Tag Archives: BPS

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.



Leave a comment

Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools, School Assignment

Talking ChangE, Chang prevails

ChangNo doubt about it, the Parent Imperfect was surprised. Few of the handicappers gave Tommy Chang much of a chance when the four finalists for Boston School superintendent were announced on February 19, but that’s just who the school committee named, in a 5-2 vote on Tuesday night. People at last night’s meeting were acting like the guy was holed up in a motel in Saugus and would be in Boston by sun up, but it seems that he will take a prudent amount of time to transition out of his role in Los Angeles. WBUR reports that he’ll be here by July.

The Mayor and the School Committee chair definitely wanted a unanimous decision, but it was not to be. Many people made public comments in favor of the candidacy of Pedro Martínez, and Committee members Miren Uriarte and Regina Robinson courageously cast their votes for the accountant turned school leader when the committee tally took place. I have to say that, while I was not a supporter of Martínez, the support he received from the community and the School Committee made me want to go back and take another look at all that the man said during his interviews.

Last night’s show had some of the feel of theater of the absurd. At 10:20AM, yesterday, I got an ominous e-mail from someone who was very much at the center of the hiring process.

Thank you for your thoughts.  I read your blog post with interest. I particularly agree with your final point.  At the end of the day, all of us who care about public education in Boston need to commit to doing all the can to support whomever is the new superintendent.

That did not sound good…at all. Then, just after noon, another message came in from an education advocate who has an uncanny way of knowing what is going on in City Hall.

Mayor chose Chang and is meeting with individual BSC members one on one.
 2-3 are not on board yet and …will make some statement of her own.

Can’t discuss now but really really shocking news here.

By the time I got to Court St., candidate Dana Bedden had dropped the bomb that he was withdrawing from consideration (he must have gotten the same noontime message I had), and boston.com was reporting that Chang was the one. So, virtually everyone in the room knew the result before the meeting started, but we all went through a 2.5 hour collective charade as if the decision was being made before our very eyes. People had to keep correcting themselves to maintain the illusion of a real process. It was truly bizarre.

No matter, Chang was the youngest of the finalists and arguably the least experienced of them, as well, when it comes to district-level leadership experience. In his public interviews, he emphasized his experience with Special Education and that seemed to catch the attention of some SPED parents in Boston. Two representatives of the local Special Education Parents Advisory Council spoke in favor of Chang at the meeting, one even introducing herself to the Committee as “Carolyn Chang,” getting the biggest laugh of the night. That said, the one SPED parent on the School Committee did not vote for Dr. Chang when the roll call came.

Chang was careful to be respectful of Boston school leadership and to acknowledge the achievements of the system, but also painted himself as a change agent, someone who embraced the idea of “creative disruption.” The message was that he is willing to challenge and even trash existing structures to achieve the change needed in the system. This nuanced commitment to risk failure in order to achieve dramatic change, coupled with at least one mention per minute of the word, “autonomy” gained him the support of many education reform advocates in the area. Most importantly, Chang became the darling of the Daddy Warbucks of education reform, The Boston Foundation.

In one school committee discussion during the interviews, a member memorably said what some others were obviously thinking. It was something like, “We need a leader who can speak the language of the people and institutions who can provide the resources we require to achieve school improvement.” Chang apparently speaks four languages, but our erstwhile School Committee member was not referring to one of those four in that statement.

School CommitteeBut this transformation talk didn’t just gain Chang the support of the deep pockets. Roxbury City Councillor, Tito Jackson, strode to the mike last night and offered surprisingly strong support for Dr. Chang. His main point was that we need transformation, not mere reform, (who would have thunk it? a City Councillor, channeling Che!) so we need a leader who will not just move the existing levers a little bit better. We need a change agent. Jackson’s spirited argument for Chang took me somewhat by surprise. I have to believe that his message might have been different had not Dr. Bedden bolted at the last minute. Bedden’s last-minute withdrawal completely changed the dynamics of the meeting.

Most importantly, some combination of things that Chang said and didn’t say gained him the support of the Mayor. In his statement expressing his pleasure with the School Committee’s choice, Marty Walsh characterized the new super as an “innovator.” I need to go on record here saying that I thought Chang presented himself very well and had prepared public framing of his candidacy that was second to none. He managed to somehow escaped the tarnish that should have come with playing a leadership role in a corrupt and financially profligate school administration in LA. He definitely talked a very good change game, at a time when Boston rightly feels that it needs deep transformation of our educational system. But when I look at the man’s record, I just don’t see the evidence of him initiating successful new ways of doing things.

