‘Too Costly’

March 2, 2007
By

LOU MANCINELLI

BPS does not support Young Achievers/Urban Edge current plan

FOREST HILLS—Boston Public Schools (BPS) does not support the Young Achievers School and Urban Edge’s wish to acquire and develop the 3-acre St. Andrew’s church complex near the school on Patten Street, that is now being marketed for sale by the Archdiocese.

“It’s hard to justify putting money into redevelopment when there are other buildings that could be used,” said Leslie Delaney Hawkins, Jamaica Plain coordinator for the Mayor’s office, at a Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council meeting Feb. 27 at Curtis Hall, “but the book is not closed on Young Achiever’s expansion.”

On Wednesday, after the Gazette contacted BPS spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo, Palumbo sent the Gazette a letter written by BPS Superintendent Michael Contompasis. The letter, dated Feb. 6, prior to the group’s first community meeting on Feb. 12, was addressed to Young Achievers School Principal Virginia Chalmers and Urban Edge Executive Director Mossik Hacobian.

“Unfortunately, the significant cost implications of a major facilities expansion cannot be justified in an environment where BPS enrollment is in decline and when the district may be required to re-purpose some of its existing school buildings in the near future,” wrote Contompasis.

In the letter, Contompasis said the BPS “recognizes the tremendous success of the Young Achievers program.” He also said his decision came after being fully briefed about the Young Achievers/Urban Edge partnership and talking with experts in the area of facilities and development, including staff from the Mayor’s Office.

“I would still be amenable to further exploring and potentially considering a radically scaled back proposal that has been put forth by the City of Boston’s Public Construction Management department,” said Contompasis. The City’s proposal focuses on acquiring the kindergarten building at St. Andrew’s directly across the street from Young Achievers, and renovating the space to create two classrooms and potentially some administrative space.

In an interview with the Gazette, Don Gillis of the Friends of Young Achievers, said when the school and Urban Edge received the letter a few weeks ago, the group continued to move forward because based on their initial review, they did not believe the City’s proposal solved the school’s problem.

“It’s not simply just about expansion,” said Gillis. “It’s also about development. We are trying to prevent attrition. We are trying to keep kids from leaving because the school’s facilities are not up to par.”

Gillis said a key element to development would be new facilities more conducive to learning then the current conditions at Young Achievers. “It’s the school department’s responsibility to provide good conditions,” he said.

Young Achievers, located on Walk Hill Street, teamed with local non-profit Community Development Corporation Urban Edge earlier this year to devise a plan to purchase and develop the St. Andrew’s property. The property includes the church, which closed in 2000; the adjacent school that closed in 2005; a rectory; a convent; a small kindergarten building; and a parking lot.

Young Achievers is experiencing success as a citywide math and science pilot school. As a result, the school has an increased demand. School officials as well as parents say expansion is necessary to meet the growing needs of the school.

In an interview with the Gazette, Chalmers said she is aware BPS is challenged by several different variables right now, including finances.

According to Chalmers, all parties have agreed the school needs to expand. “No specific options have been presented, but we have to solve the problem of our space needs,” said Chalmers. “We’re not closing the door on any options at this point.”

Chalmers said she understands BPS caution. “I think BPS wants a solution that will serve all constituencies,” she said.

“We’ve been working for two years, and this is the strategy we have come up with,” said Gillis. “If [BPS] has a strategy to solve the problem, we’ll work with them. We’ll work with them any way possible… But [BPS] has not done that.”

Gillis said a survey taken at the Feb. 12 community meeting hosted by Young Achievers and Urban Edge, revealed that 97.6 percent of those attending supported the school staying and expanding in the community.

“Sometimes from the BPS you get bureaucratic mumbo jumbo,” he said. “Already I think the school has been a positive influence on the community.”

Gillis said the goal is to keep children in BPS and families in the city. He said he thinks the plans are a good example of a creative strategy to this end.

Preliminary plans call for Young Achievers to use the current buildings in the St. Andrew’s complex for expansion, as well as to develop mixed-income housing.

“We’re going to keep looking at creative solutions for solving the problem of the over-crowded school,” said Gillis. “We’re hoping after we get a better sense from the community [of what they want] at the meeting March 1, we can make some changes and meet with the school department and continue to explore solutions.”

A second community meeting was held last night at Young Achievers after the Gazette went to press.