Johnson: Summer better than nothing for community engagement
Two “parallel” community processes Boston Public Schools (BPS) had planned this summer to discuss revising the system’s student assignment policy and closing some schools have been consolidated into one process, BPS superintendent Carol Johnson said last week.
As the Gazette previously reported, local City Councilor John Tobin raised concerns about holding community discussions about schools in the summer, when students’ and parents’ attention will be focused elsewhere. “You may as well hold them at midnight,” he said.
But at a roundtable discussion with community newspaper reporters May 7, Johnson defended the proposed timeline as a necessity. BPS spokesperson Matt Wilder told the Gazette that consolidating the processes is an effort to maximize community involvement.
The two processes were planned to deal with parallel problems: BPS currently has about 4,500 more elementary school seats than students, and school system administrators have long sought to save on transportation costs by revising the current, complicated three-zone assignment system. Potential changes to the zone
system could include dividing the system into five zones or expanding BPS’s “walk-zones,” which currently reserve up to half the seats at every school for students living in a one-mile radius.
In Jamaica Plain there are about 160 empty elementary seats. BPS has not released any specifics about what schools will be targeted
Johnson said she expects the consolidated process, now dubbed a “redesign” of district services, to be controversial.
BPS hopes to propose and implement the redesign in 2012. The changes would need to be clear by next October when prospective students and families start looking at schools in anticipation of school choice season in January and February, she said.
Despite the challenges, Johnson pledged a transparent process with a strong effort to solicit community input and take that input into account.
“I know the libraries and community centers have gone through very difficult processes,” Johnson said, referring to a city plan approved last month to close four branch libraries and an ongoing effort to privatize some city-run community centers. “In a sense, the community owns the schools. We will work with the community in a way that values and appreciates the sense of that,” she said.
“I think it’s important that we start before school is out,” she said. And over the summer, part of BPS’s energy will be focused on distributing information about proposed changes at “community events and festivals…to get people thinking about [the changes.]”
The Gazette previously reported on similar proposals from Horace Small, head of the JP-based Union of Minority Neighborhoods (UMN). UMN is currently mounting a campaign to increase public participation in BPS.
“I think it’s worse not to use those three months at all,” Johnson said of BPS’s summer plans.
The decision to consolidate the meetings is also intended to make sure more people can receive information and about and provide input into proposed changes, BPS spokesperson Matt Wilder told the Gazette. Consolidated meetings are “more efficient when we have many things we want to the community to be engaged in. You have one meeting instead of many on two or three different topics,” he said.
A timeline for the process provided by BPS suggests that two major sets of community meetings will take place. A series of meetings will be held in June “to describe opportunities and challenges [and] get input on priorities to guide decision-making,” it says. Another series of meetings will be held in September to “receive feedback on [proposals] from the community.”
Talking about the school closure proposals, Johnson said the new round is likely to be “more controversial” than the closure of six schools last year. Many of those closures were essentially eliminating duplicate services in the same communities, she said.
BPS also proposed a switch from a three-zone to a five-zone assignment system last year that was extremely controversial.
That proposal initially left Zone 3—the new zone that would have included Jamaica Plain—short over 800 middle school seats. A later version of that plan controversially included turning the Rafael Hernández K-8 School in Egleston Square from a citywide into a Zone 3 school. That proposal met with opposition because the Hernández is one of the only schools in the city running a two-way bilingual program where students are taught both in English and Spanish.
The plan was also controversial because of claims that it cut off access to high-quality schools for residents in poor and minority neighborhoods.
A Fiscal Year 2011 proposal to move from having two principals to one for the two schools currently housed at the Hennigan Elementary School on Heath Street has met with controversy, and BPS is revisiting the proposal, Johnson said.
The about-475 student elementary school shares its building with the 90-student pre-kindergarten West Zone Early Learning Center. Last year, each school had its own principal, but this year BPS proposed one principal for both schools. Johnson said the concerns were mostly coming from West Zone parents who want to preserve that school’s autonomy.
She said she is not sure if there is money available to keep two principals at the school.