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BPS needs better community participation

Ruby Reyes

The world seems to be turning upside down, and Boston Public Schools seems to be following in the same path.

Covid-19 has created a crisis that has led to a path of top-down decision making and a lack of transparency. Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has prided herself on creating accountability and family engagement as one of her top priorities. However, the past few months have proven otherwise.

The district recently announced a headmaster shuffle that included Madison Park, Charlestown High, Brighton High, and the McKinley School. Having a principal suddenly disappear dramatically impacts an entire school community. Parents and educators were not informed, much less involved in selecting the new school leaders. These decisions were made with no transparency.

Then came a presentation to the School Committee on May 27 about adopting the MassCore as additional standards for graduation requirements, on top of a high school reconfiguration plan that targeted struggling high schools to move to 7-12 grade levels. MassCore is a set of classes required for graduation, which would include courses like art and physical education. While it is important that students have the opportunity to complete courses for higher education applications, there are concerns that MassCore will come without the needed funding to make sure that all students have access to the all the MassCore classes.

These high schools are the same schools that have experienced monumental budget loss over the past few years, creating cuts that make those classes unavailable to students. Similar to what happened in 1993 when MCAS started, everyone wanted to see students achieving at a high level, but schools did not nor do they have the resources to do that. Cassellius told the School Committee that after they passed the new graduation requirement, BPS would study how to make the required courses available. That’s backwards: Funding should be in place and the courses should be offered before any decision to require students to take them.

On the same day came the presentation on turning the high schools that are already struggling with budget loss to include grades 7-12. The reconfiguration plans were developed with principal input, once again excluding families and teachers. In FY20, East Boston High, Excel and Brighton High experienced budget cuts of over $2 million. In FY21, the Burke, Excel and Brighton experienced budget cuts of over $1.4 million. Perhaps BPS’ budgets should be reconfigured to invest in these schools rather than moving principals, adding grade levels and on top of that requiring that they offer MassCore required courses, when they have been systemically underfunded.

Most recently, the central office’s academic department was eliminated. Getting rid of the academic department in the midst of school communities still figuring out distance learning will create even more instability. What is worse is that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) memorandum of understanding signed by Cassellius and Commissioner Riley on March 10 states that BPS has to adopt by the MassCore by June 2020 and has to increase graduation rates, essentially making decisions for Casellius, the School Committee, and the mayor. With all of this comes questions about the plan for reopening schools, which is still being developed.

Bulldozing through decisions does not cultivate trust, one of the goals of the strategic plan. Unilateral decisions create further trauma in an already traumatizing situation. The voices and input of parents, students and teachers need to be cultivated and included. Without them, the district will continue to feed a deep mistrust in families and educators and will continue to perpetuate a cycle of creating systemic problems for school communities.

While community input takes time, the process creates healthier plans.

Ruby Reyes is executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.

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