Category Archives: Boston Public Schools

About navigating parenthood in the Boston Public Schools

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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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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Early Decision

The Parent Imperfect doesn’t particularly like personal decisions, so what’s this about Early Decision? This is, of course, one more moment of decision that comes in the college choice process, and Early Decision happens this week for Ms. Connie. Earlier this fall, I promised to open windows on this college choice process as it transpired. I have failed. In truth, the process has been too fraught and too stress-laden to lend itself to the kind of public airing implied by a blog. Connie has been clear that she doesn’t want her process to be the subject of my reflections, so what follows is a pallid reflection of how one parent has experienced a process that is very far from ideal for anyone.

If you’ve been following this saga at all, you know that the “beautiful game” was very much a part of this college search in the early stages. My role was that of secretary, driver and observer as we visited schools that offered strong academics and the possibility that Connie might be able to continue to play the game that had come to dominate her life. She visited 15 such places and I was there for 10 of them. They were mostly in this part of the country, and the search became focused on the so-called NESCAC schools, elite private schools banded together for purposes of Division 3 sports.

I graduated from a public high school and then, after a strange detour to Northeastern University (the prototype private school), got a university diploma from UMass/Amherst. Along the way, I became a booster of public education, and continue spend a fair amount of time as part of a scrappy little group that advocates for quality and equity in the Boston Public Schools. However, in the last college search, I came to peace with the idea that public universities might not always be the best option for every student, including some in my own family. Now, in Round Two, it has been easier for me to accept that conclusion and all that it implies.

Seeing all of these schools, including the elite private ones, was actually fun, in a masochistic kind of way. Seeing Connie develop an excitement about attending some of these schools and continuing to play soccer was much more fun, without the masochism. And then, it happened. One ACL tear put the project in serious doubt and the second one, a year later, required a complete change of identity, a re-thinking of this whole process, most of all for Connie, but also for her support staff. That this change was required in the already-stressful last year of high school has not made it easier.

The parental role has shifted to trying to support Connie, first through surgery #2 and rehab #2, but also through the complete reshaping of her thinking about what she wanted to do after leaving the nation’s oldest public school. My first tendency was to say, “Let’s just forget about the college process for this year and make it through the injury and the rehab,” but with everyone around Connie immersed in this process, such a pause was a silly idea. College applications and the ups and downs of ACL rehab were going to go hand-in-hand, for us all.

I have not chosen to be unemployed (essentially) during this entire year, but we may one day look back on that being not the worst thing that could have happened. Since May 2018, we have made only one additional college visit, but there have been a few other things to do. Oscar Wilde is rumored to have said that, “the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.” The college search process and ACL rehab belong in the same category.

I have been in awe of my daughter since she came flying out of her mother, almost without warning (Liz knew, but no one was listening), in a pre-birth waiting room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. There was peril in that flight, and the nurse who had been taking Dear Liz’s blood only just caught the emerging leaper in a hastily-deployed piece of plastic. The father could only gape helplessly, holding onto the “works” of the blood draw. It’s been like that with Connie, ever since, and this has been no exception.

This is still happening, as I scribble, and no one knows how it will come out. Many days, I feel as though I’m still in that waiting room, clutching the blood tubes, breathless with mouth ajar. What I do know is that at no point in my life could I have done what this young lady had done over the last six months. Amidst it all (which includes an unforgiving set of senior year courses at BLS), she came to the decision that she wanted to play the Early Decision game with a school that had not really been in the mix when the beautiful game was part of the equation. Incredibly, she connected with a Boston-born student at the school ( a former gymnastics coach of Connie’s) who had, herself, also endured two ACL tears and an end to dreams of athletic ecstasy. What are the odds of that? In the midst of her own travails, this extraordinary young woman encouraged Connie, commented on her application and welcomed our daughter into her life at the school. Forget heaven. I hope there is a special place in this life for people like this woman. I feel certain that there will be.

In many ways, seeking this Early Decision was not a good bet. It feels, at times, as if the odds would be better buying some of the Powerball tickets that are getting so much publicity these days. But in many other ways, it was exactly the thing to do. This is one more of many reaches for the stars by Connie, and while it is not the way I have lived my life, it is so great to see her do it this way. She will never wonder what might have been, if only she had dared to try. Connie didn’t just apply to the Early Decision school. She also applied Early Action to three other schools, two of them distinguished public institutions. But the focus of her mental energy has clearly been on the Early Decision.

Somehow, in the middle of all of this, she has found the time and energy to participate in a youth program sponsored by Southern Jamaica Plain Community Health Center. Among many other things, this program has forced Connie to look at (and see) the privilege behind her place in this process, despite all of its challenges. Again, in my role as motorista , I have wondered why she needs to be doing this wonderful program at exactly this moment. To her credit, Connie has had no time for my concern and has missed no session of the program, despite then endless academic deadlines and other demands she faces. Whatever her next steps may be, they will be more thoughtful steps because of this experience.

And now, this week, by all accounts, the Early Decision will “come out” (an interesting way to describe this). Some piece of mail will arrive at this house, emotions will be deeply felt and expressed, as they have been for what seems like forever. And then life will go on. Either we, the parents, will be sharing Connie’s joy and figuring out how the hell we are going to pay the amount dictated by the Early Decision, or we’ll be moving onto the next stage in this process. This, too, shall pass.

