Tag Archives: Public Education

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 for 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?)

cvc unidoIs 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???

I’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. You need to highlight the improvements being made at the Dearborn, and lift up the voices of the students, parents and teachers that have risen in opposition to the current plan, but this time in support of what you are doing. You need to awaken the Mayor from his silent slumber and get him solidly behind your change of course. You need to 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. You need to dare to win, rather than make bad decisions based on a fear of losing.

Yes, despite doing everything right, you might lose that battle 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. 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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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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The race from reading

keep calm and read a bookThe Parent Imperfect just received a web link that has led to this harried post. It is “21 young adult books for those who are “so over” dystopias.” This great list comes from Sarah Ang, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. I want to share that before I go off on another PI tangent.

The list came to me just after a long session of going over old photographs in hopes of collecting a few for dear Liz on Mother’s Day. Among them were a surprising number of images of Vince or Connie sitting or laying somewhere reading a book. Sadly, those feel a bit like my dog-eared photos of myself playing baseball or tennis…memories of a bygone era.

It’s hard to imagine that I ever took for granted the tendency of both kids to disappear into books for long periods of time. It wasn’t that long ago when Connie would quite often come to me saying, “!Papi…TIENES que leer este libro!”  I’d smile and say that I would surely read whatever book she had just devoured so that we could talk about it, but I seldom made the time to do so. (Too much time blogging…)
Want to hang out

What used to be a family of voracious readers-for-fun has become Liz, still reading a couple of books a week, mostly before going to sleep. While Liz must be careful that a book doesn’t keep her up all night, they have become the PI’s NyQuil. Vince and Connie still read quite a bit, but reading has become exclusively part of the ongoing torment of too much homework that stands at the center of the teaching philosophy at the nation’s oldest public school (Yes, we knew that the place worships at the altar of homework when we sent them there). At about 11PM one night this week, Connie said much too loudly (screamed, really), “I can’t stand it! They give me so much fricking (chosen advisedly) homework…why are they doing this? They take away from you any interest in learning or reading because all you have time to do is so much homework!”

Now, Connie’s protests happen in a context, a context in which she refuses to let go of interests that she developed when schoolwork was a minor irritation. Her insistence in continuing to pursue these interests means that she often doesn’t get to her homework until 8PM.

overscheduledAnd the parental guidance? The parents were clear that she was going to do less extra-curricular stuff this first year at BLS, but this past week she had a soccer game, two soccer practices, two softball games, softball practice, dance class, piano class and piano practice (another casualty). She somehow also found time to babysit once and spend a little time with friends. We often look longingly upon those families whose children have each decided that they are going to focus on doing one single thing outside of their schoolwork, and do it very well. Connie rebels against this idea and, to date, her parents have yet to be willing to storm the barricades.

The other factor in the race from reading is, of course, the turn to screens of all sorts. We vigilantly kept Vince out of this world well into his teen years, but his life is now fully backlit. The limits we fought for years to maintain have slowly faded away as he approaches the time when he, alone, will need to decide if he ever wants to stop playing that game or watching that movie.  Connie, the future litigator, has argued that allowing technological parity is the only just path for her beleaguered parents. We have not caved to that level, but she has access to much more of the wired world at age 12 than her dear brother had when he turned 16.

Soccer games and piano practice are not, therefore, the only reason that homework is delayed and books gather dust on cluttered shelves. Given even a few minutes of free time, both Vince and Connie turn to that bizarre world of “constant, but not quite” communication, in which a student this week made a “generic threat” against the nation’s oldest public school (After letting us know this troubling news, the Headmaster’s robo call went on to assure parents that “at no time was any member of the Boston Latin community in any danger…”). All in a week’s work…

And so it is that we continue to scatter books around the house and then pay library fines when the books slip beneath the piles. We continue to rage against the machine, even as more of them appear in our midst. What evil demon keeps bringing them in here?

Through it all, these kids get up at 6AM (almost) every day to, once again, drink from the fire hose. It doesn’t feel right, and complaints abound, but no one seems willing to force a discussion about making a real change.

