Category Archives: Boston Public Schools

About navigating parenthood in the Boston Public Schools

A Good Night for #NoOn2

school-committee-votesThe Parent Imperfect hadn’t been to a meeting of the Boston School Committee for a while before last night. Long gone are the days in the dank chamber on Court Street, but last night something had changed that was much more important than the room. The energy in the room around the Committee’s deliberations was completely different.

On the agenda last night was a resolution to oppose Question 2, the charter school piñata. To the shock of many, the Committee voted UNANIMOUSLY to oppose Question 2. By the time members commented on the resolution, the meeting had turned into a competition to see who could speak most strongly against it.  You just had to pinch yourself to be sure you were really in Dudley Square.

I’ve been to a lot of meetings where charter schools were discussed, including hearings where the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was considering the application of one or more new charter schools. Last night’s meeting at the Bolling Building made it very clear that something really important has changed in the energy around the charter school discussion in Boston and (I hope) in Massachusetts.

young-peopleDifferent people will describe the change differently, but, for me, the change comes from the energy and voice of young people in the discussion. At too many of those BESE meetings, the only young people in the room were well-organized attendees of charter schools. While they never actually said a lot in the meetings, their presence spoke volumes.

Now the story is another one. Young people, many of whom became active around the BPS budget cuts that have come down every year, have taken a hold of the movement to protect and improve public education, and that movement won’t soon be the same. I don’t know if they will succeed in countering all of the money that is flowing into pro-charter coffers, but they certainly have flipped the conversation in Boston.

While Committee members were surely more attuned to the youth voices in the meeting, a few non-youth also offered testimony. One bit of that testimony is included below, just to give you a sense of the flavor of the discussion. The names are changed to protect those who are anything but innocent.

Thanks to the Committee for the opportunity to comment tonight, and to everyone else who cares enough about education to be here.

I’m a resident of Roslindale, a BPS parent for 16 years and a member of Quest (Quality Education for Every Student).

It can come as no surprise to anyone that Quest is firmly in support of the clearest and strongest possible School Committee resolution against Question 2, the charter school piñata. Yours will not be a resolution against charter schools, the students who attend them, or the parents who choose them for their children. It will be a resolution questioning the policy of using scarce public funds to build a separate, but unequal, system of privately-managed, privately-governed schools.

The information provided at your last meeting offered a conservative assessment of the financial damage that will be wrought by this initiative, if successful. In addition, the charter expansion favored by our governor will reduce the resources available for educating vulnerable populations in the BPS. It will also exclude the voices of students, parents and even you, The Boston School Committee from some of the most important decisions to be made about education in our city in the coming years. And, finally, in the end a Yes vote on Question 2 will mean more school closings in the city, an eventuality that will surely have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

We are hopeful and confident that tonight you will become the 158th school committee in the Commonwealth to go on record against this tragically wrong-headed policy initiative. In such situations, my friends in El Salvador were always fond of saying, “Nunca es tarde.”  It’s never too late.

We thank you in advance for taking a stand against Question 2, but we must conclude asking if you have each done all you can to see that our public schools are defended? Have you each spoken out publically on the issue? Have you contacted people in your own social and professional networks and engaged them in conversation about the dangers of this initiative? Has any one of you taken the time to walk door-to-door in one of our neighborhoods to share your views on this issue with the people behind those doors who really want to do the right thing? If not, I very seriously invite you to join me on just such a walk, in Roslindale, this weekend.

Regardless of how you got into those seats, you are the leadership of our public schools. As such, you deserve our respect and our gratitude for your service. In the same way, the parents, students, teachers and staff of the Boston Public Schools need, deserve and EXPECT your full, unqualified support on this issue. Thank you.

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Question 2: A Conscious “No”

public-funds-for-public-schoolsThis weekend, the Parent Imperfect finally got out and knocked on peoples’ doors to talk to them about Question 2, the November referendum question that, if approved, will lead to a much bigger charter school sector in Massachusetts. I had hoped that Connie might accompany me on this walk with the Save Our Public Schools campaign, but she isn’t yet ready for that. I think she’s quite clear about what she thinks about Question 2, but the idea of going door-to-door with her father, for any reason, is not the way she wanted to celebrate her birthday.

