Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Road to Choice Through Community Learning?

When the Jeremiah Burke High School reopens in Grove Hall, students will come back to more than renovated classrooms. In addition to a new gym, there will be a new branch library, and a new community center, all in one setting.

The executive director of Project RIGHT in Grove Hall, Jorge Martinez, says he remembers when supporters of the library were nervous about giving up a safe haven on Crawford Street. More than a year after the groundbreaking for the $42 million project, says Martinez, the library’s friends group is enlisting members to share a new safe haven with students.

Martinez calls the arrangement a “support network” that will provide students with “wrap-around services.” It’s also a change in the map of education, where the pursuit of quality and equity has often taken students outside their neighborhoods or outside the city.

“Adults need structure, but children even more so,” says Martinez. “If you provide the structure, plug in wonderful people who can be teachers, who can be mentors, you reach that equity piece pretty quick.”

In the State of the City address last week at the Strand Theatre, Mayor Thomas Menino referred to the same combination of services as “Community Learning.”

“Imagine if these facilities, their programming, and their personnel were all aligned, so that curriculum and after-school programming could be seamlessly delivered from morning to evening,” said Menino. “Imagine if your children had not just a teacher or two to push their progress, but a whole network of caring adults in a series of sites throughout your neighborhood.”

Combining schools with community centers in Boston goes back at least as far as the 1970s. More recent are some of the widely accepted ideas of what’s needed for quality education: longer school days, after-school programs run by public agencies or community-based non-profits, and stronger ties between schools and their students’ families. The innovations have also been reinforced by results from some of Boston’s charter schools, pilot schools, and district schools with extra time for learning.

Also changing is the use of the word “integration.” In the 1970s, the word usually meant relocation, whether through busing, or moving to a more affluent community. A long-time activist and Dean Emeritus of the Boston University School of Social Work, Hubie Jones, has been trying to close the gap between schools and human services since the 1980s. For him, “integration” means alignment between classroom learning and other kinds of help, whether social services or after-school tutoring.

“Everything we know,” says Jones, “tells us kids who are at risk--who’ve been traumatized--they and their parents have to have very good support services if they’re going to take advantage of the education that’s offered to them.”

Jones acknowledges this kind of integration “would make more sense if it was in your neighborhood.” And, in the same address last Tuesday, Mayor Menino spoke about exploring ways to at least slow down the rising cost of student transportation. He said that cost will increase by 50% in the next five years.

“I guarantee you,” said the mayor, “that we absolutely will continue to provide choice, but I believe that we can rethink our school assignment zones, continue providing children in every neighborhood with access to high-performing schools, and save up to ten million dollars of transportation costs.”

The mayor also called for rethinking student transportation four years ago. After a series of neighborhood forums, there were, aside from creation of more schools for grades K through eight, only minor changes in the assignment process. In his speech last week, Menino said Boston now has more high-performing schools, and he called for more programs to attract high-performing students. But some members of the City Council question whether Boston has enough options for quality to allow for a significant savings on busing.

In recent years, new options have sprung up in areas where many public school students live--in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. But the state currently ranks 95 of Boston’s 145 district schools as needing improvement, corrective action, or restructuring. And the chair of the Council’s Education Committee, Chuck Turner, says the mayor should have been more explicit in calling for changes that would avoid a racial gap in access to quality schools.

“Yes, I want to see a plan that moves forward, that saves us money, that fits in with what we’re trying to do,” Turner said in a interview on Neighborhood Network News. “But that plan has to be fair for all.”

More receptive to the mayor’s remarks was a long-time supporter of walk-to schools, Council President Maureen Feeney.

“We must, at all costs, maintain choice for our parents and ensure that all of our schools meet the highest standards of quality education,” said Feeney, in a statement released by her office. “But having schools and children rooted in the same neighborhood contributes to the overall vitality of the community and enhances the overall educational experience.”

Councilor at-large Michael Flaherty says, under the current process, many students are assigned by lottery and forced to commute within a school zone for as much as three hours a day.

“Thousands of parents are not getting their choice,” said Flaherty. “And, technically, that may involve building more schools.”

Jones says Boston has a chance to get more funding for “Community Learning” from the state and federal government, as well as foundations. “The question is,” he added, “is the capacity there in terms of money and personnel.”

In his address, Mayor Menino promised the “Community Learning” endeavor would get $1 million this year from the city. A senior project director with Mass. Advocates for Children, John Mudd, says, given the amount of money so far, and the number of options for quality schools, it’s too soon for that many dramatic changes in student transportation.

One million dollars, said Mudd, said “could create some small models, but it’s not going to get wholesale change.”

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rocky Ride Ahead for City Leaders

Boston City Councilors began 2008 last Monday with memories of Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, Weepin’ Willie Robinson, and the most anemic local election in several years.

In her inaugural address, Council President Maureen Feeney brought up the low turnout last November as one reason for having a citywide forum of community groups. The forum would take place in April, at the Mass. Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston.

