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).


Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools

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






Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools

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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Filed under Just Parenting

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.





Filed under Boston Public Schools

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.





Filed under Charter Schools

Charter Train Slows: Senate Keeps Cap

State HouseThe Parent Imperfect enjoys winning one once in a while. What’s the matter with that? Yes, I know…the only thing worse than a sore loser is a smug winner.

On Wednesday, against what once seemed like big odds, the Massachusetts Senate defeated two bills that would have lifted the cap on charter school expansion in the Commonwealth. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close. The Senate Bill crafted by Boston’s own Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz went down by a vote of 26-13, while the even worse House version of Wellesley’s Rep. Alice Peisch took and even harder fall by a 30-9 tally. If I could bring myself to drink at 6:57 AM, I’d offer a toast right here.

The day before the vote, I was not optimistic. It seemed that about a fourth of the chamber was solidly against charter expansion and a more or less equal number were clear that removing the cap on charter expansion was the way to go. The big group in the middle were from places in the state that wouldn’t really be affected that much by charters, but they seemed to be leaning toward supporting Chang-Díaz in her effort to craft a bill that would pay Paul without really robbing Peter (fund charters without damaging the public schools).

Dont be fooledBut a funny (and fortunate) thing happened on the way to the roll call. Nearly all of that middle group of people–apparently without strong convictions on the issue–came to the conclusion that it was not time to add more charters in the Commonwealth’s “low-performing” districts. A few of those Senators spoke eloquently against the bill in the debate, and almost all of them voted against it when the time came. So…what happened?

How was it that a spirited, if low budget, effort by public education advocates–many of them BPS parents, teachers and students–overcame a slick pro-charter campaign, complete with lobbyists, paid polls and sophisticated public relations? The pro-charter juggernaut supported by the Boston Foundation, the Boston Globe, many downtown corporate interests and (we all must recognize) many parents fed up with the BPS had moved the legislation past several apparent box canyons and had easily carried the day at the House vote in May.

Charter booster, Scot Lehigh, published his pre-mortem explanation in the Globe the day before. For him, the bill was in danger because of the machinations of Sen. Chang-Díaz, who had re-inserted several poison pills that had been left out of the House bill. Most notably, in pursuit of a “third way,” the Boston Senator had the audacity to link charter expansion to the Legislature’s fulfillment of its legal mandate to reimburse school districts for a fraction of what they lose each year in tuition payments to charters. No reimbursement, no charter expansion…simple as that.

In truth, those reimbursements don’t repair the financial damage done by the diversion of state education funds to charter schools, but (sorry Scot) this and other Chang-Díaz ideas were not the reason the bill fell. If that was the case, then the Senate could have rejected the Chang-Díaz bill and then passed the House bill without Sonia’s troubling provisions. But Alice Peisch’s gift to the charter lobby–the House bill–got even less support than the Chang-Díaz “compromise.”

Marc Kenan, of the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association, didn’t go there in his prickly statement, released right after the vote (at least it was a real post-mortem). …But, misinformation about charters is driving policy at the State House. Opponents play fast-and-loose with the facts about charter enrollment, attrition, and financial impact on districts. And they seem to have a receptive audience in the state Senate. Marc is closer to the truth than the Globe columnist.

Drain GraphThe movement to oppose this bill did use data to present a coherent argument that charter expansion would continue to hurt the finances of public school districts. Given the financial crunch faced by urban districts and the increasing amount of state aid already going to charters, this was not a hard argument to make. We also used data gathered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the charters, themselves, to argue that charters are not enrolling either English Language Learners or Students with Special Needs at acceptable rates, given the presence of these students in traditional schools. Finally, we argued that a disturbingly high percentage of the students that charters do enroll leave those schools before graduation. The charters’ own data shows that their attrition rates are higher than the public districts from which they are drawing their students. If relying on publicly-available data to make an argument about the impact of charter expansion is being “fast and loose,” then I plead guilty as charged, and many of the parents, students, teachers and community members who joined me–and did the real work–in making this case probably are guilty, too (though they can plead for themselves).

I prefer to think that we made a consistent, coherent and persuasive argument. Some eloquent members of the State Senate looked at the data we presented and that presented by our much better-funded opponents in the pro-charter camp, and decided that we were correct. Their arguments against charter expansion were able to knock the colleagues off the fence, but in the right direction.

I was working when the final debate happened in the Senate, but, thankfully, many of the people who had been making the argument supporting quality education for ALL students were in the gallery. They heard some passionate speeches in favor of charter expansion, but, thankfully, they heard more from Senators who had come to question the wisdom of this bill. Among those speakers was Senator Pat Jehlen, who represents Cambridge, Medford, Somerville and Winchester, a district that is home to several charter schools. After summarizing some of the things that concerned her about charter schools, Jehlen said:  

There are ways of reducing the achievement gap that have been proven, e.g. early childhood education. We should really spending our money on methods that are proven.

Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton echoed Jehlen’s sentiments by suggesting that:

We’ve essentially created a two-tiered public education system. Shouldn’t we make some investments that will go to all students in the Commonwealth.

MisinformationIt’s always tempting to suggest that people who don’t agree with one’s opinion have been the victims of manipulation and misinformation. I hesitate to hurl the first stone on that one. That said, I think that, despite the efforts of a prosperous pro-charter lobby, at least some policy makers in Massachusetts have decided that we need to take a closer look at how charters are affecting our entire education system before we buy into more of them.

Anyone who thinks that one vote in the Senate is going to turn around the charter juggernaut hasn’t been paying attention. The Globe will keep editorializing in support of charters, Paul Grogan will sign more checks and the MPCSA will continue to mobilize well-meaning people who don’t see a place for their children in traditional public schools.  In the long run, the way to stop the charter train will be to ensure that public school districts provide Quality Education for Every Student.


Filed under Charter Schools

Blog Launch Redux

Parent Imperfect:

Former Denver school board member turns to blogging to share her frustration with ed reform in her city.

Originally posted on Kaplan for Kids:

Blog Launch for Kaplan for Kids

Fifty seven charter schools (57), seventy five percent (75%) housed in taxpayer owned or leased facilities. Fifty two percent (52%) of taxpayer approved new schools money going to two Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). Forty percent (40%) of schools non-union. These are the outcomes Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg must be looking at when he repeatedly declares education reform is a success in Denver. He certainly can’t be looking at the academic outcomes.

My name is Jeannie Kaplan. I had the honor and privilege of serving on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education for 8 years, from 2005 through November 2013. Michael Bennet was superintendent, having been selected in June of 2005. Mr. Bennet served until January 2009 when he was selected to be the junior Senator from Colorado. His replacement was and continues to be Tom Boasberg, Michael’s childhood friend and former…

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