My canvassing partner and myself knocked on fifty-five doors in the Neponset area of Dorchester. Most people weren’t home on Saturday morning (no surprise), and many who were home don’t answer their doors to strangers on Saturday mornings. Those who answered the doors and engaged with us agreed with us on the issue by a 3-1 margin. We found only one man who was undecided about Question 2. We even had two people pull their cars to the curb to tell us that they understood that more charter schools would take more money away from the public schools, which they saw as a bad thing. I didn’t sense that most of these people were “against” charters, they just saw that the way they are funded pits them against the public schools that are the only answer for the majority of kids. The “drain on public schools” argument was all they needed.

showing-upIn other parts of my life, I’ve been getting a slightly different argument. Many good people who consider themselves to be quite liberal are convinced that people of “conscience” should vote in favor of lifting the cap on charter schools. For these voters (and these are people who will vote), our public schools have denied children of color an equal education, so we need to do all we can to offer those children and their families options to get the education they need. According to this way of thinking, a “Yes” vote on Question 2 will see that children get those options.

Behind this opinion is the idea that the African-American community supports more charter schools. Some important African-American leaders, including President Obama, speak quite passionately in favor of charter schools. Charter advocates never miss an opportunity to show that many of their supporters are African-American students and parents who have apparently benefited from charter schools.

My friends of conscience are correct that public education has failed to provide adequate education to many children of color in this country. They are also correct that some charters have provided better education to some of the children of color they have served. But at what cost?

the-argument-againstThe argument against Question 2 is not an argument against charter schools, or a criticism of any family that has pursued that option for their children. Like public schools, charter schools are a mixed bag. Some of them have achieved very impressive results, while others aren’t doing their job. The argument against Question 2 is an argument against further expansion of an alternative private system of schools that is draining money out of the public schools that must educate all children, including the vast majority of African-American children. There are other issues with charters–discipline policies, high suspension rates, treatment of teachers, failure to serve Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners, lack of oversight, etc., etc., etc.–but the “financial drain” issue is the one that seems to upset most people about further charter expansion.

The African-American community (as well as the Latino community and the Asian community) holds different points of view on this issue, as it does on all issues. Boston City Councillor, Tito Jackson, has taken a strong position in favor of a “No” vote on question 2. This summer he and fellow councillor, Matt O’Malley proposed a City Council resolution on the issue, and all but two council members voted to make a public statement against Question 2 because of the financial drain it would represent for the City of Boston. At the national level, during its convention this summer, the NAACP membership voted to support a national “moratorium” on charter schools until a number of problems with the schools can be addressed. At a very local and personal level, almost half of the people who set aside a beautiful Saturday morning to knock on doors with me yesterday were African-Americans concerned about Question 2.

Of course, none of this means that “the African-American community is united against Question 2.” It means that the community, like all other communities, is of a mixed mind on the issue. It also means that there is no easy answer for people committed to racial justice who are trying to figure out how to vote on this issue. The desire to provide equal educational opportunity for all children is a great one. I share that ambition, but my own study of the charter school issue suggests that more charters–as promised by Question 2–will not further than noble goal.

Please take the time to look beyond the “optics” of this issue, as presented on TV,  to determine for yourself the likely impact of the charter school expansion on public school systems across the Commonwealth. If you take that time, I think you’ll see that there is every reason for a person of conscience, concerned about racial justice to color in the little box saying “No on Question 2.”

mel-kingDefeating Question 2 is important, but it will certainly not resolve the issue of Quality Education for Every Student. As veteran organizer and political leader, Mel King, said at a meeting last winter hosted by the NAACP at a church in Roxbury, “It isn’t enough to raise concerns about the charter schools. People want us to do something about the problems of the public schools, and they are right.” Amen.

 

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Opening Boston Latin: More than just turning the key…

BLS TeachersA lot has happened since the Parent Imperfect first wrote about the turmoil at the nation’s oldest public school. In the local and national media, much ink has been spilled concerning the efforts of a student group called BLS B.L.A.C.K. to bring to light the racial climate at the school, and to compel school leadership to address the situation in a comprehensive way. This is only the latest chapter in a long history of attempts at Opening Boston Latin.

