number of opportunities for Cambridge to take advantage of and build on our past successes. My experience and ability to work towards consensus will be helpful in shaping policies that will positively affect Cambridge student achievement in the years to come.

My overarching priority is to focus the Cambridge School Department on creating many ways for students to access deep meaningful learning, and many opportunities for students to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they acquire.

Achieving Success for All Students
Success in school for children of all racial, economic, and language backgrounds and for students with and without special education needs means having each student do well academically, develop a love of learning and be positively engaged with the curriculum, with his/her peers and with the faculty.

Create a Healthy Learning Atmosphere
Making sure our schools support students' social, emotional, physical and mental health is a priority. Meeting these needs enhances students' ability to focus on academics and creates a positive learning atmosphere for the whole class.

Multiple Assessments
Establishing multiple ways of assessing students, teachers and schools, which do not rely solely on test scores is a priority. Students should have a variety of ways to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Our city values and benefits from creative thinking, the arts, project based learning, school based governance and family involvement. We must find ways to acknowledge ongoing success in those areas, as well as ways to hold principals accountable for the quality of that important work in every school.

School Department Administration and Superintendent:
One of the School Committee's primary roles is hiring and evaluating the Superintendent. The new Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Jeffery Young began his tenure in July 2009. To effectively evaluate Dr. Young, the School Committee must develop a shared vision for the school system, agree on goals, and on ways to measure those goals.

I believe the Superintendent will be most effective and successful doing what he truly believes in and what the School Committee whole-heartedly supports. I will work with the Superintendent and School Committee to create policies that support shared goals. It is the Superintendent's job to mold the administration into a structure that will best support moving the school system towards that shared vision. This can require restructuring the role of departments, changing their leadership and changing staffing patterns. I believe reducing central administration and moving more of the school department funding into the control of individual schools will allow schools to better serve students.

One of the Superintendent's most important jobs is hiring and evaluating principals. Just as principals should support teachers, the Superintendent's role includes being a resource for both experienced and new principals; inspiring them to grow and to improve their practice. If we move to more funding decisions made at the school level, the strength of each principal is key to using those resources to the maximum benefit for all students.

School Department Budget:
I have two goals for the School Department Budget.

One goal is to move more control of funding to the school level. At the school level principals, school staff, teachers, and parents/guardians can work together to create the best learning environments for their student population. Knowing students well and understanding their needs can lead to spending funds in ways that directly and positively impact student learning. This approach must be paired with high expectations for students in all schools and a high level of accountability from principals to the Superintendent of Schools.

My other goal is to make the school budget more comprehensible to parents/guardians, the general public and school staff. A more clearly written budget, with better analysis and summaries would help to answer some of the persistent questions raised in Cambridge:
  "Why don't all children succeed at higher levels, given how much we spend?"
  "Why do funding decisions seem unfair from school to school?"

CRLS Renovations and the Disposition of Surplus Buildings:
On the renovation of CRLS - hurrah! Our students and faculty deserve an up-to-date and well-equipped place to study and to work.

Cambridge now has two surplus school buildings, the Longfellow building on Broadway and the Webster (recently Graham and Parks) building on Upton Street. I think the school system should continue to maintain these buildings. It is much less expensive to use city owned buildings than to find and rent buildings on an as needed basis. History has shown that surplus buildings are often needed. We are currently considering middle school options, and have several elementary schools that are in need of renovations. It would be unwise to sell these buildings now.

Controlled Choice and Student Assignment Policies:
Since the 1970's Cambridge has been a leader in working to create schools where the student body is diversified through family choice. Most families receive one of their top 3 choices each year. The system of controlled choice has fostered a range of educational philosophies in Cambridge that give families educational options such as alternative education, bilingual education, Core Knowledge, or Montessori style education.

The Controlled Choice Plan was developed to integrate schools as children enter a school in kindergarten or in a later grade. It is an imperfect plan because it neither deals with the fact that many families will not send their child to a mandatory assignment, nor does it deal with families leaving schools. To improve the balance of students in our schools through choice and not through mandatory assignments, the school system must become more responsive to parent/guardian desires. We must be more flexible about opening the types of programs families are interested in. A good example of this would be the dramatic increase in families choosing the Tobin School after it was changed to a Montessori school.

Each school that is not well balanced should be asked to develop a plan to attract a student population that more closely matches the diversity of students represented in the whole school system. This plan would require schools to look hard at how they present themselves to the public. What are they doing and what message does it send to different populations? To be a welcoming, desirable school for the families that do not live nearby a school requires that extra something that makes getting on a bus worthwhile. Our goal should be to make all families in Cambridge feel like the public schools are their first choice and that when entering the Cambridge School Lottery a family is guaranteed to "win" because all our schools are welcoming, high achieving schools one would be happy to send one's child to.

