The PI Turns Five

First Day from Different PointsIt occurred to the Parent Imperfect at some point last night that this blog began about this time of year, five years ago. I checked and yesterday was, indeed, the five-year anniversary of the PI.

Much has changed since that first post, when I decided to report on the happy family’s attendance at a downtown health care rally. We don’t attend a lot of rallies together these days. Vince had just finished his first week at the nation’s oldest public school, and now he is in his last year there (Dios mediante). I guess that makes this a chronicle of the time that our children have spent at that school. We have certainly had our issues with BLS, but now both kids are there, so we have somehow voted with our feet. As difficult as the experience has been for Vince, he remains committed to the place, and insists that he would not have wanted to go to school anywhere else. Connie is still very early in the game, but being on the soccer team this year really seems to be changing her relationship to the school.

The Pressured ChildI read something the other day saying that the average number of posts on the millions of blogs that people start is 1.6. Many times, people take the step of starting a blog and then do a single post (or none at all), and never get back to it. I guess that makes the PI something of an outlier. I’ve gotten sick of this and left it alone for months at least three times, but, strangely, people keep looking at it, even when there is nothing new. In fact, some of the blog’s most visited days have come when I wasn’t paying any attention to it. I’m not sure what that says about the blog, but this odd behavior is part of what eventually gets me to start up again.

In the beginning, this was much more about the oddities of our family life. Over time, it has become much more about our experience of the Boston Public Schools. Neither Vince nor Connie particularly liked seeing things in here about their personal experience, so there is less about that now. I don’t use our real names, but, over time, a lot of people have figured out who is writing this thing, so the kids felt a little exposed. They remain characters in the PI, but in a little different way,

Ohrenberger MeetingAbout midway through the life of the PI, I became involved with a crazy group of fierce public school mothers (for the most part) called Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST). That involvement has played a big part in the shift of my emphasis toward the BPS. Were it not for Quest, I would never have known anything about school assignment in Boston, would never have heard much about the experience of being a child with special needs in the system, and I certainly never would have paid much attention to all of the hub-bub about the Dearborn School. In short, I would never have thought I had anything to say. I should also say that, were it not for Quest, I’d have spent a lot more evenings at home, complicating the lives of Liz, Connie and Vince.

Dumb parentsDuring the life of this quirky little space in the blogosphere, both Liz and I have changed jobs, passed one of those milestone birthdays and seen my children go through incredible changes. Those of you who have read this and shared your thoughts about it have made yourselves part of this process, and for that, I am very grateful. I don’t know why so many of you prefer to give me your comments offline, rather than on the blog, but I treasure them, however they come.  Thanks for joining me on this surprising little journey.

 

 

 

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Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: The Sixie Family Survival Guide

The SculptureThe Parent Imperfect and family made it through Day Won of the new school year. When I asked Connie what was different this year, she said, “Everything’s different…I’m not a “sixie” any more.”

“Sixie” is the term affectionately given to seventh graders at the nation’s oldest public school. Now that we have twice been through the process of parenting a child living this unique experience, it’s time to suggest a few things that the parent of a sixie might have in mind as the shock of this transition begins to wear off. This started out as a “Sixie Parent’s Survival Guide,” but it’s really a family thing. I honestly don’t know if they use this retrograde idea of “sixies” at the other exam schools, but this is about BLS. I asked Vince if he had anything for me to put in a guide for the families of sixies. Without hesitation, he answered, “Yeah…put, ‘Don’t Read This!!!’ in huge letters at the top.” I’ve just realized that BLS publishes its own “Parent Survival Kit,” so its probably a good thing that I changed the name.

Many sixie parents/guardians have been through this before, either with an older student, or as a student, themselves. I’d bet that as many as one-fourth of the parents of incoming sixies are veterans of the process. That’s a lot of experience, but it leaves as many as 375 families who are going through this for the first time. This “guide” is for you and your families. Since many who will read this have been through it all before, I hope you’ll take the time to correct the ideas in here that just don’t make sense to you. These are in no particular order.

PIECE ONE: Think carefully about social media with your child. In the four years that passed between Child 1’s sixie year and that of Child 2, social media among seventh graders at BLS has gone from being silly and seriously problematic to being highly toxic and downright dangerous. It is the way that many sixies “connect” at a moment when they desperately need connection. Important and positive communication absolutely takes place among youth via social media, but it is also a place where they get to try on their darker sides. You know about that, right?

Bad GirlLast spring, a “friend” of Connie’s accessed her Twitter account and spewed out several really terrible tweets before Connie realized what was happening and shut the thing down. Connie is still dealing with the damage this caused to people hurt by those tweets, including herself. Two evenings ago, a tenth-grade friend of Connie’s had her account taken over by a truly deranged young male (probably a perfectly charming lad, if you met him walking down Centre St.). I assume that this was someone she knew, since he had her password. Sadly, kids do much worse than this out of their own accounts, using their own identities.