 

 

 

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The School Culture Vulture Swoops

Hennigan School collageSince the identity of the Parent Imperfect is now well-known to many around the BPS, a good number of people contact me offline with questions about things. I seldom have the answers, but can occasionally connect people with someone who can answer their question.

Very occasionally, someone reaches out on the blog for help with something they are trying to deal with. Today, I got a comment in the “PI Reviews” section of the blog that contained just such a question (even though there was no question mark on it). “Virginia from Roslindale” said:

I need help creating healthy culture at the hennigan .
Virginia in Roslindale

Those few words have been the stuff of many conversations, over the years. This is, of course, THE question for parents who want to be engaged with our kids’ schools. It says that the culture, or the patterns in the way people live together (or don’t) within a school determines how our kids and everyone else will experience the place. Since we want our kids (and all others, presumably) to have a positive experience in their schools, we want to do what we can to contribute to a respectful and positive in-school culture at the schools our kids attend.

Hennigan MuralThat seems pretty straightforward, but it is anything but simple. The culture of a school reflects both the cultures that everyone (kids, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, etc.) brings to school with them, as well as the idiosyncratic patterns of behavior that the school community develops, all on its own. School leadership (the Principal and his/her administration) has a lot to do with the school culture, but they certainly don’t make it alone. Each of the groups in the school influences what goes on inside, and a pretty small group of people who really want to change school culture (the principal and his/her allies a the school, a determined group of teachers, an organized group of parents, etc.) can occasionally make that happen. Anyone who has been watching the Boston Public Schools has seen examples of schools whose cultures have changed pretty dramatically (for better or for worse, depending on your perspective) over a short period of time.

Changes in culture pretty quickly change the way the school gets talked about in the community, and, before you know it, the composition of the school community begins to change, too. A few years ago, something about the culture at the Hennigan began to send a message to the Somali community in Boston that it was a place to send their children, and one began to see more mothers and girls wearing head scarves in the school. In a school system with complex dynamics around race, ethnicity, gender and class, these changes in culture and community can come with lots of emotional baggage. They can also create tension in the school and the larger community. Whether or not I feel that the changes in my child’s school culture are “positive” depends a lot on my own culture and what I want for my child’s school.

Hennigan libraryWhen Connie went to the Hennigan, we hoped to be part of a school community like the one we had experienced at the Hernández, and to contribute what we could to that community. I started “showing up” at the school, trying to connect any way I could, and to find a way to contribute. Liz immediately volunteered to be on the School Site Council. Nobody ever said, “No, thanks,” but, even in our blissful cluelessness, we began to get the message that we were not going to be part of the social network that really influenced the way things happened at the school. Since we were very likely going to be at the school for one year, that reaction to our efforts to insert ourselves into the school community wasn’t that hard to understand.

There was definitely a school community at the Hennigan, but it was completely different than the one we experienced at the Hernández. The Hennigan community had its culture, some of which seemed quite positive, while other aspects of the culture seemed pretty negative to us. Other aspects of the way the school worked were completely mysterious to us, and we never figured them out. In any case, we came to focus on connecting to Connie’s teacher and some of the parents of her classmates, in an effort to make her own little world at the school a better place for her.

Hennigan AWCIn the two years since we were at the Hennigan, things seems to have changed quite a bit. The BPS website still says that the school is a K-5 school, but I understand that the BPS has decided to make it a K-8 school, which will include adding a Grade 6 Advanced Work Class. If implemented, this will mean a HUGE change in the school culture. Incorporating Grades 6, 7 and 8 into the school will make it a completely different place. The composition of the school has not changed a lot (still has large Somali, African American and English Language Learner populations), but the composition of the AWC class does seem to have changed as the program has become more popular among a broader group of West Zone parents.
Hennigan high five

Virginia is asking for the thoughts of others about how to contribute, as a parent, to building positive culture at the school. I know that some readers of the PI know a lot about the Hennigan, and others who don’t know the Hennigan have done a lot of thinking about changing school culture. Are you willing to share some ideas with Virginia? I’m sure she’d be happy to see comments from people here, on the blog, or to be in contact with people offline. I’m not going to share her contact info here, but I can probably facilitate contact if you have ideas about parents building school culture that you’d prefer to share privately. Just let me know, here or privately. I think the “contact form” below is set up to allow you to do that.

