By Katie Ford MC/MPA 2023
When I was admitted to the Mid-Career MPA Program, my first thought was, “How will I move my family to Cambridge?” As I approach graduation, I reflect on our amazing year together here. We have benefited from great schools, close friends, and new experiences, and we’ve grown both as a family and as individuals. I have been a role model to my daughters in an entirely new way—rather than watching me working all the time, they see me prioritizing schoolwork and learning.
The move was not easy—we rented our home in the DC area, packed up our belongings (half of which we left in a storage unit), hired movers, and moved into a new apartment. Our girls happily settled into new schools and found new friends, and we figured out the new rhythm of our lives.
I am writing this post to share some tips for moving to Cambridge with a family. It takes a good deal of effort up front but is worth it in the end.
Off-Campus Housing: Find housing early. Use realtors in Boston. You may have to pay a finder’s fee, but locking in housing early is well worth it. Be sure to research your realtor. I found an apartment a few blocks from Harvard Yard checking the Harvard Housing Off-Campus website daily. Although the website requires a Harvard.edu email address to sign up, you can view the listings without a login, and the listings have email addresses and/or phone numbers for landlords. There are several other websites through which you can find housing as well.
On Campus Housing: If you do not find off-campus housing, Harvard University Housing is an excellent choice, particularly for overseas families for whom it might be harder to submit private rental applications. For Harvard University Housing, families are generally given preference in the housing lottery. All of Harvard University Housing’s apartments are in great locations, so don’t stress too much about location; instead, focus on square footage and cost. Pro tip: if you are looking for free preschool, consider living on the Boston side of the Charles River (for example, the Soldier Field Park apartments on the Harvard Business School campus). The deadline for Cambridge preschools is the October before entry, whereas Boston is more lenient on preschool admissions. There are many private preschool options as well.
Cambridge Public Schools are excellent. In fact, Massachusetts consistently ranks as the best state for public education, and if Massachusetts were a country, it would rank among the best in the world. Many schools have English language immersion programs with small class sizes. To enroll in Cambridge Public Schools, you first need to have a signed lease in Cambridge. Cambridge Public Schools operate under a “controlled choice” system, meaning that parents must rank order their preferences for schools. This system stands in contrast to most public school systems in the United States, in which students attend schools based on where they live.
The expectation is that parents walk or drive their kids to school unless they live more than a mile from school or there is a major road between home and school. For some parents, living over a mile from school would be a benefit so that your kid can have a bus pick them up and drop them off at home each day. The hours of each school in Cambridge vary, so be sure to research school hours, particularly in conjunction with after school care.
If you have young children, reach out to daycares and preschools quickly and get on as many waitlists as you can. Many preschools have small fees for waitlists that are worth paying. My preschooler had an excellent experience at Preschool of the Arts, although there are many preschool programs around Harvard. Harvard has its own childcare centers as well, and I’ve heard only good things.
Cambridge has a lottery system for after-school care for elementary-age students administered through the city. Cost is determined on a sliding scale based on income. Children often go to a different location for after-school care than their elementary school. For instance, my daughter attends Maria Baldwin School for primary school and Graham and Parks School for after school. A bus drives her from Baldwin to Graham and Parks, and my husband or I pick her up by 5:30 each evening.
Babysitters: Establish your childcare network early! I cannot emphasize enough how important babysitters are to enjoying the HKS experience. At the beginning of the year, I created a WhatsApp chat for all HKS parents seeking babysitters, and all HKS and Harvard Graduate School of Education students seeking babysitter gigs. Using babysitters regularly has allowed my husband to become closely integrated into the class and to be part of the experience. A word of caution: some of my parent classmates regret not bringing their spouses into the fold or not being social enough in the fall semester. Don’t make this mistake! My husband and I feel like we’ve made lifelong friendships with classmates and their partners, making our year at HKS the most enriching year of our lives. The going rate for babysitters is $20-30 per hour, so be sure to budget for them.
Back-up Care: HKS provides 10 days each year of back-up care through Care.com. We have taken full advantage of this benefit. For just a $5 per hour copayment, a childcare provider will come to your home for up to 8 hours during the day to take care of your child. This is very useful on school holidays or when your child has a cold and you need to get to class.
Try to enroll your kids in City of Cambridge summer camps, which are fun and offer lots for the kids to do. My daughter got into the Martin Luther King Jr. camp, and they took the kids on fun field trips, taught them to swim, played sports, and overall had a great summer. She also had a week at the YMCA summer camp in Central Square, which was great as well.
Things to Do
Boston is made for families! We have had a blast exploring Boston, greater Massachusetts, and the rest of the Northeast.
