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School, supporters fighting for survival

BPS plan to close McCormack school would end network of student support

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
School, supporters fighting for survival
Students exiting the McCormack school in Dorchester. Boston Public Schools officials plan to close the McCormack. Banner Photo

Students, teachers and parents from the McCormack Middle School say they’ve invested too much in the school to see it broken up as part of the district’s BuildBPS plan.

At a meeting last week, members of the school community pleaded with interim Boston Public Schools Superintendent Laura Perille to abandon a plan to shut down the school and send its students to Excel High School in South Boston.

The proposed school closure, part of phase II of the school department’s $1 billion BuildBPS plan, was announced Oct. 17 along with the planned closure of West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy, which share a building.

While the McCormack students would be transferred to Excel, which would be expanded from its current 9-12 configuration to serve grades 7-12, the teachers, staff and volunteers at the school would be re-assigned to different schools.

Sending students to Excel, a school in Level 4 turnaround status, would not be in their best interests, said Ethna Fernandes, who teaches students in the McCormack’s Students with Limited and Interrupted Formal Education program.

“They’ve been designated a turnaround school by the state,” she said. “They’ve got enough on their plate.”

The planned dissolution of the current McCormack school is part of a broader push to phase out middle schools in the district and move existing schools into K-6/7-12 and K-8/9-12 configurations as a way to reduce the number of transitions students undergo. Staff at the McCormack have engaged in conversations with BPS officials over the last two-and-a-half years about transitioning to a 7-12 school. That conversation appears to have come to an abrupt halt with the Oct. 17 announcement.

Vulnerable students

If BPS plans move forward as they’ve been articulated by Perille, members of the McCormack community fear the school’s programs and tight-knit community would dissolve as staff are dispersed throughout the system.

Louise Barnham Packard, executive director of the Trinity Boston Foundation, is among those opposed to the move.

“The McCormack has one of the highest concentrations of the most vulnerable students in the city,” she said. “The need is high in every measure.”

Trinity currently administers more than $500,000 in programming annually at the school, with four clinical counselors and five interns providing trauma-informed counseling to the McCormack’s 400 students.

“This school has ended up being a safe haven for a lot of kids and a resource center for families,” said Chanelle John, a Trinity counselor working at the school. “When you have kids who have a lot of trauma, the relationships they have at school are really important.”

The foundation has traditionally worked with children in the Department of Youth Services and began working at the McCormack school six years ago, looking to engage a school with a high-needs population.

“We were interested in how we could develop a model of support to determine how we could help prevent students from becoming our clients at DYS,” Packard said. “We thought if the school could become trauma-informed, if its disciplinary system could be based on restorative justice practices, we could make the school better for everyone.”

With support from Trinity, the school created supports for students suffering through trauma and trained teachers to deal with high-needs students.

Some of the McCormack’s students have suffered through traumas including community violence in the Boston neighborhoods where they live and also in the countries where they lived before coming to the United States. As many as 25 percent of the students in any grade enter the school in the middle of the school year.

“The McCormack ends up at the bottom of the funnel in the student assignment process,” Packard said.

As BPS has re-shuffled the McCormack’s feeder schools, its student body has declined. One feeder school, the adjacent Dever school, has for three years been in what is widely seen as a botched state-receivership after it slipped into Level 5 status. Another, the Condon, transitioned into a K-8 configuration. Enrollment at the McCormack has dropped from 800 in 2003 to 444 in 2017.

Investment

Trinity’s $500,000-a-year investment in the school reflects the depth of commitment the nonprofit and the school’s staff have in the students there, says McCormack civics teacher Neema Avashia.

“They take on some of our most difficult cases,” she said. “It’s a massive investment of human capital.”

The foundation staffs the school’s library with volunteers three days a week. After 70 of the more than 400 students didn’t pass eye exams, Trinity arranged for students to receive free eye exams and glasses through the nonprofit 2020 Onsight. The foundation has helped raise funds for school supplies.

The school’s Students with Limited and Interrupted Formal Education and Sheltered English Immersion programs are well-run, according to former McCormack ESL teacher Magda Donis, who testified last week at a meeting with Perille and the McCormack community.

“The McCormack is one of very few schools that has served English Language Learning students with excellence,” she said. “By spreading out and separating this population, you are breaking up one of the schools that really gets it, academically and socially.”

Members of the McCormack community say they will fight to keep their school intact in the 1967 building. In the last 10 years, BPS has invested in a new roof, a new boiler and new windows for the school. But teacher Ethna Fernandes says the real investment has been the effort teachers, parents, students and outside partners like the Trinity Foundation put into making the school work for a population of students from low-income neighborhoods, many of whom are recent immigrants.

“This is reckless,” she said of the BuildBPS plan. “There is no other way to describe this. This plan makes no sense.”

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