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Not just another April vacation

QuitoIt’s been some time since the Parent Imperfect answered a phone call with such anticipation. At 7:09 this morning, Vince called from the airport in Houston to check in. That was the first we have known of him since he boarded a United flight in Boston nine days ago for a trip to Ecuador organized by the Spanish program at the nation’s oldest public school. After saying hello, he immediately reported that he’s “still alive.” He must know what was on the mind of his always calm and confident father. Hearing his voice was reassuring, even though the first thing he told his mother was that the only problem on the trip was that he had caught malaria. Where did he get this sense of humor? Otovalo

He’s been away from home for extended periods several times before, but this one was different…really different. He was going to be in Quito, in Otovalo and then in the Ecuadorian Amazon, seeing sights and spending a few days helping to construct a school in a small, indigenous town. The school did this with an educational tour business that exists, first of all, to make a profit, but also to keep kids safe and stimulated doing travel that just might change their lives. This is a serious operation that gets paid serious $$$ (cause for parental pause) for what it does, but, having organized such trips in El Salvador for a couple of years, I’m too familiar with the dangers inherent in the best planned trips.

He still has to get from Houston to Boston, but it was very good to hear his voice. In the middle of the week, Liz’s phone rang one night at about 12:15AM. She arose from a sound sleep and got to the phone, but the Caller ID number was so strange that she hesitated, and then the call was gone. We still don’t know if the call had anything to do with Vince’s trip (he probably won’t tell us, if it did), but it certainly got my attention, as I skated through the week firmly resting on the “no news is good news” theory of travel communication.

It’s all about payback. We insisted that he heed the organizers’ warning not to bring a cellphone with him, which he thought was ridiculous. As we waved the rules at him, Vince assured us that, once again, he would be the only one whose parents paid attention to what the rules said. That seems to have been the case, as he called us from Logan on two different phones and his call from Houston was on a third friend’s phone.

THEN, FOUR DAYS LATER, WHEN I FINALLY GOT BACK TO THIS

Amazon villageSo, Vince did make it back, with a sun tan, a few less pounds and many stories about what seemed to be a really important trip for him. The trip took him from the modern capital city to a smaller, prosperous indigenous city to a tiny village in the Amazon. When asked what he’ll remember forever about the trip, he mentioned three things: the Ecuadorians who guided the trip (“they were so friendly and knowledgeable and you could tell they were people who really cared about their country”), the apparent happiness of the young people in the village living in what seemed to him to be impossibly difficult conditions and the cockroaches, which were at least four times the size of any insect he had ever seen. He also really enjoyed being “on a 10-day sleepover with 15 other kids (and NO parents).” In the midst of it all, he claims that Spanish came to him with surprising ease. The guides who “made the trip” for him spoke only Spanish and (in one case) Quechua.

And, just like that, he’s very quickly back into the pressurized environment of the school that made this trip possible, and now threatens to wipe it from his memory. The relaxed and slightly awestruck young man that stepped off the plane is still with us, but he’s looking more and more like a BLS junior who doesn’t know when he’ll have time to get it all done. I suppose it’s our job to keep that junior at bay, at least for a little while.

 

 

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“Zombie” bill angers public school parents

zombie billThe Parent Imperfect took the time this past Wednesday to write that no deal had been reached on the bill to lift the cap on charter schools in our state. Normally, the failure of a bill to get a positive recommendation from the relevant committee would be the kiss of death, at least for the current session. But this is not just any bill. As many feared, the failure to gain the support of the Joint Education Committee created only a minor annoyance for the drive to create open season on charter school expansion in Massachusetts.

