A Year in the Life: An Introduction to Somerville Public Schools

*Over the coming months, we'll be releasing a series of dispatches on the bright spots and challenges of the past year in Somerville Public Schools. We hope this in-depth look at one community can shed light on what students and schools across the state need right now and how communities and policymakers can support them.*

In many ways, Somerville is unique: by its mayor’s own admission, it’s an “abnormal” place, not afraid to shake up the status quo. New England’s most densely populated community, it features a diverse population of blue-collar families, young professionals, and recently arrived immigrants. Residents’ strong civic pride is evident (during non-pandemic times) in frequent community gatherings, arts festivals, and cultural celebrations. Operationally, Somerville is characterized by a high level of cohesion among leaders from the city and school district, as well as the long tenure of Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, currently serving his ninth—and, as recently announced, final—term in that office.

But despite Somerville’s distinctive nature, its experiences amid the pandemic reflect those of cities and towns around the Commonwealth. Over the past year, the community ethos that binds residents has at times been strengthened by adversity, and at other times begun to fray at the seams, highlighting the challenges of bridging divides within a diverse population. Communication emerged as a top priority, bringing renewed urgency to initiatives that were already underway to strengthen connections between families and schools, and between city and school district resources. And leaders struggled to reconcile competing needs, turning to their core values—a focus on safety and wellbeing, faith in data and evidence—to navigate the shifting sands of a public health crisis.

Understanding how these trends have played out in one district will allow us to tell a broader story about education in Massachusetts amid the pandemic: what have been the core challenges? What has gone well, in spite of all the obstacles? What can we build on as we prepare for the new school year? Throughout our reports, we will avoid passing judgment on “correct” or “incorrect” decisions; instead, we will seek to explore what has actually taken place over the past year and what lessons this holds for districts and schools grappling with their next steps. We aim to elevate models of learning and approaches to practice that are worth sharing with the broader field, and that set the stage for a broader reckoning with what learning should look like post-pandemic.

In this initial dispatch, we begin by sharing background information on the city of Somerville, its schools, and its students, and then highlight some key reflections from some of the leaders who have been steering the district for the past year: Mayor Joe Curtatone, School Committee Chair Andre Green, and Superintendent Mary Skipper.

Overview: The City of Somerville and Somerville Public Schools
As of 2019, Somerville boasted a population of more than 80,000 residents, making it the 12th-largest city in Massachusetts. The total population has been rising slowly but steadily since 2010, largely due to an increasing number of adults between ages 25 and 34. Their influence has helped keep the median age at just 31, making Somerville one of the most youthful communities across the state. The city’s demographic mix also means that its public schools enroll a relatively small number of students compared to its overall population: with just under 5,000 students in 2020, it ranked as the 46th-largest district in the state.

The students attending Somerville Public Schools (SPS) represent a diverse range of racial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. The chart to the left shows student enrollment by race/ethnicity in the 2019-20 school year compared to Massachusetts as a whole. Nearly half of students have a first language other than English and 21% are classified as English Learners, with more than 50 languages spoken by SPS students. To serve these students, the district operates 11 schools varying in size from 1,228 students (at Somerville High) to fewer than 70 students (at Next Wave Junior High and Full Circle High School, alternative school settings that operate as one school community). Many students begin their journey through SPS at the Capuano Early Childhood Center, which serves 282 students in PreK and Kindergarten, or at one of five PreK-8 schools within the district.

SPS has made notable progress in recent years in many areas—in particular, the 4-year graduation rate hit 88% in 2020, up from 72.6% in 2010. Among Black students, the improvement was even greater: 89.5% of Black students graduated in four years in 2020, a figure higher than the district average and up from just 56.9% in 2010. On the 2019 MCAS administration, the story was more mixed. For instance, just under half (49%) of students were meeting or exceeding expectations in Grade 3 English Language Arts (ELA), while 41% of students reached that benchmark in Grade 8 Mathematics. While both of those figures trail state averages, when looking at student growth percentile (SGP)—a measure of how much each student progresses per year relative to peers in similar settings—Somerville is outperforming many other urban districts. Its SGP ranks 2nd out of a group of 24 urban districts in ELA in grades 3-8, and 5th in ELA in grade 10. Additionally, the 53% of Somerville students meeting or exceeding expectations on the grade 10 ELA exam are the third-highest among districts in this group.

Of course, test scores cannot tell the full story of a school district’s progress. Somerville has invested in a range of innovative program offerings over the past few years intended to promote a comprehensive, engaging school curriculum and support the development of the whole child. This includes new opportunities for project-based and work-based learning, an array of advanced coursework (including dual enrollment options offering college credit) for high school students, and full-time school-based Family and Community Liaisons to link families with a range of services and supports. District staff have been able to leverage (and even expand) many of these ongoing initiatives amid pandemic-related school closures.

