BPS begins closure, rezoning process

David Taber

Boston Public Schools (BPS) began a fast-track community planning process aimed at closing some schools and redesigning its school-zone boundaries with a series of 14 quasi-public meetings throughout the city with parents and schools advocates June 26.

BPS officials are calling the process “Redesign and Reinvest.” Their goal is to present a plan for school closings in the fall of 2010 and new student assignment boundaries in the winter. They hope to get school committee approval to move forward with the closings for the 2011-2012 school year and for the student assignment plan in time for the 2012-2013 school year, BPS superintendent Carol Johnson said in a video address available on BPS’s Redesign and Reinvest web site www.bostonpublicschools.org/redesign.

In the video message, played at the Saturday meetings, Johnson invited parents to “help us to make decisions that effect an entire generation of students.”

Myriam Ortiz, head of the Jamaica Plain-based Boston Parent Organizing Network (BPON) told the Gazette that the BPS meeting BPON helped facilitate in Roxbury left her wondering if there will be enough time for a full dialogue between now and next fall. If school officials are serious about taking parents’ input into account, “I don’t think they [will] be ready by September,” she said.

BPS did not publicly advertise the Saturday meetings, instead relying on parents’ and advocacy groups like BPON to bring people to the meetings. BPS told the Gazette and other media outlets about the meetings a few days before they happened.

The meetings—intended to gather parents’ general thoughts and priorities heading into a complex redesign process—are the only parent-focused conversations BPS plans to host this summer, BPS spokesperson Lee McGuire told the Gazette.

They were not advertised by BPS, he said, because BPS officials wanted to “deliberately reach out to groups of parents we don’t always hear from.” About 130 parents attended the 14 meetings, he said.

BPS will host a series of broader “stakeholder” meetings to get input from parents, teachers, non-profit partners working with the schools and others in August, McGuire said. It will hold full, public community meetings to review its draft closure plans in September.

McGuire said he is not sure if the late-summer stakeholder meetings will be publicized. The fall community meetings will be, he said.

BPS received a $250,000 federal grant to run the community process.

Ortiz said she appreciates BPS’s efforts to reach out to the community. But she said she is not sure if the quick timeline for the community process will allow enough time to get broad community input for the plan.

Maria Roges, president of BPS’s Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SPED PAC), which hosted one of the June 26 forums at English High School in JP, told the Gazette the plan to put off redesigning student assignment was “reassuring to all of us.” It will be easier to look at changes to student assignment after school closure and consolidation plans have been finalized, she said.

In an ongoing tough budget climate, there is ”some urgency” to implement cost-saving plans, she said.

The school closings will likely focus on about 4,500 empty elementary school seats. The student assignment plan revisions are intended to save the school system on transportation costs.

In 2009, BPS put forward a plan to shift from a three-zone to a five-zone system. That plan left Zone 3, which would have included JP, with fewer middle school seats than middle school students. BPS’s proposed fixes to that problem included turning the local Hernandez K-8 school in Egleston Square—a two-way bilingual school where students are taught in English and Spanish—from a citywide into a Zone 3 school. Blocking access to the Hernandez’s unique programming met with stiff resistance and the rezoning proposal was eventually withdrawn.

“I am cautiously hopeful that…we are not going to see another backdoor proposal that no one is going to like,” Ortiz said.

BPS also closed six schools at the end of 2009. BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson previously told the Gazette she expects the new round of closures to be more controversial than the first round.

McGuire said BPS is striving to design its proposals based on programmatic priorities. “It is very complicated. That’s the challenging part—looking at all the resources we have as a school system…[and trying to] match them with what parents are telling us is important,” he said.

Ortiz, who facilitated one of the BPS workshops at the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club, said key points that emerged from that conversation included a desire to see BPS “better align its curriculum with [systemwide] goals and standards.”

The group, which included parents from West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester and Mattapan, also said that having strong principals is a key for success, she said.

The group was not clear on how to tackle the question of what criteria BPS should use to look at school closings and revising student assignment, she said.

“We helped the parents to develop a list of questions,” including questions about schools’ budgets and about under-enrolled schools’ academic performance and what they are doing with their extra space. “A school could have 40 additional students, but they [could be] using the space for computer labs or something that could actually provide enrichment,” Ortiz said.

Roges said SPED PAC parents’ priorities include “quality local programming—a lot of us have to bus our kids across the city.”

Ortiz said parents also wondered if 12 chronically underperforming “turnaround” schools that have been identified by the city and state to receive additional resources are exempt from closure consideration.

McGuire provided a written statement in response to Gazette questions about the status of those schools, which include English High, and the John F. Kennedy and Louis Agassiz elementary schools in JP.

It is to early in the process to know what schools will close, the statement said, but “…[T]he fact that the 12 [turnaround schools] are getting new resources and flexibility to quickly become model programs will certainly be an important factor in the process.”

McGuire said BPS is committed to transparency. “One of the things we heard a lot from parents is that we should not just ask them what they think. They want to know what we are thinking,” he said.

To that end, BPS will publish the results of surveys it administered at the Saturday meetings and other information about the progress of the “Redesign and Reinvest” effort as it moves forward, McGuire said. The survey is available for parents who did not attend the meeting to fill out at BPS’s “Redesign and Reinvest” web site.

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