Agassiz School set to close

Rebeca Oliveira

Gazette Photo by Gloria Carrigg
People protesting the closing of the Agassiz School come out in force at the Mayor’s Tree Lighting and Trolley Tour at Monument Square on Dec. 4. Mayor Thomas Menino was absent due to illness.

BPS tackles $63m budget gap

The Boston School Committee (BSC) voted at its Dec. 15 meeting to close the Agassiz School along with eight other schools, per Boston Public School (BPS) BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson’s Redesign and Reinvest plan.

The 700-member overflow audience at English High School roared its disapproval at the decision, with many people shouting, “Shame on you,” “Sell outs,” “Class warfare,” “Liars” and “Where’s the Mayor?” as well as booing and hissing. Throughout the meeting, BSC Chairperson Rev. Dr. Gregory Groover, Sr. had to ask the crowd for quiet numerous times, as chants, taunts and abuse were shouted at the committee.

“Tonight the Boston School Committee made a decision that we believe is the best one for all 56,000 students who attend our schools,” Groover said.

“This is a disgrace,” Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teacher’s Union, said at the meeting. “You [BSC] are making an irrevocable mistake here tonight.”

“Budgets should not be balanced on the backs of our children,” said Yolanda Reddick, a BPS bus driver and East Zone Early Learning Center parent. East Zone ELC is one of the schools named for closure.

“We are going in the wrong direction. This is not reinvestment, this is de-investment,” City Councillor Charles Yancey said, as a BPS graduate, parent and grandparent.

“The alternative puts the education of 56,000 students at risk…it is not about one child or one school, but the greater good of 56,000 students,” Mary Tamer, BSC member, said just before the vote.

“We’re devastated,” said Rebekah Kase, a physical therapist at the Agassiz, as some of her co-workers left in tears after the vote.

“It was a rubber stamp for the mayor,” Agassiz parent Wayne Wilson told the Gazette.

At-large City Councillor Felix Arroyo asked BSC to postpone the vote, saying, “The short time frame in which a decisions of this magnitude has been made…has made it impossible to include the students, parents, teachers, administrators and residents affected by this decision in a meaningful way.” State Rep.-elect Russell Holmes and local City Councillor Matt O’Malley were present, but did not speak.

In a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce the day before the meeting, Mayor Thomas Menino urged the BSC to vote in support of the plan and called for reforms to teachers’ contracts. In a statement released after the meeting, Menino said, “The approval of this plan is a major step forward in our work to make all of our city’s schools, schools of choice for parents.”

There has been a strong push to keep the Agassiz School, located at 20 Child St., open since the original announcement of its possible closure on Dec. 1, with posters displayed in shop windows and front yards all over Jamaica Plain.

Concerns about the Agassiz’s future were raised in the pages of the Gazette last May, after $2 million expected for building repairs were not included in the City’s 2011 capital budget.

The Agassiz will close at the end of this school year. Students affected by the closure will have priority choice in other West Zone schools. Agassiz parents are invited to a transition support workshop on Dec. 20, 6-8pm, at 515 Hyde Park Ave. in Roslindale. School principals and headmasters will be available.

BPS spokesperson Matthew Wilder told the Gazette at the Dec. 15 meeting that ensuring a “seamless” transition is a priority for BPS. He also told the Gazette that BPS still has no plans for any soon-to-be vacant school buildings.

“That remains to be seen,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re working closely with the city to decide.”

The Plan
The Redesign and Reinvest plan was conceived as wide-sweeping reform for BPS, which is currently facing a $63 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year. The shortfall is projected to grow to $91 million for the following year, according to BPS officials.

BPS has been facing shortfalls for several years, which it has largely side-stepped by postponing necessary one-time expenditures like repairs and maintenance, John McDonough, chief financial officer for BPS, said at a Dec. 2 BSC meeting. BPS has also taken unorthodox steps like turning down the heat in its buildings, saving $3 million last year, he noted.

“It’s a tough situation,” Wilder told the Gazette after that meeting. “Either we close schools or face devastating cuts to the whole district,” which may mean bringing school budgets to the very bare minimum, cutting all non-essential programs like art and music, he said.