Achievement Gap:
Success in school for children of all racial, economic, and language backgrounds, and for students with and without special education needs is the school system's most important goal. Success means doing well academically, developing a love of learning and being positively engaged with the curriculum, with peers and with the faculty. Closing the achievement gap means more than just equalizing test scores, it means finding ways to connect with each student and their family in powerful ways that help each student achieve.

The gap will only close if we approach it from many angles at once and utilize highly regarded research to inform our policies. We know from longitudinal studies that strong pre-school opportunities can dramatically affect long term outcomes; to that end the school district should partner with the city to create more and better educational opportunities prior to Kindergarten.

Other initiatives that will aid in closing the achievement gap are:

  • Hiring and retaining a teaching staff that reflects the diversity of our student body.
  • Creating a variety of approaches to teaching all subjects so that all students can access and engage with the curriculum.
  • Creating schools that are safe, nurturing and challenging for every student.

Honors Classes, Gifted Students, Intensive Studies Program, Tracking:
In order to meet the main goals of the CPS (closing the achievement gap, and creating schools that provide a safe, healthy and engaging learning atmosphere) it is important to give every student academic challenge and to not place students in classrooms that limit their potential. To this end the Superintendent and School Committee should together to develop a policy that addresses the needs of advanced or high achieving students at every grade level.

Cambridge Public School Department has no clear, consistent philosophy about meeting the needs of students who are high achieving academically. In our elementary schools access to advanced curriculum appears to vary school to school, and classroom to classroom. At the sixth grade level some students are invited to go to a program just for "motivated students" (ISP), while some high achievers remain in untracked classrooms in their K-8 schools. The High School offers classes at different levels including honors and advanced placement, which often serve an unbalanced (by race and class) set of students. This model does not encourage all students to meet their highest potential.

I believe our schools would do a better job of meeting the needs of all students in integrated, untracked classrooms if we acknowledged the needs of high achieving students as genuine. I support continuing professional development for all teachers in all curriculum areas so they can improve their teaching and take advantage of best practices that enable teaching at a variety of learning levels in a classroom. Teachers need a support structure to help them find appropriate curriculum; curriculum which allows students to engage in the same themes and topics as their classmates at different levels, allowing each student access to the important content in any subject and challenging each student appropriately.

Middle Schools:
Students face a developmentally unique time in the years directly preceding high school. Across the country every conceivable configuration of middle grade schools has been tried (5th-8th grade schools, 6th-8th grades, 7th and 8th grades alone, 7th and 8th within an elementary school, 7th and 8th within a high school, 9th grade alone, 7th-9th grade to mention a few). Although each system has its benefits, none has emerged as clearly superior.

Our current K-8th grade model allows for the continuity of relationships between students and faculty and between families and school personnel. This is particularly true for families with more than one child, who experience fewer years with siblings in different schools. The K- 8 structure also facilitates relationships between students in the middle school years and younger students that happen both casually and in programs such as 'Reading Buddies'. In a K-8th grade school pressure to 'grow up too soon' is reduced. I believe our current structure is good for students and their families.

Some of Cambridge's elementary schools have very small student populations in their upper grades (and the Haggerty School has no room in its building for upper grade students). Fewer students means less resources, and many people feel that a small teaching staff and a limited peer group does not create the best opportunities socially or academically for the students at those schools. I believe we can resolve the issues for those schools with small numbers of students in the upper grades without disrupting all of our schools. If some of those school communities felt it was in the best interests of their students, they could choose to pool resources and merge their upper grade students into a junior high or middle school. It is critical that this be the upper grade solution for participating schools and not a citywide magnet. A magnet middle school open to students across the city could increase the problem it seeks to remedy by depleting the number of students in schools that choose to remain K-8s.

For schools that choose to remain kindergarten through eighth grade the system needs to supply the resources, supports and professional development necessary to help those schools fully meet the needs of students in this age range.

High School:
Over the next two years the buildings of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School will be renovated. The high school has a significant enrollment increase this year despite the disruption of renovation. While this reflects well on the progress the high school has recently made, the high school will face challenges scheduling more students into appropriate classes. It is critical that not only academic courses be increased if the numbers warrant, but also that elective options increase sufficiently. For many students the vocational education courses at the Rindge School of Technical Arts (a part of CRLS), art courses, foreign language courses and other electives are what make the high school a place they want to be, and a place where they can be successful.

In addition to the wide selection of course options during the school day, CRLS offers a rich array of after school clubs, teams and activities. These offerings that extend the school day experience must be supported because they are a critical part of a high quality, successful high school education. I will work with the School Committee to assure that the proper resources are in place for CRLS to continue its growth, and to maintain its position as one of the top urban public schools in the Commonwealth.

