THE DREAM UNFOLDS: DIVERSITY IN DOT TODAY: In public schools, key is on closing 'achievement gap'

In a Faneuil Hall speech given on Martin Luther King Day last month, Governor Deval Patrick lamented a development that threatens to nullify Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that spurred integration measures in America's school systems. Two lawsuits aimed at pulling the teeth out of the landmark precedent, one in Seattle and one in Lexington, KY, have reached the highest court.

"The United States Supreme Court is on the brink of rationalizing justice right out of the law," said Patrick, calling the possibility a "giant lurch back in its long struggle for equal opportunity."

But in Dorchester, part of a district that is 86 percent people of color, integration is rarely a direct focus of parent activism. Desegregation initiatives are all but history after another court case forced the School Committee to stop using race as criteria for admissions to the city's exam schools. Instead, the rallying cries more often heard are aimed at improving individual schools and closing the achievement gap.

"At the time Judge Garrity made his decision, the school district was two separate systems," said interim superintendent Michael Contompasis, sitting down after a long Saturday morning discussing the gap with around 300 parents and educators at Freedom House in Grove Hall neighborhood. "Thirty-two years later, the school system is whole. But, there is a need to make certain the quality issue is equalized across the entire system."

Overshadowing school-to-school and student-to-student disparities for a moment was the superintendent crisis.

Other initiatives include increasing the number of Family & Community Outreach Coordinators (FCOCs) in schools that have dysfunctional or non-existent parent councils, applying lessons learned from pilot and charter schools to district schools and expanding early learning programs across the city. Menino even mentioned a new idea called playgroups, which will bring two and three-year-old children in with their parents simply to play together. The hope is to create relationships between parents and the schools and socialize the children.

FCOCs

Increasing the number of FCOCs is a move supported by the Boston Parent Organizing Network and other grassroots groups. The position is generally added to schools with greater low-income populations to help stimulate parental involvement. But they have not always been effective in bringing councils together again, according to some parents.

"There is a feeling that it's us against them," Asia Khan said of the John Marshall School her 6-year-old daughter Jahnell attends. "The parents don't feel that they can be involved. It's serious for me, because it's my child. [The principal] has a FCOC, but they haven't done a parent council meeting this [school] year. They haven't done any outreach."

The FCOC at the Marshall school couldn't be reached for this article.

Pilots and Charters

At the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School on Columbia Road, there are a number of innovative techniques that district schools could draw from. In particular, the school goes farther towards including special needs children in the general population. This is important in BPS, which serves a much higher percentage of special needs kids than most districts in the state. This, and the higher number of English language learners are said to have large impacts on MCAS test scores and other barometers of success.

In Zarinaha Russell's 7th grade English class, students choose who has to use the next vocabulary word in a sentence by tossing a green cushy ball. Correct answers get applause and false ones receive challenges - in the form of several hands shooting in the air for the chance to correct it. When a child with special needs struggles through an answer, the class seems to celebrate even more fervently.

"In this school we have 650 programs because we have 650 children," said principal Debra Socia in an interview. "There is no right way to educate a child."

The Frederick is still struggling with MCAS scores, three years after opening its doors. Math scores are critically low and English results are down from last year, but the high number of after-school programs and resources coming into the school are promising. Because of the school's inclusive policy, special needs parents are choosing it more often. The special needs population has grown from 22 to 28 percent of all students in three years, and MCAS does not compensate for such disparities.

The school is also bucking trends in funding for the neighborhood. Although the school is 98 percent students of color and urban, its new, bright and airy facility would easily fit in a wealthy suburban setting. And next year, every child in the school will be assigned a MacBook lap top computer while another program is aimed at getting a desktop in each of their homes.

Socia acknowledged that a significant amount of the school's funding is coming from outside sources, including grants, partnerships with businesses and other sources.

Charter schools have also produced innovative programs worth learning from, but they are also controversial. They often score better on MCAS tests and other indicators, but they accept disproportionately small numbers of special needs students. Many educators often blame them for siphoning out funds from district schools for this reason.

Pre-K and other initiatives

Early education and other programs in the district schools, such as ensuring all students have access to advanced-level math classes and developing the cultural competency of educators, will take time, said Contompasis. Funding in the district is dependent on the city, state and federal governments, and it's limited.

"We desperately need to find those initiatives that make a difference," said Contompasis. And to really make change, it's going to take more money. Early education for instance, is run entirely on city money. He's hopeful that having a democrat in the statehouse will have an impact. "It may not be the first year, but hopefully eventually," he said.

"Certainly when you look at big urban districts that are overwhelmingly non-white it's difficult to think about what might change," said Frankenberg on the subject of how to improve BPS. "Thinking about how we can find some way to voluntarily combine districts. How can we get whites to reinvest in both Boston and BPS because certainly there are a lot of white parents living in Boston that don't send their children to BPS."

According to Caprice Taylor-Mendez, director of BPON, part of closing the achievement gap is re-attracting students and parents who have had the money to send their children elsewhere.