You may remember that my introduction to all of this came when dear Connie found herself in the middle of the social media storm that followed the release of the first #BlackatBLS video. It was her decision to dress in black the next school day that got my attention. This was only fitting, as the way students interacted on social media in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO was one important spark to the entire discussion.

BLS Black at School CommitteeThe next kick the the backside (or stomach) for me came at the very first Boston School Committee meeting after the video came out. I was not there, but friends from QUEST were, and they made sure I knew what had happened. The two young women who had put out the video sat before the Committee and told their story. When a committee member asked what sort of support they had gotten from parents at the school, Meggie and Kylie looked at each other in a “that’s a good question” kind of way and then one of them said that they hadn’t really gotten any support from parents yet. Ow!

Soon thereafter, the Headmaster announced an “action plan” to address the issues raised by the students. A parent group, Parents Promoting Equity & Diversity, was formed to support the students in BLS B.L.A.C.K., and press the school leadership to aggressively move to address student concerns. Dozens of meetings have taken place, inside and outside of the school. At the request of local organizations including the NAACP’s Boston branch, a Federal prosecutor launched a probe of allegations of possible mishandling of civil rights violations at the school. Meggie and Kylie have been accepted into great universities and have graduated from the school with over 400 classmates. Most recently, the two core leaders of the school (the Headmaster and her longest-serving Assistant Headmaster) shocked the school community by submitting their BLS protestresignations. The school year ended with angry teachers and parents (along with a few students) confronting the Mayor and Superintendent of Schools in front of the media on the steps of BLS, demanding that officials refuse to accept the much-publicized resignations.

Whew! I’m sure Boston Latin School has had many wild years in the 381 that have passed since its establishment, but I doubt many of them were more wild than this one.

All of that turbulent water under the bridge is extremely interesting and worthy of analysis, but, in the end, it is water under the bridge. What is important now is the way forward for the school, and the troubled school district in which it sits.

chang appointsSuperintendent Tommy Chang acted quickly to appoint interim administrators to take the reins while he conducted a national search for a new headmaster. Those tapped include two retired former BPS headmasters, Michael Contompasis and Jerry Howland, and Alexandra Montes McNeil, a former BLS faculty member and a member of the BPS leadership team. Contompasis will be interim Headmaster, Howland his second in command and Montes Mcneil will be “Instructional Superintendent,” which I think is a new position at the school. The appointment of Contompasis, a former BLS headmaster and a fixture in the city’s educational elite, was clearly designed to calm fears that the District was planning wholesale changes at the school. Taken together, the appointments have “assure stability” written all over them, and seem to have diminished the state of panic among supporters of the former headmaster.

The fly in the stability ointment is, of course, the ongoing Federal probe. At some point, this investigation will draw to a close, and its conclusions could thrust the school community right back into crisis mode. The Feds could conclude that local authorities properly addressed issues at the school, thus bringing the investigation to a close without either recommendations for the District or any legal action against individuals. That is, perhaps, the likely outcome at the point, but Carmen Ortiz, the prosecutor in charge of the probe, is not known for investigations quietly closed. The appointment of interim leadership may present an air of stability, but it does not remove the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the school.

ContompasisPeople familiar with Contompasis’ history at BLS suggest that he was sensitive to the needs of students of color and supported efforts to diversify both the student body and the teaching force at the school. That sounds great, but the new/former headmaster, in an interview to WBUR soon after the release of the BLS B.L.A.C.K. video seems to be dissing the student perspective. I’ll wait to see what the man actually does over the summer and when the bell rings in September.

The transition in school leadership leaves a lot of unfinished business at BLS. Many people associated with the school would like to see the issues raised by BLS B.L.A.C.K. just quietly drop off the agenda so that things can just get back to “normal.” Regardless of what the Federal investigators conclude, that “normal” is a thing of the past.

The interim leadership of BLS will be under pressure to continue efforts to address the racial climate at the school. At a minimum, this will include: (1) finding ways to encourage and facilitate courageous community conversations about race; (2) educating all members of the community around racism and racial dynamics;  and (3) establishing and following clear protocols for the safe reporting and prompt addressing of  allegations of racially motivated incidents at the school.

