About ISP

The Intensive Studies Program (ISP) in the Cambridge Public School middle grades was an educational option for students in need of advanced learning for over 50 years. It was ended in June, 2012.  The ISP was an elective program, like the CPS district’s Amigos or Montessori programs.  Not all students in the ISP identified as having advanced learning needs, and not all students with advanced learning needs in the middle grades attended ISP.  CPS parent John De Lancey wrote this detailed FAQ about the program when it was still being offered.

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About the Intensive Studies Program (ISP)

One of the greatest benefits of the Cambridge Public Schools is the wealth of innovative programs available to our kids such as Amigos, Montessori, Ola, Ni Hao (Mandarin) and the Intensive Studies Program (ISP). Not only do they enrich our schools, they attract and retain families in our district.

Of these excellent programs, Superintendent Young has singled out the Intensive Studies Program (ISP) for review and possible elimination. This is deeply troubling for the 170 Cambridge families who depend upon ISP to meet the educational needs of their kids. Nancy Brigham Associates is currently evaluating the program with interviews, focus groups, grade reviews, and so forth.

During my daughter’s time at Kennedy Longfellow, I have come to realize that ISP is the most misunderstood and stereotyped program in CPS. So, as the evaluation progresses, I thought it might be helpful to clarify these misunderstandings and hopefully dispel the unfortunate stereotypes. I’ve used a FAQ format based on the questions and myths that ISP parents commonly hear about the program.

What is the ISP?
Founded in the early 1960s, the Intensive Studies Program has been an integral part of our middle schools for nearly 50 years, making it Cambridge’s longest, most continuous program to serve 5, 6, & 7th graders.

Initially called the “Academically Talented” (AT) program, Cambridge’s ISP has led a peripatetic existence, having been housed at the Harrington, Peabody, Longfellow Schools, as well as the High School, at various points. At one point the district even considered moving it to the Museum of Science!

ISP has always offered two classes per grade. While it was housed at the Longfellow school on Broadway for several decades, it served a maximum of 50 students at each grade level and maintained a waiting list. As part of the CPS reorganization in 2003, the program moved to Kennedy Longfellow. Then in 2006, Superintendent Fowler-Finn opened an ISP class at the Peabody school – the same year that both schools were given the AVID program. Not long after, Peabody was given a second 6th grade ISP class, while Kennedy Longfellow had one of its classes eliminated.

Today ISP serves about 170 kids or roughly 15% of the Cambridge middle school population. Project that percentage over the entire CPS community and you realize that over 900 students will participate in the program at some point!

What is the enrollment policy for ISP?
Access to ISP used to be highly selective. Teachers decided who would be admitted by reading and scoring anonymous student essays using the same grading rubric. Students also had to meet more than one requirement to be accepted.

Today, the program has open enrollment without any entrance tests, graded essays, or participation by teachers. The application process requires that students submit one of the following three items to the Family Resource Center: a one page essay, a report card with grades of B or better, or a teacher recommendation. The Family Resource Center reviews the material then selects students by lottery.

The CPS website defines ISP as “an optional middle school program drawing students from across the city who are committed to working within an academically challenging environment.”

Why do families sign up for ISP?
Families join ISP for one overwhelming reason – their kids were not achieving their academic potential in regular classrooms.  Differentiated instruction within the classroom which was supposed to educate kids at all knowledge levels simply wasn’t working, leaving these kids under-educated.

For many of these students their situations had become intolerable with some kids becoming bored to the point of acting out. My own daughter who had always loved school began to resist going to school. Fortunately Cambridge offered a successful alternative solution for families in our situation.

What are ISP classes like?
The students in my daughter’s ISP class are a wonderful, diverse group of kids. Some are highly accelerated learners, scoring off the charts in social studies, science, writing, or math. Others are highly proficient learners, while some operate at a proficient level. What unites them is a shared passion for learning and a willingness to take on more challenging assignments.

The good news is that ISP has delivered the academic rigor they need to stay engaged in school. The kids love the program and have created an open, respectful environment where all viewpoints are encouraged and valued. Discipline problems are virtually non-existent. This is not surprising as research shows that when you place kids in environments where they are challenged at their respective knowledge levels (whatever they may be), discipline issues drop significantly.

To be honest some kids still don’t find ISP challenging enough, probably due to the “watering down” of the program over the years. Still everyone excels at a higher level than they did in regular classrooms that operated with a differentiated instruction model.

Myth: ISP is tracking
Absolutely not. This is a myth that unfortunately has been perpetuated by people who don’t understand how the program works or the need it serves in our district. By definition, tracking locks all kids into a series of learning levels as determined by the school system, usually based upon grades or test scores.

ISP does none of this. The program is purely voluntary and available to all middle school kids. Movement in and out of the program is quite fluid as students are free to come and go as they wish. Over the past year, several kids have entered my daughter’s class in mid-year, while others have returned to regular classes.

In this respect, ISP is no different than Amigos, Montessori, and Ni Hao which are similarly voluntary and open to everyone. And like ISP, they require a willingness to immerse oneself in particular subjects (Spanish or Mandarin) or in an educational philosophy such as Montessori.

