College, round two: One more leap of faith…

The end is near for the Parent Imperfect. That’s not meant to be ominous, just an acknowledgment that an important part of the identity of this blog has been that of a flailing parent of students in the Boston Public Schools. Our daughter’s BPS career is ending, quite predictably, with a decision to continue her education. I’ve written about this choice at a couple of earlier points and report here on the end of the process (or its beginning, depending on your perspective).

That choosing a college gets more stressful every year is old news. Those aspects of the game that create the most stress (cost, competition, high-stakes testing) are very much in the interest of people who hold power over the process. So, despite all of the hand-wringing about the cost and the stress, higher education continues to become more expensive and competitive. These structural factors certainly influenced Connie’s college search experience, but a lack of clarity about values and a lack of discussion between parents and student about those values also had a big impact. It isn’t just those big, bad institutions!

In addition to going through the college choice process this year, Connie has been doing intensive rehab from a serious sports injury that required surgery, participating in a demanding “racial reconciliation” program at a local community health center and grinding through one more year of high-pressure, unforgiving academics at the nation’s oldest public high school.  Why would she be stressed?

So…what happened? In March, Connie heard from all of the colleges that she had applied to during the “regular” admissions period. Of course, some schools offered her a spot, others did not. This is a crapshoot that defies all logic. To her credit, Connie turned quickly to the question of which of her “acceptances” she really wanted to pursue.

She chose to focus on three priority schools during this last period, and we made plans to visit each of those schools in the one month that colleges give students to respond to their offers of admission. As much as any other moment in the process, this choice of three reflected her educational values…her evolving sense of what would be good for her in a university experience. More than a little of her stress this year has come from internal conflict about these values. Six years at BLS (nominally a public school, but a proud partner of Harvard University) have encouraged reverence for elite education offered by private institutions. At the same time, other influences in her life have challenged those elitist assumptions. Part of that challenge has come from her parents, who support public education for reasons other than the price tag, but may not be as clear on this issue as we think we are.

We visited one of her priority schools for their “accepted students’ weekend” and she was hooked. We never made it to the other two. At this point, Connie’s intense desire to be DONE weighed very heavily. The only other decision to make was whether or not she would tell the school that she wanted to take a “gap year” between high school and college. That idea intrigued all of us, but going down the gap-year path was going to require a whole other set of decisions over the next few months. In large part, because she did not want to face the stress of those decisions, she opted not to take a gap year before entering college.

Money, money money, money….MONEY!” How can one talk about the process of choosing a college without talking about money? One can’t! The cost of college is the elephant in thousands of living rooms every year. It is a huge part of the discussion about what one values in education. Over the last year, we said a lot of things like, “Look at these schools from the perspective of where you really want to go,” suggesting that we would figure out the money thing. But we never really had a “come to Jesus” conversation about our ability to finance a second private university (Connie’s brother will be graduating this spring from such an institution). This is one place where our hesitancy to engage and (most likely) our own lack of clarity about values made life more difficult.

Connie had some generous offers of financial aid and other offers that were much less generous. Can you predict that her “priority” schools were among the ones that are most expensive and offered her the least financial aid? Here I must say something about “need-based” aid. For me, it is great that a small number of wealthy, elite colleges have made a pledge that admissions will be “need-blind” and that they will provide aid to meet the financial need of all accepted students. The “need-blind” thing seems a little disingenuous. Given the intrusiveness of the college application, one need not see the financial statement of the student’s parents to know something about the financial situation of an applicant’s family. They may choose not to see it, but colleges are never blind to the financial need of applicants.

A smaller number of schools (19, I think) go a step further. They pledge to meet student need exclusively with grants (no loans). Given the millstones that student loans have become around the necks of millions of students and families, this is a bold and helpful step. All three of Connie’s priority schools are in the “meet all need” category and two of them do it “without loans.” Beyond question, this is a great step forward. It means that a number of students from economically-disadvantaged families go to these colleges each year. Many of these students would never have attended such schools under the old financial aid formulas. Their presence is a gift to the entire university community. But while providing access to a small number of students in this way might make elite universities look and feel better, it does not fundamentally change the nature or the impact of elite education in this country.