We (Liz, actually) contacted the school administration about this problem last year at the end of school, and got NO RESPONSE (get used to this…you’re just one of 3500 parents at the school). The administration may be doing something other than monitoring the internal wireless channel, but they are not doing enough to address cyber-bullying and the like at the school. By acting like clueless people of another generation, we/they are courting disaster, and I occasionally lose sleep about some of the things that I find out about. I know nothing…

This summer, I’ve been reading a book called, The Big Disconnectby Katherine Steiner-Adair and Theresa Barker. The book is only minimally preachy and it collects and presents valuable data on things that you already know, intuitively. What makes it stand out for me is that it forces me to face the ways that my own media/communication habits (this blog, for example) influence what our children do with social media and, especially, how they connect to me (or not). For that challenge, alone, the book was well worth what it cost me to take it out of the library.

PIECE TWO: Find a way to get to sixie parents’ night. This is the maddening evening when you drive to the school, can’t find a place to park, get into the school too late and spend the rest of the evening trying to catch up to your child’s schedule. It’s worth it, though. Take public transport, carpool or get there early enough to get a parking place (a half hour before the thing starts). Then you will go to your child’s homeroom and get their schedule for a mythical day. You’ll then go through the schedule for 8 minute classes. You’ll get to lay eyes on the teachers and introduce yourself to a few of them. They will give you a little syllabus and tell you the best way to contact them. WRITE THAT DOWN SOMEPLACE WHERE IT WON’T GO AWAY FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR! Most importantly, moving through the day in this way will begin to give you an idea of what you have subjected your child to. WARNING! They changed Parent’s Night last year in a way that made it much less useful. I hope they’ve changed it back this year. This year’s Class VI (and Class V) BLS Parents’ Night is on Tuesday, September 16 at 5:30PM in the cafeteria.

WolfpackPIECE THREE:  Join “The Village.” If you are reading this, you waste a good deal of time in front of a computer. Join the BLS community mail-list and waste a little more. Very many of the messages won’t be relevant to you. Others will be relevant, but infuriating. But ten per cent of the messages will have info that you need and can’t easily get, elsewhere. Despite the presence of many BLS parents and the list being called “BLS Parents,” this is not a parents’ list. Remember that when you post to the list. School administrators lurk incessantly, as do some teachers and some parents whose kids are long gone from the school. I think there needs to be an unofficial parents list that only contains parents (There’s a project for you….)  Given the wild stuff on “The Village” over the years, pretty much anything goes, but people draw the line at personal attacks on one another and direct references to specific teachers. If you want to communicate with someone directly, do so off the list. At least twice a year, a new parent on the list is humiliated by broadcasting something quite personal or inflammatory meant for a single person, to several hundred people. It does not seem possible to subscribe automatically to the list. You have to e-mail the list moderator, and I doubt he’d want me to put his e-mail on this blog. If you comment to this blog that you can’t get his address, I’ll send it to you.

PIECE FOUR: Be smart about homework. A couple of years ago, our neighbor’s girlfriend, who was about to graduate as one of those BLS superstars, gave Connie some advice. “You don’t have to be super-smart to do great at BLS. You just need to make the teachers like you, find out what the homework is and do it. The problem is that it’s very hard to do all those things, all the time.” “Very hard” is quite an understatement.

Yes, make sure your child has a comfy and quite place to do homework. Yes, come to some understanding about the rules around electronic distractions during homework time. Yes, occasionally check assignments. Yes, be available for your child to ask you questions about the homework (on the usually mistaken assumption that you can help him/her), but make sure that they do the homework, not you. And yes, let it be known when you think a teacher is breaking the most broken policy at BLS, the homework policy.

Do all those things, but also be smart about homework. Your seventh grader came home yesterday with the famous Agenda. They are trained to list all assignments in the agenda, but only a minority of them do so. Look at the agenda with him/her each night to be sure that this is happening. Be clear with them that, while it shouldn’t be this way, getting the homework assignment is one of the most important things they will do in each class. Each teacher gives the assignment differently, and at least half of them will do it in a way that is not good communication for your child. Many very intelligent children at the school do not thrive at BLS either because they don’t get the assignment, or don’t give a crap about it…or both. Working with your child on this simple transaction (getting the homework) will be MUCH more important than wasting your time, and theirs, breathing down their necks while they try to study the dictionary entry for that Latin verb. And make sure they have a homework buddy for each class…someone they can call on the off chance that they didn’t get the assignment. Make your own list of the buddies.

