New plan closes fewer schools

Supporters of some Boston Public Schools that may be closed received a reprieve last week as the superintendent backed down from a number of facets in her "Pathways to Excellence" plan to reorganize amidst passionate objections from parents, staff and civic leaders. The School Committee was set to vote on the plan Wednesday night, after the Reporter went to print.

Under Superintendent Carol Johnson's new recommendations, delivered at the previous Wednesday's School Committee meeting, the Pauline A. Shaw and Lucy Stone elementary schools will vacate their buildings but move as one into facilities with other schools until students graduate to higher grades. Originally the students were to be reassigned based on parents choice.

The Noonan Business Academy and the Academy of Public Service (APS), also set to close under the program, will instead merge into one school and remain at the Dorchester Educational Complex.

Johnson also dropped her controversial pitch to up the percentage of seats in schools reserved for children living in the 'walk zone' from 50 to 60 percent to save on transportation, which some had labeled discriminatory for families wanting to choose schools in other neighborhoods.

The superintendent's new recommendations came after nearly 20 meetings with school communities and a City Council hearing. Her plan aims to trim the budget and increase achievement in a system with declining enrollment and underutilized schools.

Despite Johnson's revisions, City Councilor Chuck Turner - a leading critic of the walk zone proposal - called for postponing the Nov. 5 School Committee vote until she provides data about the program's impact on different neighborhoods.

"Residents of Greater Roxbury have witnessed the closing of over 70 schools in the last 30 years," wrote Turner in a letter sent to Johnson on Sunday. "These changes have left us with the feeling that our children are viewed as pieces on a chess board rather than human beings … Given the fact that children of Greater Roxbury don't have enough seats to go to school in their neighborhoods and that other neighborhoods are working to limit our access, we are very suspicious of any change and want to be able to clearly understand the impact of any changes, particularly where we are going to see our children again losing seats."

Turner requested information on the number of seats compared to the number of schoolchildren by neighborhood and zone, before and after the proposed changes; the availability of different programs throughout the city; as well as the number of buildings vacated by neighborhood and zone.

"Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan do not need another scalpel or knife," said parent Carol Walker at last week's committee meeting. "We need to have the schools that exist there. There are few enough. Bus someone else out of their zone, send others somewhere else. Leave our schools alone."

Along with Johnson's changes, BPS Chief Financial Officer John McDonough delivered a revised set of expected cost savings at the meeting. Originally expected to save $2.5 million in the first year of the plan and $13.8 over five years, McDonough said the numbers now total $3.1 million in year one and a $27 million five-year savings.

Johnson said she was impressed with the Noonan and APS opposition to their scheduled elimination and that the schools should be allowed to continue their progress. She said APS's debate team and opportunities in public service, as well as Noonan's academic and business partnerships were highlights.

It was not clear how the two schools would combine. Johnson said instead of expanding Tech Boston in the old Dorchester High as proposed, grade 6-8 students could move into the closing Woodrow Wilson Middle School.

After the Shaw community rejected merging into the Mattahunt Elementary School, Johnson postponed plans to move the Ellison/Parks Early Education School into the Mildred Avenue Middle School to make room for Shaw students to create a K-8 school.

The new recommendations also push back a planned K-8 expansion of the Oliver W. Holmes Elementary School, allowing the Stone school to share the space and remain together.

Other schools set for changes did not escape the axe. Supporters of Wilson Middle School spoke against its closing.

"It would not be in the best interest of the students to disrupt the program," said parent Helen Johnson, who praised the school's special education program. "It should stay together as a whole. It has provided a safe, positive nurturing environment."

If the plan is approved by the School Committee, the Quincy E. Dickerman Elementary School would also merge into the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School to create a new K-8 building.

The East Zone Early Learning Center, located on Columbia Road in the food services facility, would not relocate to the vacated Dickerman as proposed. The move was rejected by the school community.