What surprised me is that each of these three institutions received the same financial information from us and came up with very different assessments of what we could contribute to the cost of education. We tried to negotiate with two of these schools around the aid package, without success. The third offered so little aid that it seemed fruitless to negotiate. We didn’t prepare ourselves nearly enough for these important conversations. Someone has since told me that they did a formal appeal of their aid offer, including a very quantitative report by an accountant. We did none of that, perhaps because we had gotten surprising results for brother Vince, without any outside intervention. Connie ended up choosing the school that, among her three priority choices, offered us the most help with college costs. Even with the generous aid, however, merely speaking about the cost of the school requires taking a deep breath.

In the last stage of the process, the lack of clarity about finances made the whole situation much more stressful than it needed to be. Out of one side of our mouths, we were encouraging Connie to choose a school about which she was truly excited. Then came the inevitable sticker shock, and out of the other side of our mouths came concern about the money. It was amazing to see how quickly the stress subsided when we stopped cringing at the price and Connie made her decision. Other stressful days will certainly come but, for now, Connie seems quite at peace with her decision. As a friend said to me today, “it’s a leap of faith for all of you.” The problem is that I’m not much of a leaper these days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Open Letter to Three Finalists

Like most people advocating for better and more equitable public education in Boston the Parent Imperfect has become mildly obsessed with the search for a new superintendent for the Boston Public Schools. Anyone paying attention knows that this is a really important hire for all families depending on the BPS for the education of our children. This week is crunch time. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, April 22-24, the three finalists put forward by the Search Committee (Brenda Cassellius, Marie Izquierdo and Oscar Santos) will be in Boston for public meetings regarding the position.  What follows is an Open Letter to these three educational leaders.

Dear Brenda Cassellius, Marie Izquierdo and Oscar Santos,

First of all, I congratulate you for being selected as finalists in the search for a new superintendent of the Boston Public Schools (BPS). I thank you for your long-term commitment to public education and further congratulate you for all of your accomplishments in building an institution that holds the key to the preservation of what remains of democracy in our country.

I write to you as a parent of children in the BPS since 2001. During that time, district leaders have come and gone. I have seen four BPS Superintendents and three interims (one of the Supers was also an interim). I have been an active parent at the Rafael Hernández dual language immersion school in Roxbury, the James W. Hennigan School in Jamaica Plain, the Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale (soon to be shuttered as part of “Build BPS”) and Boston Latin School in the Fenway (the nation’s oldest public school). I am a founding member of the parent advocacy organization, Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST) and a board member of the statewide advocacy group, Citizens for Public Schools. I have also been spewing out this blog for almost ten years. I write to you today representing no one but that blogger, and I, alone, am responsible for my confusions.

You have already been through several discussion with the Search Committee and others about this role. This coming week, each of you will spend a full day walking a gauntlet of public interviews and panel discussions with a variety of BPS stakeholders. Good luck! If you are still interested in the job after your Day of Living Dangerously, you will have gained even more of my respect (and concern). You will be meeting with great people from across the city, but do keep in mind that these people were hand-picked to participate in carefully choreographed meetings while you are in town. I write to offer a perspective that you may not have heard from the Search Committee and are unlikely to hear during your visit.

You consider this position at a critical time in the history of the BPS. The next Super will have much to say about the next act in the drama. Boston is one of the country’s great cities, but it is also one of its most unequal ones. It has a school system that reflects that identity…great, but grossly unequal. The number one task of the next Super will be to address those gaps, but s/he will do so in a context of ongoing budget shortfalls that directly affect schools, the resegregation of our schools and the increasing presence of private actors (with private interests) in the provision of public education services. In addition, the physical state of our school buildings is alarming. Two years after the launch of BuildBPS, a program allegedly designed to “bring Boston’s schools into the 21st century,” the District has given much more attention to pushing forward with unpopular school closings than it has to building community support for an exciting plan for revitalizing school facilities.

In the most supportive of political environments, the next Super would face a daunting task, but few would accuse our city of having a political environment supportive of public education. In Boston, the mayor and his (it’s always been a boys’ office) people have tremendous influence over all that goes on here, especially in our schools. During his original campaign, the current Mayor freely admitted that his knowledge of public education was limited to what he had learned as a board member of a local charter school (Seriously, Marty?). He has learned some things about public education on the job, but should still be deferring to district leadership on all issues of educational policy. However, this mayor is not willing to defer to anyone on decisions related to the biggest piñata in the City budget. He has an agenda for the schools, consistent with his agenda for the future of the entire city. Some aspects of that educational agenda make perfect sense from the perspective of addressing issues of quality and equity in the system, but many others clearly do not.

