Tag Archives: Education reform

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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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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What could be wrong with Unified School Enrollment?

UE FlyerThe Parent Imperfect has watched with concern the rapid rise of the idea of “Unified School Enrollment” in Boston. This idea is being presented as a proposal by the Boston School Compact (more about the Compact later). Overnight, this idea has gone from the big vat of ideas that get talked about, but never acted on, to one of Mayor Walsh’s main priorities. I wish it had continued to float in the vat. Marty did not support this idea in his campaign, but he is certainly behind it now. In fact, it feels as if he and his Education Advisor are driving it.

The idea is simply  to include Boston charter schools in the Boston Public Schools’ assignment lottery. Those schools would then appear in families’ “basket” of schools to which they are eligible to apply for their children. Rather than have to do a different application for each charter lottery, families could apply to charter schools through the BPS’s own Home-Based Assignment process.

What’s not to like? Rather than have to fill out a bunch of separate applications for their children, and then keep track of separate applications processes, parents can fill out a single application and then follow through on that one. Even an imperfect parent, has got to like that, right?

Wrong. My look below the spin on Unified Enrollment suggests that it’s something that is likely to cause more problems than it solves. When I see “Unified Enrollment,” I read,”Not really unified enrollment, based on a shaky foundation and mixing radically different schools together without giving the “customers” (us parents) the information we need to make such an important decision. ” Here’s why.

Is unified enrollment really “unified”?

First of all, charters will choose whether or not they want to be part of Unified Enrollment. Since the BPS Home-Based plan requires that access to schools be geographically restricted, charters will have to accept this “neighborhood” restriction in order to play. Because the law creating charters requires that they be either district-wide or regional, Unified Enrollment would require that the Massachusetts Legislature approve a “home rule” petition allowing Boston an exemption from this law. Assuming such a law could be passed (no sure thing), I would be willing to bet that some charters will say, “No, thank you. We quite like to be able to draw our students from the entire City of Boston. We don’t care to get entangled in the BPS lottery system, and limit who can apply to our school.”

So, what happens is some charters are in a Unified Enrollment system and some aren’t? Chaos. A chaos different than the current chaos, but chaos, nonetheless. For me, this could easily be more confusing for parents than the current system, where at least I know that if I want to apply for a charter school for my child, I must apply directly to that school. The only way that Unified Enrollment is truly “Unified” is if all charters decide to play, and this is not likely, at all.

Bad foundation, bad building

Home-based AssignmentBut let’s just suppose that by some near miracle, all charters decided to join the Unified Enrollment scheme. Then there would truly be one application for charters and public schools, but that system would be built on the foundation of the current Home-Based system. As part of getting this controversial system adopted, both the  BPS and Mayor Menino’s Education Advisory Committee assured the community that the new system would be carefully evaluated by some independent oversight group. This has never happened.

In the absence of any apparent assessment of how the Home-Based System is working, the parent group, QUEST, requested data on assignment results. That was 18 months ago, and no data has been forthcoming. Maybe the BPS knows very well that the new system is not working as advertised, so they prefer not to share the evidence. But no matter, it is unacceptable to talk about building a complex new system on top of a recently-implemented Home-Based plan that has never been evaluated. Let’s look at how the Home-Based system is working, and fix it, if necessary, before we build something on top of it.

Mixing apples and oranges…without telling anyone

But let’s say all charters are going to participate in the Unified Enrollment System AND the current system is working fine and makes just a fine foundation for the inclusion of charters. Even if those two unlikely things were true, there would still be many questions about Unified Enrollment. Many such questions center on the dangers of mixing very different kinds of schools in a choice “basket,” without really informing parents about those choices.

For example, a family from Hyde Park applying for the BPS would very likely have several charter schools in their “basket” of school choices. Those charters may include some of the Level One schools in their basket (schools with the highest test grades, at this point). The BPS currently does quite a poor job of communicating to parents the many differences between district schools. Parents who have the time and resources to tour multiple schools to find out the facts for themselves have a great advantage over the majority of parents who just can’t do that.

mixing fruitWill the BPS adequately communicate to our imaginary family that one of the charter schools has high test scores, but also has an incredibly strict discipline policy and suspension rates–especially for boys of color–that are off the charts? Will that family know that another Level One charter in its choice basket is poorly equipped to serve English Language Learners and, therefore, has a very small percentage of ELL students? This is only one of the many unforeseen problems that will arise as the BPS attempts to mix privately-managed charter schools with public schools in its assignment system.

