Critics press Johnson on schools plan
October 30, 2008

By Nate Leskovic
Special to the Reporter

Critics are chipping away at sections of Superintendent Carol Johnson's "Pathways to Excellence" plan this week. A proposal to reserve more seats in schools for those who live nearby is being labeled discriminatory and school communities have continued to rally against proposed closings.

As part of her plan to trim the budget and increase achievement, Superintendent Carol Johnson has called for bumping the percentage of seats in schools reserved for those within walking distance from 50 to 60 percent, effectively reducing choice for other students, according to City Councillor Chuck Turner.

Turner said Boston Public Schools has not shown him the ratio of students to available seats in each neighborhood of the city. He suspects there are fewer spaces available in neighborhoods with more people of color, such as Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.

"You're lessening the opportunity of parents to find seats in another zone," said Turner. "Isn't that, on its face, discriminatory to those neighborhoods that don't have (as many schools) and preferential treatment for those that do? If students can request transfers from underperforming schools, but you're lowering the opportunities for certain neighborhoods, it seems that the policy is a direct contradiction to state educational policy."

It was a similar situation that led to the lawsuit and subsequent busing decision in 1974, said Turner.

"Decisions were being made that negatively impacted students of color while not impacting white students in the same way," he said.

Johnson called the criticism "troubling" at a City Council hearing last week.

"(The comments) suggest that what I've laid out here is going back to a period of history that doesn't reflect what I feel I've invested in the academic program that's before you," she said.

Johnson was scheduled to present her plan to the School Committee last night, after the Reporter went to print. She is expected to announce changes to the original program, which has also stirred controversy with plans to close or several schools including the Stone and Shaw elementary schools, the Noonan Business Academy and the Academy of Public Service (APS). The School Committee is set to vote on the plan, which Johnson estimates will save $13.8 million over five years, on Nov. 5.

Councilor Charles Yancey questioned the impact of the expected savings, comparing it to the more than $2 billion city budget.

"We're really looking at an infinitesimal sum of money in the broad picture," he said.

The walk zone change itself would not immediately save funds, according to BPS spokesman Chris Horan, but would lower transportation costs over time as school enrollment shifts with each incoming class.

The walk zone proposal is "vehemently" opposed by the Boston Parent Organizing Network (BPON), according to Interim Director Holly Lockwood, who said parents should be able to pick a school that is best for their children.

"We're seeing this as an issue which, on the surface, appears to limit school choice for parents," she said. "It looks like it has a disproportionate burden."

Horan said the walk zone proposal is not based on financial considerations alone.

"I think we're hearing from more parents who have interest in having access to schools closer to their home so it's easier to be involved," he said. "The superintendent is also interested in kids spending less time on buses. They could be involved in after-school activities instead."

Turner said he wants more detailed information from the department about the rationale for each proposal and the educational strategies of the plan, including how it intends to boost achievement in underperforming schools. He is especially concerned that closing the Noonan and APS and moving students into new buildings could influence some to drop out.

"I think people are generally supportive, but want more information," he said about the program, adding much of the apprehension surrounding the walk zone proposal is based only on a belief it would impact some neighborhoods more than others.

"You have to assume assumptions are correct if you ask for data and you don't get it," he said. "If the department wants to go forward with a policy that is discriminatory because it saves money then I'm afraid we're heading back to court. I feel we have a responsibility to continue to fight for equal opportunity for students of color."

"Get the data or have the courage to take it off the table for a couple months," said BPON's Lockwood.

At a public meeting held at the Pauline A. Shaw school on Tuesday evening, the children's colorful signs adorning the fence in front remained despite the wind and rain. Likewise, the community there remained persistent in battling the scheduled closure of the school.

"The look of the school is not necessarily impressive," said parent Marion Tinsley. But once inside, you realize how passionate the teachers are. They are educators who truly care about the community … Honestly, I just haven't felt that from an educational environment in a long time."

Supporters met with the superintendent on Tuesday to plead their case and deliver a petition with more than 600 signatures, despite the likelihood their struggle may be futile.

"The truth of the matter is that the school is going to close," said Rep. Willie Mae Allen, who attended the meeting along with other civic leaders including councilors Yancey and Sam Yoon. Hinting at a possible change in her plan, Johnson suggested moving the entire school into the Mildred Avenue Middle School, instead of merging Shaw students into the larger Mattahunt Elementary School. She said the idea had yet to be discussed with the Mildred and Ellison/Parks Early Education School communities, which had requested and were expecting to merge into a K-8 school next year. Moving the Shaw would delay the Mildred-Ellison/Parks merger.

The superintendent explained the closing is part of a larger strategy to increase achievement and the graduation rate in a system with a steadily declining enrollment. She said around 60 percent graduate from high school in four years.

"Seventy-five percent of parents chose BPS," said Johnson. "We want 90 percent."

Shaw parents were apprehensive about moving into the Mildred and were concerned its older students, attachment to the community center and proximity to Norfolk Park would impact the safety of their young children.

"Are we going to wait until something bad happens?" asked parent Elton Bocage, PTO chair.

"You say 'No Child Left Behind,' but I fear my child might get left behind. Being in a big school is not for her," said parent Karen Morson.

Johnson stressed if the Shaw is transplanted, parents would still be able to choose a different school on their choice cards.

"But they'll know the teachers at Mildred," she said. "It won't feel as big as if they were going on their own to a new school."


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