BPS busing proposal could mean big changes for 2 JP schools

May 15, 2009
By

David Taber

A Boston Public Schools (BPS) proposal to strip Egleston Square’s Rafael Hernandez K-8 school of its citywide status, barring access for much of the city to its unique “two-way” English/Spanish program, has received a chilly reception from many.

“I am opposed to the idea because it means we would lose over 50 percent of our student body,” Hernandez School Principal Margarita Muñiz said. “Our students are doing well. They are passing the MCAS. This is a success story and [BPS] is destroying it.”

BPS also proposes to turn the Agassiz Elementary School into a K-8 school.

The proposal came last month as part of a larger transportation cost-saving plan by BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson to split the district from three into five school zones to reduce the BPS transportation budget. Currently, the school system is divided into three zones for grades K through 8. Aside from the two citywide schools, students in those grades are limited to attending schools in their zone. High school students do not receive bus service, and all city high schools would remain citywide under the plan.

If approved, the new plan would take effect for the 2010 school year. Students would have the option at that point to continue attending schools they are currently enrolled in even if they end up outside of their zones, but transportation would not be provided to those schools.

In an e-mail to the Gazette, BPS spokesperson Melissa Duggan said the changes at the Agassiz and Hernandez, along with the expansion of the Blackstone Elementary School in the South End to include middle-school grades, would correct an earlier mistake in the plan.

In the first version of the rezoning proposal, presented in February, the area proposed as zone 3, which includes JP, was short 616 middle school seats, she said.

Hernandez

Turning the Hernandez into a district school would, of course, increase access to the school for JP students. “It’s a really good thing” for JP students to have increased access to the program, “But until you can provide equal access [for other neighborhoods] it should remain citywide,” said Miriam Ortiz, executive director of the JP-based Boston Parent Organizing Network.

At a meeting with community reporters May 7, Johnson said there is a desire throughout the school system for more two-way programs, which provide instruction in all subjects half in English and half in a foreign language.

“There are three communities that have specifically talked to us about two-way,” the Latino community in East Boston, the Haitian community in Dorchester and communities in Chinatown, she said. She said parents want to see more two-language and transitional programs for English language learners across the city.

The re-zoning effort “is really about trying to significantly improve the number of quality schools in five communities, so that families believe they have a lot of high-quality choices, not just a few,” Johnson said.

But many are concerned that the zoning is coming before the choices.

“One aspect I take issue with already is that by adding more zones, which I am generally in favor of, you are restricting [school] choice,” City Councilor John Tobin told the Gazette. “Eliminating citywide status for the Hernandez and Timilty on top of that I don’t think is a good idea.”

Lorna Ochoa, a South End resident, has a 5-year-old daughter at the Hernandez. “It’s one of the schools that’s doing great,” she said. Her daughter would not be affected by the zone change, but Ochoa said she still opposes it because “There is nothing in place saying [BPS] will put bilingual schools in every district.”

Ochoa said her daughter is reading in Spanish and “doing great” in English.

According to stats provided by BPS, 178 of the 400 students enrolled at the Hernandez live within the boundaries of its proposed zone. That zone—Zone 3—stretches from the North End to the southern border of JP and includes some of Roxbury.

Another 136 hail from the proposed Zone 5, which would include parts of Mattapan, Hyde Park, Roslindale and West Roxbury.

At least some of the 75 students from Zone 4—including Dorchester, Roxbury and parts of Mattapan—would still have the option to attend the school because of “walk zone” rules giving students the option to attend any school within a mile radius of their house. Students in that zone would also have access to BPS’s only other English/Spanish program, set to begin next year with two kindergarten classes, at the Dever School in Dorchester.

Only four students from East Boston and Charlestown—proposed as Zone 1—attend the school. But Ortiz said parents expressed a lot of interest in two-way Spanish/English programming at a recent hearing on the proposed BPS changes.

“There were two rooms full of East Boston parents…They have been asking for a two-way bilingual program for years,” Ortiz said.

