Tag Archives: Racism

Destroy WREC/Build BPS?

The Parent Imperfect is having a hard time focusing on anything else. Maybe writing something here will help me deal with the anger and frustration I feel about the upcoming meeting of the Boston School Committee. At that meeting, Committee Chair, Michael Loconto will run a zipped-up lawyerly kind of meeting at which he and his colleagues (several of them sporting long faces to show that they hate to do it) will vote on the proposed closing of West Roxbury High and Urban Science Academy. Unless you and I get to the Mayor in the meantime, the School Committee will approve the Mayor’s proposal (dutifully delivered by the BPS) and two school communities will get the ax. The editorial myopes at the Boston Globe will probably have an editorial ready, extolling the Magnificent Seven (now six, with the timely resignation of Dr. Miren Uriarte) for their courageous decision. To make an omelette, you have to break some eggs, right?

If you believe that the BPS should be able to find some alternative to closing these schools, call, Marty Walsh, the man who can shift this thing in a hot minute. Tell him you oppose the closings of Westie High and Urban Science Academy, and you vote! You have no one to hold accountable, but him. If you have time, make a couple of other calls, too. Maybe this will help:

Mayor Marty Walsh, 617-635-4500, mayor@boston.gov , @marty_walsh

Interim BPS Supt., Laura Perille, 617-635-9050, superintendent@bostonpublicschools.org , @lperille

School Committee Chair, Michael Loconto, 617-635-9014, mloconto@bostonpublicschools.org , @mtloconto

City Council Ed Chair, 617-635-4376, Annissa Essaibi-George, a.e.george@boston.gov, @AnnissaforBos

By now, people know the arguments. I’m not convinced, but let’s take it for granted that the building, one of the newest in the system, is bad and should not be housing students. Okay, but who approved building a school complex on a wetland right down the hill from a capped landfill in West Roxbury? Maybe that was a tenth grader at Urban Science Academy. Who fiddled while it was obvious that water damage was seriously undermining the building structure? Must have been that Spanish teacher at Westie High. Who approved and then carried out tens of millions of dollars in repairs that never addressed the problem? I bet it was the parent featured on WBUR, talking about what the autism program at Westie High has meant to his son. I am willing to bet that corruption and political favors were present at every turn, and I hope some investigative journalist will tell the story. For now, the important point is that none of the students, parents or teachers now involved with either of the schools bear responsibility for this tale of woe, but the Boston School Committee is about to impose all of the costs of the affair on exactly those students, parents and teachers.

The Boston Public Schools is made up of 125 school communities, administered out of the Bolling Building and knit together by a shared mission to provide high-quality education to all children in Boston. My children have been part of four of those school communities, so I know well that every one of them has its strengths and its weaknesses, and these weaknesses lead to practices that can do serious damage to some of the kids entrusted to those communities by their parents. But one of my most challenging realizations as a parent in the BPS is that even our most “troubled” schools (and I don’t mean the ones whose children don’t do as well as some others on standardized tests) play critical roles in the lives of many of the families involved in them. Most importantly, closing down a school community and scattering its students to the wind leaves too many struggling students and their families in even worse situations.

University of Chicago researcher, Eve Ewing, recently published a study of the impact of the mass school closings inflicted on the Chicago Public Schools just a few years ago Ghosts in the Schoolyard should be required reading for anyone involved with Build BPS. The message is that school closings aren’t an administrative thing: They destroy connections among people for whom those connections are very important. In unequal systems, school closing tend to worsen inequities. A teacher from the McCormack Middle School, another school threatened with closing in the Build BPS scheme, distributed copies of Ghosts in the Schoolyard to the Interim BPS Superintendent and all members of the School Committee.  I wonder if they’ve read the book.