But who cares about that now? The man is our next superintendent, and we will welcome him to Boston and make the very best of his leadership. Tommy Chang was not the only one who got a job last night. Any student, parent, teacher, principal, school administrator or public education advocate who is committed to equity and quality in education also got a big job last night…the job of making it happen when the wind just might not be with us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Boston Public Schools

Super search sizzles down home stretch

super searchThe Parent Imperfect continues to look for signs of smoke rising from the City Hall signalling that a new Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools has been chosen (and has accepted the job). Despite advice from the Globe and others to slow the process down, all signs suggest that the Mayor really wants the decision behind him and his chosen School Committee. I have a feeling that, despite the pressure, the suspense will continue for at least a few more days.

To its credit, the search committee has orchestrated a near circus around the candidates this week. I think it is great that a wide cross-section of the community has had a chance to interact with the four finalists. I’m less clear how the input from these discussions will influence the final decision.

I wasn’t able to be present in any of the various rings of circus, but that would never keep me from having an opinion. My homework is done. I have listened to a whole lot of people who did attend. I’ve also tried to watch video of some of the candidate interviews, though I must admit that these interviews won’t be taking a lot of viewers away from the new season of “House of Cards.”

The first thing that jumps out at me about the four finalists is that they are all candidates of color. This was obviously a priority for the search committee and their headhunters, and the results speak for themselves. That’s great, but I do share the dismay of those who wonder why there are no women among the finalists. Seriously???? A national search in a profession where women have successfully opened space for themselves as leaders and we couldn’t find a single woman who deserved to be considered a finalist for this job? I’m amazed that neither the search consultants nor the mayor’s hiring committee hit the “pause” button on the search. Given how long this has dragged on, the pressure to move the search forward must have been considerable.

championEveryone has their priorities for a super in Boston. I think we need a very visible and dynamic champion of public education in the city, someone who knows that this institution so important to what is left of democracy in our country faces huge challenges and needs to change to meet those challenges. Our champion will know that the only way forward is to bring students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators and district leadership together with community and political allies behind a vision of quality and equity in public education. S/he (it ain’t over, ’til it’s over) will be an effective and decisive manager with a collaborative style and will know the importance of being a great listener. The new super must also manage a mayor and an administration who don’t seem to have a clear education agenda. A champion must, of course, be ready to fight for his/her vision, whether that is the fight to secure adequate funds for public education, to move the mayor, or to preserve the integrity of the system.

Predictably, no candidate emerges as the perfect champion for this moment. All four present themselves as change agents, capable of leading Boston through what will be a tumultuous time. Two of them, Chang and Martínez, seem ready to really shake things up in the service of change. Martínez is a former accountant who entered educational leadership not through the door of classroom instruction, but through a relationship with the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Of the four candidates, he has most clearly embraced the national education reform that has emphasized permanent testing, charter school expansion and “no tolerance” discipline in schools. In the interviews with him that I have watched, he seem brash, arrogant and extremely critical of what he sees in the BPS. This is an interesting strategy for someone hoping to lead a system.

Chang seemed like the sharpest and most dynamic of the candidates to me. He has been focused on how to improve instruction in some of Los Angeles’s most troubled schools, which would be a very useful skill to have in a leader of Boston’s schools. Chang certainly didn’t allow himself to be pigeon holed as a blind devotee of charter schools and the other pillars of education reform, but I have a sense that he would be more ready to move Boston in that direction than some of the other candidates.

Guerrero and Bedden are more clearly products of the liberal educational establishment, though as a military veteran, Bedden’s road to the establishment wasn’t the typical one. They both talked a lot about change, but the change they would lead would be more managed and incremental change, as opposed to the kind of disruptive changes that both Chang and Martínez seem ready to consider. Bedden is much more experienced than Guerrero and Guerrero brings both the advantages and the disadvantages that come with previous experience here in Boston. His six years as principal at the Dever School in Dorchester were not the high point in his educational career to date. The Globe has also made a big deal of Guerrero’s exit from the education doctoral program at Harvard. The ed school administratively terminated Geurrero because he didn’t finish his dissertation in time, and that wasn’t crystal clear on the description of him shared here in Boston. School Committee chair< Michael O’Neill has said that this was his error. Sorry, but this is not a big deal to me…at all.

