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School department backs off Dearborn charter school plan

Nate Homan

School department officials changed their tune on the seemingly inevitable transformation of Roxbury’s Dearborn STEM Academy to an in-district charter school in fall 2015. Instead, BPS officials, parents of students, advocates and neighbors are heading to the drawing boards to come up with an effective academic improvement plan.

“We have been hearing from the community that there’s a lot of energy behind changing the school for the better,” Boston Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Lee McGuire said.

“It’s a collaborative process. The superintendent wants to take the energy to make a plan to dramatically change the outcome of the student’s performances.”

The initial plan called for partnering Dearborn with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School group as a preventive measure to keep Dearborn from reaching Level 5 status. The decision to keep Dearborn in the BPS system came after BPS Interim Superintendent John McDonough told community members that he had recommended going forward on the in-district charter move.

While BPS officials have backed off the in-district charter proposal, Dearborn is not out of the woods yet. McGuire said that BPS data shows a small improvement in student performance at Dearborn, but it is not enough to stave off a state takeover. By skipping the September 17 deadline to present the in-district charter plan for fall 2015, the Dearborn could be taken over by the end of this month.

“We still need to do something very quickly to improve student outcomes,” McGuire said. “A state takeover is still a very real concern. Everyone in the Dearborn community understands the risk and the urgency at hand. The risks have not changed with this decision, neither has the need to make significant and immediate progress. But we share their enthusiasm and their commitment.”

The Boston City Council held an Education Committee meeting in Grove Hall on Wednesday evening, attended by Mayor Martin Walsh, who showed up unannounced.

“I spoke with Superintendent McDonough about the concerns I had heard from community members and we decided to slow down the process and go back to process more feedback and information,” Walsh said. “People who were at the meeting last week were very enthusiastic and we’re going to need their cooperation. I made it clear that I think this is a risky move to keep Dearborn from becoming an in-district charter. I have a lot of concerns over the potential takeover from the state, so we have to work quickly to implement changes. All of the options are on the table, and hopefully a good solution comes of this.”

Councilor Tito Jackson said that this was the first time a sitting mayor walked into a City Council meeting in his memory. Walsh said that preventing the state from taking over the school, which is slated for a $70.7 million demolition and reconstruction, is something he and the community agree is worth fighting for.

“We’re looking at a large presence behind us,” McGuire said. “Our goal is to harness the energy from our community and come up with a bold strategy to show the state. I’ve never seen a meeting like this where people were so happy to hear that we were listening to them. So many people in the room volunteered to help in any way possible. It demonstrates positive action towards school.”

McGuire said that the proposal to turn Dearborn into an in-district charter came about in July, but meetings yielded tepid input from community members. McGuire said that talking about the transformation as a reality was an effort to add a sense of urgency to the conversation.

“The mayor and superintendent wanted to have room to maneuver and show community the severity of the situation at hand,” McGuire said.

“We weren’t seeing the community outpouring we’re seeing today back in July. We can’t be successful without community cooperation and energy. But we are facing a serious risk. Judging by the way the state handled other takeovers last year, they could move in at the end of this month. If we don’t act, the state is guaranteed to take over.”

McGuire said that the Elihu Greenwood School and English High School are two examples of two schools that teetered on the edge of charter status, but successfully partnered with Blueprint Schools Network, which brought in tutors and teacher support. McGuire said that similar measures are being considered, among other options in order to shore up the Dearborn from within.

“I think that what we’re seeing is a consistent message from people pushing to help Dearborn succeed,” McGuire said. “People felt that the solution should be one created from within the community. There’s a new headmaster at Dearborn and a fantastic teaching staff all on the same page.”

Walsh stressed the importance of continued community input on the fate of the Dearborn. He said that he believes that the state will hear out the proposals to prevent a charter takeover, but he said he has gone before them to advocate for schools that were taken over despite his opposition in the past.

“I commend the community members for standing up for what they believe in,” Walsh said. “I love to see how passionate they are about the school and I want to harness that passion. I think it will prove to be a very successful school.”

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