The Mayor and his people will choose which one of you (if any) is offered this job. They will likely shy away from anyone with a persona that will cast the sort of shadow over City Hall that the Winthrop Square high-rises will cast over the Boston Common. Be careful not to be too impressive. Shadow or not, dealing with City Hall will be a huge part of the job of the next Super. The Mayor appoints the School Committee and committee members are accountable only to him. Those members who differ in substance with the “program” quickly find themselves not invited back to the table, or find that they are in such an untenable position that it is better to leave of their own accord. I believe that differences with City Hall over educational policy (and the Mayor’s penchant for “passing the buck” to Dr. Chang and the BPS on controversial issues) had much more to do with the previous Super’s decision to take the $$$ and walk than any “performance” issues.

So in this context, what does Boston need in its next Superintendent? For me, the times demand:

1. A VISIONARY EDUCATOR capable of listening to, gaining the confidence of and working with all stakeholders to develop and implement a vision for high-quality education for all in Boston. As in many places, the biggest gaps in educational opportunity in Boston are racial gaps, so the vision must be, first and foremost, a vision of racial equity.

2. A COMPELLING EDUCATIONAL ADVOCATE AND COMMUNICATOR who can be an effective champion for Boston’s public schools in the face of serious threats to their mission(s) and resources. This does not mean that an effective Super must be “against” any kind of schools, but s/he must be a fierce advocate for resources and political support for public schools.

3. AN EFFECTIVE SERVANT-LEADER able to inspire all workers in a one-billion-dollar bureaucratic system to offer their energy and best ideas to the enormous task of building better and more equitable school communities.

4. A SKILLFUL DIPOMAT with the political aptitude and educational credibility to successfully negotiate differences between an educational agenda emerging from school communities and political agendas balancing educational goals with political interests.

The job description for this role included some, but not all, of these elements. Those who will decide on Boston’s next Super may well have other priorities, but I assure you that someone with these characteristics would have broad support among those most directly involved in the city’s schools. Such a person would also have the opportunity to create something in Boston that can serve as an example for urban systems around the country. Again, best of luck, whatever your next step may be.

 

 

 

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Eight mini-rants about the BPS budget (and an invitation)

TONIGHT (March 27), the Parent Imperfect will be back at a meeting of the Boston School Committee. I know, I said I was done with those meetings until I could vote for the people on the stage, but I can’t resist watching the Committee ignore all of the people testifying against the proposed BPS budget for next year and then vote to approve the budget. That vote will be followed by a round of hand-wringing by committee members thanking the community for its interest in the process and apologizing for the unfortunate need to cut the budgets at some schools.

In truth, I could easily resist all of that. I’ll be there tonight because a group of parents organized around the youth programs at St. Stephens Episcopal Church in the South End has asked me (AND YOU) to go. The school attended by many of their children (The Blackstone Elementary School) is one of the big losers in this year’s Hunger Games of a budget process, and they aren’t going to be content simply showing up and testifying before a committee that isn’t listening.

St. Stephen would be proud (I think). Together with the newly-formed Boston Coalition for Education Equity (of which  QUEST is a member) the Blackstone parents are organizing a March for Fair Education from the South End to the School Committee’s sumptuous digs in the Dudley Square’s Bolling Building. This is a very exciting development. Latinx students are now the largest group of students in the BPS, but, for language and a lot of other reasons, the parents of these students do not often get heard in the city’s educational debates. The majority of the parents working with the St. Stephens program are Latinx, and through this action, they are saying that they intend to be heard. They are about changing how the business of education gets done in BOSTON and I say, “IT’S ABOUT TIME!”

The march will step off from the South End at 4:30PM. If you can’t get to the South End by 4:30, think about being at the Bolling Building at 5:30PM when the crowd gets there. I don’t know what they have planned for their arrival, but if I know this St. Stephen’s crowd (and I do) I’m sure that the run-up to the School Committee will be much more interesting than the meeting, itself. Don’t be late!

Now, the mini-rants:

1. The City put more money into education each year, and that’s great. But if cost inflation and student transfers mean that the budget results in budget cuts at half of the District’s schools, then this we can’t pat ourselves on the back. This is not a “growing budget.”

2. Laura Perille, Sonia Chang-Diaz, and many others are correct that increased state funding for education has to be part of the solution to the crisis in education funding The Legislature should be ashamed of itself. The Promise Act isn’t enough, but it is a step in the right direction.

