Menino signals a shift in school models, zones

When the Jeremiah Burke High School reopens in Grove Hall, students will come back to more than renovated classrooms. In addition to a new gym, there will be a new branch library and a new community center all in one setting.

The executive director of Project RIGHT in Grove Hall, Jorge Martinez, says he remembers when supporters of the library were nervous about giving up a safe haven on Crawford Street. More than a year after the groundbreaking for the $42 million project, says Martinez, the library's friends group is enlisting members to share a new safe haven with students.

Martinez calls the arrangement a "support network" that will provide students with "wrap-around services."

It's also a change in the map of education, where the pursuit of quality and equity has often taken students outside their neighborhoods or outside the city.

"Adults need structure, but children even more so," says Martinez. "If you provide the structure, plug in wonderful people who can be teachers, who can be mentors, you reach that equity piece pretty quick."

In the State of the City address last week at the Strand Theatre, Mayor Thomas Menino referred to the same combination of services as "Community Learning."

"Imagine if these facilities, their programming, and their personnel were all aligned, so that curriculum and after-school programming could be seamlessly delivered from morning to evening," said Menino. "Imagine if your children had not just a teacher or two to push their progress, but a whole network of caring adults in a series of sites throughout your neighborhood."

Combining schools with community centers in Boston goes back at least as far as the 1970s. More recent are some of the widely accepted ideas of what is needed for quality education: longer school days, after-school programs run by public agencies or community-based non-profits, and stronger ties between schools and their students' families. The innovations have also been reinforced by results from some of Boston's charter schools, pilot schools, and district schools with extra time for learning.

Also changing is the use of the word "integration." In the 1970s, the word usually meant relocation, whether through busing, or moving to a more affluent community. A long-time activist and Dean Emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work, Hubie Jones, has been trying to close the gap between schools and human services since the 1980s. For him, "integration" means alignment between classroom learning and other kinds of help, whether social services or after-school tutoring.

"Everything we know," says Jones, "tells us kids who are at risk -- who've been traumatized - they and their parents have to have very good support services if they're going to take advantage of the education that's offered to them."

Jones acknowledges this kind of integration "would make more sense if it was in your neighborhood." And, in the same address last Tuesday, Mayor Menino spoke about exploring ways to at least slow down the rising cost of student transportation. He said that cost will increase by 50 percent in the next five years.

"I guarantee you," said the mayor, "that we absolutely will continue to provide choice, but I believe that we can rethink our school assignment zones, continue providing children in every neighborhood with access to high-performing schools, and save up to ten million dollars of transportation costs."

The mayor also called for rethinking student transportation four years ago. After a series of neighborhood forums, there were, aside from the creation of more schools for grades K through eight, only minor changes in the assignment process. In his speech last week, Menino said Boston now has more high-performing schools, and he called for more programs to attract high-performing students. But some members of the City Council question whether Boston has enough options for quality to allow for a significant savings on busing.

In recent years, new options have sprung up in areas where many public school students live - in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. But the state currently ranks 95 of Boston's 145 district schools as needing improvement, corrective action, or restructuring. And the chair of the Council's Education Committee, Chuck Turner, says the mayor should have been more explicit in calling for changes that would avoid a racial gap in access to quality schools.

"Yes, I want to see a plan that moves forward, that saves us money, that fits in with what we're trying to do," Turner said in a interview on Neighborhood Network News. "But that plan has to be fair for all."

More receptive to the mayor's remarks was a long-time supporter of walk-to schools, Council President Maureen Feeney.

"We must, at all costs, maintain choice for our parents and ensure that all of our schools meet the highest standards of quality education," said Feeney, in a statement released by her office. "But having schools and children rooted in the same neighborhood contributes to the overall vitality of the community and enhances the overall educational experience."

Councilor at-Large Michael Flaherty says, under the current process, many students are assigned by lottery and forced to commute within a school zone for as much as three hours a day.

"Thousands of parents are not getting their choice," said Flaherty. "And, technically, that may involve building more schools."

Jones says Boston has a chance to get more funding for "Community Learning" from the state and federal government, as well as foundations. "The question is," he added, "is the capacity there in terms of money and personnel."

In his address, Mayor Menino promised the "Community Learning" endeavor would get $1 million this year from the city. A senior project director with Mass. Advocates for Children, John Mudd, says, given the amount of money so far, and the number of options for quality schools, it's too soon for that many dramatic changes in student transportation.

One million dollars, said Mudd, said "could create some small models, but it's not going to get wholesale change."