In seventh grade, there is an optimal percentage of the homework that each student should do. It’s different for each student. No student should think they can get away with doing 40% of their assignments, but nor should anyone feel that they must do 100%, either. There will be many nights when it is more important–for the entire family–that your child to do what they can and then get some sleep. Help them realize that.

Friends of ArtsPIECE FIVE:  Connect to the community. One of the things that both our seventh graders had in common is that they begged us to stay away from the school. What could be more embarrassing than having your older-than-usual parents hanging around your middle/high school? Many bones in my body agreed with them. I have too much to do already, and I was/am quite ambivalent of being part of a community around what I consider to be an elitist institution that reproduces many of the things that make me want to holler.

But at some point I realized that I was on a path to having my two kids in this school for a total of 12 years. For the kids, finding a way to connect to the place was going to be critical to their survival there, and was not going to be easy. Maybe the parents making an effort to connect to this quirky community was going to both help Vince and Connie in their struggles to connect, and it just might also give us a sense our own sense of connection that we also need if our kids are going to spend so much time at the school.

This is a work in progress. We still have too much to do and aren’t really connected. We still get frustrated by our efforts to engage with the school, but we try. Vince and Connie continue to redirect us away from BLS, at every turn, but they occasionally let it slip that they like us to be SORT OF connected to their lives.

Whoever you are, there is something going on at the school that you can connect to. They’ve got the Friends of the Arts, the Friends of Athletics, and even the Friends of People Who Are So Angry With the School That They Could Scream. Connect to help. Connect to meet others who share your experience. Connect to complain. Connect to survive.

Ugh! This is way too long. Do correct what seems wrong to you!

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The dogs may bark…

Dogs barkThe Parent Imperfect made it to his fourth meeting about the project to create a 6-12 STEM Academy on the site of the Dearborn School in Roxbury. City Councillor, Tito Jackson, who represents Roxbury, hosted this one as a public hearing at Roxbury Community College. Attendance was less than at last week’s BPS-hosted meeting at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, but the discussion was no less lively.

The Bottom Line: The project faces fierce opposition from a cross-section of community and school stakeholders, but Acting BPS Superintendent, John McDonough, and his staff have their heels dug in on this and aren’t budging on their determination to demolish the Dearborn and shoe-horn a new building into the existing lot. In the meantime, the Dearborn students and teachers will decamp to the top floor of the Jeremiah Burke High School for three years. No disruption is too much to endure in the name of progress, especially if it’s just students and teachers who are enduring it.

Most of what was said last night was repetition of what was said at other meetings, but some new information (new for me, anyway) did emerge.

1. The financing of this project became a bit clearer. The City Council approved, at some point, $72 million for this project, half of which will come from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). $36 million of this will come from BPS funds. The MSBA approved its part of the project this past spring. Nobody answered the question of who now has the authority to reverse this authorization.

MSBA process2. According to Tito Jackson, the MSBA has made it clear to him that, if the BPS now decides to consider another location for this project, the deal is off. They’ve got lots of other projects in line for the money allocated to this one. So, if the threat of state receivership of the Dearborn wasn’t enough to scare you into submission, now you’ve got the threat that the MSBA will take away their ball and go home if the project doesn’t get built just as the BPS wants.

3. And I can’t leave out the young teacher from the Dearborn who stepped to the mike to challenge–softly, but with great strength and passion–the idea that hers is a “failed” school. Among other things, she sited the positive feedback received by the school after a site visit by examiners from the Dept. of Education (DESE). According to this teacher, the DESE visitors said that the Dearborn visit was the first time in memory that such a visit had not turned up any clear “areas of improvement” for the teaching staff. The speaker was under the impression that the site visit would be considered by the Commonwealth, along with test scores, in determining any course of action related to the Dearborn. I have now listened to BPS representatives speak publicly about the Dearborn for almost two hours, often sharing quite detailed reports on interactions with state officials, but I had not heard mention of said site visit before last night. Is the Dearborn failing, or are we failing the Dearborn?

4. A new 6-12 charter school would be governed by a private board, as in the case of any other charter. One courageous and articulate woman, who introduced herself as a volunteer at the Dearborn School, read out the composition of that Board at the meeting (no names, just affiliations). There were a couple of education people on there, but the Bank of America, Fidelity Investments and a couple of hedge-found-sounding operations were also prominent in the mix.

5. An impressive architect from Milton (via Dorchester) calmly asked the BPS Facilities Director four questions about the project, not a single one of which received a direct answer (0 for 4, that is). In the process, the architect made clear that this project is actually further along than a City official had led the crowd to believe at the Presby church meeting. This architect also established that the BPS person responsible for the building side of this project couldn’t say (after he got himself up off the floor) whether or not a structural engineer had done a structural assessment of the building or if that assessment and the rest of the plan had received the necessary peer review (The BPS guy doesn’t need to know all of these details, but he absolutely needs to have somebody there who does). If this goes like the school assignment discussion, the BPS will now try to hire this architect so that he’ll stop schooling them in these meetings.

