Education: Our most important renewable resource

On September 7, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

For countless American communities, the first week of school brings a refreshing breath of energy and purpose. For Somerville and other communities in the Boston metro area, it hits with hurricane force.  With so many colleges and universities in the region, we’re not just watching our own kids go off to school: we’re watching as thousands of young adults from across the nation come here to take up their studies.  It’s a favorite time to complain about traffic, about noise and – in some quarters – about the costs of education at every level.

But can you imagine this city’s economy, cultural life or future well being without the lift provided by a strong public school system or the advantages of our location at the center of the Tufts-Harvard-MIT triangle?  I certainly can’t.  And in an era when, after years of declines in enrollment, Somerville’s public school population is on the rise again, can you imagine cutting back on the resources that give our  young people the skills and the knowledge they need to succeed?  It would be a sin against our responsibilities as a community – and against our long-term economic self-interest.

K-12 and post-secondary education – and a regional economy driven by research and technological innovation – are renewable resources. We get far more out of them than we put in.  On the list of high-yield investments in Somerville’s future prosperity, they will always rank high.

That’s why our schools have been working hard to deliver on the education initiatives I outlined last January in my inaugural remarks.  It’s also why our economic development efforts are focused not only on smart-growth, transit-oriented principles but on harnessing the economic and technological spinoff from our university-driven innovation sector.  With its enhanced reputation as a great place to savor the advantages of urban life, and with its expanding transit options, Somerville is now in a strong position to attract more of that economic activity and broaden its commercial tax base.

If we want to build a strong future for our city, we need to be leaders in both areas of educational development: On the public education front, we need to do the best possible job of preparing our young people for the jobs of the future.  On the economic development front, we need to leverage our skilled workforce, our convenient location and our new development zones across the city to attract new technology players that are getting squeezed out of an increasingly congested and expensive Kendall Square and other innovation enclaves.

Within the Somerville Public schools, our focus is on boosting academic areas that we know will improve outcomes for our students:  This fall, for the first time in years, middle school students will once again have the option of enrolling in Spanish. This will also be the first year of a daily Middle School “X-block” program that lets students focus on areas where they need improvement.  These daily sessions will be supported by experts in the relevant subjects, and will provide intensive instruction in small groups.  Students that are already high performers will be able to use the X-block time to enhance their skills even further with challenge and enrichment

To provide additional opportunities for the kind of physical and mental activity that promotes learning and overall health, SPS middle school students will also see new options in intramural sports, including tennis, flag football, volleyball and cross country in the fall; indoor soccer, track and swimming in the winter; and basketball, swimming and track in the spring.

Our schools will be placing a new emphasis on community engagement and family outreach programming, including funding for part-time Family and Community Liaisons and Volunteer Coordinators in every Somerville school. Despite the progress we’ve made in recent years in expanding the scope and depth of our curriculum we need to encourage families to engage more fully in the life of our schools and we need to harness the impressive skills and knowledge of our residents to enrich the curriculum and the quality of our schools.

Finally, we are building a network of “wraparound” services that coordinate school and non-school programs to give at-risk youth the best possible start in life – and we are using the data management and analytics that we’ve developed in the SomerStat program to help understand the needs of each young person and get her or him the services that will do the most good.  This is the initiative we’re calling SomerPromise, and it’s so important and valuable that I’ll be giving it a column of its own in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, though, you can learn more about SomerPromise by visiting the City’s website at  I hope you’ll take a look.

As we continue to improve our schools, we reinforce the message that Somerville is a great place to raise a family, and we add to the long list of reasons why skilled professionals will want to build their lives and careers here in Somerville.  In turn, that allows us to tell innovation-industry employers that Somerville is a perfect location for a start-up that needs room to grow in a community that has the workers, infrastructure, services, amenities and quality of life they need to thrive and grow.

At every level, public investment in education (and in basic research) should remain a high priority both for the nation as a whole and for Somerville in particular.


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