Last night the Parent Imperfect made it to a meeting about the Dearborn School transition plan. The meeting was held at the offices of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), and was run by representatives of the Boston Public Schools, including the Acting Superintendent, John McDonough. About 45 people filled the DSNI conference room to capacity, about half of them Dearborn students or parents.
The meeting was designed to answer people’s very concrete questions about the planned temporary (3-year) move to the Burke High School site, a little less than two miles away from the current Dearborn building. Mweusi Willingham, the Acting Principal of the Dearborn, was there, as well as another Dearborn administrator whose name I didn’t get. there were also several people who were apparently current and former teachers at the Dearborn.
Students and parents had lots of questions, a good number of which were not answered at the meeting. The following things became clear to me during that part of the meeting:
1. Everyone seems excited about the prospect of a STEM Academy in Roxbury;
2. Mr. Willingham is an open and thoughtful man who has taken on a very difficult task;
3. With less than three weeks left until the beginning of school, this move is very much still in the planning stage. The move will take a lot of time away from other concerns during this first year at the Burke;
4. The school is an important institution in the Cape Verdean community and community residents want to see better attention to the needs of Cape Verdean ELL students. They are concerned about what this move will mean to those students;
6. Neither the school community of the Dearborn, the school community of the Burke nor the greater Roxbury community has been adequately informed about this plan (this in the Super’s own words), and have certainly not participated in the discussions leading to some very important decisions about the present and future of the Dearborn; and
7. There are some very talented and articulate young people attending the Dearborn, and a group of parents who care about the future of the school.
A Dearborn student got the biggest applause of the evening when he asked, “Since there is so much transition going on right now with all of this and our school and the community aren’t really informed about it, can we just slow down this transition until we know and understand about what is happening?”
The Acting Principal immediately deferred to the Super, who answered that he was surprised to find out that the community had not been informed about this plan. “I can’t say why that happened, but I take full responsibility for it…” While taking full responsibility, Mr. McDonough gave no indication that it was going to be possible to slow anything down.
While people had lots of very practical questions about the move, they also wanted to know about the plan that was driving the move. The crowd seemed to understand (even if they didn’t agree with it) the idea of temporarily moving the Dearborn to construct a new STEM Academy. They were much less clear about the newer plan to make the new school a charter school under the leadership of DSNI and the Boston Plan for Excellence (BPE).
In the face of persistent questions about this part of the plan, McDonough carefully explained his thinking on the charter deal. The Dearborn is a turnaround school that has not made the kind of progress required by the state. That makes it a candidate for a state takeover. McDonough was clear that he was willing to do just about anything that he thought would avoid a replay of what happened with the Dever and Holland schools, once they came under state control.
In some detail, McDonough described his conversations about this with the Commonwealth’s Education Commissioner, Mitchell Chester, who told the Super three things:
1. There is no “quota” or set number of Level 4 schools that the Commonwealth intends to designate at Level 5 schools in need of state intervention;
2. There is no “predetermined desire” on the part of the Commonwealth to create more Level 5 schools that it must take responsibility for; and
3. However, if there is no demonstration of the sort of improvement in performance required by the law, he (the Commissioner) would not foreclose the possibility of putting additional schools under state receivership.
Based on that conversation (and, I’m sure, many other considerations that were not mentioned) the Super concluded that the Dearborn is in imminent danger of being taken over by the state. Facing that prospect, which I’m sure Mayor Walsh does not relish, McDonough saw two options:
1. A much more aggressive intervention by the BPS in the Dearborn to improve performance; or
2. A partnership with known partners to transition the Dearborn to an in-district charter school.
The BPS has chosen door number two.
Right at this moment, a young man in the back of the room spoke up as a member of the Board of Directors of DSNI. He insisted that DSNI is not “running” any schools, including the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School across the street from the DSNI offices. Since the Super had just said that DSNI–along with the Boston Plan for Excellence– would be running the Dearborn as an in-district charter, this guy’s firm pronouncement led to a long silence, but the meeting then went on as if he hadn’t said a word. A DSNI staffer later clarified to a Quest member that DSNI doesn’t “run” the school, but provides “parent and community engagement services” to the school. I expect that’s true, but it says something about the community politics around this project that DSNI doesn’t want to be seen as “running” anything, or driving this project.
Interestingly, all of this hinges on the most recent MCAS test scores from the Dearborn. The state has those, and I believe that the BPS leadership has seen them, but they are “embargoed” to the public. That means that you and I can’t see them, and neither can the students and teachers at the Dearborn. According to McDonough, the state will not release these until after the September meeting at which the Boston School Committee is scheduled to take a vote on the charter part of this plan. Seriously? How could the School Committee possibly take a vote like this without community knowledge of the test scores of Dearborn students?
The meeting was supposed to end at about this time, but no one was leaving. The Super said he would “stay until midnight,” if necessary, to respond to community concerns and the poor woman from the BPS who was facilitating had no choice but to let the thing go forward.
Somebody then asked the $64,000 question. From the back of the room, she asked, “What parts of this plan can be changed and what parts are already decided?
McDonough (now standing at the front of the room) carefully reported that the School Committee voted last fall on the move of the Dearborn to the Burke in order to demolish the Dearborn. That horse is out of the barn. The other part about making the Dearborn a charter is still under discussion, with a School Committee vote in September. It is here that McDonough played the fear card.
“You can question our proposal for an in-district charter if you want, but if you do that you are risking the state putting you under receivership…If that happens we’re (the BPS) out of the picture.”
I’m not sure that people in the room were as scared about this prospect as John wanted them to be. I wanted to raise my hand to make a spectacle of myself, but my dear son, Vince, saved me by ringing my cell phone at exactly that moment. It was time to rush back to Roslindale to deal with student challenges, closer to home. I’m not sure how the meeting ended, but I’ll be very interested to hear the discussion at the BPS-sponsored meeting on the charter proposal. That one will take place on Tuesday, August 19 at 6PM at the Presbyterian Church of Roxbury at 328 Warren Street.