Would A Charter School Help Black Kids In Cambridge? Former Mayor Likes The Idea

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/09/30/would-a-charter-school-help-black-kids-in-cambridge-former-mayor-likes-the-idea/

A charter school model for black kids in Harlem interests some Cambridge city officials as a means of lessening achievement gaps and promoting success.

E. Denise Simmons, a Cambridge city councilor and former mayor of the city, praised the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit organization that includes three charter schools, during a public meeting earlier this week.

She also expressed frustration that Cambridge hasn’t adopted something similar.

Simmons described leading a visit by Cambridge officials some years ago to the Harlem Children’s Zone, which at the time was run by its founder, Geoffrey Canada.

“Basically, what Dr. Canada did is he looked at the area of Harlem, and he literally did a wraparound program, starting at pre-K all the way to college. He made sure there were meal programs, there were tutors, there were mentors. He ran the schools. They were charter schools,” Simmons said during a meeting of the Civic Unity Committee, a subcommittee of the Cambridge City Council, on Thursday, September 29 (at 49:50 of the video on the city’s web site).

Holding teachers accountable was a hallmark of Canada’s approach, she said.

“One of his, not necessarily popular, but effective mantra, was:  Each teacher had to come up with a work plan to get their children to a certain level. And if you didn’t, you had to leave. He had extraordinarily high expectations, because he knew that black and brown children could, if challenged, cared for, and given the supports, could do equal to – and sometimes even better – their non-minority counterparts,” Simmons said.

Public officials in Cambridge at the time liked what they heard but didn’t go all in, she said.

“Where we failed, is we took what I call the a la carte approach. Geoffrey Canada was successful because it was an entire program. And for whatever reason — and I don’t want to disparage my former colleagues — we didn’t adopt the entire program,” Simmons said.

“… And at that time it was only $500,000. And the School Committee absolutely would not adopt it,” Simmons said.

Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services, also took part in the visit to Harlem. She described it during the Civic Unity Committee meeting Thursday.

“It was a remarkable experience, for those of us who had the opportunity to be there,” Semonoff said.

She said that it’s hard to replicate Geoffrey Canada, and she noted that Cambridge isn’t Harlem, so a program in Cambridge probably wouldn’t be the same as the one there.

“But I would say the biggest missing piece is the one you put your finger on, which is Geoffrey Canada ran the schools – the charter schools,” Semonoff said. “… What I would say is a considerably different piece is that all of the children were attending schools that were under his control. And that meant something very different, and the fact that they were charter schools, not regular public schools, meant they had a breadth of different opportunity.”

The main purpose of the Civic Unity Committee meeting Thursday was to discuss proposals to create a Black Men and Boys Commission and a Task Force on African American/Black Residents as advisory bodies in city government.

Isaac Yablo, a Cambridge resident and the policy and research director for the city of Boston’s Office of Black Male Advancement, spoke during the meeting.

He said existing programs in Cambridge, including one called My Brother’s Keeper, ought to get more support than they do now.

“Part of the problem, in my opinion, in the past with government across all spectrums, is when there’s movement towards a certain issue, or momentum behind a certain issue, government likes to own things rather than kind of strengthen what may be already happening in the community,” Yablo said (at 54:30 of the video).

Committee members heard a presentation from Tyrell Dortch, the city’s youth center director, about a summer program he runs called Boys II Men, which teaches good decision-making and leadership. Another presentation described a summer silent-reading program for ages 9 and up called Drop Everything and Read and an existing relationship in Cambridge with an organization called Coalition for Schools Educating Boys of Color.

Quinton Zondervan, a city councilor and member of the subcommittee who immigrated to the United States from Suriname when he was a teen-ager, said the proposed new commission could evaluate, showcase, and lobby for money for successful programs aimed at helping blacks.

“I think it is really important to define success. One of the ways that I look at that is when we’re not seeing a disproportionate impact on black and brown people, then we know we’ve been successful. Right? We know that some black people succeed and achieve excellence on their own, and some white people don’t. Right? And so that’s just the way things are. But when you see a disproportionate impact where more black people than you would expect are not able to achieve job security and financial security and safety and peace in their lives, then we know that there’s a systemic problem. Right?  It’s not their fault, right? There’s something else going on that’s skewing those outcomes. And when we no longer see that, then we know that we’ve at least equalized the playing field and given everybody relatively equal chance at success. So that’s one way that I think we can look at that question,” Zondervan said (at 1:19:08 of the video). “And so far, we haven’t achieved success.”

Early in the meeting, Simmons said she has been active in Cambridge city government for more than 40 years, and during that time she has sought “to life up and really empower” her fellow blacks in the city.

But she expressed frustration  with the results.

She said (at 15:58 of the video):

“The issues I’ve sought to address have been … frustratingly resilient. I think it’s important that we acknowledge the fact, that we really dig down and ask ourselves why.

“Why have we not solved some of these hard-fought, resilient issues? You know, why do we have a persistent achievement gap in our public schools?

“Why do we find fewer career opportunities … and wealth-building opportunities for people of color – specifically black?

“Why do we see so many of our younger people, black people, getting drawn into the world of violence, when they are – undoubtedly, it stunts their ability to go further. It lessens opportunities for them to build a better, happier future for themselves.

“Why does it seem like every few years the city makes a considered attempt to truly address these issues only to find ourselves coming back to the table again and again to grapple with the same persistent challenges?

“From my perspective, I don’t think that these are unsolvable problems.

“But I do think that good intentions will only carry us so far.”


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