Pathways' plan a tough test for Johnson, system

Starting her second year as Boston School Superintendent, as Carol R. Johnson has to make headway on improvements while looking for ways to save money - all in the midst of a global economic crisis.

"It's always easy to add and difficult to subtract," she said last Wednesday night, as she presented her plan, "Pathways to Excellence," at a meeting of the Boston School Committee.

On the add side are options that are popular with parents and with champions of reform: new and expanded K-8 schools, three new innovative "pilot" schools, a new two-way bilingual program, more enrichment and science programs, and more programs for dropout prevention. There would be single gender programs for grades 6-12, a new school for immigrants needing help with English, and a new transitional school for students with severe attendance problems. There would also be expansion through grade 12 for two schools in Brighton and Dorchester serving lower grades with a more inclusive approach to special education.

On the subtract side of Johnson's recommendations are the closing of five elementary schools, Dorchester's Lucy Stone School and Mattapan's Pauline A. Shaw School among them, and some winnowing of the experiment with subdivided high schools, including changes at the complex inside the old Dorchester High School. With changes in student assignments to increase walk-to enrollment (to 60 percent of each school's enrollment by proximity, up from 50 percent), and possibly with some shorter commutes for students with learning disabilities, officials say the plan would trim costs for transportation over the next five years by $4.7 million. They say the overall savings would be $13.8 million.

When presenting the plan, Johnson called the closings "a means to an end."

"We reduce the number of seats," she said, "to redirect resources to quality programs."

"This is all driven around academic excellence, equity, and access," said School Committee President Elizabeth Reilinger. "Some of this will be phased in over time. It's not all at one time."

The closings proposals follow a period of declining enrollment, according to the school department - 7 percent over the past five years. Among the reasons given for the decline are increasing competition from charter schools and the overall decrease in the city's school-age population. Officials say the percentage of Boston children enrolled in the school system has been holding steady, but figures also show the number of Boston students enrolled in charter schools is surpassed by the number on the waiting list.

The chair of the Education Committee on the Boston City Council, Chuck Turner, says the superintendent is "between a rock and a hard place."

"What she has to do, on the one hand, is increase the attractiveness of the system as a whole to parents," said Turner, while working within a budget "at a time when resources are declining."

And Turner says the question is less about whether some schools should be closed than which ones.

"You have to persuade the public that, while closing anything is difficult," he said, "there really is a need there."

The senior project director at Mass. Advocates for Children, John Mudd, praised the plan as "extraordinary and impressive." But he says there are still questions about how a change in the use of buildings will affect teaching practices and school management. And he says more has to be known about how changes in transportation affect access to sought-after programs in limited supply, such as advanced work classes.

"How are these organizational changes going to be turned into educational changes for teachers and for children?" he asked.

The president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel Tyler, calls the superintendent's plan "a good foundation over time." But he says there have to be even more savings from changes to student assignments.

"I finally think that, in the end, the School Committee or the superintendent will be in the situation where they were last year - where they need to cut more," said Tyler.

In the previous fiscal year, school officials had to make cuts, but still needed more money, including a one-time rescue of $10 million from the city's reserves.

According to Tyler, the school system still faces rising costs for personnel, along with a possible reduction in money from the state, due to the economic slowdown. He says the School Dept. also has to develop a new central kitchen - or find a contractor - for a meals program that currently costs the city $6-8 million dollars a year.

"This isn't the end of going back and looking at how to make cuts in operation," said Tyler.

Nor was the plan the end of demands from parents. While two parents at the School Committee meeting thanked Johnson for enlarging K-8 options in West Roxbury, others called for more advanced work classes in middle schools and a two-way bilingual program closer to the Haitian-American community in Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park.

But, with a growing financial crisis around the world, Mudd says the effect on students will go beyond the school budget to the direct economic stress on famili - whether in homelessness or abuse.

"This is going to hit people pretty hard," said Mudd. "And usually the people who are most vulnerable will be hit the hardest."