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Activists push back on state intervention in BPS

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Activists push back on state intervention in BPS
Boston School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius addresses the school committee during a meeting last week. Cassellius says the a memorandum of understanding she signed with the state aligns closely with her goals for the district.

When state Education Secretary Jeffrey Riley and Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius signed a memorandum of understanding March 10, the document was meant to set the course for reforms in Boston over the next three years.

The agreement followed the release in March of a scathing audit of the district by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which highlighted inequities in BPS student outcomes. Under the terms of the MOU, the district is to be judged on test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates and other measures of student performance.

The MOU was inked after Mayor Martin Walsh earlier this year committed $100 million in new funding for improvements to BPS schools over the next three years and after the state Legislature last year committed to gradually ramping up spending on K-12 education by more than $1 billion over seven years with the passage of the Student Opportunity Act. But these commitments for increased local and state funding and the MOU came before BPS schools closed in mid-March amid the global coronavirus pandemic, forcing teachers, students, schools and families to adjust to new modalities of teaching and learning.

Now the challenges of remote learning, the uncertainty of the global pandemic and the recession economists believe will ensue have added fuel to education activists who are demanding that the state rescind the MOU.

“It should not have been signed, especially not in the midst of a pandemic,” said Boston Education Justice Alliance Executive Director Ruby Reyes, testifying during an online School Committee meeting on May 13. “The School Committee needs to push for this MOU to be overturned or at the very least paused for the next two years, as it has the potential to turn into full receivership as an already signed contract.”

The calls for Cassellius and Riley to terminate the MOU have turned up at School Committee meetings and DESE board meetings since the document was signed. Many have echoed the concerns that any failure to meet the benchmarks in the agreement could result in a partial or full takeover of Boston’s schools. Given the state’s checkered history of interventions in Boston and across the state, much is at stake for Boston.

The Dever School in Dorchester is ranked at the state’s Level 5 six years after DESE took control of the school from the district.
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But Cassellius notes that under state law Riley has broad latitude to intervene, with or without an MOU.

“He always retains his authority under state law to place us into receivership,” she said.

The MOU calls for the district to increase scores on the yearly MCAS test and boost attendance rates at the 33 BPS schools DESE ranks among the lowest 10% of schools in the state. Other provisions in the MOU call on the district to adopt the MassCORE standards for graduation, increase the percentage of underrepresented students in advanced courses and increase the number of students with disabilities being educated in the least restrictive environments.

Cassellius said she is meeting this week with Secretary Riley to discuss the MOU. In the March 10 document, Riley and Cassellius agreed that within 60 days, they would work out specific benchmarks for progress the district must meet with DESE. When schools in Boston were cancelled later in March, Riley agreed to postpone that discussion until May 18.

Cassellius told the Banner the benchmarks will have to be adjusted.

“Obviously, the MCAS exam is not going to be available to use as a measure,” she said. “Grading is also an issue. That all has to be discussed.”

Cassellius said the goals outlined in the MOU will not likely change, noting that they closely matched the strategic plan she released in January.

A spokeswoman for DESE said BPS will be expected to meet the MOU’s goals.

“We will be sensitive to the additional challenges that the pandemic brought with it,” the spokeswoman said in an email to the Banner. “However, it is still crucial for BPS to work toward the targets in the MOU, like reducing the over-representation of Latino and African American students placed in substantially separate special education programs, increasing the percent of students with disabilities who are served in the least restrictive settings, and implementing uniform graduation requirements.”

With state revenue projected to drop in the coming year, with legislators predicting cuts of between $4 billion and $6 billion from the $43 billion state budget, and a likely similar cut coming out of the $3 billion city of Boston budget, it’s unclear exactly to what extent the advancements promised by Cassellius and the MOU can move forward.

For instance, the call for increasing the number of students with disabilities to be educated in the least restrictive environment means that more students with disabilities will be in general education classrooms, which will require additional resources.

Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang, who has been advocating for increased staffing as part of the union’s Inclusion Done Right campaign, said expanding inclusion will require more than one teacher in most classrooms.

“If we want to increase the number of students with disabilities being educated in the least restrictive classrooms, and have more inclusion in the district, we absolutely need more staffing, because we don’t have enough staffing as it is.”

In one of the more unusual provisions in the MOU, Riley required that 15 schools in Charlestown and East Boston be added to the Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning, a pilot program Riley devised that trains teachers in a form of personalized “deeper learning.” Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang told the Banner teachers in the targeted schools are stretched thin with online instruction and not in a place where they’re able to engage in additional training.

“New professional development initiatives don’t make sense,” she said. “Teachers are focusing on how we maintain stability and how it’s done equitably. It just seems like we’re all stretched so thin now.”

Cassellius, too, questioned whether the Kaleidoscope initiative can be implemented, given that teachers are now engaged in learning how to teach remotely.

“Would it complement that work?” she said of the initiative.

As for input from parents, teachers and students, Cassellius noted that she held numerous community meetings before releasing her strategic plan for BPS, engaging community members and using their input to devise her plan.

“Outside of the Kaleidoscope, everything else in the MOU is what people told me they want schools to work on,” she said. “I think the MOU is almost fully aligned.”

Cassellius said Riley committed to conduct stakeholder engagement with the 15 Boston schools that have been added to the Kaleidoscope initiative.

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