McCormack, Leadership Academy would merge under new BPS plan

The John W. McCormack Middle School on Columbia Point. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This story first appeared on WBUR 90.9FM on May 21.

As part of an ongoing facilities overhaul, interim superintendent Laura Perille proposed a host of changes to Boston Public Schools last Tuesday. Under the changes, two schools — the McCormack Middle School and Boston Community Leadership Academy, a high school — would combine.

Additionally, the district has bought land to build on, including an elementary school in East Boston and a site for the Quincy Upper School in Chinatown, which was previously announced.

And BPS is finally fleshing out its plan to move past standalone middle schools. Perille said the district hopes to add sixth grades at 17 BPS elementary schools by 2021 and to repurpose the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown as an elementary school.

This was the change promised by BuildBPS, which Mayor Marty Walsh first unveiled in 2015 as a 10-year reshuffling of the district's physical plant.
Perille — who is preparing to hand off the reins to Brenda Cassellius, who was chosen as superintendent earlier this month — will present the following changes to the Boston School Committee on Wednesday.

1. The McCormack will combine with Boston Community Leadership Academy.

For the past several years, the McCormack — and its elementary school neighbor on Mt. Vernon Street in Columbia Point, the Dever — have made for a troubled pair.

The Dever remains in state receivership, overseen by former superintendent Michael Contompasis. And last year, state officials identified the McCormack as one of the state's lowest-performing schools, because its diverse student body isn't meeting academic expectations.

(Nearly 59 percent of the McCormack's students are Hispanic, and 39 percent are English learners. Almost all of its students fall into the state's "high needs" category.)

Last October, the district announced plans to close the McCormack outright by 2020 — only to reverse those plans after a public outcry. Now the district's plan is to start fresh on the Columbia Point site: by combining the school with the Boston Community Leadership Academy, a well-regarded high school currently in Hyde Park.

Those schools, once joined, will occupy temporary space at the Irving School in Roslindale from 2020 to 2022 while the McCormack building undergoes a full renovation. The combined schools will move to that site in fall 2022.

Perille said that because of the district's public process — and the McCormack's committed faculty — she's hopeful that the new school will serve all of its students well.

"Historically, the concern has been that if you take two low-performing schools and put them together, why would you expect different results?" Perille said. "What we're doing is putting, yes, a struggling school — but with a really strong team of educators — together with a high-performing high school."

Neema Avashia, who teaches civics at the McCormack, says she's "excited" by the news of a merger. But she's particularly glad that the district recovered from its early fumble — the surprise news of a plan to close her school, with few details sketched out — by initiating the deliberate process that ended up selecting BCLA as a partner.

"I don't think this is often how districts have functioned," Avashia said. "The idea that we were able to work to get a different resolution [after the October announcement] ... I feel really inspired by it."

She added that she hopes that other schools have an experience more like the McCormack's, and less like that of the schools at the West Roxbury Education Complex — they didn't get a chance to modify or delay their closure.

2. For hundreds of students, elementary school will run up to sixth grade — and soon.

BPS has long teased its plans to abandon standalone middle schools, meaning those running between grades 6 and 8.

Part of the logic is to minimize the number of school-to-school transitions BPS students need to make on their path to graduation. Citing research, district officials argue that those transitions can disrupt academic and social growth.

With that in mind, 17 elementary schools will expand to sixth grade. The expansion would proceed in two waves, with the intention that they will feed into a growing roster of high schools running from grade 7 to 12.

In September 2020, five schools — the Dever, the Clap and the Everett in Dorchester; and the Tynan and the Perkins in South Boston — will add a sixth grade, in part to create a "feeder pattern" into the new McCormack-BCLA school described above.

Six other schools — the Channing in Hyde Park, the Conley in Roslindale, the Hale in Roxbury, the Manning in Jamaica Plain and the Harvard-Kent in Charlestown — will also add a sixth grade in fall 2020. In fall 2021, six of the seven elementary schools in East Boston will do the same.
In the end, the move will affect more than 3,000 students currently enrolled in the 17 schools.

At public discussions last year, many parent groups clamored for a sixth grade to be added at their children's schools, in part to defer transitions.
One of those was Emily Wiemers, a Harvard-Kent parent. Wiemers and her family are planning a move to upstate New York for work, but nonetheless she's pleased that the district listened. She pointed to the awkwardness of the path from a K-5 elementary school, to middle school for a year, then into an exam school starting in seventh grade.

"That's a really hard [experience] at a time in a kid's life that's already really hard," Wiemers said. "It doesn't make sense."

Perille said Tuesday that the district did recognize widespread demand, and that the 17 candidate schools they chose had room to expand within their buildings and wouldn't disrupt feeder patterns elsewhere in the district by doing so. She added that while the changes will represent a systemic pivot away from middle schools, BPS still recognizes the particular academic and social needs of early adolescents.

"Regardless of [the schools'] structure, you need to pay particular attention to the needs of middle graders," Perille said. "But those needs can be met in a variety of settings."

3. The Edwards Middle School will be the next to go.

While there is research that suggests academic transitions are tough, Perille noted that the pivot away from middle schools was, in large part, forced upon the district.

She said that in the district's school lottery, families routinely opted for something else: "Where families have a choice they are choosing into K-8, they are choosing out into charters, but avoiding the standalone middle schools."

Alongside that disinterest, the rapid expansion of charter schools — many of which start in the middle grades — sapped enrollment from middle schools citywide. And so as the McCormack's future comes into view, the district has turned its attention to the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown.

The Edwards has shed almost half of its students since 2012. Nearly 39 percent of those who remain have learning disabilities. That's a good bit more than the district average, and more than the school enrolled just seven years ago.

So the district has proposed to phase out the school in June 2021, re-outfitting it to serve as an elementary school that offers early education starting the following fall.

Perille said that through the last year's changes, the district has arrived at a best practice of giving school communities at least two years' notice before forcing a move or closure, as they did with at the Jackson-Mann in Brighton.

That said, teachers at the Edwards feel that there's still room for the district to improve in communication. History teacher Billy Rutherford said he received letters announcing the closure to hand out in his last-period class — thirteen minutes later.

"It was abrupt, it was sudden, it was disrespectful to young people and their families," Rutherford said. "We didn't have a chance, as a staff, to discuss how best to share that news, how to field the questions that young people are gonna have."

Given the district's prior announcements about middle schools, Rutherford did anticipate that the Edwards wouldn't last long — but said he hoped educators there will have a seat at the table in managing the transition.

WBUR 90.9FM first published this story on May 21. The Reporter and WBUR have a partnership in which the two news organizations share content and resources.


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