Bedden seems like a very strong candidate. Chang-like energy was notably absent in Bedden’s interviews, but he calmly answered some tough questions by sharing examples from his district leadership experience in several places. His answers on his approach to charters were clearer and less worrying to this parent than what some of the others said. The fact that parents and community leaders in Richmond are trying to get him to stay also adds to his resume, but it also makes me wonder if he’ll take our job, if offered. Some parents and community members seem concerned about Bedden’s ability to work in a multi-cultural context, especially his ability to connect to Latino parents and students. I’ve seen information about a bad incident between African-American and Latino students in Richmond that was not well-handled, but it seems that this happened before Bedden took the Richmond job. He apparently was left to try to clean up a very messy situation. Bedden may not have handled that clean up in the best possible way, which is a concern.

Rumor has it that the Mayor wants to hire a Latino candidate, and the composition of the finalist pool would seem to support that idea. Given that Boston has never had a Latino super, that Latinos are now the largest group of students in the BPS and that the system has faced chronic challenges around educating ELL students, I agree that it would be great if a Latino leader committed to multicultural education emerged as the best candidate for this job. It’s sad, but I’m just not feeling it with either Guerrero or Martínez. The latter is the finalist I’d least like to see as Boston super, and I believe that Mr. Guerrero needs successful experience as a superintendent of a smaller district before I would believe he’s ready to take on a job like this one. I think Chang would be a very interesting choice, but I fear that he would not provide a good enough counterweight to the strong education reform push that I see coming from the Baker administration. If I had any influence on this process, Dana Bedden would be my choice.

Some say that there is a fifth candidate lurking in the wings who didn’t want to public exposure of the circus. I can imagine that there were several strong candidates not willing to take the risk of exposure, but I can’t imagine that any of them is treading water in some separate, confidential pool. That would be truly bizarre.

Others say that, even more than a Latino candidate, the mayor is after a “team player” who won’t overshadow his boss. I truly hope this is not the case, but one never knows…If I was concerned about the super’s shadow, I’d probably be thinking of the less-than-charismatic accountant with no credentials as an educator and minimal network here in the city.

Whoever gets this job, they have a rocky path before them.



Filed under Boston Public Schools


Dearborn SchoolLast summer, the Parent Imperfect did a lot of blustering about the community slam around Roxbury’s Dearborn School, but hasn’t had a lot to say about it lately. Incredibly, the school turnaround project that was on the fast track during July’s hottest days, was still there just last night. In one more time-pressured meeting, the “stakeholders group” met to interview the two finalists to become the “external operator” in the turnaround plan.

Back in August, in this very space, I wrote an open letter to Interim Superintendent John McDonough suggesting that he drop the district’s puzzling proposal to hand the $70 million project for a STEM academy in Roxbury over to a charter operator who had almost no experience running a school and ZERO experience with STEM. We suggested that it would be better to enlist some of the people opposing that scheme–including Dearborn staff, parents and students–to develop a community-supported proposal that could convince the Commonwealth’s education commissioner to back off and give that proposal a chance.

CommishDo you wonder about the PI’s influence (Ha! ha!)? Exactly three days later, Mayor Marty Walsh announced that the City was going to withdraw the charter proposal, and the BPS subsequently came forward with a shell of an alternative plan. The kicker (and maybe the poison pill) in the plan was the BPS’s insistence that the plan needed to feature an “external operator” that would be acceptable to the City, the community and, most importantly, Commissioner Chester. The Commissioner was threatening to put the Dearborn into state receivership because of continuing low test scores. From Day One, many in the community were skeptical about this “external operator” idea, but a credible community stakeholder group came together and the process ground forward, always up against some deadline imposed by the State.

One of the interesting moments in last night’s meeting came when a Dearborn parent reported that he had still not seen the scores for which the Commissioner is threatening to take over the school. Those scores allegedly became “public” in September. Who the hell has those scores and why do parents at the Dearborn not have them?

The meeting, itself, was high theater. First of all, it wasn’t held at the “Dearborn” building. That building is locked up, tight as a drum, awaiting the wrecking ball. That’s a whole other story that must await another day. The Dearborn school community has been evicted to an upper floor in the building of Jeremiah Burke High School, in Grove Hall. The meeting took place in a small room that couldn’t begin to accommodate the interested community spectators. It was a very direct experience of the difficulties faced by the school. When I got there (late, of course), there were a dozen people in the hallway, trying to listen.

