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School officials soliciting ideas for high schools of the future

Eliza Dewey
School officials soliciting ideas for high schools of the future
Educational professionals, parents and students gathered Monday night at the BPS administrative headquarters in Dudley Square to discuss their hopes for the future of the city’s high schools

What should the high schools of the future have?

That was the question posed at a meeting Monday night at the Boston Public Schools administrative headquarters in Dudley Square. The discussion, attended by a mix of educational professionals, parents, and a handful of students, brought forth a host of hopes for the future ranging from more hands-on learning to a serious fix for inequity issues affecting key student groups.

Marsha Innis Mitchell, head of BPS Post-Secondary Partnerships and Initiatives, highlighted advances that the school system had made in the past few decades, including a rising high school graduation rate, rising participation in Advanced Placement classes and falling drop-out rate.

“Despite all these things, we’re still here today talking about the high school of the future,” she said. “The time is really ripe for this conversation.”

She said that school officials were particularly concerned about addressing persistent gaps among English Language Learners, special education students, low-income students and students of color.

Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, helped to facilitate the event. He said that high schools needed to transition to a model that emphasizes different skills from the rote memorization and information absorption that often characterized 20th century schooling – skills such as collaboration and teamwork, creativity, and problem-solving.

“What does education look like to produce learners in all of those areas?” he asked of the audience. “And to get everyone there – not just some of the kids.”

The meeting was the second in a four-part discussion series launched by Mayor Martin Walsh and currently involving both interim BPS Superintendent John McDonough and incoming Superintendent Tommy Chang. Presenters framed the discussion as part of a community feedback process that they hope will produce a report by the fall. The report would then form the framework for action.

The bulk of the evening consisted of attendees splitting into smaller discussion groups to brainstorm their ideas.

A common suggestion was a call for students to gain more applicable life skills like financial literacy, more hands-on learning like arts programming and internships, and more educational options tailored to their specific needs, regardless of the high school they attended.

“For students who don’t plan on going to four-year colleges and didn’t go to Madison Park [the city’s only vocational technical school], what tools can these schools give them?” one woman asked rhetorically.

However, even though the evening was framed as a brainstorming session in which attendees were encouraged to think outside the box, many in attendance raised concerns about more practical and fundamental issues.

Some noted the obvious concern about funding.

“You don’t have gym or music anymore – we cut all those things,” noted one man. “We say we don’t have the money for them, but [now] we are redesigning the schools we want.”

French encouraged people to think about the money issue in a different light.

“A lot of times when new things come along, people see it as adding onto what you already have. I would invite people to think about, ‘how do you start with the resources you have and build up from the ground up?’”

Building assets

Others raised the issue of the need to address stark racial stratification across a school system that consists of 87 percent students of color and has been shown to produce different outcomes along racial lines.

As mentioned several times during the evening, a report commissioned by the Boston Public Schools that was released in November 2014 showed that students were generally placed into different educational “tracks” as early as third grade – a pattern that had significant impact on students’ educational opportunities all the way through high school.

“You’ve got to change the mindset of the people that are teaching, administrating, legislating and experimenting on our kids,” said Sharon Hinton, a Hyde Park resident who has a daughter in the 11th grade, during her small group discussion. “You have to change the paradigm so it’s asset-based and not a deficit model.”

She also noted the lack of diversity in the room, a point that several others also raised during the evening. “You don’t have enough black people and Latino people [here], and you damn sure don’t have enough students,” she said.

Kalise Osula, a senior at Boston Community Leadership Academy and member of the Boston Student Advisory Council, raised the issue of the lack of students to presenters.

“What are you doing to ensure students know about these meetings?” she asked.

Shared engagement

French and Innis Mitchell stressed their willingness to engage students in the discussion, pointing to steps they had taken, such as contacting some student groups about the forums, speaking with the Mayor’s Youth Council and asking headmasters to hold their own meetings in their schools.

Osula noted there were almost 20,000 students enrolled in BPS high schools. “If you don’t have input from half of those people, do you think it’s appropriate to move forward?” she asked.

Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, a BPS parent and co-chair of the BPS Citywide Parent Council, added that while he knew many parents who would want to contribute to the conversation, the school system had to remain mindful of parents’ limitations.

“You’ve put the onus of responsibility on the stakeholders,” he said. “We’d love to partner with you, but we don’t have the time nor the building.”

The facilitators said they were eager to engage all members of the BPS community.

“If you’re interested, we’ll work with you,” said Innis Mitchell. “We’ll help you plan out a forum, we’ll help you facilitate it if you want.”

“It’s good we’re pretty much at the beginning stage of the process,” added French, stressing that as the process unfolded they hoped to engage more people.

Abdi Ali, a teacher at Mission Hill K-8 Pilot School for twenty years, said he thought the conversation formed a good point of departure for further discussions.

“There’s a sense of urgency,” he said. “I hope people say ‘we can’t do business as usual.’”

He added a hope for reform that would affect not just students, but the teachers who dedicate their days to teaching them: “Decisions are made very far away from the classroom … Hopefully this will create a much more porous environment between policy folks and people working at this level who are more connected to schools. The fragmented system we have allows young people to fall through.”

The next meeting will be held at East Boston High School on May 20 from 4 pm to 6 pm. To learn more, visit the city’s website for the initiative at http://highschoolredesign-boston.org/.

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