I should say that one person got up and spoke in favor of the project, as proposed, which is a first at the  meetings I’ve attended…sort of the exception that proves the rule.

Winny on dogsThe threat that the MSBA will pull the money really caught my attention. So, you’re going to tell me that the BPS could switch it’s proposal from a renovation of the existing building to new construction on the same site and the MSBA didn’t bat an eyelash, right? Then, after the MSBA approved the proposal, the BPS could pull the last-minute bait-and-switch from a project to build a district school to a charter school, and that’s just fine with the MSBA. “No problem…we got your check for you…” But if, in the face of united and determined opposition to this project from abutters, students, teachers and many community members, the BPS decides to consider a new site for a Dearborn STEM Academy, THEN the MSBA is going to pull the funds and give them to some other project??? The BPS can make any change to this that they want, at any point in the process, but if they enter into a real process of consultation with the community over possible new sites, then money goes away. I smell something rodent-like…How about you?

The beat goes on…opposition to the Dearborn project grows, but the BPS continues with its, “the dogs may bark, but the caravan rolls along” attitude. In the process, they are missing a huge opportunity and really angering important constituencies in Roxbury, the neighborhood that the BPS is about to move into. This will come back to bite them.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any indication that the BPS sees either the opportunity or the serious danger in what they are doing. At some point in September, this will go before the Boston School Committee, and that may well be the last chance to stop it. Put September 17th on your calendar…(of course, they’ll probably change the date, but that won’t matter).

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Dear John

The Parent Imperfect isn’t breaking up with anyone. After last night’s meeting at the historic Roxbury Presbyterian Church, I feel the need to write a letter to Acting BPS Superintendent, John McDonough.

Dear John,

Roxbury PresbyterianI hope you are going into work late today. You had a tough night last night, and probably need a little rest this morning. I estimate that about 275 people jammed themselves into Rev. Walker’s Daddy’s House last night. I’m sure that some of those present fully support your plan to tear down the Dearborn School, move its students to the Burke for three years, build a new STEM Academy on the Dearborn site and turn that educational gem into a charter school. There were supportive people there, but none of them took a microphone to express that support. That’s a problem, no?

By my count, 28 people did take a mike and either question the plan or express strong disagreements with it. Some people were downright pissed off.

It’s quite remarkable. The BPS has managed to unite numbers of students, parents, community members, and abutters to the Dearborn site against its plan. Every speaker last night (with one possible exception) appeared to support the idea of a STEM Academy for Roxbury, but they have serious questions about the way you are going about it.

The BPS had a chance to identify the real stakeholders in this project (the ones listed above) and actively involve them in developing it, but as you have courageously admitted, the ball was dropped, big time. Somebody was apparently consulted, but too many important people were not. You say that all of that is going to change, but there is too much dirty water under the bridge. You remember the old Carole King song…“It’s Too Late Baby, Now It’s Too Late.” 

You want people to swallow this plan out of fear of the looming spectre of state takeover of the school. No one wants the Commish to put the squeeze on the school, but they don’t share your sense that it’s the “Worst that Could Happen.” (remember Johnny Maestro?)

Cape Verdean youthIs a state takeover worse than running the risk of losing (in the long run) SIFE, a program that has been important for the integration of Cabo Verde youth into Boston and the U.S.? It may be so for you, but the young people with the blue shirts didn’t seem to think so.

Is a state takeover worse than facing two years of neighborhood chaos, long-term uncertainty and the loss of a building that has been key element of the neighborhood’s architectural identity for over a century? It may be so for you, but the homeowners who live around the Dearborn didn’t seem to think so.

I could do a few more of those, but I think you get my drift. From where you sit, a state takeover of the Dearborn would be a humiliation that you (and the Mayor and the School Committee Chair) don’t wish to endure. You also quite legitimately fear what it might mean for the school community. No one is out to promote a state takeover, but there is a limit to what people are willing to endure to avoid that misfortune.

You were clear last night that you want the assignment of students to the eventual Dearborn STEM Academy to follow the same rules that apply to district schools. You know what? There is an easier way to do that than trying to try to change state law on this topic. Keep the school a district school! 

Last night, your BPS facilities man said something like, “This started as a project to create a STEM Academy on the Dearborn site, so, when it became clear that renovation wasn’t feasible, we moved to the plan to construct on this site. That’s why we didn’t consider other sites. This has always been a project for a STEM Academy on Greenville St.” As my middle school daughter would say, SERIOUSLY???

