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City Hall backs off plans to move O’Bryant School

Brian Wright O’Connor
City Hall backs off plans to move O’Bryant School
(top) John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Roxbury PHOTO: Boston Public Schools (bottom) West Roxbury Education Complex PHOTO: John Phelan

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has backed off from plans to move the O’Bryant School from the heart of the Black community to West Roxbury, meaning that the city’s premiere academy of science and mathematics will remain, at least for now, on Malcolm X Boulevard in Roxbury.

In an exclusive interview with the Banner, the first-term mayor said on Monday that she would continue to push forward to address decades of underinvestment and deferred maintenance in Boston’s aging school buildings in spite of the setback to her plans for the O’Bryant.

She also stressed the importance of community inclusion in the planning process, addressing a major complaint around the sudden announcement last year of a decision to move the exam school.

“Meaningful community engagement must be at the core of every plan, not just to guide sound decision-making, but to have lasting impact,” said Wu.

“Every year that we move forward with school building projects, we move closer to delivering full access for our students to have the highest quality education with arts and sports and state-of-the-art science and technology.”

In a letter to be released publicly this week, Mayor Wu and Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper said the city explored many sites for the school but was unable to find “an alternative location to accommodate the expansion and student experience that had been envisioned.”

“With a lack of consensus around moving the O’Bryant School to the West Roxbury Educational Complex, we are halting those plans indefinitely,” they wrote.

Public hearings over the proposed relocation of the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, named for the first Black member of the Boston School Committee, from its Roxbury campus to the vacant West Roxbury Education Complex produced strong community disapproval from parents, students and teachers alike. The proposal did receive support from some in the BPS administration as well as from Richard O’Bryant, the son of John D. O’Bryant, for whom the school was named.

The leafy location along VFW Parkway at the edge of Boston offered room for the high school to grow. But concerns were raised over long commuting times and the site’s distance from the university campuses supporting students at the school’s current site, where it shares a building with the Madison Park Technical Vocational High School.

Institutions clustered near the O’Bryant, including Northeastern University, Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, offer its students access to world-class science and engineering training.

Moving the most diverse of the city’s three exam schools to Boston’s most suburban ward, with the least access to MBTA train service, would also result, some argued, in far fewer students from East Boston, Charlestown, Roxbury, South Boston and Dorchester, and a drop in participation in school sports and other activities due to the commute.

Many O’Bryant School parents welcomed the decision. “I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see the mayor is listening to the community’s concerns,” said Liza Cagua-McAllister, the mother of an O’Bryant eighth-grader.

Echoing other comments, she said many parents want to see vertical expansion at the current site.

“The mayor has heard viable and attractive proposals on how to keep the O’Bryant and Madison Park in their current location with improved and expanded facilities,” she said.

While agreeing with the decision to halt the relocation plans for the moment, Richard O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute at Northeastern University — also named for his father — said he hasn’t given up hopes of seeing a new O’Bryant campus on the shuttered West Roxbury site.

A graduate of Boston Tech before it was renamed to honor the pioneering Boston School Committee member, O’Bryant said that when the school was moved from its Townsend Street location in Roxbury, the shift was considered temporary.

“We were promised then that we’d get a new school. And that was 30 years ago. But the Madison needs more immediate attention We’ve waited this long. We can wait a little longer,” he said. “This is a vision that I hope we can realize.”

In her remarks, the mayor made a veiled reference to re-engaging the O’Bryant planning process at some point in the future.

“Every year we delay important decisions, we are deferring achieving the full potential for our district and our young people — so we will stay on track with continual progress and new projects each year,” she said.

When the city announced plans last June to move the O’Bryant, critics accused the mayor of moving too rapidly to fulfill its ambitious $2 billion Green New Deal facilities proposal for the Boston Public Schools.

Wu had hoped to tear down the existing West Roxbury structure, a condemned multi-level brick complex prone to leaks, and construct new buildings to accommodate 2,000 students in grades seven to 12 on the 14-acre site. The O’Bryant currently has about 1,500 students. Construction was expected to begin in 2025, with the new school opening a year later.

The prospect of a more expansive campus was not enough, however, to create sufficient consensus around the choice.

Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, helped organize efforts opposing the move and welcomed the news that the O’Bryant is staying put.

“With everything that’s happened around school building decisions, I think it’s cautious good news,” she said. “Families have experienced a wide variety of broken promises. But I’m glad Mayor Wu understands what a bad proposal it was and hopefully understands the importance of school engagement in decisions. O’Bryant families were entirely left out of the decision-making process.”

Resistance to the plan came from the city council as well as education advocates. A public hearing in December, preceded by a protest outside City Hall, resulted in the council passing a resolution opposing the move.

According to the mayor, the city will continue to collect community input on future plans for the O’Bryant. The letter from Wu and Skipper said community comments will be “compiled in a report and shared with the community in the coming months.” In addition, a meeting will be held at the O’Bryant at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13, to answer any remaining questions.