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Boston Education Action Network hosts panel, preps to expand work

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Boston Education Action Network hosts panel, preps to expand work
Charter and Public school leaders gathered for a meeting of the Boston Education Action Network.

Boston Education Action Network is one of the newer groups on the city’s education policy scene. Formed in 2016, BEAN comprises educators, parents, students and community members who may not have a direct involvement in school — for instance, financial workers with an interest in education, or those involved in housing policies, whose work tangentially affects education, said Mariel Novas, a BEAN leader and founder.

The fledgling organization has raised some concern because it draws support from Teach For America’s political action branch, which also fueled money into ballot campaign efforts to lift the Massachusetts cap on charter schools. However, BEAN members say they operate independently, and BEAN has no official stance in charter expansion debates.

Now, after a summer of gathering in people’s homes, BEAN is gearing up to play a larger role in Boston’s public education landscape.

Boston School Superintendent Tommy Chang, Brooke Charter School Director of Operations Jon Clark and MJ Bastien.

In an event held in downtown’s Old South Church on Monday, a panel of leadership from charter schools, pilot schools and Boston Public Schools shared ideas on how to recruit and retain teachers of color. Many panelists said doing that requires making schools comfortable and culturally supportive places for teachers, hiring early and presenting teaching as a desirable career choice. Panelists also addressed efforts to improve student socioemotional support. Some speakers said meeting basic needs comes before academics and several underscored the value of establishing trusting, positive relationships with students’ families early on. This way, staff can better comprehend the context of students’ lives and have a positive rapport to ease any challenges and difficult conversations that may emerge later in the year. The final BEAN priority issue that was discussed Monday: How Boston’s housing strain impacts school segregation.

Monday’s event drew about 100 people. Most identified themselves as community members, while a handful said they were teachers, parents or school leaders.

Who is BEAN?

A team of former and current teachers founded BEAN in 2016. By the end of that year, they selected three focus goals. The leadership team comprises 13 people, and BEAN’s listserv is in the range of 400 to 600 members, BEAN leader Mariel Novas told the Banner.

Novas emigrated from the Dominican Republic as a child and attended BPS. Now she works for Teach for America by day.

BEAN relies on philanthropic support from Leadership for Education Equity (LEE), the political action branch of Teach for America. Novas said this largely takes the form of aid, such as training on how to be organizers and assistance securing event and meeting space. BEAN’s main expenses are food for meetings, she said, adding that BEAN acquires free use of meeting space via its members’ networks. BEAN operates independently, and LEE supports creation of similar organizations nationwide, Novas said.

Some view the new group with wariness. Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, writes on WGBH’s MassPoliticsProfs blog that Strategic Grant Partners helped fund LEE’s opening. In fiscal year 2015, Strategic Grant Partners gave LEE $150,000 and the promise of $550,000 in order “to help launch organizations in Massachusetts.” Cunningham notes that Strategic Grant Partners is the same group that built Families for Excellent Schools, which in turn fueled money into Great Schools Massachusetts, the heavy-spending ballot campaign committee that advocated to lift the cap on charter schools.

LEE’s board members count among them the children of several underwriters of charter expansion in Massachusetts. This includes the daughter of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — who gave $240,000 in support of Question 2 — and Steuart Walton, whose parents collectively contributed $1.8 million to advance Question 2.

BEAN has not taken an official stance on the charter school cap and says it seeks to bring together members of all types of schools.

In its spring 2017 newsletter, BEAN members celebrated joining advocacy on aiding homeless children (an area that received a specific allocation in the FY18 budget and has been a priority of City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George) for the 10 Boys program and for the Excellence for All program championed by BPS superintendent Tommy Chang. Novas said upcoming plans include forging partnership with existing education groups, including reaching out to Women Educators of Color and BPS’s Opportunity and Achievement Gap Taskforce along with 18 other organizations.

BEAN currently is surveying the environment so it does not replicate work already underway by groups with similar goals. Thus far BEAN has met one-one one with members of organizations who can make introductions, both to raise awareness of BEAN and attract more members, Novas said. Focus has been on raising awareness via word of mouth.

Novas said the inspiration for BEAN came from a sense that while there are groups elevating the voice of parents, teachers and others, there was not one group bringing all these voices together. She said that BEAN seeks to ensure that more voices than just those of teachers or just those of parents are being heard, although each of those stakeholders need to be included as well.

“How do we make sure it’s not just the same people setting the agenda in Boston?” Novas said.

Giving feedback to BEAN organizers at the end of Monday night’s event, panelists overwhelming recommended the next event be structured for deeper conversation on each issue item.

Educators for Excellence

Along with providing LEE with funding in fiscal year 2015, Strategic Grant Partners also furnished Educators for Excellence with $350,000 and the promise of $2.15 million to come in order “to help launch organization in Massachusetts,” Cunningham states. Educators for Excellence’s young Boston branch did not take a stance on Question 2.

E4E has yet to establish partnerships with other educator activists groups, Sarah Iddrissu, E4E policy associate, told the Banner. It positions itself as a vehicle for mobilizing educators’ voices to weigh in on policy and currently is focusing efforts on increasing provision of school guidance counselors to bolster trauma services.

“There are very few people in or around the district who don’t recognize that there are too few guidance counselors,” Iddrissu said. “It’s very agreed upon. We just want to be another voice that’s pushing for it.”