Changes seen likely for city schools plan

Students board a school bus outside the Pauline A. Shaw Elementary School, one of several that would close under a plan devised by BPS superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson this fall. Photo by Pete Stidman.

Superintendent Carol Johnson's budget-trimming plan to reorganize, close, and consolidate schools may not be the final word for schools facing the axe.

Students, parents and staff from the Noonan Business Academy, the Academy of Public Service (APS), the Lucy Stone Elementary School and the Quincy E. Dickerman Elementary School argued against the closure of their schools last week during meetings Johnson scheduled at each school to hear feedback on her "Pathways to Excellence" plan.

The forums made waves and at least one possible change - Johnson proposed moving the Stone Elementary School into the nearby Oliver W. Holmes Elementary School, as opposed to expanding the Holmes into a K-8 school.

School committee chair Elizabeth Reilinger also announced a decision to postpone a scheduled Oct. 29 vote on the plan - which also aims to boost student achievement - in order to collect more information and gather more public input. Instead of a vote, Johnson will make another presentation.

Reilinger said she expects a decision at the committee's Nov. 5 meeting and is confident the delay will not impact the timeline for choosing schools for next year.

"We want to be able to know and communicate more clearly, to any school being affected, what the implementations are," she said. "We really needed another week to make a thoughtful and smart decision."

Both Johnson and Reilinger said the reshuffling plans could change before the vote and broad strategic goals for the system could be considered separately. Many of the changes proposed would go into effect next school year.

Supporters of the four schools had similar arguments against closure, including parents and teachers from the Dickerman - which is proposed to merge with the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Most argue that the strong communities each school has developed are worth preserving and students would suffer if they were destroyed.

Chris Horan, BPS communications director, said Johnson is particularly considering the Noonan Business Academy and Academy of Public Service community outcry against closure.

The reorganization plan aims to cut costs by reducing the number of under-enrolled schools, while boosting student achievement through expanding the number of students in popular K-8 schools and introducing programs aimed at raising the graduation rate, improving test scores, and enriching students through art and music.

Another aspect of the plan increases the spaces reserved in schools for students within walking distance from 50 percent to 60 percent. Johnson acknowledged some see the change as potentially increasing segregation, but argues the move is necessary to reduce transportation costs.

Overall, Johnson hopes to save $13.8 million.

Dorchester Education Complex

According to Johnson, changes were based on a combination of enrollment, test scores, popularity and building condition. Last winter, just 13 students picked Noonan as their first choice shool and 11 picked APS, making them the two least popular high schools in the city. By comparison, 180 chose TechBoston Academy, which shares the old Dorchester High School building with them. Noonan backers argue many of its students live in the neighborhood and don't turn in a choice.

According to the plan, TechBoston would expand into the space left by the Noonan and APS to become a 6-12 school.

Noonan's test scores and graduation rate are influenced by the wide range of students who attend, according to Jack Leonard, headmaster of Noonan from its inception in 2003 until last spring. One of the reasons the school is designated in need of corrective action is due to the large enrollment of students with Down syndrome or on the autism spectrum, as well as others in the school's Learning/Adaptive Behavior Cluster program.

Some of the state's assessments have been appealed and Leonard argues that though scores don't improve overall every year, they are in general heading in a positive direction with fewer failures.

"We welcome them," said Leonard about the special needs students. "We like them. It's incredibly unnerving to see the program dismantled without the recognition of the service it provides. These are the kids that are easily overlooked. My fear is that we just scatter them."

When Noonan was launched in the then problem-plagued Dorchester High, Leonard said there was an overnight change in the climate.

"We came out of a high school with a lot of fire alarms, unacceptable violence, a high dropout rate," he said. "Fights are now so rare, they are an embarrassment to the kids."

By methodically choosing teachers, adding academic programs like Upward Bound and Urban Scholars, and partnering with MIT and Harvard as well TJX and Sovereign Bank, Noonan turned around according to Leonard. Students began taking college classes and AP courses.

"We noticed, more and more, kids were talking about their GPA and wanting SAT prep," he said. "What perplexes me is they're so ready to launch new schools when I know how long it takes to get a good school up and running."

"I love this school," said Makem Finklea, one of several students at last week's meeting wearing Noonan t-shirts in solidarity. "When I go to sleep I can't wait to wake up. I'll do detention just to stay after school."

APS supporters are involved in a similar campaign to preserve their school, in which they prepare for careers in government and nonprofit organizations. The reorganization could also affect the Dorchester Bears sports teams that have been rebuilding and becoming a source of pride.