- Boston Common: Early in the summer, we had a touristy day where we went to the Swan Boats, walked through the Boston Public Garden, played in Frog Pond, and took a ride on the carousel. Now the girls call the Boston Common an “amusement park.”
- Actual Amusement Parks: We had an awesome summer day with another HKS family at Canobie Lake Park, which has a waterpark and theme park rides for all ages. In early December, we visited Santa’s Village, which is great for younger kids. Somerville is home to an awesome Legoland. There are loads of other amusement parks in the area.
- Skiing: Our family took advantage of a ski lift + lessons package through Innings & Outings, a Harvard service that negotiates discount ticket prices to the theater, seasonal attractions, and family outings.
- Museums: Boston is home to the best children’s museum in the country. The Boston Children’s Museum has several floors and tons of interactive exhibits. Tickets are half price through Innings & Outings. My kids also love the Science Museum and the New England Aquarium.
- Playgrounds: Cambridge and Somerville playgrounds are top notch. We moved to Cambridge three weeks before the start of the Mid-Career MPA Summer Program, which gave us time to adjust to the city. Every day, I walked my girls to a new playground and ice cream shop. By the end of those three weeks, they were convinced that Cambridge is heaven on earth, and I was convinced that Cambridge has the highest per capita rate of ice cream shops in the world.
- Libraries: We live near the incredible Cambridge Public Library. There’s an entire floor dedicated to children’s books, and they offer lots of free events for kids (book readings, sing-alongs, etc.). They also offer 20 pages of free printing per day. Be sure to get a library card after you become a resident!
- Sports: Fenway Park is the best baseball park in the country, so don’t leave Boston without experiencing it with your family. Tickets are available through MLB.com and sometimes at a discount through Innings & Outings. Harvard sports are also very fun: football (Harvard v. Yale is a must), hockey, basketball, baseball, and more. In the fall, Harvard is home to the Head of the Charles regatta. Our mid-career cohort organized a whole weekend of activities that weekend, as we watched crew teams row up the Charles River.
- Quorum Call: Every Friday, HKS hosts Quorum Call, a casual gathering with beer, wine, and food, and it is open to families. In the summer, this was a great way for my kids to meet other kids in the cohort, and for partners to make friends with other spouses and students.
- Student Government: The Kennedy School Student Government (KSSG) has a VP for Families position responsible for allocating funding toward family events. Consider running for this position if you are interested in organizing family events around Harvard. This past year, we had a Halloween party and an Easter egg hunt.
- Family Outings: Take the initiative to organize family-friendly events for the cohort. For example, I found an ice rink in Somerville that anyone can rent for $450, and our cohort had a blast slipping around the ice with partners and kids.
The healthcare in Boston is world class. We have taken full advantage of the proximity of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Boston Children’s Hospital by seeing specialists for second opinions on our healthcare needs. One of my daughters has celiac disease, and when I called for her annual appointment with a pediatric gastroenterologist, I happened to be booked with the world’s leading researcher in celiac disease (who of course is affiliated with Harvard Medical School!). For normal pediatric medicine, we have had a great experience with West Cambridge Pediatrics, although there are many providers in Cambridge and Boston. For my own routine needs, Harvard University Healthcare Services (HUHS) is easy—it’s located in the Smith Student Center, and it has its own Urgent Care and lots of specialists.
Many of my classmates have had babies while enrolled in HKS, and their experiences with prenatal care and labor and delivery at Boston-area hospitals have been very positive.
With permission of the professor, spouses are permitted to audit classes at Harvard for free. I know one spouse who has audited six classes in her year at Harvard (practically a degree!). My husband audited one this semester and has loved the experience of being back in a classroom. Be sure to reach out to professors early and seek out more than one class. Some classes are too full, or the pedagogy isn’t appropriate for auditors.
Community of Families
Wonderful Parents: Join the HKS Wonderful Parents WhatsApp chat. Spouses and partners are welcome on the chat, too. Parents exchange advice and offer help, and it’s generally a nice way to meet other families. If you find something fun to do with a family, invite other families in the cohort! We have had loads of great experiences because someone posted an idea in the group chat.
HSSPA: Another great community is the Harvard Students’ Spouses and Parents Association (HSSPA), which my husband joined this year. HSSPA organizes events for spouses and partners, often with Harvard funding, like Red Sox outings and a yacht party!
All this being said, some of my classmates decided to move to Harvard without their families. This is a completely reasonable choice depending on your personal situation. And to be sure, the cost of living here is high. But I write this post in the hopes you take the plunge and bring your family to Harvard. For my family, it brought us closer together and has been an overwhelmingly positive experience that we will look back on fondly in the years to come. I hope the same holds true for you and yours.