Little did I know that the people in the Massachusetts Legislature who feel that lifting the charter cap is the critical next step in educational reform in Massachusetts wouldn’t even wait 24 hours to resurrect the idea. Before Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz could even communicate with her constituents about what had happened, her illustrious Joint Ed Committee Co-Chair, Rep. Alice Peisch, had done the deed. The State Rep. from Wellesley created a new bill with a new number and without the language on charter reimbursements that so bothered charter growth proponents. Under the new bill, there would be no cap on charter expansion, even if the Legislature declined to reimburse even one cent of its legal obligation to school districts for charter tuition payments. The maneuver made a joke of all of the hand wringing around a supposed compromise on the original bill.

Citizens for Public Schools called the new Peisch bill a “zombie” bill, which I think nicely captures the nature of the legislation. Not only did Rep. Peisch produce the zombie bill in record time (it was certainly being drafted as the compromise charade was underway), but she managed to get it approved by a voice vote at a sparsely attended session of the House of Representatives (is there a roll call in the House?). I disagree completely with what Ms. Peisch did, but you have to admire her cheek.

More and stopPeisch delivered to charter proponents what Sen. Chang-Díaz had refused to give them…legislation to remove the cap on charter expansion with almost no conditions. In less that 24 hours, public school districts and the families who depend on public schools had been “peisched.” That is, outmaneuvered by a legislator with a strong personal commitment to education reform, and little or no sense of accountability to urban public school districts and the families that need them. A reasonable person might ask if Rep. Peisch’s alleged personal involvement with charter and other educational reform organizations might create a conflict of interest, or at least a conflict of conscience for her on this issue.  One might wonder such things, but, in Massachusetts, such questions often go unanswered. Any conflict here would, of course, pale in comparison to the conflicts that abound in our “government by checkbook” at all levels.

The Peisch bill still must clear several hurdles to become law. The Senate must approve it and the Governor must sign it to name two such hurdles. Charter expansion obviously has as many powerful friends in the Legislature as it has outside of it, and the governor has expressed few reservations about creating more charters. That said, the public discussion of this bill has educated many in the community, as well as some in the media and more than a few members of the Legislature about the lack of accountability of charters and the financial and other pressures on public schools that result from charter growth. This is not a slam dunk.

Merely getting peisched one time will not keep these people from continuing to make their views known. I remain hopeful that the zombie bill–or at least the charter cap provision–can be put on hold. For the umpteenth time, I do not oppose charter schools or think existing schools should be closed down. They should be more accountable on many issues, and their number should not be significantly expanded until policymakers understand much better (and address in a policy) the impact of such expansion on traditional public schools and their students. Ultimately, if we want to establish a separate system of essentially independent schools, we should find another way to finance those schools that does not drain financial and political support from public school districts.

If you are concerned about the zombie bill, take a few minutes and contact your State Representative and/or State Senator on the matter. If you’re not clear who this is, it’s easy to find your legislators and their contact information.

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No Deal on Charter Cap

Charter demoThe Parent Imperfect arose to the news that the cap on charter school expansion in Massachusetts remains in place, at least for the moment. Boston. com reports that last minute efforts to push through a compromise crafted by legislators apparently could not gain enough support in the Joint Committee on Education.

The bill will now leave the Committee with a negative recommendation. It is still possible for both the House and the Senate to vote on a bill not recommended by a committee, but this is a rare occurrence in Massachusetts politics. If Massachusetts keeps charter limits in place, it will be bucking a national trend toward rapid charter expansion, regardless of the cost of such growth to public school districts.

While I did not think that the compromise worked out by Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Russell Holmes would have been a step forward for public education in the Commonwealth, Chang-Díaz, in particular, deserves credit for holding the line on her insistence that a lifting of the charter cap be accompanied by a State House commitment to fully reimburse school districts for charter tuition payments.

Opponents of lifting the cap will awaken happy that the current limits remain in place, but we have certainly not heard the last of this issue. If it holds, this failure of charter proponents to gain support for further charter expansion may improve the BPS budget picture in the medium run. Even so, the district still faces serious problems with its 2015 budget,  which will be voted on by the School Committee tonight. Many questions also remain concerning the District’s new school assignment process, which has yet to prove that it can provide equitable access to quality education for all the City’s children.