BLS UnbindsIn addition to supporting and providing leadership to this effort, District leaders will need to find ways to address, in a real way, the closely-related issue of the composition of the school community. This includes the student body and the teaching force, as well as school staff and administration. According to the profile of BLS prepared by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, African-American and Hispanic students make up 74% of the students in the BPS, but compose less than 21% of enrollment at Boston Latin. In the long run, it will be very difficult to address the racial climate at the school if the composition of the school remains so out of whack with the overall BPS student body. As many have pointed out, the problem of shifting enrollment at Boston Latin reflects a national trend toward the “resegregation” of public education across the U.S, but that doesn’t give BLS any kind of “pass” around diversity.

The Boston Globe recently reported that the District is considering ways to change to racial composition of the school. Even the mention of such efforts inflames passions in the city like few other issues. Boston Latin is, after all, the crown jewel of public education in the city, and access to it is seen by many as a key to economic and social success in Boston.

Opening Boston Latin has been attempted in the past (most recently in the 1990s, with some success) and the effort met the determined opposition of a group of parents at the school and others in the community. In the end, Federal court decisions convinced the District that  its plan to diversify BLS could not be defended legally, and the BPS threw in the towel. While that may have been the right decision in the moment, it certainly helped bring the school to where it is today.

The one concrete step that is always mentioned in this “new” discussion of Opening Boston Latin is an expansion of programs to prepare students for the test used to award entrance to Boston’s exam schools. I’m not against this idea, but it is not going to solve the problem of access to the school.

I hope four additional ideas are also under discussion  to address this issue. I’ll only mention them here, with the promise to discuss each more deeply in the future.

  1. Design and implement a sophisticated, long-term  communications campaign to promote the exam school option to all BPS students and families, beginning in first grade. The current Exam School Initiative is nice, but not up to the task.
  2. Scrap the ISEE as the BPS exam school test in favor of an test that more closely reflects the K-6 curriculum in use in the Boston Public Schools.
  3. Redesign the formula to award entry to exam schools to incorporate a numerical preference for students who have attended the BPS in fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
  4. Redesign that same formula to incorporate a numerical preference for students eligible, due to family income, for subsidized or free school lunch, according to Federal guidelines.

BLS statueEach of these is a complex step that would face predictable and surprising opposition, but no effort to seriously change the way students access BLS will be welcomed by everyone. Legal action against Steps 3 and 4 would be threatened immediately, and the threat would be quite serious. While I don’t believe that any of these steps could be attacked successfully for promoting “racial quotas,” each would contribute to a shift in the composition of BLS.

Combined with the difficult internal work necessary to make the school a place that all parents in the District want their children to attend, these steps could make a difference. The steps would be costly, in both economic and political terms, but we should be willing to pay those costs. Opening Boston Latin offers the classic “twofer.” To do so would make a great school and a great city even greater,  and it would also address one of the most influential sources of the “achievement gap” in the Boston Public Schools. What’s not to like?

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Trouble, trouble, charter bubble…

Student MarchTiming is everything in life. On the very same day that thousands of Boston public school students walked out of school to go to the Massachusetts State House to advocate for their schools, the Joint Committee on Education held a hearing on various bills related to charter school expansion. Occasionally the stars are truly aligned. Some of the students in the photo above made their way into the hearing room and gave powerful testimony on the connection between charter  school expansion and budget cuts at their schools. Some members of the committee fidgeted, others paid close attention. Then, a non-student gave the following testimony, made available to the Parent Imperfect by a special exclusive arrangement. Since time wouldn’t allow him to say the whole thing in the hearing, we share it here.
There are all sorts of arguments for and against charter schools, but I want to share one today that has not gotten a lot of attention. It’s based on a recent article by four highly-respected academics that appeared in the University of Richmond Law Review. The article is called, “Are We Heading Toward A Charter School Bubble?: Lessons From the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis.”  The basic argument is quite simple.
 
charter bubbleGovernment at all levels did a lot of things to make it easier for people to get mortgages in the run-up to the subprime crisis. The so-called market was more than happen to oblige. A key factor in the creation of the bubble was that the people approving the mortgages (the originators) had no skin in the game. They could care less if the borrowers could pay back the loans: Their job was to write mortgages.
 