“There is no problem with eliminating transportation, [as programming is in line with] what parents need and want for their children,” Ortiz said.

Johnson said BPS is looking into starting similar, district-based programs in other of the proposed school zones, particularly in East Boston. But, Muñiz said, even if a new program were started in other districts in 2010—when BPS proposes to implement the new zone plan—it would take years to develop a program equivalent to the Hernandez’s.

The program has to start from the kindergarten level, she said. “This is not a program you can jump into and out of,” and students lose their natural language learning facility as they grow older.

That means getting a new full K-8 program started would be a painstaking process, she said, and in the meantime students would lose access to the Hernandez program, one that is “well run, and well thought of…a proven success for its students,” she said.

According to BPS projections, the system would save between $2.2 million and $2.9 million in transportation costs or BPS students in 2010 if the changes are implemented. BPS officials say they believe they would be able to save another $1 million by getting rid of citywide schools.

That is because BPS is required by the state to provide equivalent transportation for non-BPS students who attend private, parochial and charter schools in the city. School officials believe that eliminating citywide schools would relieve them of having to offer citywide transportation for students not enrolled in BPS schools. They are still awaiting a legal opinion from the state on the matter, and even then might face a lawsuit from non-BPS parents over the decision, Johnson said.

Those changes, along with other proposed improvements to BPS transportation systems—including things like consolidating bus yards and installing computerized routing systems—would save the schools between $8.5 million and $10.4 million a year, according to BPS predictions.

Tobin and Ortiz also expressed frustration that, while the Timilty and Hernandez would be turned into district schools, students at the city-run exam schools Boston Latin and Boston Latin Academy will still be provided transportation citywide, and that transportation might be expanded under a separate plan to expand the schools, which currently teach grades 7-12 , to include sixth grade.

“You can’t eliminate [citywide status] for the Timilty and Hernandez and think you can do it at the exam schools,” Tobin said.

“For me it just says over again what this is for. It’s not for working class families in Boston,” Ortiz said. Two of BPS’s three exam schools—Boston Latin and Boston Latin Academy—are the only schools in the system that do not receive federal Title I funding—funding dedicated to schools serving low-income populations.

In a Gazette interview, BPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar said the exam schools—where enrollment is based on test scores—are “fundamentally different” from other schools in the system. “Kids compete all over the city of Boston, and if you have a high enough score you are able to attend,” whereas attendance at other citywide schools is based on a lottery system, he said.

Like all BPS high school students, those attending exam schools are eligible for T passes, but do not receive bus service.

Agassiz

The proposed changes also include converting the Agassiz Elementary School at 20 Child St. from a K-6 to a K-8 school.

Johnson said that parents generally prefer K-8 schools to separate elementary and middle schools, and that students at the schools are “outperforming” students who attend traditional middle schools.

Research indicates that for “academic achievement relative to test scores, the fewer moves the better,” because both students and parents develop a sense of belonging at a school, Johnson said.

The Curley School in JP was recently became a K-8.

The Agassiz is one of many schools in the BPS system identified as an underperforming Commonwealth Priority School by the state, but Johnson said BPS is working to turn those schools around. It is making significant investments in early literacy, additional professional development, and English language learner and special education programming, she said.

Agassiz principal Maria Cordon did not return Gazette calls for this article.

Busing

Tobin told the Gazette he is hopeful that in the course of the public conversation about school transportation, the BPS will offer some insight into its plans for 2014, when the school system’s contract with busing company First student is up for renegotiation.

Are they planning to re-up with the company? What about dividing up the bus contract for smaller locally based companies within the zones?”

That is how the city bids out snow plowing contracts, Tobin said, and it might be cheaper than using the national company.

Duggan told the Gazette BPS is required to re-bid its busing contract when it expires. As 2014 approaches, BPS will form a “contract committee to look at preparing/changing the next version of the transportation contract,” she said in an e-mail.

Best of JP 2014