3. And yes, charters schools are also part of the discussion. Question 2 was a resounding rejection of charter expansion, precisely because that expansion undermines public education funding, but charters continue to expand, despite the clear public mandate to the contrary.

4. Gov. Baker has a proposal to try to avoid a lawsuit around the wildly outdated state education funding formula, but the way I read it, that proposal would barely provide enough funds to cover the increasing costs of funding charter schools over the next seven years. His bill should be called “The Charter School Expansion Act.”

5. If you’re angry about Boston’s budget debacle, wait until you read the new report, Asleep at the Wheel from the Network for Public Education. It documents how the Department of Education has wasted tens of millions of dollars on seed grants to charter schools that never opened, or closed quickly upon opening. Federal grant programs to public schools, which used to provide an important part of the BPS budget, have all but dried up.

6. I was down at the waterfront the other day and decided that there are more construction cranes than fully-funded public schools in Boston. This is a boom-town right now and there is NO REASON for our public schools to be squeezed. This is an opportunity that won’t always be there and the Mayor is content with press releases noting that this year’s budget is bigger than last years in dollar terms.

7. Schools are losing funds based on BPS “enrollment projections.” They want us to think that these numbers, which determine the fate of our schools, just get spit out of computers, untouched by human hands. (Most) parents make choices based on the “baskets” of schools generated by the algorithms behind the home-based assignment system. How those choices become school assignments and, eventually, school enrollments is something over which the BPS has a great deal of control. If I was behind the curtain with them and, for whatever reason, I wanted the enrollment at the Blackstone to go down, I’d have lots of ways to make that happen. I see fingerprints all over the enrollment projections that are the basis for budget cuts throughout the system.

8. Much is made of the new “soft landing” programs designed to make the sting of budget cuts a little less painful. That’s cool, but I’d prefer that the BPS put its energy into keeping our schools flying high, rather than ensuring soft landings. I have no doubt that it can be done.

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College admissions: Raise your hand if you’re surprised…

The Parent Imperfect is trying his best to remain serious about the college admissions process. It isn’t easy. A small percentage of high school seniors around the country are already clear where they will continue their education next year. The vast majority of current seniors either aren’t planning to be in college next year, or they are still waiting for answers to applications they submitted during the “regular admissions” round. Dear Connie is among that last group. To her credit, she seems aware of the privilege behind her expectation that formal education will continue beyond high school.

She has heard from a number of schools, including the one to which she applied “Early Decision,” the three to which she applied “Early Action” and two schools to which she applied through the regular process. There are more to come. She has had very good results so far, though she does not yet have a decision from any of the schools she most wants to attend. The process has dragged out for so long that I sense that she is more interested in getting through this and finishing her senior year, than in any particular outcome.

At this perfect moment in a long process, the FBI has apparently broken up an operation through which rich and famous parents were paying to get their children into prestigious schools. I can’t say that the news surprised me. I can imagine, however, that some number of anxious parents live in fear of the fall of the other shoe. It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Singer is the first and only college admissions counselor to notice this type of “opportunity.” Surprise or not, it has been bizarre to be inundated with news of this criminal conspiracy as we sit here waiting somewhat anxiously for the answers of the sorting hat.

Done the way Connie did it, the process requires already busy people to do a lot of extra work and make many decisions that seem important on really tight timelines. People say it is like taking an extra Advanced Placement class, and I don’t doubt it. Because regular class work never stops or even slows at her school, this has been a time of even more midnight oil and agitated evenings than usual for us all. To be confronted now by the rot at the core of the system for which the midnight oil has burned creates yet another challenge.

Luckily, Connie did not apply to any of the schools mentioned so far in connection to this scandal (and it was pure luck), but that doesn’t mean that the process has been particularly “clean.” One of the first things I read about the scandal was an article by Libby Nelson of Vox entitled, “College admissions fraud: The real scandal is what’s legal.” This fine article says, “Please don’t think that corruption in college admissions has been taken care of because these people got caught.” Fine, but I was doing my very best to get through this process with my plausible deniability intact. Pas de chance.

The admissions process is the way it is because it works for many people…wealthy families and powerful academic institutions, for example. But we who grease the wheels with our anxiety also bear some responsibility. In our family, we knew well how stressful the college application process could be and we committed ourselves to not get caught up in it. There are ways to minimize the stress and we told ourselves that we would find those ways. Despite those commitments, we all made choices that contributed to our misery.

