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Despite Popular Support, Pilot Schools Stalled In Boston

The waiting list at Dorchester's Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School is long even though the school's MCAS scores lag behind state averages. (Meghna Chakrabarti/WBUR)

The waiting list at Dorchester's Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School is long even though the school's MCAS scores lag behind state averages. (Meghna Chakrabarti/WBUR)

At the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, every child has a laptop. They’re all flipped open as this sixth grade math class learns about decision trees.

“Together, we’re going to create something called a…?” the teacher asks.

Voices rise in unison: “Combination!”

“Using a…?”

“Tree diagram!”

Pilot schools enjoy support from both Mayor Thomas Menino and his opponent, City Councilor Michael Flaherty. The schools are very popular with parents. Pilots span all grade levels and serve more students than charter schools. About 6,100 students attend a Boston pilot school, almost 10 percent of the city’s students.

Public education has emerged as a high-profile issue in this year’s mayoral contest, though much of the focus has been on the debate over charter schools. Meanwhile, the pilot school program in Boston has stalled, leaving many wondering: What happened to this once nationally recognized Boston innovation?

MENINO AND FLAHERTY HAVE SAID THEY LIKE THE FACT that even though pilots are Boston public schools, they act like charter schools. Pilot schools operate within some union work rules, but unlike regular district schools, pilots are self-governing. They can experiment with what and how they teach.

“We are definitely more nimble because of the pilot status,” said Deb Socia, principal of Frederick Middle School.

The Frederick first opened its doors seven years ago. Its students are almost all black or Latino; more than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch; almost half are special-education students or English language learners.

It’s a population that hasn’t fared well in some other Boston schools, but Socia is certain that test scores are rising at the Frederick because her teachers have the ability to control their own curriculum.

“For example, our children were struggling with creating a good paragraph. We did training with the entire staff around it,” Socia said. “So everybody in the building asks children to write. And now our kids are scoring closer to the state.”

Socia is upfront and honest. The leap in writing scores was the best outcome she could have hoped for. But on the whole, the Frederick still scores below the state average on MCAS tests. It is an underperforming school.

The difference, however, is that parents don’t mind. Socia says families see the annual improvement the school makes and the personal attention that children get from teachers. As a result, the waiting list for the Frederick Middle School is huge. For every seat the Frederick has, two families are already waiting in line.

THE WAITING LIST IS EQUALLY LONG ACROSS THE DISTRICT. The Center for Collaborative Education, a Boston group that works with schools considering pilot status, recently examined district-wide school choice forms. They found that 27 percent of all first choices were for pilot seats when, at the time, pilots held only 11 percent of district seats.

“The demand was two-and-a-half times the seats,” said Dan French, the center’s executive director. “Furthermore, parents who didn’t get pilots were two or three times more likely to leave the district altogether. So clearly there’s a growing demand across both race and income for a different kind of school.”

The city wants more pilot schools. In fact, Boston was supposed to have 29 pilot schools this year. But there are only 23. A deeply frustrated Mayor Menino lays blame for the shortage at the feet of the Boston teachers union.

“Why should Boston be held back because one union says no?” Menino said recently.

Menino is not alone. Other education reform advocates also believe the pilot program has failed to meet demand because of the union.

“We need to have the union helping us get the best teachers, get the best programs in schools, and focusing on education reform instead of on the protection of jobs,” said John Mudd of Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “I think there’s been too little education focus on the part of the union leadership.”

IT’S IRONIC, BECAUSE THE BOSTON TEACHERS UNION is the very group that first created the pilot concept back in 1993. Pilots were a direct response to the advent of charter schools in Massachusetts.

When the state Legislature gave the nod to charter schools by passing the Education Reform Act, teachers unions were immediately on guard. They worried that charters would drain financial resources from traditional schools because state funding follows students who chose charter programs.

Pilot schools allow for charter-like freedoms to choose the curriculum and the length of the school day, but they are staffed by unionized teachers who must vote to convert an existing school into a pilot school.

The problem, from the union’s perspective, is that a “yes” vote often obliges teachers to give up key provisions in their contract, such as overtime pay and job protection.

The trade-off makes many teachers uncomfortable. Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union, has been criticized for turning teachers against pilots by capitalizing on that fear.

“A school department person testified under oath: ‘The president of the union threw the fear of God into a previous group of people who voted no,’ ” Stutman said. “And I can only say, I don’t have that power. I don’t want that power. I’ve never thrown the fear of God into anybody.”

Stutman has met with teachers at a number of potential pilot schools. He rejects critics’ claims that the union has pressured teachers to vote against pilot status. “People who say that, they fall into one of three categories,” Stutman said. “They’re basically ignorant of what’s going on, they believe teachers in the building cannot make up their own minds. Or, they’re plain old misinformed.”

Teachers are rejecting pilot status, Stutman added, because they have genuine doubts about pilot schools performance. Pilot test scores are markedly mixed across the district. Stutman said that’s lead teachers to wonder: If the ability for a school to self-govern is so good, where are the results?

“We absolutely want what’s best for kids,” he said, “but it isn’t innovation for the sake of innovation.”

ON THIS, THERE IS A SURPRISING CHORUS OF AGREEMENT. Even John Mudd, who is critical of the union, agrees. Mudd believes that too often city and school leaders act as if new programs, like pilots, are the educational panacea Boston has been looking for.

“The crucial issue,” Mudd said, “is not just having the plans, but how they’ll be implemented and how to be successful.”

For the pilot school program, there is no clear answer to that question. While Boston’s homegrown educational innovation has stalled in the city, pilot programs are sprouting in other major urban school districts such as Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Meanwhile, Menino continues to cite union resistance as a primary reason why he has moved on to supporting the next new thing: so-called in-district charter schools. Flaherty, his opponent, says he still approves of pilots. But Flaherty, too, spends much more time on the stump talking about lifting the cap on charter schools.

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