LazarusI knew who the “finalists” were, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. There, like Lazarus, making a proposal to the community stakeholders, was the very same guy who I recalled so well making the ill-fated charter school proposal to a packed house at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church on a steamy night in August. He’s a perfectly nice guy (a JP resident, if I’m not mistaken) and obviously committed to education, but what does it say about this process that his organization has ended up as a finalist? The lack of relevant experience of his organization, the Boston Plan for Excellence, was one of the problems that the community had with the original charter proposal.

After the BPE proposal got its hour, in came an operation called MassPrep. Interestingly, the MassPrep guy stood up before the crowd and spoke with animo, where the BPE rep preferred to remain slumped in a seat for his questioning. The body language and the energy was completely different. Interestingly, MassPrep has no experience in Massachusetts (Hah?). In fact, it felt very much like a start-up, dependent on the name recognition and charter school pedigree of its co-founder.

This co-founder is another very engaging and intelligent guy, who began his talk by explaining that he had started on a path to Wall Street, but discovered School Street along the way. He started as an educator at a public school in New York, but quickly turned to the charter school sector and made a name for himself as a leader of the Mastery Schools network in Philly. When questioned, he failed to note that the Mastery Schools are well-known charter schools, but then proceeded to spend an hour talking about the relevance of the charter approach (without calling it that) to the challenges of the Dearborn.  I don’t know when I’ve heard the charter vision proposed more clearly, without using the words, “charter school.” In a tactical error, the speaker gave too little space to the women who accompanied him, including the other co-founder, a former basketball coach and quite a compelling speaker who actually seemed to have some direct knowledge of STEM education.

The most interesting conversation came after the finalists left. Not everyone among the stakeholders seemed ready to rush to judgement, but the pressure to move forward was palpable. The presence of a representative of the Commissioner, strategically positioned at room’s edge cast a long shadow over the proceedings, even thought the gentleman remained silent ’til the very end. Again, high theater. It’s hard to blame the community stakeholders for their hesitation. They are going to be accountable for this decision in the community, long after anyone remembers that it was the State and the BPS that pushed them into a corner with these two finalists.

How would you feel as a community member asked to stamp this process? After all this time, the process has come down to two finalists: an organization that failed with an earlier proposal and whose relevant experience has been questioned by the community since the very beginning, and a charter operator from Philly who doesn’t know Grove Hall from windfall. Neither group distinguished itself with its knowledge of STEM, the educational content that will determine the success of the future Dearborn.

Sitting directly across from these finalists, on the stakeholder group, was Dearborn’s interim principal, Mr. Willingham. The assumption–made by the State and not questioned by the BPS–behind this whole dance is that he and his team can’t turn the Dearborn around, yet he has shown on several occasions that he knows way more about STEM education than either of the guys with ties making proposals last night. I wonder how this makes him and those working with him feel about their efforts every day to keep learning happening under the most difficult of conditions at the Dearborn.

Cat playing organCity Councillor Tito Jackson, who sat and listened for most of the time, did his best to put a positive spin on the whole show. After saluting the efforts of the Dearborn teachers, students and community, he reminded people that it was their activism that forced the City to back off the original charter proposal and get back on the path of keeping the Dearborn a community school. As always, Tito was right, but I bet I wasn’t the only one wondering, “Absolutely, but what have we won if all this work comes down to a choice for a school operator that is between two guys who don’t know any more about STEM than a cat knows about an organ? One was the purveyor of the original proposal that we beat back and the other is a charter guy from Philly who needs a GPS to get back to South Station?”

Maybe this is simply what we have come to,..if people want a STEM academy in Roxbury, this is what it is. Maybe, but people didn’t seem quite ready to accept that, just yet. Somehow, even as the weather gets colder, the temperature around the Dearborn is likely to be unseasonably warm…still.


Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools

The exam school choice, #13…something missing?

Latin EnglishThere is nothing quite like the Thanksgiving Day football game between Boston English and Boston Latin to get the Parent Imperfect thinking about the exam school choice in Boston. It is a huge choice for many individual families in the city, but it is also a choice that we, as a city, make each year about the sort of school system we want to have for our children.

This year, I’ve received an unusual number of questions about the BPS exam schools, some from perfect strangers. Last Saturday was the final day for students in Grades 6 and 8 to take the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) in hopes of entering one of the Boston’s exam schools for the coming year. I remember well that the parental stress level increased greatly in the days before that test. Now, at least there is a little break before the next decision point, when one must register for school and state preferences regarding the three exam schools in the system.

