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Wu reaches deal, averts receivership

Education commissioner threatened to declare BPS ‘underperforming’

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
Wu reaches deal, averts receivership
Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley. PHOTO: Joshua Qualls

Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley last week recommended the state’s board of education label the Boston Public Schools an underperforming district, a designation that would give him the authority to approve an improvement plan for the district.

On Monday night, city officials announced they had reached an agreement with Riley over an improvement plan for the district, staving off the underperforming designation.

“We’re ready for the work ahead with our school communities, our new superintendent, and all across Boston eager to invest in our young people,” Mayor Michelle Wu said in a June 27 press statement. “This agreement documents specific steps, time frames, and clear scope for a partnership with the state that sets our district up for success, and I’m glad that our discussions ultimately reinforced that Boston’s local communities know best how to deliver for our schools.”

Riley and members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have over the last two years raised the possibility of a state takeover of the BPS, citing a cohort of 34 schools in the district whose students’ test scores rank them in the lowest 10% in the state, along with a 2019 state review of BPS that cited persistent achievement gaps between students of color and white students and inadequate services for students with disabilities and for English language learners.

In March 2020, The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) entered into a memorandum of understanding with BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, in which the district agreed to make improvements with benchmarks for student performance on MCAS exams.

That same month, BPS and districts across the country transitioned rapidly to remote learning as the COVID pandemic hit, rendering many of those benchmarks more difficult to attain, as school communities grappled with challenges of online learning.

This year, Riley conducted a second review of BPS. The review, released in May, found some progress but cited the district for continued lack of adequate services for English language learners and students with disabilities, as well as persistent problems with school buses arriving on time, faulty data reporting and other factors.

Riley and Wu entered into negotiations on what form a state intervention would take. In the end, there were two sticking points. While Riley envisioned an open-ended process during which the state would work with BPS to improve data collection and reporting, on-time bus arrivals and the functioning of special education and English language learner services, Wu proposed a Dec. 31, 2023 sunset for the oversight.

Additionally, Riley proposed that DESE would appoint an independent auditor to monitor the district’s data reporting and set the scope of its work, including monitoring of graduation rate data, on-time bus arrivals and other areas of operational and academic data. Wu insisted that the city would hire the auditor and that the scope of the auditor’s work be agreed on by BPS and DESE.

“Ensuring data integrity and transparency in our school districts is a vital function of DESE as a state education agency,” Riley wrote in a memorandum to the state board on last week’s decision to declare the district underperforming.

Under the agreement reached Monday, DESE will appoint the auditor and BPS will grant the auditor full access to all the district’s data. The agreement will remain in place until June of 2025.

The agreement calls on BPS to conduct an equity analysis of funding to those schools that DESE rates among the lowest performing in the state, and to provide quarterly briefings to the Boston School Committee on implementation of plans for improving the quality of instruction in the schools.

The city has also agreed to make changes to special education, including hiring an outside firm to advise on improving services for students and to begin implementing a citywide inclusion policy that would provide education in the least restrictive environment. This would mean that instead of concentrating students with special needs in substantially separate classrooms, such students would be educated using an inclusion model, in which a special education teacher or paraprofessional would accompany special needs students in general education classrooms.

The agreement does not indicate the cost of such changes. It does stipulate that the state will provide $10 million over three years to help cover the costs of the auditor and special education advisors.

The city has also agreed to devise a plan by Aug. 15 to ensure that all English language learners receive access to grade-level instruction and expand access to instruction in the students’ native languages. While Massachusetts voters in 2002 passed a ballot measure severely limiting instruction in any language other than English, a law passed by the Legislature in 2017 has allowed districts to expand instruction in other languages. Boston offers limited instruction in languages such as Spanish, Haitian creole and Cape Verdean creole.

Additionally, the agreement calls on the district to implement changes BPS officials have recently committed to, such as changes in the busing contract that BPS officials recently negotiated with bus driver union officials.

Receivership averted

Parents, elected officials and the Boston Teachers Union had pushed back on the threat of receivership since the issue came up in 2020, citing the state’s poor track record of receivership. Of the three school districts the state has put in receivership, none has shown appreciable improvement in test scores. While Lawrence, which went into receivership more than 10 years ago, saw initial increases in graduation rates, that district remains among the 10 lowest ranked in the state.

Within Boston, two schools placed under state receivership have also struggled with little evidence of progress. The Dever school has cycled through six principals since it was declared underperforming in 2014. Initially, DESE contracted with an education startup called Blueprint to run the Dever, and granted the firm $1.3 million on top of the district’s $4.6 million allocation for the school. The school remains in the lowest tier of performance, as measured by the state’s metrics.

DESE appointed charter school management firm Up Academy to run the Holland School in 2013. The school attained the dubious distinction of having the highest suspension rate for kindergarteners in the state, and in one year suspended 325 of its 750 students.

Given the state’s record, Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang said she doesn’t have confidence the state can actually improve Boston’s schools.

“No one’s saying that there aren’t issues that need to be fixed,” she said during a BTU meeting held on Zoom Monday. “But what we are saying loudly and clearly is that the facts do not show that receivership actually will help.”

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