A “Compact” solution?

One raising almost any question about Unified Enrollment is told that the originator of the proposal, The Boston School Compact, will take care of any bugs in the new system. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. The Boston School Compact is an unaccountable talk shop for representatives of the BPS, Boston charter schools and parochial schools. The idea was developed and is heavily funded by the Gates Foundation allegedly to promote collaboration and information exchange among different types of schools operating in Boston. Our city is one of several “Compact cities” around the country.

The Boston Compact is a private space that shares very little information with the public about what it is doing (hence, the lack of accountability). It has facilitated some interesting collaborations, but has never taken on anything even remotely as complex as Unified Enrollment. Please do not tell me that the Compact will fix whatever problems arise in this new system.

So, for me, Unified Enrollment” is deceptive advertising. But please don’t take my word for it. Attend one of the community meetings that the City (to its credit) is holding about Unified Enrollment. This could all be in the bag very quickly.

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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.

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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.

 

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Dearborn…still

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.

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Ready for the new normal?

Education is a right 2The Parent Imperfect is raising his head again after yet another long hiatus. To explain my absence, I should be hiding behind the fact Liz has faced many challenges with her own family over the past few weeks. And, oh yes, Connie continues to do way too many things as she navigates the dangerous emotional shoals of middle school. For further excuses, this is the time when Vince, as a high school senior, is meant to be preparing his applications to take the next step in the adventure that is life. But the real reason I haven’t been writing is that I’ve been quite overwhelmed than usual by the task of trying to help pull off a little gathering of academics, advocates and activists to talk about education reform.

“Rethinking Education Reform: A Human Rights Perspective,” happened this past Thursday and Friday, sponsored by the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL). It brought together a really interesting group of people to wonder together whether or the human rights framework has anything to contribute to the debate about education reform. Teachers, students, and community public education advocates spent two days focused on the issues of charter school expansion, high-stakes testing and “zero-tolerance” discipline.

JVH in actionThey had important discussions about three topics that are on the mind of anyone who’s involved in public education today. New relationships formed and old ones were strengthened. Participants wrestled with real policy options and the real challenges of advocating for those options. My only disappointment was that we didn’t find a way to get more people into the room on a rainy night in Boston to hear the Institute’s keynote speaker, Julian Vasquez Heilig. A professor of education of education at Cal State Sacramento, Heilig crossed the country to deliver a powerful talk about the ways that certain policies that started out as conservative, market-oriented education initiatives have somehow managed to cloak themselves in the language of civil rights. He pulled not one single punch, conjuring up the memories of César Chávez and Martin Luther King, among others, to help him make the point. A self-identified Generation X-Man, JVH has something to say and he is using social media and other communications tools to make sure people hear him. If you haven’t seen his blog, Cloaking Equity, check it out. We’re going to hear much more about this man in the not-too-distant future.

pepper sprayNever has a policy discussion at a law school produced such immediate results. The mere suggestion that the PHRGE Institute was going to discuss discipline in Boston charters and public schools led the BPS to announce on Wednesday that they were popping a shocking trial balloon they had recently floated. They were withdrawing their suggestion that they arm school officers and other discipline staff with pepper stray to control students during potentially violent incidents. Even more amazingly, aware that such a powerful group was bringing a human rights lens to analysis of the charter school phenomenon, Charlie Baker made his first community appearance as Governor-elect at a charter school in Springfield. Subtle messaging, huh? The PHRGE Institute also assembled an extraordinary circle of present and former teachers from Boston, Brookline, Worcester, Newton, Milton, Lawrence, Somerville, New Haven, CT and New York to discuss the issue of testing in schools. As this group worked with FairTest members and others, to design a not-so-fictitious statewide human rights campaign on testing, the Department of Education announced that it had hired an outside firm to conduct an independent analysis of whether there is too much standardized testing in the Commonwealth’s public schools. Imagine if the PHRGE Institute had gotten any publicity!

Charlie at schoolMore seriously, PHRGE decided to convene its confab at a time when big cracks are appearing in the bipartisan consensus around education policies like high-stakes testing, charter school expansion and hard-ass discipline. As if by magic, at this very moment, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (or that small percentage of people who voted)  elected a Republican governor who’s a champion of market reform in the education sector. And in case we didn’t get that message in the campaign, Charlie wasted no time naming one of the most visible ed reform advocates in the Commonwealth to head the Baker transition team. Friends, the plot is about to thicken.

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