The calendar has generated many of the questions, but there has been another factor this year. In the midst of this year’s selecting season, BPS leadership has endorsed some eye-opening proposals to change the way students get into the exam schools.

Earlier in November, a highly publicized study of Black and Latino male achievement in the BPS confirmed what everyone in the system knows perfectly well. That the exam schools and the Advanced Work Class (AWC) programs are key elements of a system of tracking that aggravates the achievement gap in city schools. The question is what to do about the problem.

Opportunity and EnrollmentThe study, co-published by the BPS and two of the leading educational research organizations in the area, makes a number of recommendations, two of which focus on AWC and the exam schools. It recommends making all grade 4-6 programs Advanced Work programs, which is a positive way of saying that we should end the current practice of, beginning in fourth grade, taking the kids who score highest on a certain test out of their school communities and grouping them in special classrooms. If that’s not bold enough, the study went on to recommend that only children who attend the BPS for Grades 5 and 6 be eligible to apply for admission to the exam schools. This would eliminate the time-tested path to the exam schools, especially Boston Latin School, that passes through private and parochial schools. The goal would be to make the student composition of the exam schools more closely reflect the composition of the BPS, as a whole. I’ve seen proposals like this before (even made some), but at least in my memory, I’ve not seen a proposal like either of these in a document endorsed by the BPS.

Does this change anything for the kids who just took the test? I doubt it, at least in the short run. As in the past, families will rate the exam schools, according to their preferences, and test results will be fed, along with students’ Grade 5 and Grade 6 grades into the mysterious function machine that generates invitations to the O’BryantBLA and BLS.

Deciding on our order of preference among the schools felt like less of a turning point when we applied for Vince, as the word on the street was that it was pretty easy to choose BLS at first, and then change one’s mind later (not surprisingly, to change one’s preference to BLS was less simple, but that wasn’t our strategy). Now, because more and more parents apparently are making either the O’Bryant or BLA their first choice, it is more difficult to later change one’s first choice, regardless of what it is. I can find no data that says that more parents are choosing the O’Bryant and BLA first, but the cryptic placement results received by Connie suggest that it is, in fact, the case.

Latin crosswalkIn Vince’s case we later wished that we had paid more attention to the choice among exam schools. Even though it wasn’t at all clear to us that Vince’s learning style would work well at BLS (Liz will say that she was sure that it wouldn’t), we were convinced by the argument that said, “If he gets into BLS, let him try it. If it doesn’t work out, he can always switch.” Don’t be fooled by that argument. I can name you 25 kids in Vince’s senior class who have struggled mightily for 5+ years at BLS, but have resisted the idea of changing schools. Some parents of such students were clear enough or desperate enough to make the decision for their offspring, but we are among those who did not do so. In public conversation, Vince will say consistently that he really likes his school, and I have stopped doubting him on this point. He really likes the friends he has made at BLS, some of his teachers have been excellent and I expect that he likes being able to tell people that he goes to the such a revered high school. But all that love has come with considerable stress and conflict (for the whole family) and no small loss of self-esteem for the young man.

BLS has 2400 students, give or take a few, which I believe is way too many for a school with its approach to teaching and learning.  The “business model” of the school requires that the school admit well over 100 students each year that will face serious difficulties in adapting to its standards. There are more programs in place to support students in their transition (Saturday Success School, peer tutoring, etc.) than existed 10-15 years ago, but seventh graders at the school are still very much on their own to make their way in a large and unforgiving environment. There are, after all, something like 525 of them in seventh grade, so support anything like that received at many private schools is simply out of the question.

We visited both BLA and the O’Bryant with Vince and Connie. They liked things about the O’Bryant, but neither was drawn to attend the school. We never explored the reasons for that enough, but they seemed to have a mildly negative impression of the school before we even saw the place. Both liked BLA and would probably have quite happily gone there, had their parents pushed the issue, but we did not. They visited BLS after BLA and then “shadowed” a student at the school for a day. They didn’t shadow at either the O’Bryant or BLA. After shadowing, they were officially caught up in the hype and, truth be told, so were their parents. In the end, both Vince and Connie were on pins and needles in the days before their assignment arrived, anxious to hear that they were going to BLS.