The explosive growth of charter schools has some disturbing things in common with the subprime mortgage mess. Those who are authorizing more charter schools and more seats in existing schools have little or nothing to lose, personally, if the schools fail our children. They also have little understanding of the pressures present in the charter market.
 
Now the subprime mortgage market was a license to print money, until it wasn’t. Then the bubble popped. What forces might put charter schools in the same sort of vulnerable position as subprime mortgage holders?
 
The charter school business model depends on many things going right for them, but three stand out:
 
Public funds for public schools1. They need a steady stream of public money, approved by public office holders and delivered by state bureaucracies. Are you sure that you will have the funds to grow charter schools at even the reduced rate of growth proposed by my dear mayor…let alone what the governor is talking about? I don’t need to remind you that the foundation budget for education in the Commonwealth is in the process of being re-evaluated for the first time in decades and that Massachusetts Law requires Chapter 42 reimbursement of some of the funds going to charters. The price tag contains many hidden costs. Will you  have the political will (not to mention the cash money) to continue to divert ever larger amounts of public money to charter schools as public schools disintegrate before your eyes? If not, the charter experiment is in trouble, especially if the numbers of charters continue to expand.
Gates2. But the charter business model doesn’t run on your money, alone. Charters schools also require a lot of private philanthropy to function. Until now, the Gates’s, the Waltons, the Broads and the Barrs (not to mention our own beloved Boston Foundation) have been ready to step up. Are you ready to make a bet that the private money will be available to float this bubble when there are two or three times as many charter schools? If the bloom on the charter rose even begins to fade, the monied few will drop charters like a bad habit. You’ve seen it happen before…many times.

3. But that’s not all. Charters are schools and schools need buildings. This is, perhaps, their biggest vulnerability. In Boston, our Mayor seems ready to turn public buildings over to charters at fire sale prices, which will give the bubble a new lease on life. Even if that new lease happens (lots of people will try to prevent it), charters will continue to need capital financing. Today, that financing happens only because the Federal government provides tens of millions of dollars annually in tax credits to encourage investors to put big money into charters, and then it guarantees payment of those loans so the risk to the investor in close to zero. No wonder the hedge funds are flocking to charters! A 39% tax credit? You know the fiscal environment in Washington better than I do. Are you sure that this cumbersome and costly mechanism will be able to provide capital financing for existing charters and all the new ones that could be coming on line? I’m not
 
Big shortThe sky is not falling, but four very smart analysts have concluded that there is reason to believe that we have a charter school bubble in our future. Are you clear enough about the endgame in the current charter mania to bet against these guys? If you do, you may secure yourself a place in the charter short version of The Big Short, coming to a theater near you. The futures of tens of thousands of school children across Massachusetts depend on you getting this right. Don’t pump up the charter bubble!

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The Exam School Choice #16: #BlackAtBLS

Boston Latin GateThe Parent Imperfect has so far been silent about a student action at the nation’s oldest public school that has captured local and national attention. #BlackAtBLS is certainly on the minds of just about everyone now at the school and many of the hundreds of families thinking about sending a seventh or a ninth grader to the school next year.

On the evening of Martin Luther King Day, Connie should have been finishing the ridiculous amount of Math homework she was given for the holiday weekend, but, instead, she was glued to her phone.

“Everyone’s talking about this video about being black at BLS. It’s really interesting. People are going to wear all black to school tomorrow if they are supporting this.”

I admit it. My first reaction was, “That’s great, but is your homework done?” Even when she read out a particularly disturbing tweet written by a student at another school, I didn’t really understand what was going on.

The next day, Connie went off to school dressed in black, which is not her usual fashion choice. Her commitment to stand out (a fate worse than detention for a 14-year-old) led me to check out the first #BlackAtBLS video. The video is a direct and very provocative statement of what it is like to be #BlackAtBLS by two young black women. It isn’t slick, but the message is very clear: BLS has a problem with racism and the school administration is aware of the problem, but hasn’t done nearly enough about it.