It has not been determined how students would be redistributed if Noonan and APS close. Johnson has previously said they would not be guaranteed admission to TechBoston, but may be given priority in their choices.

The Stone and Holmes Schools

Parents and staff at the Lucy Stone Elementary School have also stepped up against the closure of their school and their concerns have led the administration to propose a compromise for keeping the community intact.

At a meeting this week at the Holmes, Mary Nash, BPS academic superintendent, told parents and staff it was possible the Stone could be transplanted into the empty classrooms in their building. Under the original plan, the Holmes was scheduled to expand into a K-8 school.

At a packed meeting last Saturday at the Stone, speaker after speaker touted the prosperity of their small school and worried about the students moving to new buildings. One student broke down into tears.

"There's something about this school that's special," said teacher Lydia Coppin. "You can't see it unless you come in."

Johnson was unspecific about why the Stone was chosen, but said there were too many small schools in the system (26 with under 200 students) while others have empty seats. The Stone has less than 150 students.

She stressed that high operations spending limits academic spending.

"If I keep these schools open, they don't generate enough revenue," she said, adding that under-capacity schools cost as much to run as a full school.

In response, Stone supporters said its size is what makes it what special.

"It's a small school where the teachers don't call, they do," said parent Carolyn Lomax.

Moving the Stone could delay the Holmes' proposed expansion. The proposal was a shock to Holmes school parents, who attended the meeting expecting to discuss the K-8 plans.

"I think having the other kids here is a great idea, but what about the kids who want to stay here for middle school who won't be able to?" asked parent Merlisia Cardinal.

Nash said the new plan would likely put off expansion for a few years until the bulk of Stone students move on to grade six, freeing up classrooms.

Only six families chose the Stone as their first choice and the school has had trouble with MCAS, acknowledged by supporters in an info sheet passed out at the meeting. Johnson did not respond directly to a question about the influence test scores had on the decision to close the Stone school.

MCAS numbers do show improvement this year.

"It's not just about MCAS, it's about getting them prepared for middle school," said teacher Yolanda McCollum.

Josephy Odom, who is leading a group of parents against the potential closure, said all the hard work that went into creating the Stone community should not be lost.

"It's made little minds blossom into real people with imaginations and the responsibility to work hard," he said. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Dickerman/King merger

Under the reorganization plan, the Quincy E. Dickerman elementary school is slated to merge into the Martin Luther King Jr. middle school to form a new K-8 school. The King school is currently under renovation and set to open in time for next school year.

The move would allow the East Zone Early Learning Center, currently housed at the food services facility on Columbia Road, to use the Dickerman.

At a meeting last Saturday afternoon, parents of Dickerman students were apprehensive about moving their younger children into a building with middle-school students. Johnson and King school staff attempted to ease concerns.

Parent Wayne Ashley compared his experiences at the Dickerman with other less-friendly schools and said he is worried the attention his children receive could be lost.

"I don't think you can train or teach the staff what they do," he said. "The teachers here are much more than teachers. They are social workers. They are therapists."

Johnson's plan consolidates various schools and expands others to increase the number of K-8 schools. She said the K-8 model is highly requested because it reduces transitions between schools and makes logistics easier for parents of multiple children in different grades. Combining age groups often has a positive effect on the older students, according to Johnson, who begin to see themselves as role models and are more apt to control their behavior.

Dickerman parents expressed concern with the King's consistent MCAS troubles - the school is currently in the second year of restructuring - while the Dickerman shows progress. In addition, less than 10 choice cards were turned in with King at the top.

A number of King school staff members were present at the meeting to defend their students against what they felt were unfair accusations.

"Kids are kids and they're knuckleheads," said physical education teacher Michael Bertoni. "But I don't want to hear that they're bad kids."

"I have never been more proud than to step into the King School and know the intellectual capacity of the students," said principal Ruby Ababio-Fernandez.

Jessica Bolt, Dickerman principal, is optimistic about the consolidation.

"It's two schools with different personalities of staff and students," she said. "But as long as parents know we've all sat down together … we're going to make it work."


Coming up

Individual school meetings continue this week with a meeting at the Shaw Elementary School on Morton Street tonight, 6 p.m. (banners defending the school have been seen on the fence in front of the school this week), and a meeting for the merger of the Ellison Parks Early Education School and the Mildred Avenue Middle School (where some parents are concerned about downsizing pre-kindergarten classes) will be held on Saturday, 10 a.m., at the Mildred.

A meeting for the Young Achievers K-8 School was held after the Reporter went to press.