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A “Third Way” or the charter way?

Chicago charter posterThe Parent Imperfect has a strong sense that the fix is in on lifting the cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. I fear that the fix will leave public school districts with less resources to educate the vast majority of students in the state that will always attend traditional public schools. As always, the kids will pay the price of a bad “compromise.” The Dorchester Reporter reported yesterday that Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Russell Holmes have reached a compromise to lift the current legal limit on charter expansion (the charter cap).

It’s important to note that this is a compromise between two legislators intent on raising the cap, and charter boosters in the community, like the Mass Public Charter Schools Association and Paul Grogan of The Boston Foundation. I have nothing against either legislator: It just seems important to be honest about what has happened. Parents, teachers and concerned members of the community who don’t want to see the cap lifted were conspicuously absent from the debate and the compromise.

Charter school growthAs we write here, 2130 people have signed an electronic petition circulated by the Boston parent group, Quality Educaton for Every Student to the Senator and her house Co-Chair of the Joint Education Committee, Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley. The petition does not stake out an “anti-charter” position, but simply says that it makes no sense to divert more money from public school districts at a time when many of the most challenged districts face serious budgetary problems. This year, 42% of state funding to education in Boston went to charter schools educating about 13% of Boston’s students. What will that percentage be when charters have 20% of students in the City? How many teachers will get laid off that year? The compromise apparently gives this concern a nod, but then goes forward to lift the charter cap, anyway.

For now, all we know about the deal is what the dealers say about it. Rumor has it that a vote will come on Tuesday, so we’ll know more then. Sen. Chang Diaz’s office released a statement trumpeting the fact that the deal includes a commitment to pull the plug on charter growth if the Legislature doesn’t fulfill its legal responsibility to reimburse districts for funds diverted from those districts to pay charter school tuition. That’s very nice, but it hardly seems like a stunning victory for schoolchildren that we are obliging the State House to follow its own laws.

At the base of this so-called “third way” is the perception that we need, at all costs, a “safety valve” for families who believe that the Boston Public Schools are not educating their children well. According to this argument, more charters will offer more such families such a choice. I know families in this situation. You probably do, too. They truly believe that a charter school has saved their child (or children), and some of those families definitely want more charters to open. I also know that charters have proven to be a very unreliable safety valve for many of those same families. Proportionally, charters educate way fewer English Language learners and students with special needs than the public schools, who must take everyone. Fully half of the students who turn to these schools as an alternative can’t adjust to the charter environment and end up back in traditional public schools (or out of school, entirely). At a meeting with BPS parents last week, Sen. Chang-Díaz acknowledged these concerns and promised language in her compromise that would demand charter accountability around just these issues. Her statement mentions no such language in the final bill. I hope the language just slipped the minds of those spinning the compromise.

If charter schools are a safety valve, then they make for an expensive and leaky valve at a time when urban districts like the BPS are under tremendous budget pressure. Rather than divert resources to a separate system of schools with precious little accountability, let’s focus our efforts on changing the way business is done at Court Street and on continuing to improve Boston’s schools, one at a time. I just don’t see an alternative if we want to offer Boston’s students great educational choices. Step one along this path will be the selection of a new Boston School Superintendent who understands the problems faced by the BPS, and possesses a vision that can mobilize all stakeholders to tackle those problems.

The Globe reports that charter boosters are unhappy with the Holmes/Chang-Díaz compromise, because it places even weak conditions on the charter expansion fiesta to come. The pro-charter lobby smells blood and thinks it is in a position to get everything it wants. They may well be overplaying their hand.

Make you want to holler? Take a moment to read and sign the Quest petition. Then HOLLER!

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Boston’s Budget Blues

Cuts hurt kidsThe Parent Imperfect joined about 65 other hearty souls at last night’s public school budget hearing at the Hyde Park Educational Complex. BPS proposes filling a “sixty million dollar hole” in the school budget with 89 teachers, 109 paras, 26 administrators, a whole adult ed program and lots of yellow school buses. Sixty million makes for a big hole. No one who dragged themselves out of the house last night did so to express their support for the cuts.