Dearborn SchoolI’m not an architect and certainly not a city planner, but if my renovation idea for the Dearborn proved to be too costly, I wouldn’t automatically default to knocking down the building and constructing on that site. If I needed to build a new building, instead of renovate, I’d look around to make sure that the site of the old building was the very best place to build my new building, no? How can it be true that none of the seven options considered for the new Academy involved looking at any other site in the Roxbury neighborhood?

John, I know it can be hard to admit that we’re on the wrong road and turn around. I remember well one Sunday missing the turn-off on Interstate 95 for the Delaware Memorial Bridge and then, despite the pleas of my passengers, refusing to get off the highway and retrace my steps back to the bridge. I knew I’d eventually get back to 95 further north. I did, but we all ended up getting stuck for four hours behind a major pileup near the airport in Philadelphia. I so wished that I’d just admitted my mistake and gone back to the right road.

Obviously, the stakes here are much, much higher. In this case, there is real risk in taking the right road, but it is still the right road. You need to go back to the School Committee and say that you need more time to come to a final decision on the best way to create a STEM Academy in Roxbury. You need to put that ground you broke back where it belongs and keep the kids in the Dearborn building for another year (with their new principal), while you find out for sure that there is no better place to build the new academy. During that year, you need to do intensive work with both the Dearborn neighborhood and the Dearborn school community (students, parents and teachers) as you make the decision on the best way forward. One possibility is that the current site is the only viable place for the Academy and the current project is the only project that can work, but you don’t know that yet.

And, yes, you need to go to the Commissioner, with a community united behind you, in the quest for a STEM Academy in Roxbury. Enlist the young man who spoke so eloquently in a language not his first one about “shuffling people around.” Enlist Chantal, the proud and impressive young Burke grad who pushed you on the real future of the SIFE program. Enlist Ms. Miller, the former teacher and school leader at the Dearborn who said, “Give us one more year to build and see where we can go.” Enlist the woman who worried aloud about youth from the Dearborn crossing lines that matter to get to the Burke. And enlist the homeowner who raised her voice in frustration to say, “WE WEREN’T THERE!”

Enlist all of the people at church last night to highlight the improvements being made at the Dearborn, and to support the development of a community plan to create a Dearborn STEM Academy. Awaken the Mayor from his silent slumber and get him solidly behind your change of course. And then make clear to the Commissioner what a tragedy it would be to break the momentum behind a STEM Academy at this critical moment by subjecting the Dearborn to state takeover. Dare to win this historic struggle for public education in Roxbury and all of Boston, rather than make bad decisions for fear of losing.

Yes, despite doing everything right, you might lose that discussion and, therefore, lose control of the Dearborn. But, in losing the right way, you would have helped create a momentum for a STEM Academy in Roxbury that might just overcome even state receivership. In this case, losing by doing the right thing would be a better, more courageous path than winning a STEM Academy in the wrong way and building this project, despite wide community opposition to it. The right choice is not easy, but it is in your power to make it.

I wish you luck…

The Parent Imperfect

 

 

 

 

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On the College Bubble, #1

ChoosingThe Parent Imperfect is certainly in some sort of denial. While I am quite focused on the fate of the Cape Verdean bilingual program at the Dearborn School, the clock is ticking toward a very intense period Vince’s life. He is about to enter his senior year at the nation’s oldest public high school. Not only will this be the final chapter in the struggle to help him and the rest of us get through the BLS experience: During fall 2014, Vince and his entourage must do a lot of work and make some important decisions about what happens next.

Since early this year, Vince has been visiting a few colleges in the Boston area. The whole thing has slowly become more real for him (and his parents) and he has begun to think more seriously about what sort of school he’d like to attend. The assumption at BLS is that every student at the school will attend some sort of a four-year college, and the school provides lots of support to students making that decision. There is less support, social, psychological, etc. for anyone interested in making a different decision.

With the support for college choice, comes no small amount of social pressure to take the next step. I’m not sure that Vince’s immediate or natural reaction to his experience at BLS would be to sign up for four more years of school. It’s very much like that moment when he suddenly realized there were exam schools, and he quickly got caught up in the rush to get in. No one wants to be the only one in their group of friends who is not going off to college next year. Everyone close to Vince is very engaged with this same process, and many of them are quite likely to get into and attend elite schools. This is an anxious way to start my Sunday morning. What must it be for Vince?

Student Loan DebtIf I really want to get nauseous, I can think about the financial aspects of these coming decisions. Every year about this time, a new set of studies and articles spinning the data in the studies appears in the press saying that, as expensive as education has become, a college degree is still a very good deal. Education debt, now more that $1 trillion, is definitely the new financial bubble, and the job market for today’s college grads is not great. The percentage of high school grads going on to college has declined sharply during in the aftermath of the financial collapse of the last decade. Even so, as inequality has worsened in the country, the gap between the earnings of people with a degree and without one continues to grow. Very soon, the lifetime earnings of degree holders will be more than double that of their peers who didn’t get the degree. One analyst points to this data and suggests that not getting a degree is one of the most expensive things that anyone can do in this year when we will face this decision.