“No one here wants to close any schools…there are no other ways,” Johnson said Dec. 2.

The plan proposes cutting the number of empty seats all over the system, reducing both facility-related and transportation costs. BPS has around 5,600 empty seats in its system, Michael Goar, deputy superintendent, said at the Dec. 2 meeting. According to Wilder, the Agassiz has 50 empty seats in regular and special education programs.

The criteria for choosing which schools will close included: projected growth, how frequently chosen a school is by parents, location and the state of the facility, Wilder said. The Agassiz was chosen mostly for its “persistent underperformance” and “health of the building,” Wilder told the Gazette at the Dec. 15 meeting.

The Agassiz is the only school on the list located in JP. It has about 540 students, of which 77 percent are Hispanic and 17 percent Black, with the remaining 6 percent being white or of another ethnicity. Of those 540 students, 30 percent are in special education programs. Another third to half of Agassiz students are English Language Learners (ELL), non-native English speakers.

The current plan is the second version of the Redesign and Reinvest plan presented this year. The original recommendation for closures, presented in October, was based entirely on academic performance, Wilder told the Gazette in a phone interview. Eight schools were named, but it became evident that those closures would not be a strong enough measure to counteract problems that are likely to continue in future years. That list did not include the Agassiz.

After postponing a scheduled Nov. 15 vote and listening to community input, the superintendent then expanded the scope to include the extra factors of parental choice, location and building state. The Agassiz was added to the closure list at that point. The complete list for closures, mergers, expansions and conversions involves 29 schools, nine of which are to close at the end of the current school year.

“We heard back from families that they did not want to do this year after year,” Wilder told the Gazette, explaining the motivation for the two-part closure plan. “There was always an awareness that there would likely be more school closings,” he added.

Johnson said at the Dec. 15 meeting that the BSC will “start reviewing our student distribution system” in the spring, in a further attempt to cut transportation costs.

The full Redesign and Reinvest plan was first presented to BSC and the community at English High School on Dec. 2. Letters informing parents of the plan and the schools involved were sent home on Dec. 1.

Menino used his annual speech to the Boston Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 14 to express his support of Johnson’s planned closures and mergers, saying, “Boston Public Schools have a track record of constant improvement, but our progress will stall if we don’t take the right actions. Closing schools and making substantial changes to our school system will not be easy, but we must take these actions now to ensure that public education succeeds in all of our schools and for all of our children.”

The mayor also identified four areas of change that he thinks should be addressed in next year’s teachers’ contracts: giving principals the flexibility to assign teachers where they deem necessary, rewarding teachers based on student performance, longer school days, and teacher evaluation reform to focus on student achievement.

Agassiz’s History
The Agassiz School has long been under scrutiny. The school has been chronically underperforming for years, though it had been making strides of late: its students’ MCAS scores largely improved from last year’s and its teachers are nearly all “highly qualified,” as designated by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Kase told the Gazette prior to the vote she “feels like the reasoning [for closing the school] is wrong…The regular education kids are doing really well, young teachers are really gung-ho. There’s an excitement about learning here [at the Agassiz].”

The Agassiz also has long held a reputation for being a “sick” building, with poor air quality that could affect students’ and teachers’ health. Lisa Evans, a long-time teacher at the school who was transferred last year, consistently claimed the building made her sick. Then-City Councilor John Tobin suggested last December that it might be worthwhile to demolish the current 1970s building and rebuild.

The City of Boston spent almost $900,000 in new windows for the school last year, and $10 million during the 1990s for a new roof and other repairs, hoping to mitigate those concerns.

A year ago, David Gallogly from the city Capital Construction Division, said the City hoped to invest $2 million for maintenance at the Agassiz, which would have been included in the City’s capital budget. When the 2011 capital budget was released in May, those maintenance funds were not included.

When asked by the Gazette about the possible closure of the Agassiz at the time, Wilder said that BPS had not started to formulate a closure proposal list. Then-City Councillor Chuck Turner said he thought it was unlikely that the Agassiz would be closed. Turner was a strong proponent of repairs for the Agassiz.

More information, including the presentation given on Dec. 2, is available at BPS’s website.

David Taber contributed to this article.

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