By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service
BOSTON — The next member of the Cambridge School Committee may be waiting in a dive bar.
Ruth Ryan Allen is the owner of Paddy’s, one of the oldest woman-run bars in all of Cambridge. Her mother and grandmother ran the bar before her, and it was Paddy’s where she learned the value of community.
“Our bar is more of a community than an actual bar,” she said. “You give back to the people that help you out.”
It’s the idea of giving back that drove Allen to run for the Cambridge School Committee. Still, it was not a premeditated decision. She turned in her paperwork on the last day possible, hours after former member Kathleen Kelly decided not to run.
“At 10 o’clock … [Kelly] decided she wasn’t going to run,” Allen said. “At 12 o’clock, we all found out. I’m like, ‘Who the heck is going to run our agenda for the kids?’”
Allen turned in her paperwork only hours later, complete with 93 signatures supporting her nomination bid. After posting the news on the Paddy’s Facebook page, the signatures came rolling in.
“They had faith in me,” she said. “That I could make a difference.”
Allen never thought of herself as a politician but learned from her mother to stand up for what she believes in.
“She always went to City Hall,” Allen said. “She always wrote letters.”
Allen is the third generation of her family to live in Cambridge, in the same home that her grandparents bought. Both her mother and grandmother were always quick to help people in need, and Allen said people come into the bar to reminisce about the women to this day.
“They were strong women,” she said. “They figured out ways around things that made them more important than any politician.”
Gail Roberts, a real estate agent in the city of Cambridge, helped to fund the Paddy’s 5K Road Race, an event Allen started nine years ago to benefit girls’ sports in Cambridge. Roberts said she knows how special the city and its kids are to Allen.
“Ruth really cares about the city of Cambridge,” she said.
While Allen hadn’t considered a run for the school committee before, she’s spent much of her adult life advocating for children with special needs. She has two daughters, both of whom have learning disabilities. Allen’s campaign focuses on bridging the gap for children like her own.
Her oldest daughter was born at 27 weeks, weighing just a pound. She developed learning disabilities, mainly issues with her hearing. Her younger daughter, whom she and her husband Irving adopted from Kazakhstan, was diagnosed with severe dyslexia at a young age.
By the time her second daughter was diagnosed, Allen had already dealt with the Cambridge Public School System and was navigating the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. Her youngest daughter had to switch schools multiple times and was placed in special education classes that didn’t adequately meet her needs.
Over time, it became more and more difficult for Allen to watch her daughter struggle without getting the proper tools she needed.
“This really strong little girl was questioning herself all of the time,” Allen said. “She started having a negative reaction to herself, that she was stupid … that she wasn’t worthy.”
Allen always makes a point to stress that her story is just one of many. According to Cambridge’s public-school system data, during the 2016-17 school year about 1,300 students ages six to 21 had IEPs or Individualized Education Programs.
An IEP is a legal document that lets parents and educators know what a child needs to be successful. Children are evaluated so that professionals can create the IEP, and then parents attend IEP meetings to discuss the results and solutions with teachers and evaluators.
Allen spent a lot of time navigating the complicated IEP system and hopes to make that process easier for other parents.
“Have you ever looked at an IEP?” said Allen. “It’s not a pretty thing.”
According to Allen, these documents can be upwards of 20 pages long and have language that can be confusing for parents.
“After the team meetings, either people go ‘they know what they’re doing,’ and walk away, or they’re more confused, but they’re scared of asking – they don’t know how to ask,” Allen said.
Allen also worries that teachers aren’t given the tools they need to properly help students with IEPs. Teachers are involved in testing for IEPs and Allen worries that pulls away from their teaching time.
“They’re losing the time to teach the kids that really need it,” Allen said. “The teachers should be included in the meetings, definitely – but maybe not the testing part.”
Allen wants to give teachers more of an open lane to discuss their thoughts on which programs kids should be placed in: “The people that are actually working with these kids need to be brought into it more.”