Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson volunteered last week for a bit of schooling. Her “teachers” were four elders of the black community who have been engaged with the school system for a half century.
In the informal seminar at UMass Boston, retired businessman Kenneth Guscott, former state Rep. Doris Bunte, educator-activist Hubie Jones and educator Jean McGuire talked about what has changed about the schools, what remains the same and new challenges that have emerged.
The elders emphasized equitable school resources, involved parents, social services for families of school-aged children, contributions from local colleges and perceptions of the system as broken and dysfunctional, the last a sweeping idea that Jones disputed.
“With the coming of Dr. Johnson, we’ve had a lot of progress,” said Jones, pointing to efforts devoted to turn around underperforming schools since she arrived in 2007. “There has been a lot of good work done.”
Jones, 78, described the public schools as having a “branding” problem, with parents assuming charter schools are better. Large-scale, unbiased studies say they are not. About 6,000 Boston students attend charter schools. The system’s overall enrollment of about 56,000 is 43 percent Latino, 32 percent black, 17 percent white and 8 percent Asian.
Guscott and McGuire, longtime director of Metco, said an equitable distribution of resources in schools has been a problem for a long time. McGuire, 80, said: “I want all schools to have a library and a librarian.”
Guscott, 86, was president of the Boston NAACP in 1963, when the organization began the push that evolved into the successful school desegregation lawsuit in 1974.
“It was not because we wanted to integrate with white people,” Guscott recalled. “Schools in the black community were having a problem getting resources from the city because we had no political power back then.”
Bunte, 78, has complained about inequitable schools since she became the first black woman to serve in the state Legislature in 1974. She recalled when a representative from Jamaica Plain approached her and said: “What do you mean? We just finished fixing up our school.”
Bunte has had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren attend Boston schools. She said in the past there was more parental involvement, an established factor in lifting academic achievement.
“It wasn’t the law,” Bunte said. “It was considered a requirement.”
McGuire noted that Metco does require parents to attend monthly meetings. She tells them: “Don’t let a stranger teach your child.”
Parents, she added, should be “making schooling the key component of family life from the time your children are born.”
Jones, former dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University, said more than 140 social service agencies exist along the corridor between Dudley Station and Mattapan.
“Some are extraordinary,” Jones said. “Some of them need to just go away because they’re not getting any results. I like to say we’re resource-rich, but impact-poor.”
He said the services of those agencies need to be better coordinated to support families and help the school system educate their children.
More support is also needed from local colleges, particularly scholarships, Guscott said. Those contributions would be a way for the nonprofit colleges to increase their payments to the city in lieu of taxes. He said Boston University has long contributed the most to the city’s schools, and he urged Northeastern University and Wentworth Institute of Technology in particular to do more.
Bunte suggested stronger relationships between Roxbury Community College and nearby Madison Park High School.
For her part, Johnson agreed the system has problems with negative perceptions of its schools and with fragmentation in the service agencies and a lack of accountability in them. She said the system’s Office of Community Engagement plans to find a faith-based partner for each school — not to promote religion, but to introduce students to adults with strong value systems.
Boston University, she said, does give dozens of scholarships to graduates every year, but until her staff stepped in and identified more eligible black and Latino students, an overwhelming number of the scholarships were going to whites and Asians.
The superintendent said the system has increased access to educational opportunities by enrolling more black and Latino students in Advanced Placement courses after training an additional 200 teachers to teach the classes.
In addition, more schools will offer Algebra I in the eighth grade to put more students on track for college work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Research has also documented that students who take algebra are more likely to go to college and graduate, whatever their major, because the course teaches an essential skill, abstract thinking.
The discussion was hosted by the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston and moderated by James Jennings, a Tufts University professor. More meetings are planned.