The 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.
Fast 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.
It’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!
If 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.