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Activists raise concerns about school closure plan

Eliza Dewey

Education advocates and school community members voiced their concerns Tuesday about a recent announcement concerning the fate of five Boston public schools. Interim Superintendent John McDonough, whose successor was scheduled to be chosen in a School Committee vote Tuesday night, announced last week that he was recommending the closure of five schools in an effort to cut inefficiencies from a school budget facing a gap of more than $40 million.

Three of the schools — Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, William B. Rogers Middle School and West Roxbury Academy — are mainstream schools, and two of them — Middle School Academy and Community Academy — are alternative schools. The School Committee will vote on the proposed closures on March 25.

Advocates and school community members who raised concerns about the proposal centered their critiques on three main factors: disproportionate impacts that closures might have on students of color; the decision to tie school closures to the annual budgetary process rather than a long-term analysis of BPS facilities; and the lateness and apparent suddenness of the announcement

Rasaan Hall, deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, told the Banner by phone that the BPS should conduct an “equity analysis” to ensure that closures would not disadvantage students of color. He sent a letter to the BSC in February, co-authored with Johnny McInnis of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, detailing such concerns.

While stopping short of calling for the closures to be scrapped, they called for a more thorough review process before moving forward. They also noted that the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating a 2011 complaint that claims previous closures disproportionately impacted students of color. Hall said Tuesday that he has not yet received a response to his letter.

Multiple impacts

When asked about the potential impact on students of color, Superintendent McDonough’s spokesperson responded via email on Tuesday that the decision to close the schools were made via a blind, data-driven analysis that focused on “enrollment trends, school choice trends, and multi-year performance data,” with secondary consideration to geography and student impact.

Rahn Dorsey, the City’s chief of Education, added via email that “in a system as diverse as Boston, where 77 percent of students are black or Latino, and nearly another 10 percent are multi-racial or Asian, practically every decision made has an impact on young people and families of color.” He added, however, that the city still has “an obligation” to prevent disproportionate impact on any one demographic group and that BPS, “is viewing this decision through just such an equity lens, even while using objective data to drive their recommendations.”

A second concern that advocates raised was a critique of the decision to tie the issue of closures to the annual budgetary process rather than a long-term analysis of BPS facilities.

Hall’s February letter compares the advanced notice of facility changes that the School Department provided a year before the 2014-2015 school year with the lack of similar advanced notice regarding facilities changes for the 2015-2016 school year. The BPS has a long-term Capital and Facilities plan that guides decisions about facilities. (Although the Banner found that links to the latest version of that plan on the BPS website, http://www.bostonpublicschools.org/Page/302, are broken).

Kim Janey, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, similarly argued when reached by email that it “is difficult to have these conversations in the absence of a long term, comprehensive facilities plan.”

When asked about why the school closure decisions were made as part of the budgetary process, a spokesperson provided a statement from McDonough via email that emphasized the timeliness of the matter.

“BPS is structurally imbalanced and, while our longer term efforts will benefit from a facilities master plan, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to begin this work,” the statement reads. “It is time sensitive: If we fail to take action now we will put every student, in every school, in every corner of the city at risk.”

New uncertainty

As a third point of concern, some advocates and school staff raised questions about the timing of the closures. Janey raised concerns about “which schools these students will have access to, now that the peak registration period is over.”

Denise Snyder, Director of Media Relations for the BPS, said that the issue of timing should not introduce difficulties for students. Students that are not in transition grades — meaning not entering kindergarten, middle or high school — will take part in the same round of school selections that all students of that age enter if they decide to transfer from a school that they wish to leave.

This round will be extended by two weeks, ending April 6 instead of the normal March 22, in order to accommodate students. She said Tuesday these students will not experience a disadvantage because “any child that doesn’t have a guaranteed seat somewhere — from a closing school will have the highest priority for any other open seats on their list of schools, with the exception of sibling priority.”

For students that are entering a transition grade, their fate will depend on the school in which they are currently enrolled. For instance, rising 6th graders at the Greenwood school that used to have a “feeder pattern” to the Rogers Middle School will now be fed to the Irving school.

West Roxbury Academy rising seniors who would like to stay at that education complex will be guaranteed admission to the Urban Science Academy held in the same building. However, this group will be participating in a round of school choices that began in January.

Despite assurances about a fair process, however, many said they felt jolted by the timing. A staff member at the Middle School Academy who spoke with the Banner by phone on Tuesday described the chaotic process by which news of the proposed closure spread. When teachers first received notice by letter on Friday, they opted not to tell students immediately.

Over the weekend, however, students received automated phone calls and saw media coverage of the closings. By the return of school on Monday, many students were highly upset, which the staffer said was a particularly difficult situation given the “volatility and fragility” of students’ lives at the alternative high school. The school ended up cancelling a planned meeting with parents and school officials on Monday given the difficulty of assembling parents on such short notice. They will meet instead on March 5.

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