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City plan to close three schools sparks outrage

BPS plan would shutter city’s middle schools

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
City plan to close three schools sparks outrage
BPS officials are considering changing the system’s enrollment and funding procedures to allocate resources more equitably to students who are not likely to complete high school in four years. Banner Photo

When Boston Public Schools officials announced the BuildBPS process in 2015, then-Superintendent Tommy Chang and Mayor Martin Walsh promised the plan would pave the way for the creation of “21st-century classrooms” in the district.

Three years later, as the first three school closures were announced last week, BPS officials told students, teachers and staff from the McCormack Middle School they would be losing more than half a century, as the district closes their 1967 Dorchester building and re-assigns its students to the 1901 Excel High School in South Boston.

Urban Science Academy senior Ajanae Nunez testifies before the Boston School Committee. Banner Photo

Urban Science Academy senior Ajanae Nunez testifies before the Boston School Committee. Banner Photo

The shuttering of the McCormack and two high schools, Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy, are the first three school closures announced as part of city’s BuildBPS plan.

The West Roxbury high schools are being closed because city officials say the building in which both are housed requires extensive repairs. The McCormack, on the other hand, is being closed as part of the department’s plan to shut down all six of its remaining middle schools, in order to switch the city fully into a K-6, 7-12 grade configuration.

The announcement of the closures, which came the same day as a groundbreaking for the $125 million Boston Arts Academy building in the Fenway, signaled a contentious start for what officials are calling Phase II of BuildBPS. The announced closures kicked off a six-hour-long Boston School Committee meeting and heated exchanges with McCormack students, teachers and staff Monday evening.

In a meeting with reporters last week, BPS interim Superintendent Laura Perille acknowledged that the proposed school closings would be difficult.

“There are some difficult choices, and in some cases unavoidable decisions, along the way,” she said.

Under the plan Perille outlined last week, the West Roxbury Education Complex will be vacated at the end of the year and be razed and rebuilt. Students enrolled in the West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy schools currently sited on the campus will be re-assigned to other schools. Students at the McCormack, which is slated to be renovated beginning in 2020, will be re-assigned to Excel Academy in South Boston, which will expand from grades 9–12 to 7–12 to accommodate the middle school students.

The BuildBPS plan calls for a $1 billion, 10-year investment in renovating and reconfiguring Boston schools. The plan includes construction of 12 new school buildings, including the $125 million Boston Arts Academy and the recently-completed $73 million Dearborn STEM Academy. Under the plan, most buildings will be reconfigured as K-6, 7-12 or K-8, 9-12 schools.

As each new building is constructed, existing BPS schools will bid to relocate to the new building, according to BPS officials. Schools bidding for new space will be evaluated based partly on their ability to serve English Language Learners and special education populations.

The Build BPS plan places an emphasis on neighborhood schools, and proposes constructing new elementary schools in areas of the city with the greatest number of students and the fewest number of seats. New school construction will also prioritize areas where middle schools are closing. Areas of high need outlined in the plan include Uphams Corner, Jackson Square, Roslindale, Mattapan, East Boston and Hyde Park.

The BPS plan calls for having a new school built every one-to-two years, but does not outline how much the new buildings will likely cost.

BPS officials are potentially facing an uphill battle in its plans for school closures, with McCormack Middle School students and faculty vowing to fight the district. The interim superintendent said the closures may cause short-term disruption, but that consolidating grades and reducing the number of transitions students have to make between schools will greatly improve their overall educational experience.

“BuildBPS represents an opportunity not just to build new buildings but to expand equity, access quality and predictability of school pathways for more students and families,” Perille said.

Neema Avashia, a teacher at the McCormack, said teachers and staff at the Dorchester school had been in discussions with BPS officials over three years to expand to a 7-12 format, in anticipation of the department’s push to eliminate middle schools.

“That plan has been disregarded,” she said. “It’s not on the table. The plan is for the McCormack to evaporate.”

Avashia believes the McCormack building, constructed in 1967, is not in dire need of repair. The school, with more than 400 students, has better enrollment than other middle schools serving students from wealthier neighborhoods. Avashia also noted that Excel Academy, where McCormack students are to be relocated, is struggling under state-designated turnaround status. She questioned the district’s decision to send students there.

“There is a way to renovate a building without dismantling a community,” she said. “It feels like they’re talking about 21st-century buildings, but not about the people who inhabit the building. To me, that’s shocking. I would rather teach in a crappy building where they care about people than in a new building where they don’t.”

Once the McCormack campus has been renovated, existing BPS high schools will be invited to bid for the location, Perille said.

Also as part of the sweeping plans, elementary schools in Dorchester and South Boston will be offered the opportunity to become K–6 schools. Perille said her office will facilitate conversations with those affected by these changes to ensure a solution is mutually agreed upon.

While the McCormack school building is in relatively good condition, officials acknowledge, the West Roxbury complex faced “a facilities crisis brought on by longstanding deferred maintenance,” according to Perille.

The complex’s safety has been in jeopardy for some time, with BPS forced to make emergency repairs and renovations during the summer, particularly to its crumbling roof that was battered during last spring’s downpours.

But these temporary fixes have not sufficiently repaired the building, said Perille, and as a result it will need to be completely rebuilt.

“We have very few choices of how to respond to that building,” said Perille, “so the recommendation that I’ll be bringing to the school committee … is driven primarily and particularly by timing, by critical facility issues on that campus.” Plans for West Roxbury Academy and the Urban Science Academy will go to a vote by the Boston Schools Committee on Dec. 5.

Perille said BuildBPS would help the district avoid closures in the future.

“This is the pattern that Boston needs to break,” she said. “This is the pattern we are attempting to change as we move forward with BuildBPS, so that going forward these types of rapid closures, or any closures at all, should be happening on a timeline, as we are talking about with the McCormack, where we have a responsible amount of time.”

Emphasizing how little building space there is in the system right now, Perille did not confirm where the students and families from the West Roxbury schools will be settled, but she said that relocating those in special education programs will be a top priority.

Allison Doherty, who teaches autistic students in the West Roxbury Education Complex, said teachers and staff in her school were told that students outside of the specialized classrooms would be assigned to schools throughout the district.

“Everyone will just be dispersed,” she said, speaking minutes before staff at the school were set to announce the changes to the student body.

Doherty noted that schools such as the Boston Arts Academy and the Eliot School in the North End are receiving new buildings, while schools serving predominantly low-income black and Latino populations are being dismantled.

“The schools that are getting the money aren’t the schools that serve all kids,” she said. “We’re getting the shaft. We’re being told to suck it up. That’s not going to happen. They need to make this right.”

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