Over the past year, Somerville has not been spared from the worst effects of COVID-19. As of March 31, the city has had 5,233 confirmed positive cases of the virus, leading to the deaths of 81 residents. This loss of life has weighed particularly heavily on city leaders, though it tells only part of the story about the challenges endured by residents over the past 12 months. The unemployment rate spiked from 2% in March 2020 to 11.4% a month later, before climbing to a high of 13.8% in June 2020. Though the level has since declined, this nonetheless represents decreased job security (and rising economic uncertainty) for hundreds of residents. Additionally, as in other localities, communities of color (including immigrant communities) were hit particularly hard by the impacts of the pandemic, exacerbating persistent disparities in health care, housing, and other areas. For instance, according to the city’s data dashboard, as of late 2020 Hispanic residents were contracting COVID-19 at nearly four times the rate of non-Hispanic residents.

SPS has played a critical role in helping families throughout the pandemic, connecting them with essential resources ranging from food to diapers to laptops, and much else besides. The district’s response—and reflections from the leaders who helped direct it—reveal a number of key themes about the past “year in the life” of Somerville Public Schools. The next section shares an overview of these themes, based on conversation with Mayor Joe Curtatone, School Committee Chair Andre Green, and Superintendent Mary Skipper.


Reflections on the Past Year from Somerville Leaders
The first theme that came through loud and clear from all three leaders was how the pandemic made clear the need to break down siloes—between schools and community services, and between the City and school district—in order to serve students and families. As soon as school buildings closed in March, officials aimed to address the immediate issues on families’ minds, such as food security, technology, and access to information on the virus. School sites were used as central points of contact to disseminate meals and devices—and to reassure families that basic needs would be met. As School Committee Chair Green noted, “Society expects schools to do so much to make sure kids get the resources needed to learn,” and officials had to figure out the delivery mechanism for these essential supports. Doing so required deep collaboration between municipal and district leaders. Mayor Curtatone outlined how the City and schools together set up a shared command system to gather and analyze data, while Superintendent Skipper emphasized how the constant interaction between staff led to “the city understanding school needs and the schools understanding what the city can offer.”

Responding to community needs requires understanding what families are experiencing and how to make assistance available. Resources are of no benefit unless families know about them. Therefore, the central importance of an effective communication plan was another theme in the leaders’ comments, with Superintendent Skipper referring to this plan as the “bedrock” of the district’s activities. In particular, having full-time Family and Community Liaisons at each school was a “lifesaver,” given their role in sending information out and gathering feedback from families. She also highlighted the importance of translating information into multiple languages—an area where city services were used to supplement what the district could accomplish on its own. Despite these efforts, according to School Committee Chair Green, “the level of demand was so far beyond anything we could have possibly expected. We expanded translation services and resources, but we couldn’t have done so enough to keep up with the demand for communication.”

All three leaders described how the absence of clear guidelines on how to proceed amid the pandemic increased the need to rely on a set of core values, namely safety and the preservation of life. Superintendent Skipper likened the task of leading the district to driving in a car when you can’t see ahead of you, and constantly being told you have to take a turn you don’t know is there. Without obvious directions to help navigate, she said, “we tried to create a moral compass about the most important things.” Mayor Curtatone emphasized that the City’s response was “guided and oriented by the values of keeping the community healthy, safe, and alive.” Acknowledging that this approach led to a lot of frustration from some community members, he described the need for empathy and listening to concerns, while still trying to align everyone around shared values. Describing the challenges of balancing competing needs and viewpoints, School Committee Chair Green was blunt: “There are no good answers.” Yet he also expressed pride about how city leaders have faced up to tough questions, without backing down from what they saw as their obligations to students, families, and community members.

Looking to the future, the three leaders see a clear opportunity to build on what’s worked well over the past year. Mayor Curtatone described how building on existing partnerships and working in lockstep to invest in school communities and families can help promote the healing that will be needed in the future. Superintendent Skipper and School Committee Chair Green cited family engagement as a bright spot over the last year, as schools have realized how essential families are (and vice versa). For instance, many families (particularly immigrant families) have deepened their understanding of the school system by getting a day-by-day look at what students are learning. Both district leaders also cautioned not to focus too heavily on what students have lost over the past year, but instead to build on what they have gained, such as resilience, empathy, and a sense of community. As Superintendent Skipper said, “It’s incumbent on us to talk not about remediation but about acceleration—how to take the strengths, the things they love, what they discovered about themselves, and to use that as a catalyst to fill in the other pieces.”

Each of these themes—eliminating siloes, communicating effectively, leading by values, and building on success—will be explored in greater detail within future dispatches on Somerville Public Schools. In the meantime, feel free to share any feedback on the Rennie Center’s “A Year in the Life” project at info@renniecenter.org, and watch for future opportunities to engage with this work.