Global ImageIn the three weeks since the video came out, local newspapers have written several stories about the campaign, its leaders have testified before the Boston School Committee and appeared on TV and radio. #BlackAtBLS has proven itself to be a master in the use of social media and other new communications. BLS has gained national attention from the campaign, but certainly not the sort of attention that it desires. And the attention isn’t just national. I have received e-mails or other social media messages from people in England, El Salvador, South Africa, Sweden, Costa Rica, Peru, Turkey and Nicaragua, all asking me what’s up with this supposedly outstanding school where I’ve sent my kids. If only good news traveled so quickly. Yes, I can be a snarky critic of BLS, but I care about the school it hurts to confront this side of a community that has played a huge role in my family life for the past seven years.

One week after the release of the #BlackAtBLS video, the Headmaster released a “Memo to the Boston Latin School Community.” The memo was promptly posted to the school website and distributed to students, parents, teachers and staff. I commend Ms. Mooney Teta for responding promptly to the campaign. Her response is frank and heartfelt, and makes several important statements, but it disappoints me in a couple of key ways.

auditorium 2First of all, it fails to validate the concerns of BLS B.L.A.C.K. by acknowledging that there is a problem of racism at the school. The statement lends itself to the soothing notion that these are isolated incidents in which students unfortunately feel that they are victims of racism. At least as importantly, while Ms. Mooney Teta’s memo emphasizes that, “We need to insure that hateful, intolerant, disrespectful speech or actions will not be considered acceptable anywhere at BLS,” it fails to acknowledge that students have brought evidence of such speech and actions to the administration and that the response of the administration has ranged from inadequate to nonexistent.

I fully understand the risks of validating the concerns of this campaign, and acknowledging the shortcomings of one’s own leadership in this regard, but the risks of not doing so are much greater. It seems clear that without such validation and acknowledgement, it will be hard to move forward as a community toward addressing this problem. The last few weeks of publicity have hurt the public image of the school in the Boston community and beyond. That damage can certainly be repaired, but only if the entire school community is convinced that BLS is committed to becoming a community that truly celebrates diversity and insists on mutual respect among all members.

TestimonyWhen the young women in the #BLackAtBLS video testified before the Boston School Committee, a Committee member asked them what sort of support they had received from parents at the school. The answer that they hadn’t yet received concrete actions of support from parents was a painful one for all parents in the audience to hear. Since that time, the Parent-to-Parent group, a subcommittee of the Parent Council, has discussed #BlackAtBLS and made plans to support it. Other parents have taken steps to form groups to support particular groups of students at the school, such as students of color and LGBT students. A group of parents even stayed at the school for 90 minutes after an exhausting Parent Open House this past Thursday to discuss engaging with the school administration over these issues. Now that students have taken the risks to get this discussion started, maybe we parents will find ways to take a few of our own risks to support them.

 

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Why can’t all Fox news be like this?

For Every ChildThe Parent Imperfect has been consistently critical of the Boston Globe’s coverage of debates around the future of public education in Boston and the Commonwealth. In its editorials and signed columns, the Globe has consistently belittled elected officials and anyone else who failed to see the wisdom of continued expansion of the charter school sector, and the paper’s other pet policies. The day-to-day reporting on the topic has not been so monolithic, but has failed to capture the nuances of the equity arguments against education reform, as it is now being practiced. It is certainly not the Globe’s job to agree with me, but is it asking too much to hope that Boston’s most influential daily could at least offer a reasonable picture of opposing views?

Apparently not, as the December 4 Globe article entitled, “Walsh Taking Heat Over School Agenda,” by Jeremy Fox, took an important step in that direction. Even I can give credit where credit is due, and much credit is due here. If the article had one shortcoming, it focused a bit too much on a single parent group, QUEST. I am well aware of that organization’s importance, but there are actually a growing number of organizations, individuals and elected officials raising questions about Enroll Boston and other City Hall education policies. Focusing on a single organization justifies an attitude of “the dogs will bark, but the caravan rolls along,” among decision makers. But this is small potatoes, compared to value of this sort of reporting.