Is that what matters to me/us…Vince’s lifetime earnings? Do I, the man who was earning 9K per year (while in El Salvador) when I turned 40, want to go deep in debt so that my son will have higher lifetime earnings? And what about that part of me who thinks that, during Vince’s lifetime, climate change is going to change everything in a way that even the lefties looking at these earnings numbers can’t begin to predict?  If that doesn’t make me look beyond the Times (New York, that is), then there’s the fact that I spend my working days with a bunch of very smart (not to say, brilliant) students who are in the process of spending 150K for a law degree that has less than a 50% chance of landing them a job in their chosen field.

social changeWhat matters to me is not Vince’s lifetime earnings, but whether or not he finds something to do that he’s passionate about and will allow him to make a positive difference in the world. If I said that to him, which I will do AGAIN at some point soon, he would smile knowingly at me, and probably shake his head. I can hear my father saying, “All right, save the spiritual reading…” Most times, Vince would bite his tongue and not respond, but, if he was having a day in which his frustration level was higher than usual, he’d say something like, “Yeah, Dad, I know that’s what matters to you, but it’s my life, isn’t it?”

College BubbleFor now, it’s our lives. What happens over the next few months will affect how all of us live, including Connie, who enters eighth grade as Vince enters twelfth. She’ll, once again, be struggling for a little attention as the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Regardless of climate change, my dreams about a life mission to change the world or the data from the Economic Policy Institute, when Vince walks into school in September, everyone who really matters is going to be talking about where they want to go to school, not whether or not a four-year college makes sense. To the extent that he receives guidance, that guidance will be all about the college choice.

Time to get out of denial and ready for life on the bubble…

 

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Dearborn, Take 2…Meeting at DSNI

DearbornLast night the Parent Imperfect made it to a meeting about the Dearborn School transition plan. The meeting was held at the offices of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), and was run by representatives of the Boston Public Schools, including the Acting Superintendent, John McDonough. About 45 people filled the DSNI conference room to capacity, about half of them Dearborn students or parents.

The meeting was designed to answer people’s very concrete questions about the planned temporary (3-year) move to the Burke High School site, a little less than two miles away from the current Dearborn building. Mweusi Willingham, the Acting Principal of the Dearborn, was there, as well as another Dearborn administrator whose name I didn’t get. there were also several people who were apparently current and former teachers at the Dearborn.

Students and parents had lots of questions, a good number of which were not answered at the meeting. The following things became clear to me during that part of the meeting:

1. Everyone seems excited about the prospect of a STEM Academy in Roxbury;

2. Mr. Willingham is an open and thoughtful man who has taken on a very difficult task;

3. With less than three weeks left until the beginning of school, this move is very much still in the planning stage. The move will take a lot of time away from other concerns during this first year at the Burke;

4. The school is an important institution in the Cape Verdean community and community residents want to see better attention to the needs of Cape Verdean ELL students. They are concerned about what this move will mean to those students;

6. Neither the school community of the Dearborn, the school community of the Burke nor the greater Roxbury community has been adequately informed about this plan (this in the Super’s own words), and have certainly not participated in the discussions leading to some very important decisions about the present and future of the Dearborn; and

7. There are some very talented and articulate young people attending the Dearborn, and a group of parents who care about the future of the school.

A Dearborn student got the biggest applause of the evening when he asked, “Since there is so much transition going on right now with all of this and our school and the community aren’t really informed about it, can we just slow down this transition until we know and understand about what is happening?”

The Acting Principal immediately deferred to the Super, who answered that he was surprised to find out that the community had not been informed about this plan. “I can’t say why that happened, but I take full responsibility for it…” While taking full responsibility, Mr. McDonough gave no indication that it was going to be possible to slow anything down.

While people had lots of very practical questions about the move, they also wanted to know about the plan that was driving the move. The crowd seemed to understand (even if they didn’t agree with it) the idea of temporarily moving the Dearborn to construct a new STEM Academy. They were much less clear about the newer plan to make the new school a charter school under the leadership of DSNI and the Boston Plan for Excellence (BPE).

In the face of persistent questions about this part of the plan, McDonough carefully explained his thinking on the charter deal. The Dearborn is a turnaround school that has not made the kind of progress required by the state. That makes it a candidate for a state takeover. McDonough was clear that he was willing to do just about anything that he thought would avoid a replay of what happened with the Dever and Holland schools, once they came under state control.

