School Committee Q&A: Rachel Kay

Rachel Kay is running for School Committee.

Tell people about your background — family, professional background, volunteering, government, activism — and how that will help you as a School Committee member. 

Personally, I am a single mother working full time. I know the challenges that working families face when advocating for their children in a system that is not always designed to work for us. I can speak up for these families.

Professionally, I am an educational data scientist and currently work for MIT. I have been working in education since I graduated from Brown University. I began as a classroom teacher and moved into curriculum development, focused around testing. I went to graduate school and earned a PhD in Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation. I have since worked in educational research at non-profits, at Mass Bay Community College, and for the past seven years as Director of Research and Analysis at the MIT Admissions Office. My unique professional expertise will allow me to evaluate programs and policies that the Watertown Schools might adopt based on the most recent research.

How can the Watertown Schools help students catch up and make up the learning opportunities they lost during remote learning over the past couple school years?

MCAS results and teacher observations have shown what many families already knew: our students did not learn up to normal grade-level standards during a full year of disrupted learning. Our teachers are already addressing that on a student and classroom-level through within-class assessments and using the WIN (What-I-Need) time to help students with their deficits.

That said, we know that the losses will take many years to overcome. As we go through this year, it will be necessary for us to come up with plans for the system: how long will we need catch-up learning? Will it be for all children or just some? And if just some, when and where can it be done? We need to look carefully at our regular assessments for gaps. This is more urgent for students in middle and high school as they prepare for life beyond high school.

Overall, our kids need individual attention to make up what they can from the last year. For some kids it will be math, others reading, and others more social-emotional. Some all of the above. The district is receiving millions of federal dollars for this and we must ensure it is put to the best use. My educational data background can assist with that.

Watertown will soon have three new schools, and a fourth renovated and expanded, giving the district state-of-the-art facilities. How can the Watertown Schools provide the type of education that matches the top-of-the-line facilities?

By including teachers in the design of the buildings, the buildings should already be built in ways that work best for learning and teaching. The new Cunniff School includes spaces for collaboration and rooms for small groups. Allowing ultimate flexibility in method of instruction is important for our elementary schools.

For our high school, we again want to make sure our teachers are fully involved in designing the space. We should also be looking at having modern laboratories and libraries so that our students can have access to first-class learning across fields. We need to think about what programs will best prepare our students to meet their future. Likewise, can we improve our spaces for arts so our students will have opportunities in those areas? Big picture: we need to bring the same high expectations to our academic programs as we have brought to the building design.

Recent national events have increased the focus on how schools teach history and other subjects. Some call for including more diverse perspectives in lessons, while others want to make sure that the history that they, and previous generations of students, remains in the curriculum. While the School Committee does not set the curriculum, it has some influence in the direction the Watertown Public Schools takes. How would you like to see the Watertown Schools approach issues of history and social studies?

Most of us who grew up in the United States learned the same history: as told by the perspective of the winners. But of course, the full story is much broader. There were numerous people who were not fighting wars or winning presidencies and their stories are part of our story as well. It is important for our students to learn history from a variety of perspectives, including all people, those who look like them and those who look differently. Thinking about history from different points of view is also a way to develop critical thinking skills, which should be a core goal for our students.

I have been disheartened in recent days as the atmosphere around these issues has grown increasingly inflamed and aggressive. To the extent that there is debate at all, it feels mostly like people yelling past each other. These are important and difficult questions and it is important to recognize that there is no single magically correct way to talk or think about all this. But it would be anti-educational to teach the same version of history forever, regardless of new research and perspectives. It is possible to have these conversations in an open-hearted way, just as it is possible (and essential) that we teach these things in an open-hearted way. It is my sincere hope that, when the crucible of this election has passed, our community will be able to move forward with a discussion that recognizes the value in each other’s perspectives.

Watertown students have not been able to gain access to Minuteman High School and its vocational and other programs since the new school opened. How should Watertown ensure that students seeking this type of education have access to it? Should Watertown become a member of the Minuteman District, add programs in the WPS, or make partnerships with other vocational schools in the area (or a combination)?

When the School Committee voted not to become a member district of Minuteman in 2018, they did not fully realize how limiting that choice would be for the students of Watertown. After a few years of having very few students able to attend Minuteman, it is time to review our options. Minuteman is one of the best voc/tech high schools in the state. Recreating what Minuteman offers through new construction in Watertown or access to some coalition of other high schools that are further away and offer some limited voc/tech courses would be a huge challenge and is unlikely. If the financial resources are available for us to join, as well as assurances from Minuteman about how many students per year will have the opportunity to attend, this should be a priority option.

If joining Minuteman is not do-able, we need to do all we can to give our children good options starting now. These options need to be communicated clearly to families and the district needs to give families support in connecting with what is available. The most important thing is not to let years go by, and students slip through the cracks, while we figure out what to do.

For over 35% of students in the Watertown Schools their first language is not English. They speak dozens of languages and are from many countries around the globe. How can Watertown make these students and their families feel welcome, and make sure their needs are being addressed?

First, we need to be sure these families can access important information. Our schools do this by providing newsletters in multiple languages via Smores, but it is also essential we have available interpreters for families who are not fluent in English for meetings, conferences, and other communication from the school. This may involve developing relationships with local organizations that can provide translators, particularly for languages that are less common within our community.

We also want to make sure these students feel welcome. Part of doing this is providing a multi- ethnic curriculum where differences between cultures are explored and celebrated. This will benefit all students as well as allowing students new to our country to feel more included. Our foreign language classes are an excellent place for students to also learn about the cultural traditions around that language and country of origin.

Obviously we need a strong ELL program where students can learn English. These programs need to be adequately funded to serve the needs of the students, and backed by the research data to show they work.

While these programs are important, we also want all students to be a part of their larger peer group as much as possible. The longer students are isolated, the harder it will be for them to integrate into the larger community. This may require specific professional development for teachers on how to create opportunities for all students to interact despite language limitations.

Lastly, we have to find opportunities to integrate the whole family into our community. This is a larger project than just the schools, but the schools often serve as a connection point for new families. Schools can have an important role connecting families with resources for their own language learning, employment and job trainings, as well as social workers or support groups.

What is something that people may not know about you that residents would find interesting?

I love to travel and have visited every continent except Antarctica. This includes living in Tokyo or a year and learning several languages, albeit very poorly. In high school, I was a State Math Team champion, where I honed my love of math. I have connected with over 4,000 Watertown residents in this campaign and am incredibly grateful to them for sharing their time with me.