Fix Don't PrivatizeFor this article, Fox interviews both Mayor Walsh and Boston parents critical of what they see as the direction of his education policy. He then presents the opposing views in a way that captures what both sides are saying, without editorializing. Transcending the recent kerfluffle about the number school closings planned, the article reports what parents actually heard from the Mayor in a September 29 meeting at City Hall. I have it on very good (though imperfect) authority that the Mayor said, in talking about BPS facilities, that “We’re going to get down to ninety buildings.” That doesn’t suggest any particular number of school closings, but it certainly suggests a consolidation from the present use of 125 or 126 school buildings. When Fox asked the Mayor about those alleged remarks, rather than answer the question, the Mayor felt the need to deny that he has a plan to close schools. Thou doth protest too much…

In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that the December 4 article also met the litmus test of all good journalism by providing a link to my own description of the raucous Jamaica Plain meeting concerning the Mayor’s proposal to unify charter and public school enrollment systems. That, too, was a Globe first. In all modesty, I do think that the link strengthened the article (and sent many newbys into the arms of the PI), but the clear presentation of both sides of the argument is what really distinguishes the piece.

LilliputThings are about to get even less polite in the public debate about the future of our public schools. Partners from three of Boston’s most prestigious (and deep-pocketed) law firms are moving forward with a suit charging the Commonwealth with civil rights violations for placing a cap on charter school growth. Our Governor and Education Secretary have proposed legislation that is more “bullish” on charter schools than anything the boldest charter school advocate would have dared to ask for, even two years ago. Charter school PR consultants are spinning at top speed in support of a ballot question designed to bludgeon the State Senate into submission on the question of the charter school cap. And against this troubling backdrop, the elected champion of Boston’s public schools shows every sign that he is out to earn his recent “Lifetime Achievement” award from the state’s charter school association. A formidable, multi-headed, giant is getting its bearings and piling up gold bars, but the Lilliputians are quietly untangling their ropes.

RumorsThe Globe article ends with a telling quote from Mayor Walsh. “It’s my understanding that QUEST is a parent organization…out there advocating for kids. We should stick to the advocacy for kids and not focus on rumors.” Ok…but just what “rumors” is the Mayor talking about? Is it the rumor that he said that “we’re going to get down to 90 buildings?” Or maybe its the rumor that he has proposed relaxing the cap on charter schools in Boston? Or the one that he is in favor putting important responsibilities around Boston school enrollment in the hands of a scantily qualified organization that operates with little or no public accountability? No, no, he’s probably referring to the rumor that documents obtained by Quest (from the Mayor’s office, by the way) refer to discussions regarding possible co-location of charters and public schools. Sorry, but I read all of these as related facts…dots to be connected, not rumors.

When important discussions are happening behind closed doors, and parents and other stakeholders get their information on a “need to know” basis, people will start to put together what they do know in an attempt to understand what’s going on. Errors may happen when people don’t have information, but more transparency and accountability, rather than criticism and tighter secrecy, is the way to clear up such misunderstandings.

 

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Enroll Boston? No, thanks!

not cynicalThe Parent Imperfect is not convinced. Tonight is the very last in the series of meetings about “Enroll Boston,” Mayor Walsh’s plan to bring charter schools into Boston’s school assignment system. It’s your last chance to be convinced, or not. These meetings, hosted by the Boston Compact, have been one of the city’s best kept secrets over the past few weeks. Last week’s meeting in Jamaica Plain was the first one at which curious parents outnumbered the paid reps of the City, the BPS, the charter schools and the Compact, and that was only because QUEST, the City-Wide Parent Council (CPC) and other concerned parents spread the word and got people there. I was among those present, and I was very happy to hear about this idea, first hand, and to hear people’s questions about Unified Enrollment.

For the first hour, attendees listened quietly to a parade of speakers including the Compact staff, charter school principals, Boston Public Schools (BPS) management and Mayor Walsh’s Education Chief. The idea was to introduce the Compact to the many people who didn’t know it, inform people how enrollment happens now, in both charter and public schools, and then lay out the unified Enrollment proposal. The presentations were uneven and the day had already been long, but people sat and listened politely. Only the infants and toddlers in child care at the back of the room protested, a first act of rebellion against the school time in their future.

Then, mercifully, the presentations ended and the facilitator announced that, while comments were not welcome, the speakers would take questions. Thankfully, the people paid no attention. If you wanted feedback on your plan, why would you prohibit people from making comments on it? I wish I had recorded all of the questions/comments. They made for a fantastic window onto the way that at least some BPS parents think about their schools.