Meanwhile, not everyone is quite so worked up about it all.

"I think it's a good school," said Jahnell Khan, age 6, shyly smiling on her mothers arm while parents raged and educators reasoned at the Freedom House. She attends the Marshall School. "I have a good teacher and she teaches me good things. Not that much though, because I really know a lot already."

Dr. Manuel Rivera, credited with transforming Rochester, NY's schools and chosen as Boston's new superintendent, last week backed out of the new job to work in NY Governor Eliot Spitzer's administration. Saturday's meeting in Grove Hall was to be his first public appearance in Boston.

"I haven't gotten a phone call from the gentleman yet," said Mayor Thomas Menino of Rivera. "It's not me, it's the city. It's respect for the city of Boston."

Some worried that Rivera's turnaround, and subsequent reporting by the daily press of pressure he may have received from school committee chair Elizabeth Reilinger, was an indicator of an intractable system.

"There's a shallow pool of real cutting-edge visionary change candidates," said former city councilor Bruce Bolling, who attended the gap meeting as a Boston Public Schools parent. "That person is going to have to have the flexibility and latitude to manage the school system as he or she sees fit. That caliber of candidate is not going to come into a situation where they're going to be micro-managed."

If precedent is any indicator, a new superintendent will be chosen five or more months from now. When they arrive, closing the achievement gap in an increasingly segregated school system will be his or her priority, if Dorchester parents have anything to do with it.

A steadily shrinking population of white students in BPS, lost mostly to the suburbs, has gone from 35 percent in 1980, to under 14 percent in 2006. The 1995 McLaughlin lawsuit, that challenged the use of race as criteria for admission into Boston's Latin School and won later that decade, ended the last vestiges of a system of "controlled choice" that managed to create some classroom diversity within BPS at the magnet and exam schools.

Since then, the exam schools have become less representative of the district. Dorchester's Boston Latin Academy is now 36 percent white and 21 percent Asian, versus the district's 13 percent white and 8.5 percent Asian. The tendency of white and Asian kids to aggregate even in particular district schools occurs in elementary, middle and high schools, leaving dozens of other schools with populations approaching 99 percent people of color. Segregation exists, but it often isn't acknowledged.

"Race doesn't concern me because he's coming home to a black family," said Tasha Harris after a break-out session at the Freedom House meeting. She's thinking of her 4-year-old son who is about to enter the school system. "I'm screening schools now and I'm terrified," she said.

When Harris was a teenager, she said she attended public schools in Lexington as part of the METCO program. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity is a voluntary program that crosses district lines into the suburbs. Another US Supreme Court case, Bradley v. Milliken, 1974, prevents such a cross-district program from being implemented on a large scale. This barrier has led to a few district mergers in other parts of the US. Studies have shown powerful life-long benefits for graduates of METCO.

"It's too far and it's too white," said Harris about the possibility of putting her own child on the lengthy METCO waiting list. She noted that suburban schools often lacked economic diversity. "I think I would have been alright here. But, there's always a payoff versus a trade-off."

Harris has narrowed her son's choices down to the Edward Everett, Richard J. Murphy and Patrick O'Hearn elementary schools. The three score better than the neighborhood average on MCAS, and all of them happen to be more integrated than the district as a whole, far more integrated than other choices in Dorchester. The Murphy is 32 percent white, 23 percent Asian and only 34 percent African-American.

Of the 18 Dorchester schools offering kindergarten through fifth grade classes, 11 enroll over 96 percent people of color. Of those 11, five are declining in their 2006 English MCAS scores and only two are termed "moderate" by the test. The rest are classified as "low" or "very low" in math and English. Some are receiving "corrective action" and at least one, the William Monroe Trotter, has been under restructuring.

Erica Frankenberg, a researcher at the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, wouldn't be surprised by Harris's choices, but she might believe they have something to do with race.

"Integrated schools provide an opportunity for students of all races, both white and non-white, to learn valuable skills that their going to need in a very diverse country and world," said Frankenberg in a phone interview. "For minority students it also it is really important in ensuring that they have the same kind of resources that white students traditionally do, because there has been so much research documenting how minority schools on average tend to have fewer resources. Teachers don't stay at those schools as long, there are a number of different things that really contribute to an unequal educational experience."

Another indicator of the achievement gap is far simpler to understand. Black and Latino males have crisis-level dropout rates in BPS. Eleven percent of black males and 9 percent of Latino males dropout annually, compared to 7.3 percent of white males in the system.

As many problems as there are, there seem to be even more ideas offered up as solutions.

Contompasis presented his own laundry list of initiatives that BPS will be tackling in the coming year. The most drastic of which, if all goes his way, will put him or his replacement directly in charge of chronically underperforming schools.

"We are negotiating with the BTU [Boston Teacher's Union] for around 10 superintendent schools. These are schools that have difficulty in turning themselves around," said Contompasis. "They're going to be held to a higher level of accountability."

Contompasis would not reveal which schools were on his short list, and how flexible the union is on the subject can only be learned with time.