It is very difficult to decide to attend a high school like Connie’s and not get caught up in the elitist assumptions that are the biggest stressors of the application process. All families considering college should read some of the research showing that it matters less than you think where people attend college as undergraduates. Increasing application rates at state universities and colleges suggest that some people are getting the message. I don’t think Connie bothered to read that research, but given the environment in which she is working, I’d say she has done a good job of keeping things in some kind of perspective.

I think the process will work out fine for Connie. How it will work out for her parents is a topic for another post. She has no “legacy” claim at any school and we didn’t pay any of the scammers to get her admitted to some prestigious place, but she will have good options and will work hard to take advantage of them. She is thirsty to connect to a wider world, and I’m sure she’ll find a way to do that. Most likely, some schools will decline her application for reasons that she and we will never know. In the end, rejection by such institutions may not be the worst thing.

I’ll be back when it comes time to actually decide what happens next year. For now, you can put your hand down.

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Roxbury Prep: Time to change the conversation?

For a long time, the Parent Imperfect has been winding up to write something about the neighborhood controversy over the plan to construct a new charter high school on the border between Roslindale and West Roxbury. The debate about this parcel has been emotional and very public, almost from the day when Roxbury Prep (RP), a local charter school network apparently controlled by a New York charter management organization, proposed to put a large new building on the Clay Chevrolet site at the corner of Belgrade Ave. and West Roxbury Parkway, just a few minutes from my home.

I have had lots of conversations about this project over the past year, but my time to engage directly with this noisy process came on February 13. The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) held a second public meeting to discuss the proposal at Our Lady of Annunciation Melkite Catholic Cathedral on VFW Parkway. The BPDA used to be called the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), but that name was so tarnished by decades of bad development decisions in the name of “urban renewal” in Boston that they decided to change their name. I don’t blame them, but they will always be the BRA to me. When I arrived, five minutes after the announced starting time of the meeting, I was shocked to see the church’s spacious parking lot completely full. I then entered a large room jammed with close to 500 people. Neighborhood meetings in Boston just don’t draw this sort of crowd.

I missed the reading of the Riot Act at the start of the meeting. According to friends who showed up on time, Aisling Kerr, the BPDA Project Manager, laid out an agenda for the meeting that included a number of presentations from people associated with Roxbury Prep and public comment by the audience. The Roxbury Prep presentations ran for almost an hour, but no opponent of the project was allowed to present their position in any depth. Public comments were limited to two minutes and had to be focused exclusively on the technical proposal made by RP. All other comments, including those about the impact of charter school expansion on public schools or the educational approach of Roxbury Prep would be ruled out of order and interrupted. Does this feel like a process that is empowering the citizens of the city?

If I had heard this “ground rule,” I’d have gone home. If Roxbury Prep is successful at framing the debate this way, it will undoubtedly get its building. People opposing the proposal will be presented as narrow-minded NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) people who prioritize parking spaces and a little traffic congestion over the goals of educating the city’s children. At worst, they will be presented as racists, white people echoing Boston’s tortured past by opposing a school composed mostly of black and brown students. Many people in the community have been upset by what they consider to be the racist “coded language” of those opposing the school. Early public statements against the school proposal did include some questionable language and images, but I did not hear such coded language at the February 13 meeting.

According to the BPDA’s notes of the meeting, forty-five people spoke during the comment period. Ten of those disclosed some direct relationship to Roxbury Prep (parent, student, teacher, alumni). Of the forty-five speakers, twenty-three opposed the project under discussion, while twenty-two people expressed their support. The BPDA will take this as a divided neighborhood that expresses no clear opinion on the project so the decision can be made on purely  “technical” grounds.

The Clay Chevrolet site is not an ideal site for a school serving hundreds of students. The site occupies a narrow swath of land with busy streets on two sides and commuter rail tracks on a third. The fourth side is a little dead-end section of Anawan Ave. that separates the Clay property from a fairly new condominium development. That short block of Anawan will be a key access point for both the condos and a busy school building. One need not be a traffic expert to see that there are going to be issues with this site, but I don’t believe that the proposal will be (or should be) defeated, solely on the basis of traffic and parking issues. RP makes much of the fact that it has responded to community concerns by reducing the size of the building proposed and the number of students it will serve. This will provide the necessary cover for a BPDA decision in favor of the building, over the opposition of abutters.

