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BPS convenes first strategic implementation plan community forum

Jule Pattison-Gordon
BPS convenes first strategic implementation plan community forum

Boston Public School officials convened in East Boston on Monday night for the first of three meetings designed to elicit community feedback on its draft strategic implementation plan. The plan identifies five key goals animating the district over the next several years, with an outline of specific implementation initiatives for the upcoming year. Priorities include improving family and community engagement, attracting and retaining diverse staff, bolstering pre-K-12 instruction while incorporating social emotional elements, improving communications and developing a sustainable and efficient financial system.

Most of this year’s efforts involve laying the groundwork, including identification of resources and services already available and developing funding plans, Donna Muncey, BPS’s deputy superintendent of strategy, said at the meeting.

Next meetings

Wednesday July 13, 6:00pm- 7:30pm

Strategic Implementation Plan Community Forum Bolling Building, Roxbury, 02119

Tuesday July 19, 6pm – 7:30pm

Strategic Implementation Plan Community Forum Mattapan Library – Community Room, 1350 Blue Hill Avenue, Mattapan, 02126

Wednesday July 20, 6pm

Draft Strategic Plan presented at School Committee Meeting

Get involved

Can’t make a meeting? Voice your thoughts by email at superintendent@bostonpublicschools.org or on Twitter at #StrategicPlanBPS

Deepening engagement

Attendance was poor at the East Boston meeting, with three tables lying empty and nearly those who were there were BPS employees. The dearth of parents evidenced the work needed toward deepening BPS’s engagement with families and community organizations, Mary Ann Creyton, senior director of Community Engagement, said.

Among the critical steps needed to do this: bolstering translation services, including handling translation in-house, Creyton. The announcement of Monday night’s meeting was issued in English only, something Creyton, cited as a mistake. Other outreach efforts include increasing information to parents about ways to be involved with school site and parent councils, she said.

Attendees noted that school staff often are stretched too thin to be present regularly at public meetings, and noted that some staff positions dedicated to community outreach have been at risk, due to financial uncertainties. Crayton, however, said BPS seeks to shift from viewing engagement as one staff member’s focus to part of everyone’s job.

On the web

Read the draft plan online: http://www.bostonpublicschools.org/strategicplan2016

Strengthening operations

Two key targets, Muncey said, are improving technical services and bus transportation, which, at ten percent of the BPS budget, is a major cost item for the system. Among considerations: setting later start times for high schools, which research suggests helps teens’ performance, while maintaining and boosting efficiency among buses that must meet schools’ varied start and end times. A further complication: academic improvement plans call for extending daily and year-round learning time, which also would need to be factored into the transit puzzle.

Diverse staff and holistic K-12

BPS seeks to better acknowledge the diversity of its student body. As part of this, as BPS seeks candidates to replace vacancies left by an aging teaching population, Muncey said focus must be on recruiting diverse, sensitive individuals. Once teachers are recruited, BPS also must focus on retaining them in Boston, she said.

Instructional practices also need to change, Jonathan Landman, a BPS principal leader, said. This includes finding more culturally and linguistically sustaining approaches, he said. Other supportive measures include promoting social emotional instruction, expanding special education and English Language Learner services — for example, by increasing access to dual language programs — and increasing offerings of art and world languages.

BPS will develop and make available optional curricula, but allow teachers discretion to shape their instruction, Landman said.

“I love that,” said attendee Kristen Goncalves, a new BPS principal, about empowering teachers.

The strategic plan also seeks to help minimize the number of times children switch schools between pre-K and grade 12 — a measure Muncey said increases engagement and attachment to the school — and provide high school students with more opportunities to get a taste of life beyond graduation. This includes expanding dual enrollment opportunities in which students engage in post-secondary work and earn college credits.

Landman acknowledged that some initiatives come with a price tag, especially an effort to expand early childhood education. Muncey said early education offerings currently rely heavily on grants, which BPS has been able to secure by being a national model that many wish to study. However, if others take up Boston’s model, funding could dry up. David Bloom, BPS’s budget director, noted that state funding for full-day kindergarten has been eliminated in the fiscal year 2017 budget.

Landman said BPS also will look to achieve some changes through refocusing professional development, which he said should come with little cost.

Financial stability

Bloom acknowledged that principals need more transparent and predictable budgeting to facilitate their long-term planning and said that BPS has a structural deficit that results in annual cuts. Identifying the drivers of these shortfalls will be one focus.

One effort to reduce budget strain is to bring down transportation costs. In order to plan more efficient bus routes, BPS will gather data by providing students with tap-cards and monitoring their usage.

One attendee noted that, on the school-level, leaders have little power over their budgets.

According to Bloom, another fix lies in adjusting enrollment policy. Projected enrollment numbers determine the majority of individual school budgets. The weighting formula that ties spending to pupil counts is designed such that if a class is enrolled at 87.5 percent capacity, it can function, but has no money to spare. A fully-enrolled class has funds to experiment with improvements and new initiatives. Schools that receive extra students in a class, but not enough to bring in funding for creating a second class, suffer. Some schools may have one grade or program fully enrolled but others that are under capacity.

As such, enrollment must be balanced carefully to keep programs sustainable while not denying parent choice, Bloom said. This year, BPS tried to shift students between nearby schools to achieve better enrollment numbers while honoring parent choice and proximity to home, he said. Due unclear communication on how principals could utilize this option, effectiveness fell short of hopes, he said.

School budgets also will be more responsive to actual enrollment in the upcoming year. Under new policy, if schools find in October that their actual enrollment differs markedly from the projected enrollment — from which their budgets were calculated — adjustments will be made. The adjustment is only triggered if pegging funding to actual enrollment counts would increase or decrease the budget by at least five percent.

Another consideration is how to maximize the use of school buildings, some of which have extra room, Muncey said. Some extra space is due to conversion of schools into pre-K-8s, which siphon students from grade 6-8 schools.

BPS will assess whether some schools should add more programs or grade levels to better take advantage of their building size, or share an under-utilized building between two schools. Muncey also noted that many of BPS’s specialized programs are housed in under-enrolled schools, which have the square footage for them.