Mattahunt Elementary School may close, open as ELC
Tommy Chang, Boston Public School superintendent, and Mattahunt Elementary School principal Walter Henderson faced a packed cafeteria on Tuesday night last week. In a school meeting that brought out parents, community members and elected officials, Chang told the gathering that attempts to turn around the Mattahunt school have failed and state takeover could be imminent.
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The school currently serves 638 students, many of whom are black and Hispanic — 70 percent and 25 percent, respectively. The majority — 76 percent of students — have high needs, and more than a quarter of students do not speak English as their first language.
The only way to keep the Mattahunt facility within control of the district and not the state is to propose a radically different plan, BPS officials said. Their idea: close the school at the end of this year, send children in grades 2 through 5 to different BPS schools and then reopen the facility as an early learning center serving pre-K through first grade.
If the state takes over the school, it may elect options such as closing the school, turning it into a charter school or handing control of operations to an outside provider. It would not need local buy-in to do so, Chang said.
BPS officials told attendees that they would present the proposal to the Boston School Committee the following day, with a committee vote due on Nov. 16. The plan must be submitted to the state on Nov. 18.
For many parents this was the first they had heard of the closure and early learning center idea. News of the meeting also was slow to spread: many parents only found out the day before, in some cases from other community members, not BPS. It was not until the Friday before that the school department announced the Tuesday night meeting.
This fed a sentiment voiced by many attendees that the plan was sprung on them at the last minute and that they were being pressured to accept it as their only option, rather than asked to provide feedback and alternative ideas.
In response, officials said there is room to make some adjustments to the proposal and, later on, to the school, such as restoring higher grades after the early learning center is established. But this was the only proposal school department officials presented for staving off state receivership.
“The plan is purposefully not completely baked,” Chang said. “We’re going to add more details with the community’s input.”
Many parents and community members also said the Tuesday meeting seemed too focused on promoting the early learning center, instead of explaining how displaced students would be supported.
How did this happen?
Mattahunt has been a Level 4 school for three years, but despite an additional $600,000 per year in funding and introduction of a new principal and assistant principals, performance on standardized tests continues to be in the bottom 1 percentile of all schools statewide.
Enrollment at the school, especially in higher grades, has been declining.
On September 28, Chang received word from the state that improvement efforts were not working well enough. Should no markedly different plan for the school be approved, the state would be positioned to take over the Mattahunt at any point.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education originally gave Chang until Oct. 31 to formulate a basic plan, before extending the deadline to Nov. 18 at his request.
Attendees expressed a sense of betrayal that the situation at the school had gotten so bad. One parent said her child was moved into the Mattahunt to escape a failing school and sought assurance that this time the new placement truly would be an improvement.
The meeting in part highlighted a need for improved communication. BPS officials attempted to spread word of the Tuesday night meeting through a flyer sent home with elementary school children on the day before, Halloween. Officials also made robo calls on Friday, Saturday and Monday and sent an email Friday. Many parents said they only heard about the meeting from other community members.
Some parents also said they had been unaware of the school’s low status.
What happens to the children?
Children in pre-K through grade 1 could remain at the Mattahunt, while children in higher grades would start the next year at a new school.
BPS provides each family with names of nearby schools they can select and includes a minimum number of Level 1 schools among each list of options. Final assignments are resolved through a lottery. Displaced Mattahunt students would have a higher chance of getting into their preferred school, with their choices given second highest priority for vacancies, right after students with siblings at the school. Some parents at the meeting requested their children’s choice of new school instead be given top priority. Counselors would help transition children with disabilities and English language learners, Henderson said.
Due to the lottery system, BPS cannot guarantee placement at a Level 1 or 2 school, but Chang assured parents that all other district schools are better-performing, meaning all options are regarded as higher quality.
Another strategy that can help: Sign up for a school early in the registration season. Waiting until later means fewer open seats will be left at high-demand schools.
Parents requested that counselors be provided at the new school to help their children cope with the transition. Others attendees requested that displaced children receive preference for returning to the Mattahunt, should higher grade levels be restored.
Visions for early learning
Early education is a bright spot at Mattahunt: In the 2015-2016 school year, kindergartners outperformed district peers on early literacy testing. Over the course of that year, the share of Mattahunt kindergarteners reading at benchmark increased by 15 percent, BPS officials say.
Seizing upon this strength, BPS would convert Mattahunt into a K0, K1 and grade 1 school and seek to make it a natural next path for toddlers in community-based childcare and early ed.
The school would have an extended school year, trauma-sensitive practices incorporated into instruction and an on-site family engagement center. Henderson, brought on as Mattahunt principal this year, would lead the ELC.
The ELC calls for new hiring, Chang said. When asked about how BPS will afford this conversion on its strained budget, the BPS superintendent said he would ensure the ELC gets what it needs. Plans for increasing the adult-student ratio at the ELC also include partnerships with local universities.
A steering committee that includes community members will shape the vision for the facility.
BPS officials propose stakeholder meetings this month on the proposed closure, as well as formation of a school steering committee to guide the new early learning center design. By January, the completed design is due. Mattahunt staff whose positions are lost as older grades are eliminated will be provided with aid in finding new jobs.
In March, new ELC staff would be hired, with the Mattahunt closing on June 30, 2017. The next day, July 1, the school would reopen with its new mission as an ELC. New staff training runs through August.