What people wanted to know

  1. 2015-11-12 18.59.34One Special Ed parent asked if parents would be able to review a real list of the services offered at each school, or if the would get the typical “phantom” lists of all the things a school would like to offer or want to advertise that they offer. The Chief answered that “we would like for there to be real lists of services offered.”
  2. A woman asked if the Compact would be transparent about its sources of funding. The Compact staffer described its big operating grant from the Gates Foundation ($3.2 million) and said that they were in negotiations with the Walton Foundation and others for additional funding. Members of the audience expressed dismay that these foundations might be driving Boston enrollment decisions.
  3. Another woman expressed her extreme disappointment that BPS had done no outreach to parents about these meetings. “I hear about everything from te BPS, but I didn’t hear anything about this. Why?” Not satisfied with the answer, she reminded the BPS reps that, “You work for us!”
  4. A man (yes, there were men at the meeting) asked if Unified Enrollment meant that charters would be adhering to BPS discipline policies. “We’re not there yet,” came the answer. The Compact rep had suggested that an important part of UE would be that “everyone will be playing by the same rules,” but every time that she was asked about some set of rules, it was clear that the charters who join the UE system will continue to play by their own rules.
  5. A local parent activist asked where was the data that would allow parents to do their own evaluation of the current Home-based system, even if the BPS’s MIT connection refused to do so before three years of operation. The BPS’s operations chief came to the front of the room and blurted out a two sentence answer that left everyone wondering what was being said. “It’s coming,” might be the best translation of the answer.
  6. A charter school parent was upset that, after going through a lot to find a charter school that worked for her children, UE could limit her charter school choices and even put her back in the BPS.
  7. A Special Education teacher wondered why we would set up a system that could put more Special Needs children into schools that we know are not ready to deal with them. The speakers pushed forward a charter leader to respond and he immediately made clear that he had no idea how the BPS serves Students with Special Needs.
  8. Finally, a cranky mother said that her problem was that so much of this plan was being worked out behind closed doors. Why couldn’t the Compact be more transparent about its meetings and all the discussions going on around this proposal? She got what was, for me, the answer of the night from the Compact staffer: “The Compact is a private entity, so we aren’t required to make public our internal discussions.” Say no more…

Small, Vocal, Entrenched?

BPS parentI’m sure that there were people in the room at the JP meeting who think that Enroll Boston is a wonderful proposal that should be implemented immediately. None of those people expressed that opinion. What people did express were a lot of questions about how this is going to work and, if charters can opt out of Enroll Boston, whether this would really be more simple for the city’s parents. Charter parents who seemed satisfied with their current schools were justifiably concerned that the Enroll Boston proposal could limit their options to choose alternatives to the BPS. I shared all of that skepticism, and, as the night wore on, I wondered more and more why anyone thought that a private entity like the Boston Compact should be developing and analyzing this proposal.

In its internal discussions of its communication strategy around Enroll Boston, the Compact Steering Committee noted that the idea would need to overcome the opposition of “small, vocal, entrenched” groups in some neighborhoods. Those groups may well exist, but what Enroll Boston encountered in Jamaica Plain was opposition that was “numerous, thoughtful and very much out in the open.”

Why the Boston Compact?

The QuestionIf they had allowed me another question, I’d have asked, “What I’ve seen here tonight confirmed my sense that the Boston Compact is competently staffed, lavishly funded (and about to be more lavishly funded when they convince the Walmart people that Enroll Boston is consistent with their ed reform agenda) and well-connected to that sliver of the “education practitioner” community that has had direct contact with the Compact’s programs. At the same time, the Compact has no apparent experience addressing system-wide school assignment challenges, is entirely disconnected from two key constituencies (parents and students) that are critical to school assignment and operates in a closed, opaque way that is inaccessible to the people who rely on the Boston Public Schools for the education of our children. Why would anyone think that the Boston Compact was the appropriate group to facilitate the discussion, let alone the implementation, of a new assignment system for our children?”

Listen to what the Boston Compact has to say and decide for yourself. Tuesday, November 17th at 5:30 at the West End Boys and Girls Club.

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