The closing of a school building need not mean the dismantling of the school community. As I write this, Boston Arts Academy is being housed in a temporary space while a state-of-the-art new arts facility is being created for it across the street from Fenway Park. Students at the Dearborn School in Roxbury were temporarily relocated to space in the Burke High School while the old Dearborn building was razed and a new STEM academy rose in its place. Neither of these situations was ideal, but the temporary relocation to “swing” space was seen as much preferable to the dispersion of the school community. Where there is a will, there is a way.

In presenting the plan to close the schools at the West Roxbury Educational Complex (WREC) to a community meeting in Roslindale, Interim BPS Superintendent, Laura Perille, insisted that the District had looked into all available options for relocating one or both of the schools, but that there was simply no appropriate BPS space into which to relocate the schools. Questioned about whether the District had considered using non-BPS space as swing space, she answered that all reasonable options had been considered. Sorry, Laura, but I just don’t buy it. I am to believe that, in a city like Boston, with tax-exempt universities occupying such a large part of the land mass, there is no place to which 200-300 students could be relocated for a transition period? The Mayor currently has his people scouring the City and calling in favors to find an alternative space for Roxbury Prep that will defuse the conflict over 361 Belgrade. Surely, those same fixers could turn up a swing space for these two schools…if only two public schools mattered as much as a charter. Those people vote: The Mayor listens.

And so, I will sit there as Mr. Loconto, Esq. wrings a vote out of his School Committee colleagues. But first, there will be time for community people to scream into the darkness during the abbreviated public comment period, and scream people will. If only the members sitting before them had any sense of accountability to anyone other than the man from Dorchester. And then, of course, the obligatory round of pre-vote apologies from the other committee members, saying how much they value the voice of the community they are about to gash. Each time I go to one of these meetings, I am more ready to face the obvious risks of an elected school committee. I was not a BPS parent in the 1970s, but I was here to behold John Kerrigan and Pixie P.

As I sit there, I’ll be thinking about the recent talk by Chicago activist, Jitu Brown, to the Winter Assembly of the Massachusetts Educational Justice Alliance (MEJA). “School closings and the disappearance of affordable housing have been at the center of a strategy to remove displace people of color from cities all over this country,” Brown told an audience of fired up teachers, students and parents. Then he talked about the tactic of “taking over” meetings of Chicago’s appointed School Committee, when it became clear that they just weren’t going to listen to community people. Will Build BPS bring us to that same point? Something has got to give…





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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Build BPS

