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State school intervention sparks pushback

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
State school intervention sparks pushback
The state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released an audit of Boston Public Schools in March. BANNER PHOTO

City councilors, parents and teachers lit into board members of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in a meeting last Tuesday, urging them to suspend a controversial memorandum of understanding that outlines the state’s intervention into the Boston Public Schools.

State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley signed the MOU with BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius March 10 and released it to the public on Friday, March 13, as Mayor Martin Walsh announced the closure of Boston schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many who testified last week focused on the state’s checkered record of interventions in BPS schools, some education activists are raising concerns about a little-known initiative Riley is piloting in schools across the state that is now set to include 15 in East Boston and Charlestown.

The Boston schools were added to Riley’s Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning, a group that began with 22 schools and districts throughout the commonwealth, announced in late 2019. Riley in June of 2019 said the collective would serve as “a research and development hub of educators, schools, and districts focused on incubating and assessing innovative approaches to deeper learning, including standards-aligned instruction and assessment.”

DESE spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis said the program focuses on professional development for teachers with an aim toward promoting a concept called “deep learning.”

“Kaleidoscope is a professional development program focused on promoting engaging instruction that asks students to work on real-world tasks while building skills like collaboration and creativity,” Reis said in a statement emailed to the Banner.

School districts applied to be entered into DESE’s Kaleidoscope network of schools, but some public school advocates in Boston expressed concern that the 15 Boston Schools were added to the network without the consent of school leaders, students, or parents.

Charlestown High School teacher Matt Ruggerio learned he would be part of the network when his principal informed him on March 13. While he said teachers at the high school value professional development, the focus for many  teachers and students there has been on advocating for increased social workers and counselors in their school.

“It’s something I know students and staff felt strongly about,” he said. “One of the things I found appealing about Charlestown is that it seems like a school that’s taking a thoughtful approach to supporting students.”

Ruggerio said the school community yet been given much information on the Kaleidoscope network.

Theres not a lot of information out there, he said. That contributes to a feeling of distrust.

Boston Education Justice Alliance Executive Director Ruby Reyes took exception to the fact that the predominantly Latino and black families in East Boston and Charlestown weren’t given an option to not join the Kaleidoscope network.

“When you pick a specific target community and you make decisions for them, that is racism,” she said. “That’s what Riley is doing with this Kaleidoscope initiative by targeting East Boston and Charlestown.”

Community pushback

During the DESE meeting last week, many of those who testified urged the board to withdraw the MOU, citing what some said was the agency’s dismal record of school turnarounds in Boston.

“The state has continually underfunded urban public schools for decades,” said City Council President Kim Janey. “What our schools need are the necessary resources that benefit young people and that eliminate opportunity and achievement gaps.”

Riley, through Reis, declined to comment for this story. In the statement emailed to the Banner, Reis said DESE and Cassellius agreed to postpone negotiations over the implementation of the MOU for 60 days after BPS schools shut down.

“We believe the MOU is a fundamentally supportive model that commits BPS to focusing on four primary initiatives to support students – including a major focus on improving the 33 lowest-performing schools in the district – and commits DESE to helping BPS with four supporting initiatives and providing additional resources to the district, both to shore up other schools and to improve services like transportation and facilities that affect students throughout the district,” the statement reads.

In addition to the Kaleidoscope Network, the spokeswoman said, DESE will assist BPS in brokering partnerships between BPS schools and outside entities, help BPS recruit and retain teachers of color and provide a DESE employee to work with BPS on upgrading essential facilities such as student bathrooms.

While DESE has committed $4 million to aid BPS schools — a fraction of a percentage point in the district’s $1.3 billion budget — Mayor Martin Walsh has committed $100 million in new funding to aid Cassellius’ plan over the next three years.

At-large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George said that most of the problems DESE officials identified in a recent audit of BPS stemmed from decades of state underfunding in Boston. She questioned the lack of community input into the DESE plan.

“If you truly want to address and eliminate the problems in the Boston Public Schools and support our families during COVID-19, I ask that you listen to and work with our communities, our families, our educators and students,” she told the board members.

Responding to the statements from Boston educators and city councilors, Riley suggested they did not understand the nature of DESE’s intervention in BPS schools.

“This is not receivership,” he said. “This is not an [empowerment zone]. What this is, is — there are specific targets in the next three years that we’re asking BPS to hit, one of which is about improving those 33 lowest-performing schools where the mayor has generously agreed to give $100 million to support Dr. Cassellius in her work to improve those.”

Responding to charges that DESE is providing no support to BPS schools, Riley indicated the agency might advocate for more funding for the district, but also suggested the city’s per-pupil allocation is high.

“We’re going to hopefully provide some financial support to the district, although Boston is currently one of the wealthiest-spending per-pupil districts in the state,” he said. “But we think that because of some specific needs that our students have in Boston, that we’ll be able to get some additional dollars to them.”

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