The only way to successfully oppose this project is to build unity between neighbors of the project and education advocates who oppose charter expansion because it hurts public schools. Given the water under the bridge, this will not be easy. Such unity will require a clear statement by all opponents of the project that Roslindale is, indeed, for Everyone, that this is a diverse neighborhood that welcomes everyone, including students of color. If Roxbury Prep’s proposal is approved, the neighborhood will welcome the school and all its students to the neighborhood. The problems with the Roxbury Prep proposal are not about the students.

Today, Roslindale is home to seven public schools, and the combined student population of those schools is over 75% African-American and Latinx. This is not a neighborhood that has a problem with schools serving students of color. Like other neighborhoods, Roslindale does have a problem with facilities located in inappropriate places, and, like the people of the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it also has a problem with the expansion of charter schools that take resources from public schools at a time when those resources are under tremendous pressure.

This is, of course, the argument that the BPDA didn’t want to hear at its meeting. I have to say that some of my friends in the community don’t want to hear it, either. RP has argued that the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) approved a high school for Roxbury Prep in 2015, so any further discussion should be about the technical merits of a proposal to get that school into a building. BPDA seems to buy this reasoning, but I don’t agree. The BESE approval authorizes RP to create a high school in Boston. It is a permission slip for RP, not a mandate to Boston. The charter school expansion doesn’t happen until the school opens and the money flows out of public schools. The people and the government of the city do not surrender our right to decide whether or not any proposed school is located in an appropriate site and whether it will benefit our city. Regardless of what the BPDA says, that decision should take all arguments into account.

In 2016, just about one year after the RP high school proposal was approved by BESE, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the City of Boston and the neighborhoods of Roslindale and West Roxbury all voted to defeat a referendum question (Question 2) designed to promote charter school expansion. In that referendum debate, voters rejected the contention by charter schools that they are public schools, so that more money to charters equals more money to public schools. People voted against charter school expansion, at least in part, because they believed that more money for charters would worsen the financial crisis of the public schools. Here comes a different kind of call for more public money for charter schools.

In addition to the traffic and other problems that will come along with a charter school on the Clay property, when that school opens something in excess of $11 million dollars will flow from the coffers of the Boston Public Schools to Roxbury Prep, and this will happen every year. The new school could not operate for a single day without these public funds. For me, this loss of funds will hurt the Boston Public Schools and, therefore, the City of Boston even more than the congestion at the corner of Belgrade and the Parkway. And that doesn’t even take into effect the negative effects on those students who end up being the next generation of victims of RP’s high rate of out-of-school suspensions and low student retention rate. As it readily admits, Roxbury Prep is not for everyone.

To date, Roxbury Prep and their PR firm have been able to control the public discourse on this project. That can change, however, if opposition to this project can be reframed to incorporate those advocates of public education who have stood on the sidelines and shook their head about the idea of yet another new charter school building in the city. Are we ready to make that change?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The choice is (was) yours

True to form, the Parent Imperfect was late to last night’s School Committee meeting in Roxbury. Of course I have excuses. So many people are using my one way street as a pass through that avoids Forest Hills that it took me 20 minutes to travel the 400 yards to Washington Street. No matter. By the time I got to the Bolling Building and found a place to park, the meeting was well underway. The hearing room was filled to capacity and the Interim Superintendent was laying out her feeble rationale for the disaster waiting to happen.

On the way in, I stopped at the table where one usually signs in to speak, but I was too late. They already had a huge number of speakers and were not adding people to the list. That’s okay, I thought. It’s more important that the people directly affected by this decision get a chance to speak to it. I was right. Over twenty-five people spoke to the school closings proposal, including two members of the Boston City Council. Not a single person came to the meeting to speak in favor of the proposal.

Since I actually wrote something up (rather than my usual meandering stream of consciousness) I will send my testimony into the Committee (a fool’s project), and share it here. It would have made zero difference in the meeting, and they probably would have cut me off in the middle because it’s too long (They know me). I share it here because I fear that this is only the beginning of a particularly difficult time for people who care about public education in Boston. Unfortunately, this will not be the last time that the Boston School Committee must vote to close a school.

I’m Kevin Murray. I live in Roslindale and am a parent of a BPS student who is not at one of the schools you’re considering closing tonight. As we know, and injury to one is an injury to all. Thanks for giving me the time to speak to you.

Tonight you face a heavy decision. BPS leadership has proposed closing two schools and dispersing two school communities that have been accomplishing great things for our city. 