“It is incumbent upon this body to do our part to increase our citizens’ civic engagement,” said Feeney, in an address beginning her second term as Council president.

Feeney said she wanted the forum to “start a conversation about the city’s civic health and vitality.” Along with providing training and support for activists, she said, she wants an event that “raises people’s expectations and understanding of their government.”

If her idea had some logic, the timing was less than ideal, coming midway between high turnout competitions for President in Iowa and New Hampshire. Mayor Thomas Menino has greeted the idea of the forum with skepticism, though not without trying to influence the agenda. Right after Feeney’s address, Menino said there should be talk about the city’s need for new revenue and the obstacles to local option taxes posed by the State House.

“I think it’s a very gloomy future,” said Menino, “when it comes to revenue for our city.”

What the mayor did not say was that the forum would fail to stir interest. With a large presidential turnout expected in November, even a modest springtime surge in civic engagement is hard to rule out. But so is a voter backlash in the fall, especially if a high turnout in Massachusetts also gets a chance to vote on abolishing the state income tax.

The past year brought about some improvements in public safety and the Boston Public Schools, and the improvements came with higher spending. Both areas continue to have serious problems (starting with gun violence and the dropout rate), and no elected official denies the need for even more improvement.

But city and state officials also warn that meeting expectations this year will become more difficult. To begin with, the United States is all but certain to experience a recession. While worse in some other parts of the country, the subprime mortgage meltdown has taken a severe toll on parts of Boston, with prices down from peak levels in some neighborhoods by as much as 31% for single-family homes and 9% for condominiums. Even if the figures reflect more volatility than value, they’re certainly cause for worry.

Any decrease in state revenue will affect cities and towns when it comes to local aid and money for education, not to mention the state’s new health program. And, as the Boston Municipal Research Bureau warns, declining enrollment in the Boston Public Schools will result in less money from the federal government’s Title I reading program.

It remains to be seen whether the campaign to abolish the state income tax will be on the ballot, let alone prevail. But this year’s campaign has already met its first signature goal. When the measure was on the ballot in 2002, abolition received 45% of the vote, despite a campaign with a low budget and low profile.

There’s no question that the result of abolishing the income tax--cutting the state budget by 39%--will, in different quarters, meet with either fervent opposition or fervent support. The task for leaders on either side of the question is to win over the many other people with mixed feelings: people who know they get something of value from the public sector, but who are also financially stretched and sometimes infuriated by certain spending decisions. Rather than embrace or reject a fully developed tax policy, many of these voters in the middle will simply send a message.

It was during the presidential election year of 1980 when voters approved the limits on local property taxes in Proposition 2½. This was the same election in which Massachusetts favored Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. This year, the unpopular incumbent happens to be a Republican, but he’s not on the ballot. If this year’s economic downturn somehow stops short of a recession, it will hardly be much better than the mix of stagnation and higher prices in 1980. And even if most of the recent growth in the tax burden (especially as a percentage of income) is from the property tax, that hardly takes the income tax off the hook.

If voters do abolish the income tax, the changes in the short term will be more dramatic, since Proposition 2½ only put the brakes on tax growth. State legislators and Governor Patrick could always fill some gaps by introducing or increasing other levies, though it’s much too early to say what these would mean for revenue amounts or distribution of the tax burden.

Another lesson from 1980 is that voters who send messages react to messages from elected officials. Two years earlier, Governor Michael Dukakis had campaigned for re-election with a growing budget surplus, part of which he used to increase local aid. None of that increase went into lower property taxes for people in Boston, and Dukakis lost the Democratic primary to Ed King (who supported the forerunner of Proposition 2½, California's Propositon 13). Intended as such or not, there was a message from Dukakis and Boston Mayor Kevin White. White won his fourth straight term in 1979, but when it came time to vote on Proposition 2½, some of its supporters in Boston included public employees and civically engaged people who depended on government programs they really valued.

After Proposition 2½, there were cutbacks, whether measured in MBTA service (partially funded by cities and towns) or in the closing of schools, police stations, and firehouses. There were layoffs and plenty of acrimony. More than a quarter of a century later, it’s possible to say some of the cutbacks were justified. Even the local budget constraints have been offset—more than Proposition 2½ opponents predicted--by periods of growth in the real estate market and the state budget. And no one’s trying to have Proposition 2½ repealed.

It’s even possible that adjusting to abolition of the state income tax will be no more difficult. If leaders—whether the elected or the civically engaged—have any doubts about that, the time to send a message has arrived.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Chalking up a New Year in Boston: 2008

Hometowners and visitors crossed paths in Boston for the annual "First Night" celebrations. These were a chance for mingling between people from different walks of life, and for crossing the line from spectator to participant. In photo, left, Henry McPherson signs in for the new year at invitation of Sidewalk Sam.
See more photos.