Johnson adjusts plan, gives new role to Lee Academy

Mayor Thomas Menino’s schools chief tweaked her plans to close several schools this week as parents opposed to the proposals took their case to the School Committee.

Instead of completely merging the Lee Academy Pilot School and Lee Elementary School, which share the same building on Talbot Ave., as she originally proposed, Superintendent Carol Johnson suggested that Lee Academy, currently a school serving students from kindergarten through grade 5, handle early care and kindergarten, while Lee Elementary would take on grades 1 through 5.

The revised plan still includes the closing of Dorchester’s Clap Elementary and the East Zone Early Learning Center. School committee members, who are expected to vote on a final proposal next Wednesday, heard Tuesday night from hundreds of parents who had packed the auditorium of English High School in Jamaica Plain.

Parents say the communities served by the schools were left out of the decisions to shutter them, and say school officials unconvincingly vacillate between reasons, from saying the schools were underperforming to citing a school system plagued by budget constraints.

Ann M. Walsh, a Lee Academy parent and co-chair of the parent council, called Johnson’s revised plan a “non-starter. You’re splitting families now,” she said. “Parents signed up for [kindergarten] to grade 5.”
Jonathan Ablett, another Lee Academy parent, told the school committee that “misleading” data was being employed in order to merge the schools, which he said would generate “no real budget savings.” School officials overstated the cost savings by $800,000, or 63 percent, he said.

“This plan is a mess and deserves a big ‘no,’” he told the seven-member school committee, which is appointed by the mayor.

“Everybody feels like what happened with the library and community centers happened here,” said incoming state Rep. Russell Holmes, in reference to similar moves by the city to shutter branch libraries and communities that drew community outcry and accusations of few conversations with residents before making the decisions.

Founded in 2004, Lee Academy has 266 students and a research-based focus on early education and care. It serves Codman Square, Franklin Field, Ashmont, and Lower Mills in Dorchester, and Mattapan.

Parents say the test scores at their schools are not as bad as the school department makes them out to be, with Lee Academy parents saying their students’ third grade MCAS performance was among the most improved in the district, and there have been two straight years of improvement.

Clap Elementary parents made similar arguments. “You take one lousy test score and they shut the door on you,” said Colleen Somers, who has two children at Clap Elementary, which serves 166 students across seven grades.

City Councillor At-Large John Connolly, the chair of the council’s Education Committee, called Johnson’s original plan “vague” and said he was still reviewing the tweaks to her proposal. He said the school department must be more thorough and spell out whether the decisions to shutter the schools are based on budget capacity or performance.

“The motivation seems to change depending on the weather, the particular moment, the particular question,” he said. “It doesn’t seem right to close schools without a clear plan to reinvest and a clear rationale for why a school should close. I don’t think the case has been made for the Lee or the Clap.”
State Rep. Marty Walsh, who has constituents who are parents at the Clap, said he was “very impressed” at the turnout of parents at English High. “I’m hoping they look at it and find middle ground here,” he said of the school committee.

Holmes, whose district includes parts of Hyde Park and Mattapan, said he was heartened by Johnson’s decision to keep open Hyde Park’s Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH). “I want to find solutions like the ones at CASH,” he said.

Rayna Hamilton was among the parents and staffers who turned out in support of keeping open the East Zone Early Learning Center. She has a five-year-old, Raven, who goes to school there. “She has excelled so much at that school,” Hamilton said. “I feel like she’s teaching me. There’s nothing wrong with that school.”