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BPS, mayor pushing for schools to merge, then split

Plan comes as city grapples with costs of BPS ‘Quality Guarantee’

Alain Jehlen

The plan:

Two schools become one …
The first time many Boston children encounter Mayor Michelle Wu’s “Green New Deal for BPS” may not be in a sparkling, well-equipped, energy-efficient new school building.

Instead, it is likely to be in an old building that formerly housed one small school but now will serve just the first few grades of two newly merged schools.

… and the new school splits in two
Meanwhile, their older siblings will be going to a building perhaps half a mile away that also used to hold one elementary school but has been adapted for just the upper grades of the two merged schools.

One or both of these buildings may have a gym or a cafeteria that they lack today. But the classes will be larger, and some of the teachers will be gone.

At least, that’s what will happen unless the six school communities are able to block this plan. Parents have been told a School Committee decision is slated for Nov. 2. They’ve asked the Committee to hold off.

What they want before the School Committee makes a decision is a racial equity analysis of the alternatives, including staffing and enrollment projections, and building renovation plans with timelines and swing space — a thorough and open look at the whole situation.

Parent Allison Friedmann said parents fear the school community could be in for as many as four disruptive moves.

And the two-campus idea, making some families drop off and pick up children at two different locations, has very few fans.

Six meetings in May

At school community meetings held in May, officials from BPS and the mayor’s office presented their plans for two-campus, merged schools to three pairs of currently separate schools. They ran into strong resistance at every meeting.

The plans were presented as part of the “Green New Deal for BPS,” which is supposed to replace BuildBPS. But there was almost no discussion of school construction or climate change.

The proposed pairings are the Sumner and the Philbrick, the Clap and the Russell, and the Shaw and the Taylor. Officials want to complete those three mergers a year from now, in the fall of 2023. Megan Costello, a top aide to then-Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, said there will be more merger proposals in later years.

At the Sept. 14 School Committee meeting, five parent representatives of the Sumner School Family Council charged that the Green New Deal staff have been stonewalling them, refusing to share key data that would allow them to flesh out alternatives to merging with the Philbrick.

“We have asked many times … in a meeting on July 6, August 31, and September 12 … [and] in emails on June 29, July 12, July 22, August 4, August 19, and August 21,” said Friedmann.

BPS administration response

Asked for comment, the BPS district administration did not respond directly to the parents but said, “Merging schools is never easy, but given declining enrollment and in order to provide our students with all the opportunities they deserve, this will benefit the current and future students of the district.” The administration statement said mergers are needed to offer “more academic and enrichment opportunities.”

The Sumner parents, of which Friedmann is one, have been the most active and angry in opposing the mergers. Parent Rachel Young told the School Committee the staff has not seriously explored alternatives to the merger and refused to give the parents the information they need to do the work themselves. She said the Green New Deal staff have acted in a way that’s “deeply offensive.”

“Members of the School Committee, toss this merger proposal in the trash!” she said.

Sumner parents have repeatedly reminded the School Committee that it is official BPS policy to carry out a racial equity impact analysis before making major decisions. The staff have conceded that no equity analysis was done in coming up with the merger plans.

The Sumner and the Philbrick have the highest percentages of Black and brown children and the highest percentage of children from low-income families in Roslindale.

Sumner School Family Council advocacy chair Lauren Peter said in an interview that at a Sept. 9 meeting, the central office staff said an equity analysis is now under way, after the fact.

A quality guarantee for children — with conditions

Officials have said the merge-and-split plan comes jointly from the BPS administration and the mayor’s office.

At the school community meetings in May, officials said the purpose of merging the schools is to put in place the set of quality education programs and facilities that parents have been demanding for every BPS school. Former Superintendent Brenda Cassellius called it a “quality guarantee.”

Mayor Michelle Wu endorsed the idea when she took office. But her staff and BPS officials told the school communities they can only make good on that guarantee if they consolidate small schools into larger ones.

School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson came to each school community meeting. She told the parents that she loved the single-strand BPS school she attended as a child, but when she got to high school, she found out that other children at bigger elementary schools had educational opportunities that her small school couldn’t offer, such as taking part in a school orchestra.

But parents at the school meetings said they would rather not have extra programs and facilities if it means losing the special character of their small schools.

Counterproposals

At the Philbrick, teachers presented an alternative plan: Let them and their students stay in their building until renovations at the Irving Middle School building are complete. Then they can move into a beautiful, upgraded facility along with another school or schools in the area.

But officials said they can’t promise the Philbrick will move into the Irving building. Also, they said, the school mergers have to happen a lot faster, before the Irving is ready.

