Friday, December 17, 2010

After School Closings, Still More Hurdles

With 5,600 vacant seats in the Boston Public Schools, there must be room for saving money on buildings and, possibly, transportation. If the money can be used for longer school days and incentives for more effective teaching (which would have their price in a new teachers' contract), then there’s all the more reason to consolidate.

That’s the case for closings made by most of Boston’s public officials and business leaders, and even by advocates for students. The argument has been made for at least three years.

But, instead of consolidating in phases and spreading out disruption, the School Committee voted this week to close nine buildings and merge another eight schools. That’s the largest single downsizing in the Boston Public Schools since the early 1980’s, a time of economic recession after newly approved limits on the city’s property tax and a drop in enrollment with the start of desegregation.

Over the weeks leading up to the vote on this year’s round of closings, school officials have emphasized the big picture. Repeatedly they brought up the expected savings on facilities—$10 million—and the coming year’s expected budget faces a shortfall—as much as $63 million. And they kept saying that money saved could at least make surviving schools with empty seats more attractive.

“Many of those empty seats are in high-quality schools,” School Committee Chair Rev. Gregory Groover told BNN News, “so if we can relocate some of those children to those high-quality schools, you’re talking about hundreds of more students, if not thousands of more students who will have access to better schools.”

One reason officials backed off from earlier attempts to consolidate schools and transportation was that the remaining options increased educational inequality in a way that was hard to miss on a map. Under one plan to increase the number of school zones from three to five, many families in the poorest neighborhoods would have faced a disproportionately high probability of being stuck with an under-performing school.

So, instead of just leaving access to sub-standard schools more randomized, the goal is to bring more schools up to standard, even with more options among charter schools.

But, as in the 1980’s, many people most directly affected by closings view them as a new uncertainty, and possibly a step backward. At a series of hearings before the consolidation was approved this week, parents and students spoke about what they valued in the schools being closed, and they combined personal narrative with statistics.

At a hearing in November, before more schools were added to the consolidation plan, Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman turned his back on the School Committee and told a hall mostly filled with parents and students, “The schools chosen are not under-performing schools, and not in any way dysfunctional schools.”

This week, the day before the vote, in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Thomas Menino weighed in and put the emphasis on the big picture: “Will we as a city have the courage to stop doing things that limit students’ achievement, so we can grow the strategies that accelerate it?”

The day after the vote, the mayor pointed out that the closings are only the start of a longer process. Along with providing space in other buildings, school officials are faced with the challenges of redesigning the assignment process, improving performance at more locations, and finding the right programs and teachers for English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

At a hearing last month, the assistant superintendent for English language learners, Dr. Eileen de los Reyes, said the aim would be to “move the strength” of the special programs. “We are hoping to move the faculty with the students,” she said.

But, as the West Roxbury Patch reports, plans for English language learners affected by the closing of the Agassiz Elementary School in Jamaica Plain are being questioned by parents of students at one destination school in West Roxbury, the Patrick Lyndon.

Another school being closed, the Emerson in Roxbury, has the only structured immersion class for Cape Verdean students. And one opponent warned that splitting up students in the language program would also interfere with daily routines of going to school in groups. “You’re breaking up not only the programs,” she said, “but the families.”

Some of the mergers in the plan involve high schools sharing the same buildings in South Boston and West Roxbury. Though officials say mergers will add strength overall, the chief academic officer, Irvin Scott, denied the change would mean the expansion of one school and the total disappearance of the other.

“The goal,” said Scott, “is to take what’s great in both schools and replicate it.”

With the new combinations yet to be defined, some students from high schools being merged in West Roxbury left class this week to protest in downtown Boston. They talked about being faced with changes in curriculum and possible conflicts with a different mix of classmates.

The mergers of subdivided high schools also signal disillusionment with what once seemed a promising concept—that smaller, more tight-knit schools, would improve student performance. Though some of the innovative schools, such as Excel High School in South Boston—have been hailed as improvements over the standard district high schools, the assistant superintendent for research, assessment and evaluation, Kamalkant Chavda, said that, overall, they showed “no significant” academic improvement.

If nothing else is changed, a smaller number of schools would create more demand for student transportation. That means savings will have to come from other measures. One possibility is to have some middle school students take MBTA buses with discount passes. Another would be to let fewer students within a walk zone have the option of a bus ride.

Demand for busing will also be affected by any redrawing of zones, and the resulting changes in the number of options for school assignments. If there were enough improvement at enough schools, it would be possible to increase the number of zones without increasing inequality of options. And Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar said last month the five zones proposed a couple of years ago are “not enough.” In the best possible outcome, there could even be more families satisfied with a school’s performance and a convenient location in their neighborhood—qualities valued by many of the parents who spoke out against school closings.

But, getting to that outcome will involve difficulties, including some posed by the expansion of charter schools. Along with contributing to a shift of state money away from district public schools, charters have an advantage in transportation. Currently their students are entitled to busing anywhere in the city, and this is paid for by the Boston School Dept. Even with the current assignment plan, busing is only provided within a zone—for students in the BPS and Catholic schools.

Though school officials say the consolidation will stop short of exceeding student-to-teacher ratios in each classroom, some fear there will be more classes where the influx will hurt performance. And, after the vote, Stutman even questioned the determination of Boston officials to stem the exodus of potential new students to charter schools.

By speaking to the Chamber of Commerce instead of parents at the School committee, Mayor Menino chose a setting that was almost certainly less confrontational. And he used the occasion to bring up one other challenge to educational improvement—the rising cost of health care for teachers and other city employees.

As the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel Tyler, points out, the budget for the Boston School Dept., minus the amount for insurance coverage, is getting smaller. Menino and the Bureau favor a change of state law that would let the city impose a less costly form of coverage without having to get separate agreements from all collective bargaining units—something allowed to the state since 1955.

It stands to reason that give-backs for unions would go over well with business executives, but that has so far been little match for the reluctance of the state legislature and Governor Patrick, or even the Boston City Council, to dramatically increase leverage over health plans for local communities.

Given the media exposure for Menino’s speech, it could be said he was trying to rally a broader public. This could include many people with less generous coverage, and maybe fewer options for educating their children. And, judging by The Boston Globe’s account of new population trends, the audience could even include actual or potential “New Bostonians” whose pursuit of good schools prompts them to move out or avoid the city altogether.