“America to me,” and you

The Parent Imperfect had many excuses not to do it, but, last Thursday night I went to the Boston Public Library for a showing of Episode 4 of the America to me series now showing on Starz. The series is a kind of cinema verité documentary about racial dynamics in a high school in Oak Park, IL. Calling it “Reality TV” would cheapen it way too much, but the series takes a deep dive into the reality of this particular school. Why would over 250 people (including a good number of people whom I recognized as busy parents) show up at the library on a Thursday night to see a TV show? Because this is not just another TV show, and somebody did a great job of putting the event together and promoting it, that’s why. The event was part of a nationwide tour to promote the use of the film in communities. The key partner here in Boston was The Boston School Finder (BSF), a new web tool that describes itself as a tool to help Boston parents find a good school for their children. If you’re wondering why the producers of this tour chose an app as a Boston partner, welcome to 2018. When the tour director explained to the audience how it all happened, she recounted that her primary contact in Boston told her that she needed to speak to BSF’s Executive Director, Latoya Gayle. The rest is history. It also seemed like City Year was somehow in the mix, as they had a table at the entrance and dozens of fresh City Year recruits were in attendance. The organizers of the national tour clearly provided some resources and professional help to make this event happen, but Ms. Gayle and her BSF team also deserve a lot of credit for pulling off an impressive event. There was a reception beforehand at the Lenox Hotel, with free food and soft drinks (for the alcohol, you paid), which I’m sure didn’t hurt the turnout. Somehow I don’t think that the Lenox threw that party for free. The Rabb Lecture Hall at BPL is a great place to see a film. After taking some time to get the capacity crowd into their seats, Ms. Gayle introduced the show by emphasizing the importance of all children getting a quality education, and suggesting that we need to evaluate our political leaders based on whether or not they are serious about delivering on that equity promise. That was a great message and a good intro to the film. America to me follows several students and their families through a year in the life of Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF). All the publicity says that the school is in Chicago, but it is actually in Oak Park, IL, a relatively prosperous, close-in suburb of Chicago. Oak Park is known as a diverse, politically progressive community. It seemed more like Cambridge than any part of Boston, and the women sitting in front of me (who were from Cambridge) agreed. The school resembled what I know of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school in that city. If Episode 4 is any indication, Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and many other films, and his crew did a great job on this series. After struggling with the school administration to get access to OPRF, they managed to find some very compelling young people to give life to this story. The parents of those students also play important roles. In essence, the message is, “Even in this very progressive, well-resourced public school, young people of color and their families face some very daunting challenges. Those challenges are rooted in both the culture of the school, and in the implicit and explicit biases of members of the school community, even those who consider themselves to be very aware of racial issues.” Most of the hundreds of hours of filming was done in the school or at the home of students, but the cameras do follow one young man trick-or-treating with his little brother on Halloween and another as he accompanies the school marching band on a long-awaited trip to a Disney facility (much to the dismay of his wrestling coach). The young people emerge as complicated characters, rather than the cardboard figures that we get in some documentaries. The viewer sees their pain and frustration, as well as many moments of joy and happiness. One student can’t perform in an important improv competition because he received a three-day out-of-school suspension for, in his words, “walking while black.” Another young woman who seems particularly affected by the academic pressures at the school is not chosen for a poetry slam team that seems like the most important thing in the world to her. A male student who does make the slam team recites a poem on camera that bares his intensely felt emotions about his missing father. That poem left both the student audience at the school and the BPL audience in stunned silence. This is the same youth who was bantering with a barber ten minutes earlier about how he wanted his hair cut. In a particularly excruciating scene, a white teacher who fashions himself as highly aware when it comes to racial issues, sits down with two students of color (one of them the aforementioned poet) to ask how he, the teacher, is doing in class. The resulting conversation summarizes the message of the film in a way that no narration ever could. I’d love to know how the man experiences seeing himself in this film. After the lights went on, there was a panel discussion moderated by Meghan Irons of the Boston Globe. She’s done some great writing on education and many other issues in Boston, and was a perfect moderator. The panel featured the director of Episode 4 and Boston education leaders, but the highlight was the presence of one of the young men from Oak Park who appears in this episode (the wrestler who opted to go on the Disney trip with the band). It was great to hear his perspective on the issues addressed in the film. America to me is not the definitive film on racism in the U.S. today, nor does it capture the challenges facing public education in urban areas without the resources of an Oak Park, IL. Episode 4 was, however, a very engaging telling of the an important story happening at one quite unusual high school in one equally unusual community. It offers a special invitation to people who think they have overcome their/our racism to take a moment to question that assumption. The show must have had an effect on me, as I signed up to have showings of future episodes at my house. The producers are organizing these “watch groups” to generate discussion around the series. I won’t be able to screen them all, but I will do a couple of showings. If you’re in Boston and interested in joining a group to check out an episode, comment here or contact me some other way, and I’ll let you know when I’ll be doing showings. If you get Starz, or are up for the On Demand fee, you can also watch America to me, in the comfort of your own home. I recommend it.


Filed under In the Community

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.



Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

The land of disparities

City yearYesterday, the Parent Imperfect joined a standing-room-only crowd of over 200 people at City Year, that temple of youth development in Boston’s South End. I saw lots of Boston Public Schools parents there, including one of the authors of the report, whose middle-school daughter was sitting in the corner of the auditorium, reading a book for the whole time. The daughter was amazingly patient (can I purchase a couple of bottles of this patience?) and Mom was very aware of her daughter, even as she tried to wield the stage hook against long-winded speakers.