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Just Parenting

Roslindale has its say on “Build BPS”

The Parent Imperfect finally made it to one of the Build BPS community engagement meetings last night, at the Roslindale Community Center. The fact that about 80 people, at least a quarter of them students, took the time to engage reminded me about both what I like about my city and some of the things that still make my blood boil. The BPS really wants these events to be conversations about the future vision for school facilities at the neighborhood level. The little picture is easier to talk about than the big one.

They said last night what the District is planning for Roslindale. That is, new construction of one school, probably a K-6, closure of the Irving Middle School as part of the closure of all stand alone middle schools in the system, and the renovation of the Irving building into another almost new school, probably another K-6 facility, given the shortage of elementary seats in the zone. With plans to construct a new 7-12 school at the West Roxbury Education Complex, and other high schools in Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain, there is no plan for creating a high school in Roslindale.

That’s all important stuff and a good number of the people in the Community Center were there to discuss those issues. It was hard to get to that discussion, however, as the BPS has created an entirely different conversation by declaring that it has a “building emergency” at West Roxbury Academy/Urban Science Academy and needs to close those two schools at the end of this school year. It’s that proposal that generated a lot of the heat in the room. Recognizing that heat (and the crowd), the guy from the Community Center came downstairs at one point and opened up the divider, suddenly creating a bigger room.

A key moment in the meeting came when a finance person from the BPS had a major slip during his presentation. Talking about actions to be taken by the District, he said, “We’re going to close West Roxbury High.” As the air left the room, he immediately corrected himself to. “We’ve proposed closing West Roxbury High.” Nice try, but the damage was done. His slip–and you couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy–confirmed what everyone in the room knew: Interim Superintendent Perille and the powers that be behind her have made that decision and are already moving on from it. The idea that we were doing “community engagement” around that decision was a well-orchestrated charade.

The students and parents at the meeting were not, however, playing charades, or any other game. They were demanding answers to their questions and several other people in the room joined them in that demand. The BPS insists that the building needs to be torn down and that it is simply impossible to work out a solution that will keep together either of the affected school communities. People in the room questioned both of those conclusions.

The BPS insists that they have the technical reports that describe, in apparently alarming detail, the urgent need to tear down the Westie building before it falls down. Interestingly, it’s one of the newer buildings in the system. Although these reports allegedly put them on this emergency track, they have not yet made any of those documents public. One irrepressible sleuth from QUEST went to the City’s Inspectional Services Department and spoke to the Director of the office. According to our source, that very accommodating gentleman let it be known that they were still in the process of putting together the report in question. How is it that we are so certain about the conclusions of a report that hasn’t yet been completed that we can plan to close two schools based on those conclusions?

One angry Westie student rose, her voice full of emotion, to say, “Where’s this report you are talking about? What’s taking so long to share that information? I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t believe you, and I’m going to come to every one of these meetings until I get some answers! You are the ones that messed up on the building. You’re making us suffer for your mistake.” Somehow, the BPS people remained standing in the front of the room.

A mother standing right behind that student also spoke. “You’ve known about this problem for at least a couple of years. Why didn’t you let us know so that we could advocate for our children? Now you tell us that it’s an emergency and there’s nothing to do but close the school.” The idea that the terrible condition of this building has been common knowledge around BPS for a long time came up repeatedly.

Near the end of the raucous Q & A session, a guy said, “We have lots of questions about the plans for schools in Roslindale, but there’s time to talk about those questions. This thing about West Roxbury High is happening right now, and you’re not doing a very good job of answering these people’s questions about their school. I invite you to come back to Roslindale to present us with a solution to keep these schools together.” The reaction from the crowd said that he was expressing something that reflected what a lot of people were feeling.

By in large, people welcome Build BPS, an initiative to finally do something about decrepit buildings in which Boston kids go to school. But the message last night was that the BPS is not just a lot of buildings: It is also a loose-knit collection of school communities. Each of these communities has its strengths and its weaknesses, but they all play an important role in the lives of the families who entrust their children to them. If, in the process of improving the buildings and straightening out the grade configurations, we destroy those communities, we won’t be building BPS or anything else.

In truth, the financial guy was wrong. They aren’t going to close West Roxbury High. Meetings like the one on Cummings Highway last night are going to convince them that they have got to find a solution that works for both Westie High and the Urban Science Academy. If that’s expensive, then so be it. There’s plenty of money to do some things in this city. One woman said it well last night: “You people are all very smart and creative people. If you believe it is important, you can find a place to relocate these schools and keep them together…You can’t just look at your own buildings for that solution.”

The BPS folks did their best to focus the discussion on student demographics, grade configurations and feeder schools, but, thankfully, the community being engaged had other ideas. The long-term view of how to get the school facilities in line with the demographics and specific needs of the student population in Boston is really important. But it looks like success of that effort–as well as the legacy of the Interim Superintendent–will stand or fall based on the ability of the District to do right by the students, teachers and parents that could very well get chewed up in the process. The community debate about Westie High and Urban Science Academy is only the first of many such conversations that will surely happen as we figure out what it means to “Build BPS.”

These meetings will be happening all during November in different areas of the city. For a complete calendar of them, check out the QUEST website.

 

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Build BPS