At the Shaw meeting, community members presented a plan showing how their school could expand to the sixth grade with the help of two portable classrooms, but officials were skeptical of that plan, too.

At the Sumner, officials said the merger is needed to make room for adding a sixth grade. Sumner sixth-graders are at the Irving building this year, but that’s temporary. Sumner parents believe it’s possible for the sixth grade to fit in their existing space, but they need BPS enrollment projections to make their case.

Urgency

At each school community meeting, city and school officials talked about the importance of moving quickly. “We have to act with urgency right now … to give students and staff the buildings they deserve,” said Costello at the Clap meeting.

Why the rush to do something that all the school communities apparently oppose?

The ‘why’

“The ‘why’ behind this proposal really matters,” said Costello. Her answer: the quality guarantee. “Some of our smaller schools … don’t have things like a gym, a cafeteria, an art space, a library, a proper space for family liaisons and school psychologists and some of the physical things that we expect in the year 2022,” she said. Merging schools is the only way to get there.

Costello said that’s “the full context” for the merge-and-split proposals.

But when pressed, she added another reason: Saving money. A teacher asked whether the Clap might be closed if the merger doesn’t go through. Costello answered, “It’s hard to know … but I can tell you that both the superintendent and the mayor have talked about the need to right-size the district.”

A few minutes later, when a parent asked for assurance that the changes would not hurt children, Costello said, “We’re doing this because we recognize incredible things that the Clap is doing and we want to build on that work.” She added, “I know there is not a lot of trust with the district.”

At the Philbrick, one parent’s response to the proposal was, “This to me reads like a business decision.”

School Committee Chair Robinson has said publicly several times that BPS can’t afford to keep operating small elementary schools.

How mergers could save money

Two schools need two principals. A merger might make it possible to eliminate one. Teaching positions would probably also be cut. Officials even talked about having just one nurse for the two buildings, although the BTU contract requires a full-time nurse in every school building.

“The reality is, there will be some positions that are duplicated through this process,” said Costello at the Russell meeting.

Consolidating might make it possible to hire an art or science specialist to serve both schools and still wind up with fewer teachers altogether, saving money and adding programs at the same time.

Probably the biggest way merging schools can save money is by making it possible to have bigger classes. Two schools that each have 30 students in the same grade probably will have four teachers, each with a small class. Merge the schools and the 60 students will probably only have three teachers.

A parent told the School Committee on Sept. 14 that the staff told parents a combined Philbrick and Sumner schools could have a total of 35 classes, down from 42.

Parents at the school meetings said they would rather not have extra programs and facilities if it means losing the special quality of their schools and the teachers with whom they and their children have formed strong and important bonds.

“The selling point of the Philbrick is the small community,” said a parent. “It’s the reason my family chose the Philbrick for our child, the reason I’m still at the Philbrick and happy to bring my other two daughters into the school system. You lose a lot if that’s disrupted.”

Adding a new school transition for children

Many parents also strongly opposed inserting a new transition from lower elementary to upper elementary in their children’s BPS careers. Children today are already under tremendous stress, said one parent. “Transitions like this, given the way things are already going — they’re serious triggers,” she said.

Officials responded that there are already examples in BPS of elementary schools with more than one campus; for example, the Eliot and the Beethoven/Ohrenberger. They suggested that parents go visit them.

Ironically, the administration has been talking up the harm of school transitions in its effort to win support for closing middle schools and moving to a K–6, 7–12 system. At the Taylor School meeting, Costello said the “big focus” of the two-campus split is to create a system with just one school transition at grade six.

“A big distraction”

Last week, Sumner parent Lauren Peter told the School Committee that the administration’s push to merge and split is keeping the school staff and site council from focusing on what they need to do now to successfully add the sixth grade and launch a new year. Families, she said, “should be meeting new friends, making connections, not considering entering the lottery … because a two-campus solution between the Sumner and the Philbrick is really just logistically impossible for a lot of families.”

At the Philbrick community meeting, Jennifer Dines, a Philbrick parent who is also a National Board Certified Teacher at the Mildred Avenue School, expressed her frustration with the whole tumultuous process.

“The district has a long way to go in providing rigorous academics for all students,” she said. “Every time there’s a merger or a political action and people are excessed, or communities have to combine … it brings the focus on [the] merger and the focus is taken away from the academics.”

Dines said she’d already been to a meeting about this proposed merger last winter, and there was no discussion of reading specialists or other ways to improve instruction.

The staff have to think about, “How are we going to line up in the hallways? How’s this person going to react, and how is this new team going to interact?” she said.

“This is all such a big distraction for me. It takes away from the real work of education.”

Boston Parents Schoolyard News

Boston School Committee, BPS, school merger
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