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Connolly: A missed opportunity to close the gap in Boston Schools

Two transformative opportunities for the Boston Public Schools hung in the balance as students began the new school year. First, students desperately needed a longer school day and a system that kept good teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, this opportunity came and went, as the Boston Public Schools’ leadership and the Boston Teachers Union agreed to a status quo teachers contract.

City and union leaders touted the hollow accomplishment as groundbreaking school reform, but parents and teachers were left with a sense of resignation knowing that when it comes to the Boston Public Schools, help rarely comes from those in power.

With just over 56,000 students, 74 percent of whom live in poverty, our schools face a daunting achievement gap while hemorrhaging middle-class families from their ranks. It would strike many as common sense that combining a longer school day with a steadfast commitment to high quality teaching would go a long way toward closing the achievement gap and winning back those who opt out through METCO, charter schools, private and parochial schools, and of course, for sale signs.

Instead, the teachers contract failed to add a single additional minute of learning time to a school day which rates as one of the shortest in the nation. Adding insult to injury, new hiring freedoms for principals will remain limited by the annual “bumping” process in which beloved teachers lose their positions due to a lack of seniority. This is the same awful process that “bumped” the 2011 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year out of his classroom.

Having failed to seize the moment with the teachers contract, there is now a second opportunity to propel real change in the Boston Public Schools as the yearlong effort to reform Boston’s student assignment lottery enters its final phase. This second chance will come into clearer focus next week when the school department releases draft reform proposals. A final proposal should emerge in November with a school committee vote scheduled for mid-December.

The task at hand is no easier than delivering a groundbreaking teachers contract. Many view this issue as the most deeply divisive debate in Boston given the pervasive inequities across our school system and the historical link to Boston’s painful school desegregation.

There are two keys to breaking the status quo and forging a consensus around reforming school assignment. First, there is a point of agreement among parents that drives the call for reform. Quite simply, every parent agrees that every child should go to a high quality school. Thus, the school department cannot propose a student assignment reform plan that is merely redrawn lines on a map, like the 5-zone plan proposed in 2009. Instead, student assignment reform must be part of a broader quality school plan that includes hard commitments to ensure principal and teacher excellence, curriculum and programming improvements, facilities upgrades, and additional funding.

Second, if we focus on the need for every school to be a high quality school, we also will recognize that the student assignment lottery, though conceived with good intentions, undermines the very goals it seeks to accomplish by scattering some students and families across Boston while driving others out of the school system entirely. Ultimately, the lottery reinforces a system of winners and losers, removing the impetus to build quality schools citywide.

If the teachers’ contract is any indicator, the school department will retreat to the status quo by December and push the school committee to adopt a watered down student assignment plan. Such steps will once again leave city leaders touting a hollow accomplishment as groundbreaking school reform.

Boston parents must step into the debate and demand a plan focused on upgrading the quality of every school while giving children and families the option to go to school close to home. In so doing, Boston parents can give Mayor Menino and Superintendent Johnson a second chance to seize an opportunity for transformative change in the Boston Public Schools.

John R. Connolly is a Boston City Councilor At-Large and Chair of the Council’s Committee on Education.

Comments

Communities, that do not have a “Portfolio of Schools” like the Boston Public Schools, always seem to make AYP? Why? Have you ever heard of schools in Lexington and Wellesley not making AYP? No! There is a reason for this, and it not that kids in those communities are smarter, or that their teachers are “newer, better, innovative, creative, younger,” and cheaper, “Teach for America” or “Boston Teacher Residency” teachers! Unlike the Boston Public Schools, in the communities making AYP, all students attend traditional “heterogeneous” schools. Advanced students are offered Advance Placement (AP) courses, or have International Baccalaureate (IB) programs within their regular schools. These communities don’t separate and send students to separate exam, in-district charter, or “beacon of light” pilot schools!

The BPS “Portfolio of Schools” is comprised of 128 schools, 75 are traditional schools that take everyone, and the rest are “special schools” which include 3 exam schools, 21 pilot schools, 6 in-district charter schools, and 3 innovation schools. These BPS “special schools” get to cherry pick 10,000+ students, by exam or by a gate-keeping application process required to participate in a lottery for a seat! Now, segregation is when you impose the separation of a race or class of people from others or from a main body or group. That is what is happening in Boston Public Schools. Only this time, the segregation is happening to Special Education students, English Language Learners and students found “not to be the right fit” for the schools philosophy (read behavior problems). These BPS “special schools” get to return students to BPS traditional schools if “they are not the right fit!” In addition, here is a little BPS secret (tell no one), these “special schools” do not “BACKFILL” empty seats! Backfilling “would change their community,” So they do not have the revolving door found in BPS traditional schools.

The BPS sets up traditional public schools to fail. When that happens, the BPS qualifies for more federal and state money, then targets traditional schools for pilot, in-district charter, and “innovation” schools. Examples of this include, the Emerson, Clap, Gavin, the small schools at South Boston High and Hyde Park Education Complex and Madison Park. You can tell which schools are on the BPS “Office of Strategic Planning” hit list because they are saturated, inequitably, with an inordinate percentage of Special Education and English Language Learners that does not reflect the district as a whole. Look at the data from Co-Pilot, now Turnaround and spinning, English High: 35% SPED and 66% ELL- the highest percentage of ELL in a Massachusetts high school!

“The pervasive inequities across our school system” that John Connolly speaks of, are instigated by the Boston Public School system! If you took all the students from the BPS exam, in-district charter, pilot, Horace Mann, and innovations schools and salted them throughout Boston’s traditional schools, all traditional schools would be making AYP! To bring back “high quality schools” for all families, it’s time to change the law and evaluate “school districts” for making AYP, not individual schools!

These BPS “special schools” are really segregation academies paid for with Boston taxpayer dollars! These BPS segregation academies should be required to backfill any empty seats in all grades, and their schools population should reflect the demographic, especially the SPED and ELL populations, of the BPS system. They should be part of the BPS school registration process along with the traditional BPS schools, no gate-keeping applications, no special “lottery,” all BPS schools should go to ONE “showcase of schools.” These are Boston Public Schools, paid for with Boston taxpayer dollars, let ALL Boston Public School students have fair access to them!

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