The occasion these little dramas was the launch of a report about how Black and Latino male students fare in the Boston Public Schools. This report was a little different than many such efforts in that the BPS commissioned the work, participated in the study design and signed off on its findings. The Center for Collaborative Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform did the research. Speakers mentioned the Barr Foundation about 20 times, so I assume the foundation provided much of the dough for what must have been (and continues to be) a very expensive piece of work.

Privilege and prejudiceFor over an hour, slide after slide drove home the point that everyone in the room came in taking for granted: Structural barriers to achievement lead to very different outcomes in the BPS for Black and Latino males, on the one hand, and Caucasian and Asian boys, on the other. I would call these barriers, “institutional racism,” but, given the prominence of big institutions in the process, the study was politic enough not to use such incendiary terms. “Structural barriers to achievement” seems so much more neutral and, therefore, appropriate for polite company. I guess it’s OK to allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about such terms.

Overly polite or not, this study makes its point with more detail and more nuance than I have ever seen it made, at least in Boston. Rather than just talking about this statistic for “Black” kids and that one for “Latino” kids, the study uncovers the diversity behind such words by exploring, for example, at the differences in achievement between African-American males, born in the U.S., and Afro-Latinos from the Caribbean.  “Whites” and “Asians” weren’t described with this same sensitivity to diversity, but I can live with that, given the point of this study.

All of this made for a more interesting (and lengthy) presentation, but the bottom line is still the bottom line. Girls do better than boys in the system, across all groups. Within the boys, Black and Latino boys face particular barriers to achievement. Among Black and Latino males, Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners face double or triple barriers.

The lack of economic analysis in the study disappointed me. The authors clearly wanted to keep the focus on the impact of race and ethnicity, but even a couple of slides acknowledging that children living in poverty make up a large part of the student body of the BPS and that social class also influences educational outcomes would have helped. I’m not sure we can understand how race impacts outcomes in the BPS without at least a nod to the way race is tangled up with social class in U.S. cities, but that’s a much longer thing.

METCOI also wonder if we can understand outcomes in the BPS without also including analysis of trends in enrollment and outcomes in charter schools, the METCO program and the region’s private schools. I don’t have data, but I am aware that significant numbers of high-achieving students, including more than a few Latino and Black males students that I know, have departed the BPS for these alternatives (and no small percentage of them come tumbling back into the district later). The growth of these alternative forms of educating our children is gradually changing the composition of the BPS student body and, the nature of the challenges faced by the district. But not even the Barr Foundation could pay for that sort of analysis. These things are on my mind, but they don’t take away from what is a really important piece of research by these people.

The best part of the study is that it takes the bold extra step of naming some of the causes of the problem, and then suggesting ways that we, as a community, might change this situation. It’s here that the tracking that is so central to the BPS experience gets a hard time. For these analysts, something about the way BPS has constructed and implemented Advanced Work Classes and the famous Boston exam schools make those two programs, as currently configured, an important part of the problem. Few of the study’s recommendations deal with AWC and the exam schools (two recommendations, I think), but those are two of the recommendations that are going to get the most attention. The “Village,” the community list-serve at the nation’s oldest public school immediately lit up with both indignation that anyone would dare question the current paths of access to the school, and indignation at that indignation.
Come togetherThe Annenberg Institute at Brown University can tell us just how bad the racial and ethnic disparities are in our schools. The Institute might even be able to tell us what we need to do to narrow those disparities, but it can’t tell us how we can come together to make it all happen. This coming together behind a different vision has always been the challenge and the glossy report handed out yesterday (pea-green and purple, for some reason) isn’t going to help us do that. Political leadership could help make that happen. We’ll see. For the most part, how to come together is something for those us–students, parents, teachers, school administrators alongside political and other community  leaders–who live and learn in the land of disparities to figure out.


Filed under Boston Public Schools