The HypeThere is so, so much to say about the “hype,” and I surely can’t do it justice here. The hype is a comparative framing of the three schools and the way they sit in the whole BPS system (remember the English-Latin football game). Much of it is about the “best,” the exclusivity of exam schools and the power of the history embodied, especially, in BLS. But lurking in the definition of “best” are also powerful, often subliminal, messages about race, class and difference. I’m not accusing any school or any group within any school of projecting such messages. No one needs to project them: They are perfectly obvious, even if you aren’t looking for them, and they are powerfully reinforced by messages we all receive daily.

The hype and all of the changes going on for these kids (and their parents) at this time of their lives creates an emotional stew around the exam school decision that is even more toxic than the one surrounding Advanced Work Class. As parents who are busy doing too many things already, it is very easy to not deal with the complexity of this decision, let “the flow” carry one to a decision, and then, two years later, be wondering what happened.

Community conversationsWhat does it mean to “deal with the complexity” of this decision? The two-sentence descriptions of each of the exam schools are, by now, well known. Visiting each school usually provides enough information and direct experience to begin to challenge the stereotypes. People (especially mothers) discuss the topic obsessively among friends. And, of course, we try to talk with our children about what they want for themselves.

All of this is great and necessary. We did it all, but felt that something was missing. Maybe what was missing in our experience was any kind of a space for a broader community conversation about the choice, one in which we could get outside of our tight networks of friends and hear what others–including others who don’t have the exam school choice–feel about that choice. I remember really wishing that we could have this kind of conversation, even among parents at the Hernández, when Vince was in sixth grade. Since Connie was only at the Irving for a year, we didn’t have that kind of connection with parents there, so a different conversation would have been needed.


Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

A “Third Way” or the charter way?

Chicago charter posterThe Parent Imperfect has a strong sense that the fix is in on lifting the cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. I fear that the fix will leave public school districts with less resources to educate the vast majority of students in the state that will always attend traditional public schools. As always, the kids will pay the price of a bad “compromise.” The Dorchester Reporter reported yesterday that Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Russell Holmes have reached a compromise to lift the current legal limit on charter expansion (the charter cap).

It’s important to note that this is a compromise between two legislators intent on raising the cap, and charter boosters in the community, like the Mass Public Charter Schools Association and Paul Grogan of The Boston Foundation. I have nothing against either legislator: It just seems important to be honest about what has happened. Parents, teachers and concerned members of the community who don’t want to see the cap lifted were conspicuously absent from the debate and the compromise.

Charter school growthAs we write here, 2130 people have signed an electronic petition circulated by the Boston parent group, Quality Educaton for Every Student to the Senator and her house Co-Chair of the Joint Education Committee, Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley. The petition does not stake out an “anti-charter” position, but simply says that it makes no sense to divert more money from public school districts at a time when many of the most challenged districts face serious budgetary problems. This year, 42% of state funding to education in Boston went to charter schools educating about 13% of Boston’s students. What will that percentage be when charters have 20% of students in the City? How many teachers will get laid off that year? The compromise apparently gives this concern a nod, but then goes forward to lift the charter cap, anyway.

For now, all we know about the deal is what the dealers say about it. Rumor has it that a vote will come on Tuesday, so we’ll know more then. Sen. Chang Diaz’s office released a statement trumpeting the fact that the deal includes a commitment to pull the plug on charter growth if the Legislature doesn’t fulfill its legal responsibility to reimburse districts for funds diverted from those districts to pay charter school tuition. That’s very nice, but it hardly seems like a stunning victory for schoolchildren that we are obliging the State House to follow its own laws.

At the base of this so-called “third way” is the perception that we need, at all costs, a “safety valve” for families who believe that the Boston Public Schools are not educating their children well. According to this argument, more charters will offer more such families such a choice. I know families in this situation. You probably do, too. They truly believe that a charter school has saved their child (or children), and some of those families definitely want more charters to open. I also know that charters have proven to be a very unreliable safety valve for many of those same families. Proportionally, charters educate way fewer English Language learners and students with special needs than the public schools, who must take everyone. Fully half of the students who turn to these schools as an alternative can’t adjust to the charter environment and end up back in traditional public schools (or out of school, entirely). At a meeting with BPS parents last week, Sen. Chang-Díaz acknowledged these concerns and promised language in her compromise that would demand charter accountability around just these issues. Her statement mentions no such language in the final bill. I hope the language just slipped the minds of those spinning the compromise.