In some detail, McDonough described his conversations about this with the Commonwealth’s Education Commissioner, Mitchell Chester, who told the Super three things:

1.  There is no “quota” or set number of Level 4 schools that the Commonwealth intends to designate at Level 5 schools in need of state intervention;

2. There is no “predetermined desire” on the part of the Commonwealth to create more Level 5 schools that it must take responsibility for; and

3. However, if there is no demonstration of the sort of improvement in performance required by the law, he (the Commissioner) would not foreclose the possibility of putting additional schools under state receivership.

Based on that conversation (and, I’m sure, many other considerations that were not mentioned)  the Super concluded that the Dearborn is in imminent danger of being taken over by the state. Facing that prospect, which I’m sure Mayor Walsh does not relish, McDonough saw two options:

1. A much more aggressive intervention by the BPS in the Dearborn to improve performance; or

2. A partnership with known partners to transition the Dearborn to an in-district charter school.

The BPS has chosen door number two.

Right at this moment, a young man in the back of the room spoke up as a member of the Board of Directors of DSNI. He insisted that DSNI is not “running” any schools, including the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School across the street from the DSNI offices. Since the Super had just said that DSNI–along with the Boston Plan for Excellence– would be running the Dearborn as an in-district  charter, this guy’s firm pronouncement led to a long silence, but the meeting then went on as if he hadn’t said a word. A DSNI staffer later clarified to a Quest member that DSNI doesn’t “run” the school, but provides “parent and community engagement services” to the school. I expect that’s true, but it says something about the community politics around this project that DSNI doesn’t want to be seen as “running” anything, or driving this project.

Interestingly, all of this hinges on the most recent MCAS test scores from the Dearborn. The state has those, and I believe that the BPS leadership has seen them, but they are “embargoed” to the public. That means that you and I can’t see them, and neither can the students and teachers at the Dearborn. According to McDonough, the state will not release these until after the September meeting at which the Boston School Committee is scheduled to take a vote on the charter part of this plan. Seriously? How could the School Committee possibly take a vote like this without community knowledge of the test scores of Dearborn students?

The meeting was supposed to end at about this time, but no one was leaving. The Super said he would “stay until midnight,” if necessary, to respond to community concerns and the poor woman from the BPS who was facilitating had no choice but to let the thing go forward.

Somebody then asked the $64,000 question.  From the back of the room, she asked, “What parts of this plan can be changed and what parts are already decided?

McDonough (now standing at the front of the room) carefully reported that the School Committee voted last fall on the move of the Dearborn to the Burke in order to demolish the Dearborn. That horse is out of the barn. The other part about making the Dearborn a charter is still under discussion, with a School Committee vote in September. It is here that McDonough played the fear card.

“You can question our proposal for an in-district charter if you want, but if you do that you are risking the state putting you under receivership…If that happens we’re (the BPS) out of the picture.”

I’m not sure that people in the room were as scared about this prospect as John wanted them to be. I wanted to raise my hand to make a spectacle of myself, but my dear son, Vince, saved me by ringing my cell phone at exactly that moment. It was time to rush back to Roslindale to deal with student challenges, closer to home. I’m not sure how the meeting ended, but I’ll be very interested to hear the discussion at the BPS-sponsored meeting on the charter proposal. That one will take place on Tuesday, August 19 at 6PM at the Presbyterian Church of Roxbury at 328 Warren Street.

 

 

 

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Dear, oh Dearborn

Dearborn KidsThe Boston Public Schools has a knack for creating controversy out of what should be the feel-good stories about public schools in Boston. The latest concerns the Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury. For the Parent Imperfect, the story is a perfect fable about the way things are going in the New Boston.

The Dearborn may not be an official historic structure, but it certainly qualifies as historic. The current building opened as a girls school 1912, what the Globe called a “banner year” for Boston. That same year, Fenway Park and the Franklin Park Zoo opened, and the Red Sox won the World Series after completing a year in which they won 105 games and lost only 47. Boston had a population of 700,000 in 1912, a full 100,000 more than live here today. Of course the City needed new schools, and the Dearborn was meant to show the commitment of Boston’s Brahmins to the education of the City’s swelling immigrant population.

But the Dearborn had been around for many years before the new building went up in 1912. None other than James Michael Curley graduated from the school in 1890 at age 16. The Curley connection may not make the Dearborn proud, but it certainly places the school at the center of Boston history.

No MCASFast forward to 2010, and the once proud school has fallen on hard times. When the Commonwealth designated 12 Boston schools as “turnaround” schools, that needed the District’s special attention, the Dearborn was among them. The school’s principal and many teachers received pink slips, and Federal money was pumped into the school to create new programs designed improve student outcomes. Of course, the one and only measure of “school performance” would be student scores on standardized tests, especially the MCAS. Behind the offer of new resources was a threat: If you don’t turn the school around, we (the Commonwealth) will take it over and you don’t want that.