School Committee Chair, Michael O’Neill made a valiant effort to lighten things up a bit in his welcoming remarks, but few attendees were in that kind of mood. A senior financial officer of the BPS went through the now familiar slides. Only through a combination of pink slips, program cuts and transportation service changes could the District balance this year’s budget. If the draft budget presented last night became a reality today, 223 people would lose their jobs, Boston’s unique adult education program would all but disappear and middle school students eligible for transportation would be on MBTA buses, instead of yellow school buses.

Yellow busesAll of these cuts would be necessary, despite a decision by Mayor Walsh to increase City government outlays for the School Department by 3.8%, while asking all other departments to take a 1% cut. The combination of ordinary cost increases, drastic declines in State and Federal support and contract-mandated salary increases had created a budget hole much deeper than what the City could fill.

Upon hearing the news, sixteen members of the audience paraded to the microphones to say, “don’t do it!” They included parents from the BTU School, the Roosevelt, the Philbrick, the Mendell, the Curley and the Lyndon, all schools facing the loss of teachers and valuable programs. Teachers and students of the Adult Education Center spoke eloquently of its importance in their lives, and the members of one class came to the meeting together for a “lesson in democracy.” A leader of Boston’s Special Education Parents’ Advisory Council spoke, as did Tim McCarthy, the City Councillor from Hyde Park who committed himself to fight on the floor of the City Council to avoid cuts to schools now moving in the right direction. Most in the room stood as others spoke, showing that they weren’t there just to speak for their issue.

One parent from West Roxbury cut to the chase quite nicely. “In two weeks of looking at this, I’ve discovered that the real solutions are two: Chapter 70 allocations and charter reimbursements. If I have figured this out in two weeks, you certainly can, too.”

State support downShe was pointing to the real fact that the current State budget limits spending on public education through Chapter 70 and that the formula for allocation this money has been changed in ways that work for some smaller cities, but definitely work against Boston. She was also pointing to the fact the $85 million in Chapter 70 money goes directly to charter schools. The Legislature is supposed to reimburse part of this through a separate appropriation, but they’ve been hedging on that in recent years, and not even this inadequate reimbursement has happened yet this year.

She’s right on about the immediate pressure points, but I hope we can effectively advocate with State officials without losing our conversation about how the BPS is making decisions about the money that is in the pot now.

As the meeting ground to a close, the Chair spoke directly about his own resistance to cutting an Adult Education program that has existed for over 100 years. He also said that he was ready to “join forces” with parent groups and other advocates to go to the State House to ask for more money.

Parent groups in the room seemed ready to join forces with the School Committee to advocate for additional State funds, but they also seemed unhappy with a lack of transparency in how budget decisions are being made in the District as well as with the content of many of the decisions concerning the allocation of existing funds. Joining forces will only work if all are interested in an open partnership, and I still have questions about the District’s openness about its decisions.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks. The School Committee must pass a balanced budget in three weeks, or the scene shifts to the City Council, where a knock down, drag out awaits a very new Council. Very soon, something has to give.

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Re-Inventing Advanced Work Class: A Dozen (+2) Quick Thoughts

3 in AWCIt is the time of year when the AWC program is causing some parents of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in the boston Public Schools to wonder what to do next year. Do they leave their child in the place s/he knows and has friends, or do they opt for the “other track” of Advanced Work?

Thankfully, this is one discussion that Liz and the Parent Imperfect won’t need to have this year. We probably couldn’t survive another round of that. Recently, however, I fell into a very interesting e-mail conversation about AWC among some BPS parents active in their own kids’ schools. I can’t help but share some tidbits from it here, doing my best to obscure the names of parents and schools. My purpose here is not to promote one or another point of view, but to show that thoughtful people have quite different views (and interesting) about this program.