In all the meetings I’ve attended, BPS also uses the phrase “school community,” but I think you mean something different than I do. You talk about school communities as if they were a clump of “strands,” threads that can be pulled apart and easily wound into another clump somewhere else. WRA and USA are not clumps of strands. Through this process, I have learned that they are communities of people…students, parents, educators and staff, united by blood, sweat and tears behind a mission to first, keep young people alive, and also to prepare them to be informed, active participants in a world that is getting colder and harder, every day. 

BPS says it wants to engage school communities in making the difficult changes implied by Build BPS, but it feels like the ask to these two communities has been, “help us dismember your community in a way that minimizes legal liability, financial cost and public embarrassment for the District and…our students are, of course, our highest priority.” Do we wonder why people haven’t jumped up to respond to that ask?

In the face of embarrassing public questioning about what was happening with the McCormack Middle School, the other school originally designated for destruction by Build BPS, the District saw fit to flip the narrative, back off, and begin a different kind of discussion with that school community. I congratulate the District for that choice and the members of that school community for helping the District see the light. I wish you all luck in figuring this out.

But BPS leadership has not had the courage to flip the narrative on WRA and USA, suggesting that the building emergency ties your hands. You have the opportunity to make that change here, tonight. For once, you can be the heroes and heroines of the story.

I can’t speak for these school communities, but I bet that, even now, if you rejected this proposal and asked them to join you in helping to find a viable way to keep these schools together, a good number of the people in this room and many others would leap at the chance. You would be able to mobilize a lot of creative people to help make this happen. We would get the idea that you really want to Build BPS Right!

You say that there just aren’t viable options to keep these communities together. Give me a break! Do you really want me to believe that, if the Mayor of this city made it a priority to get Build BPS off on the right foot and deal with this emergency as if the students in our schools TODAY mattered, that it couldn’t happen? Where there is no will, there is never a way. 

And so, it is time to make a decision. I ask you to please do the right thing and reject this proposal. If you do, I, for one, will stand and applaud your courage, and I don’t think I’ll be alone. But it seems that, as always, the fix is in. I can tell by the looks on your faces that you are ready to hold your noses and vote for this thing. Hold your nose too much and it will stay that way. If you go that route, you will have missed an incredible opportunity, the disappointment of many in this room will turn into rejection and anger, but, in truth, we have little chance to hold you accountable. There is, however, one person who is accountable for your actions, and accountable he will be.

This is not just another vote. Think carefully about it: The choice is yours.  

POSTSCRIPT: The choice was theirs, and they made it. Five members of the committee voted to close WRA and USA. One member abstained. Most of the people present got up and turned their backs on the committee to walk out of the hall.

In concluding her powerful testimony, the woman who coordinates the various programs in place at WREC to serve children with autism said, “We will not go quietly into the night.” I sincerely hope you do not. If you are ready to get noisy, in the night or anytime, there will be many people in the city ready to join you.

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Destroy WREC/Build BPS?

The Parent Imperfect is having a hard time focusing on anything else. Maybe writing something here will help me deal with the anger and frustration I feel about the upcoming meeting of the Boston School Committee. At that meeting, Committee Chair, Michael Loconto will run a zipped-up lawyerly kind of meeting at which he and his colleagues (several of them sporting long faces to show that they hate to do it) will vote on the proposed closing of West Roxbury High and Urban Science Academy. Unless you and I get to the Mayor in the meantime, the School Committee will approve the Mayor’s proposal (dutifully delivered by the BPS) and two school communities will get the ax. The editorial myopes at the Boston Globe will probably have an editorial ready, extolling the Magnificent Seven (now six, with the timely resignation of Dr. Miren Uriarte) for their courageous decision. To make an omelette, you have to break some eggs, right?

If you believe that the BPS should be able to find some alternative to closing these schools, call, Marty Walsh, the man who can shift this thing in a hot minute. Tell him you oppose the closings of Westie High and Urban Science Academy, and you vote! You have no one to hold accountable, but him. If you have time, make a couple of other calls, too. Maybe this will help:

Mayor Marty Walsh, 617-635-4500, mayor@boston.gov , @marty_walsh

Interim BPS Supt., Laura Perille, 617-635-9050, superintendent@bostonpublicschools.org , @lperille

School Committee Chair, Michael Loconto, 617-635-9014, mloconto@bostonpublicschools.org , @mtloconto

City Council Ed Chair, 617-635-4376, Annissa Essaibi-George, a.e.george@boston.gov, @AnnissaforBos