Myth: ISP is a program for white, high income families
Another myth! My daughter’s ISP class is one of the most diverse classes she has ever had in Cambridge. Of the eighteen kids in her class, thirteen are kids of color (72%) while five kids are white (28%).

The truth is that my daughter’s Kennedy-Longfellow ISP class accurately reflects the make-up of Central and East Cambridge residents. To be fair, the Peabody ISP reflects the West Cambridge community and therefore has more white students. But the notion that ISP is a white, high-income program is flat out wrong.

I’m not privy to SES data, but I can assure you that none of the families we know are wealthy. There are certainly many lower income families who would benefit from ISP if they only knew about it. Since the district administration doesn’t send out announcements about the program, nor reach out to lower income families about this opportunity for their children, many deserving students don’t enroll.

I’ve heard that ISP uses a very traditional curriculum
I’m not sure if it qualifies as traditional, but the ISP curriculum is intensively project-based with a heavy emphasis on independent research by students. We’ve found the homework load to be heavier, with a good deal of writing and science research. And students are pushed harder to excel and dig deeper into their subjects.

While there has never been an “ISP curriculum”, in the past ISP teachers had greater freedom to incorporate a variety of topics for students to explore, while still teaching within the city and state frameworks. This resulted in the inclusion of advanced subjects such as Shakespeare, Beowulf, and algebra in 8th grade. Several years ago, however, the district administration decided that teachers should more closely hew to the standard curriculum, leaving fewer opportunities to teach more challenging topics.

So now teachers dig deeper into required subjects. Many parents and teachers believe that this strict adherence to the curriculum standard has “watered down” the program. After all, we wonder, what’s wrong with empowering teachers to innovate and really push our kids? Like most educational programs, ISP has fallen victim to the current trend of high-stakes testing and top-down planning and conformity.

Aren’t ISP students isolated from other students in the school?
Not at all. ISP students at Kennedy Longfellow roughly divide their school day in half between ISP and regular classes. They spend math, science, social studies and ELA in ISP, and then art, Spanish, computer science, gym, lunch, recess, and advisory with the entire grade. Kennedy Longfellow also focuses on building a strong community by including ISP, general education, and special education classes in whole group activities, field trips, presentations, and assemblies. So fortunately my daughter and her ISP peers are integrated into the full K-Lo community and have made good friends across the school.

Similarly, ISP instructors teach both ISP and regular classes. ISP is just as integrated as other programs such as Montessori, Amigos, or Ni Hao. This deflates the attack on ISP as “a private school within CPS”.

Myth: ISP families are elitists – they think they’re better than everyone else
This is the most hurtful stereotype. Our kids and families are no better or worse than any other Cambridge students and families. If you stop by my daughter’s class, you’ll see children of immigrant parents from Somalia, Indonesia, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, Canada, India, and Korea. These families don’t think they’re better than other people; they’re doing everything they can to ensure their kids make it in America.

ISP parents don’t feel entitled. If anything, they’re scared. If the Superintendent succeeds in terminating ISP, where will our kids go? We know they don’t function well in regular classrooms, so what do we do? We only want what every parent wants – to have our children placed in a classroom where they’re educated and challenged at an appropriate level.

My kids are challenged in their classes, so why do we need ISP?
It’s reassuring to hear that some kids are doing well and are challenged in school. But that doesn’t mean that regular classrooms work for everyone – they clearly don’t.

It’s important to recognize kids’ differences. Whether a kid has special needs, requires extra help in math, is learning to speak English, or is an advanced learner, she deserves a classroom environment that meets her needs.

Why should CPS spend extra money on ISP?
ISP does not cost CPS any extra money. Both Peabody and Kennedy Longfellow oversee their own programs. And neither hires extra teachers or support staff for ISP, nor is additional or specific money given to teachers for ISP classrooms.

Apparently no one in our district’s administration is paid to coordinate the program – despite repeated requests by teachers for management help. As a result, parents and School Committee members were surprised last spring to learn that Peabody and Kennedy Longfellow ISP teachers have never been brought together to share strategies and best practices – even to help teachers set up the program at Peabody! Equally surprising, teachers tell me today that they get more information about the program from parents than the administration! To put it frankly, ISP is an “orphaned” program.

Last spring the district administration refused to send out the annual letter to families announcing ISP enrollment deadlines – something that has always been done in the past. The Superintendent cited the need to save money on paper and stamps – about $125! So no, we don’t spend any extra money on ISP.

Everyone agrees that far more resources should be devoted to other CPS programs such as special education than to ISP. But ISP students should have a right to an education that pushes them to achieve their full academic potential, especially when it doesn’t cost CPS anything extra.

The Innovation Agenda must strive to raise academic excellence for all Cambridge students. ISP should play an integral role in IA as we build a rigorous, successful middle school program that both retains families in CPS and begins to bring them back from private and charter schools.

– John De Lancey
father of a 7th grade Kennedy-Longfellow ISP student
November 18, 2011