1. At [our school], parents have come together with teachers and the Principal to try to remake the awc/non-awc divide academically and culturally for next year, and we are cautiously optimistic.

So I wanted to have a sense of what schools are doing so we can learn some lessons…

2. We had an tour of our school for prospective AWC parents yesterday. Half of them were genuinely moved and pleased with the ideas we are considering for [changing] AWC. The other half took out their pens and crossed the school off their list… 

3. Your school is similar to one in my neighborhood in that AWC kids largely come from inside the school. Don’t be so hard on outsiders; many of us are turned off by the idea of sending our child into an environment where most of their classmates had been together for years. It’s not exactly welcoming to hear, “We’re full with our own….

4.  I would encourage you to consider the training of a literacy coach at the 3-5 level for your school.  Until teachers have deep and solid skills in a workshop approach to literacy instruction, it will be difficult for them to manage differentiation across the range of learners we’re talking about. The literacy coach provides in-house professional development for their cohort teachers (in this case 3-5, but it could possibly be expanded to 3-6; or train a second coach 6-8), as well as bi-weekly coaching visits – forever. The training happens through the Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University…

This should be a model the district leverages to address equity and differentiation…

5.  From what I can tell kids at our school are on a very broad spectrum of current capacity to handle [the the training on executive function], but they’re all doing it on some level and all learning skills to manage information, plan time, etc.  And yes there ARE kids with IEPs in the AWC classroom at the school…

Advanced Work II6. I wonder if it would be helpful to look at other schools where there is no AWC, very mixed classrooms in terms of academic skills, and where families choose to stay… as maybe we could assume that something is going right in those classrooms. It’d be easy to come of with a list anecdotally, but wonder if the info would also be accessible from BPS.

 It sounds like there are some interesting ideas about how to integrate the classrooms. Our experience at the school that our kids attended, is a bit different, as there are completely mixed classrooms, with a very small exodus for AWC, though a fair number of kids who get in. Thought maybe some of the lessons could apply though…
7. Hearing things like this make me feel better about even staying involved in this equity fight. The awc segregation is so disturbing and everyone tells me it is political suicide to be strongly against it. It is good to know some people are trying to mitigate this…
8.  …whatever AWC is or is not (and AWC classes vary and have their own inequities), it can’t be separated from the exam schools. BPS I think sees AWC at heart as about keeping middle class parents in BPS, and on the pathway to exam schools…
9. …I went to schools to see about transferring my daughter and was astounded at seeing what is basically tracking and racial segregation in several of the school I looked at. It seems to me that it is an unspoken bargain to keep middle class kids in BPS at the expense of poor kids and kids of color…
10. Interesting the interest and increased difficulty of getting into AWC coincided with the recession. Wonder if things will shift again now with housing prices being more fluid as Boston real estate continues to rebound and surpass…
11. The whole AWC thing creates different dynamics for those at schools that have AWC vs. those at a school without it. I have a appreciated the rigorous instruction that my son has received in an AWC classroom, but I have not understood why the curriculum and method of teaching…(teachers seem to have a lot more flexibility) shouldn’t be available for all kids? It seemed like everyone would benefit from the approach…
12. There can be lots of opportunities for all 4th/ 5th graders — regardless of AWC or reg ed or multi-lingual classrooms — to go on the same field trips (including to DC), be in the same chorus, school play or on the same sports team. This was true at the school my kids attended…
13. It is really great to hear about what is happening at the school where the parents are trying to change AWC. I look forward to learning more about this initiative...I don’t think there is a single white child in my son’s AWC class (though there may be one or two in the grades 5-6); his AWC class is under subscribed – only 17 students – and has historically been under subscribed. One child left to go to AWC at another school and I know others would have left if they could have gotten in. That said, there is probably more of distinction in economic levels – with the middle class kids clustered in AWC program.
There you have it, fragments of a back-and-forth among people who care. You can cut the ambivalence with a knife. But it’s great to see that some schools are trying to do something about AWC, rather than just send their kids there and wish it didn’t exist.
Will your child be going to AWC next year? How are you feeling about it?

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