If charter schools are a safety valve, then they make for an expensive and leaky valve at a time when urban districts like the BPS are under tremendous budget pressure. Rather than divert resources to a separate system of schools with precious little accountability, let’s focus our efforts on changing the way business is done at Court Street and on continuing to improve Boston’s schools, one at a time. I just don’t see an alternative if we want to offer Boston’s students great educational choices. Step one along this path will be the selection of a new Boston School Superintendent who understands the problems faced by the BPS, and possesses a vision that can mobilize all stakeholders to tackle those problems.

The Globe reports that charter boosters are unhappy with the Holmes/Chang-Díaz compromise, because it places even weak conditions on the charter expansion fiesta to come. The pro-charter lobby smells blood and thinks it is in a position to get everything it wants. They may well be overplaying their hand.

Make you want to holler? Take a moment to read and sign the Quest petition. Then HOLLER!


Filed under Charter Schools

Boston’s Budget Blues

Cuts hurt kidsThe Parent Imperfect joined about 65 other hearty souls at last night’s public school budget hearing at the Hyde Park Educational Complex. BPS proposes filling a “sixty million dollar hole” in the school budget with 89 teachers, 109 paras, 26 administrators, a whole adult ed program and lots of yellow school buses. Sixty million makes for a big hole. No one who dragged themselves out of the house last night did so to express their support for the cuts.

School Committee Chair, Michael O’Neill made a valiant effort to lighten things up a bit in his welcoming remarks, but few attendees were in that kind of mood. A senior financial officer of the BPS went through the now familiar slides. Only through a combination of pink slips, program cuts and transportation service changes could the District balance this year’s budget. If the draft budget presented last night became a reality today, 223 people would lose their jobs, Boston’s unique adult education program would all but disappear and middle school students eligible for transportation would be on MBTA buses, instead of yellow school buses.

Yellow busesAll of these cuts would be necessary, despite a decision by Mayor Walsh to increase City government outlays for the School Department by 3.8%, while asking all other departments to take a 1% cut. The combination of ordinary cost increases, drastic declines in State and Federal support and contract-mandated salary increases had created a budget hole much deeper than what the City could fill.

Upon hearing the news, sixteen members of the audience paraded to the microphones to say, “don’t do it!” They included parents from the BTU School, the Roosevelt, the Philbrick, the Mendell, the Curley and the Lyndon, all schools facing the loss of teachers and valuable programs. Teachers and students of the Adult Education Center spoke eloquently of its importance in their lives, and the members of one class came to the meeting together for a “lesson in democracy.” A leader of Boston’s Special Education Parents’ Advisory Council spoke, as did Tim McCarthy, the City Councillor from Hyde Park who committed himself to fight on the floor of the City Council to avoid cuts to schools now moving in the right direction. Most in the room stood as others spoke, showing that they weren’t there just to speak for their issue.

One parent from West Roxbury cut to the chase quite nicely. “In two weeks of looking at this, I’ve discovered that the real solutions are two: Chapter 70 allocations and charter reimbursements. If I have figured this out in two weeks, you certainly can, too.”

State support downShe was pointing to the real fact that the current State budget limits spending on public education through Chapter 70 and that the formula for allocation this money has been changed in ways that work for some smaller cities, but definitely work against Boston. She was also pointing to the fact the $85 million in Chapter 70 money goes directly to charter schools. The Legislature is supposed to reimburse part of this through a separate appropriation, but they’ve been hedging on that in recent years, and not even this inadequate reimbursement has happened yet this year.

She’s right on about the immediate pressure points, but I hope we can effectively advocate with State officials without losing our conversation about how the BPS is making decisions about the money that is in the pot now.

As the meeting ground to a close, the Chair spoke directly about his own resistance to cutting an Adult Education program that has existed for over 100 years. He also said that he was ready to “join forces” with parent groups and other advocates to go to the State House to ask for more money.

Parent groups in the room seemed ready to join forces with the School Committee to advocate for additional State funds, but they also seemed unhappy with a lack of transparency in how budget decisions are being made in the District as well as with the content of many of the decisions concerning the allocation of existing funds. Joining forces will only work if all are interested in an open partnership, and I still have questions about the District’s openness about its decisions.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks. The School Committee must pass a balanced budget in three weeks, or the scene shifts to the City Council, where a knock down, drag out awaits a very new Council. Very soon, something has to give.


Filed under Boston Public Schools