By now, people know the arguments. I’m not convinced, but let’s take it for granted that the building, one of the newest in the system, is bad and should not be housing students. Okay, but who approved building a school complex on a wetland right down the hill from a capped landfill in West Roxbury? Maybe that was a tenth grader at Urban Science Academy. Who fiddled while it was obvious that water damage was seriously undermining the building structure? Must have been that Spanish teacher at Westie High. Who approved and then carried out tens of millions of dollars in repairs that never addressed the problem? I bet it was the parent featured on WBUR, talking about what the autism program at Westie High has meant to his son. I am willing to bet that corruption and political favors were present at every turn, and I hope some investigative journalist will tell the story. For now, the important point is that none of the students, parents or teachers now involved with either of the schools bear responsibility for this tale of woe, but the Boston School Committee is about to impose all of the costs of the affair on exactly those students, parents and teachers.

The Boston Public Schools is made up of 125 school communities, administered out of the Bolling Building and knit together by a shared mission to provide high-quality education to all children in Boston. My children have been part of four of those school communities, so I know well that every one of them has its strengths and its weaknesses, and these weaknesses lead to practices that can do serious damage to some of the kids entrusted to those communities by their parents. But one of my most challenging realizations as a parent in the BPS is that even our most “troubled” schools (and I don’t mean the ones whose children don’t do as well as some others on standardized tests) play critical roles in the lives of many of the families involved in them. Most importantly, closing down a school community and scattering its students to the wind leaves too many struggling students and their families in even worse situations.

University of Chicago researcher, Eve Ewing, recently published a study of the impact of the mass school closings inflicted on the Chicago Public Schools just a few years ago Ghosts in the Schoolyard should be required reading for anyone involved with Build BPS. The message is that school closings aren’t an administrative thing: They destroy connections among people for whom those connections are very important. In unequal systems, school closing tend to worsen inequities. A teacher from the McCormack Middle School, another school threatened with closing in the Build BPS scheme, distributed copies of Ghosts in the Schoolyard to the Interim BPS Superintendent and all members of the School Committee.  I wonder if they’ve read the book.

The closing of a school building need not mean the dismantling of the school community. As I write this, Boston Arts Academy is being housed in a temporary space while a state-of-the-art new arts facility is being created for it across the street from Fenway Park. Students at the Dearborn School in Roxbury were temporarily relocated to space in the Burke High School while the old Dearborn building was razed and a new STEM academy rose in its place. Neither of these situations was ideal, but the temporary relocation to “swing” space was seen as much preferable to the dispersion of the school community. Where there is a will, there is a way.

In presenting the plan to close the schools at the West Roxbury Educational Complex (WREC) to a community meeting in Roslindale, Interim BPS Superintendent, Laura Perille, insisted that the District had looked into all available options for relocating one or both of the schools, but that there was simply no appropriate BPS space into which to relocate the schools. Questioned about whether the District had considered using non-BPS space as swing space, she answered that all reasonable options had been considered. Sorry, Laura, but I just don’t buy it. I am to believe that, in a city like Boston, with tax-exempt universities occupying such a large part of the land mass, there is no place to which 200-300 students could be relocated for a transition period? The Mayor currently has his people scouring the City and calling in favors to find an alternative space for Roxbury Prep that will defuse the conflict over 361 Belgrade. Surely, those same fixers could turn up a swing space for these two schools…if only two public schools mattered as much as a charter. Those people vote: The Mayor listens.

And so, I will sit there as Mr. Loconto, Esq. wrings a vote out of his School Committee colleagues. But first, there will be time for community people to scream into the darkness during the abbreviated public comment period, and scream people will. If only the members sitting before them had any sense of accountability to anyone other than the man from Dorchester. And then, of course, the obligatory round of pre-vote apologies from the other committee members, saying how much they value the voice of the community they are about to gash. Each time I go to one of these meetings, I am more ready to face the obvious risks of an elected school committee. I was not a BPS parent in the 1970s, but I was here to behold John Kerrigan and Pixie P.

As I sit there, I’ll be thinking about the recent talk by Chicago activist, Jitu Brown, to the Winter Assembly of the Massachusetts Educational Justice Alliance (MEJA). “School closings and the disappearance of affordable housing have been at the center of a strategy to remove displace people of color from cities all over this country,” Brown told an audience of fired up teachers, students and parents. Then he talked about the tactic of “taking over” meetings of Chicago’s appointed School Committee, when it became clear that they just weren’t going to listen to community people. Will Build BPS bring us to that same point? Something has got to give…

 

 

 

 

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