Around the same time that the Dearborn received its turnaround designation, a group of activists was making progress in a long battle to establish a new school in Roxbury with a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. At an historic meeting in that same year of 2010, a packed meeting room heard several officials, including then Mayor Menino, the State Treasurer and the Chair of the board that approves school construction funding commit themselves to just such a school.

After all of the political posturing, the project once again faded from view and seemed to have been forgotten until April of this year, when the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MBSA) approved funds for the construction of a new school on the current Dearborn site, ending a seven-year moratorium on reimbursing local districts for school construction projects.

Doctors and EngineersIt’s the classic feel-good story, right? People who have been working to achieve a STEM academy in Roxbury should be celebrating a victory for that community and the entire city, right? Unfortunately, the BPS is doing its best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on the Dearborn story. Just a couple of days ago, 50 people filled a meeting room at a church near the Dearborn to voice their concerns about the project. Once again, controversy swirls around the BPS. How did this happen?

On the one hand, the City has done a poor job of consulting local residents about its plans for the Dearborn. The Globe reports that many residents question the need to tear down the old school and build a modern new facility in the middle of their neighborhood. They don’t believe that the City has done enough work with the community, and see many other possible sites for a new school. No one seems to be against a STEM Academy in Roxbury.

Right out of central casting, the City spokesperson asked about these questions told the Globe that the neighborhood got proper notice of meetings about the project, and that they would hear about demolition plans by mail before the bulldozers roll in. That wouldn’t be my idea of community involvement in such an important project.

Another concern raised at the meeting was the plan to turn the new STEM Academy into a charter school. Always the masters of timing, the BPS leaked this scheme to the Globe at the very moment that the Massachusetts Senate was debating and defeating an initiative to raise the cap on charter school growth in the state. The Senate voted to KeeptheCap, but it turns out the cap has a hole in it…a gaping hole large enough to drive a $70.7 million school building through it.

Having seen the test scores from the Dearborn, Acting Super McDonough is fearful that the state will put the school in receivership. This would be a huge embarrassment for him, the City and its new mayor. Ever clever, the BPS has a plan. Rather than negotiate with the State regarding exciting district plans for the Dearborn, we’ll make the new STEM Academy an in-district charter under the control of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). That way, the State won’t be able to execute a takeover. Not satisfied with giving away existing school buildings to charter schools, we are determined to give away one that isn’t even built!

DSNIIf there was a DSNI Fan Club, I’d be there. The organization has done wonderful things in the once desolate strip of Roxbury between Dudley Square and Upham’s Corner. But for me, that doesn’t qualify DSNI to run any school, and it certainly doesn’t qualify DSNI to take on the largest public school project ever undertaken in Boston. I love the Regan Youth Baseball League, which does a wonderful job bringing 100o families together to support sports for kids, but I wouldn’t put the league in charge of the health center where my kids get health care. I know, the BPS maintains “oversight” over in-district charter schools, but, I’m sorry, that doesn’t do it for me.

A few years ago, DSNI got into the charter school business by proposing to take over another struggling school in its neighborhood and run it as a K-5 school. For me, that was a major stretch, but I honestly didn’t know about the project until it was well underway. Then, last year, the Initiative proposed to expand that school to a K-8 school, even though it was not yet a fully functional K-5. In what seemed like a wise decision, the Boston School Committee declined the proposal, noting that the Initiative had not yet proven that it could effectively run a K-5. Now, a year later, we’re going to put the largest school project in the City’s history under DSNI control? Am I missing something here?

Obviously, the fix is in on this project, and we are not hearing even one-fifth of the real considerations behind it. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots. Regardless of what’s behind it, this project would firmly establish the model of converting struggling schools into charters as the way Boston deals with its inability to support great schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It’s hard to imagine a slipperier slope for the BPS.

Having shared this idea with the press, the BPS brought it to the Boston School Committee who raised not a peep of concern. As I tell you, the fix is in. Luckily, some of the good people of Roxbury and their friends around the city seem to be insisting that we take a closer look at this before the bulldozers roll in. Thank you, Roxbury! Tito Jackson, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee, is quoted in the Globe admitting that somebody dropped the ball on the consultation with the community about the project, but there ought to be a way to get such an important project done.

Tito’s right. Boston’s schoolchildren deserve a modern STEM Academy and Roxbury would be a great place to put it. But for the City and the BPS, to acknowledge that our school district can’t run such a school sends the wrong message on so many different levels. Let’s talk to the people of Roxbury about where and how to do this project, and let’s talk to the State about the commitment of our Public School District to integrate a 21st century facility into a 21st century public school system. We are now on the path to making a sow’s ear out of a wonderful purse.

 

 

 

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