MCAS and Measuring Student Achievement:
It is important to establish multiple ways of assessing students, teachers and schools, which do not rely solely on test scores. Students should have a variety of ways to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have acquired. If we value creative thinking, the arts, project based learning, school based governance and family involvement we must find ways to acknowledge ongoing success in those areas and ways to hold principals accountable for the quality of the work that goes into improving those areas in their schools.

Student achievement should be measured in a variety of ways such as the quality of portfolios and demonstrations of student work. Standardized tests such as MCAS can be a useful tool in giving an overview of how whole school or grade level populations are achieving on a narrow set of goals. I will continue to monitor the Mass. State frameworks and participate in the state discussions that take place around the MCAS tests. I want to work to assure that the tests are meaningful, and that our students benefit from the MCAS system. The MCAS results easily let large schools (small schools often do not have enough students in any given sub-group to receive sub-group results) look at sub-group achievement, forcing schools to pay attention to groups such as English language learners, special education students and children of different racial backgrounds. Cambridge has learned some things from the tests, but while they have focused attention on some areas of the curriculum, the drive to increase test scores has diverted time and attention from other equally important parts of the curriculum and school day. I believe Cambridge can use the information from the testing to help, not hinder our students, if the broad needs of students are kept in perspective.

Teacher Evaluations and Performance Measures:
Teachers are the single most important resource in our schools. They must be supported with relevant professional development, adequate supplies and supportive leadership. All the principals must work to ensure that every teacher is evaluated fairly and on schedule. Principals should be a resource to both experienced and new teachers, inspiring them to grow and to improve their practice. Insuring teacher evaluations are done well is a central part of the Superintendent's review of each principal's performance and in turn a central piece of the data the School Committee uses in evaluating the Superintendent.

Teacher Recruitment, Retention and Diversity:
Currently, in Cambridge, our school population is rising, while across Massachusetts many teachers are retiring and leaving the profession. It is a challenge to hire and retain a diverse, high quality teaching staff. Our student body is composed of children of many racial, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. If our teaching staff is to better reflect the student body, the staff of our human resources department must be given clear goals and the resources to meet those goals. The Superintendent must work with the teachers to understand what makes teaching in Cambridge challenging and rewarding. This will inform his understanding of how to support teachers so Cambridge can grow and retain a strong, diverse teaching staff.

School Safety:
Every school should be a place students and faculty are safe physically, emotionally and intellectually. This atmosphere must begin when students step on the school bus in the morning and must be maintained until they step off each afternoon.

Bullying can happen in any school and every school should have a plan to deal with it. Most children try out a range of behaviors both positive and negative. They learn what is and isn't appropriate based on the reactions they get from the children and adults they are in contact with. When teasing, excluding, threatening or intimidating behavior is repeated or becomes a pattern, it becomes bullying. When a child is stuck in the role of victim or aggressor there is a problem.

Schools must use two approaches in dealing with bullying. One is to use anti-bullying curriculum, or other classroom management techniques to set classroom and school expectations for behavior. Good curriculum makes the students aware of the power they have to change a situation for the better.

The other approach is to deal with both the bully's and the victim's mental health needs. Often a bully does not feel good about his/herself and uses making another child uncomfortable or scared as a way to build their feelings of power and self-worth. This cannot be remedied easily with a set of rules or expectations and consequences and is better dealt with by helping the bully build internal resources. Likewise the victim may need help in feeling confident enough to not present him/herself as a target. Teachers must have access to mental health professionals who can help children find their way out of the roles of bully or victim.

Family Involvement:
When parents/guardians and schools truly act as partners, students thrive. Schools must create numerous and varied ways to welcome parents/guardians into the schools, and into their child's school life. Every family should be able to find a comfortable role in which they can contribute to their child's education. Parent/guardian involvement can take many forms, from working on school governance, attending student performances, overseeing homework, organizing or attending school events, participating in parent/teacher conferences to readying students to get on the school bus each morning.

Communication between home and school is the foundation of family involvement. Student-to-student and family-to-family connections and communication also strengthen school communities. The school system should make facilitating connections a priority and find a safe way to facilitate student directories for every school.

School Councils:
School Improvement Councils are organizations of parents, teachers and principals working together to make their schools better places for the students they serve. Decisions made by school councils are decisions made by people who know the children they are serving well and who care about those children.

This collaborative form of school governance can lead to positive change in schools. During my tenure on School Committee I advocated successfully for including School Improvement Funds in the budget. These funds are available to each school to spend to move the priorities of their School Improvement Council forward. I will continue to advocate for more control of the Cambridge Public School Budget at the school level, where those closest to our children can decide how most efficiently to use resources for supporting student learning and well being.

Note: Alice Turkel was previously elected in 1995, 1997, 1999, and 2001 and served on the Cambridge School Committee from 1996 to 2003.

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Page last updated October 15, 2009 Cambridge Candidates