BOSTON — Most Boston students start classes on Wednesday and school officials are predicting record enrollment this year — about 58,000 students.
The spike comes during a transitional time for the district’s leadership. This summer, former Superintendent Carol Johnson stepped down after six years on the job. And Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who has been hands-on in Boston schools, is retiring at the end of the year.
In the superintendent seat temporarily is John McDonough, a four-decade veteran of the system who most recently served as the department’s chief financial officer.
McDonough joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to discuss the beginning of the school year during this period of change.
John McDonough: We have over a thousand more students entering our district this year. That’s good news for Boston Public Schools, but it does present some challenges along with it. In addition to that, this will be our first year of implementation of our home-based school choice plan that will impact families the following school year. And we always, always, always define our work as eliminating achievement gaps in this district, so we have looked at how we are supporting schools, to look at data on a student basis, look at our instructional practices and improve quality in every one of our schools in Boston.
Bob Oakes: How does that play out in terms of how you set your priorities for the start of this school year?
Number one is one time performance of our transportation system. We’ve had the great fortune of introducing and piloting last year an application called Where’s My School Bus?, and this will roll out and be available to all families this year. They will be able to determine online at any point in time the physical location of their bus.
We’re also looking to introduce a significant change in our support for families in food services. All of our families, regardless of our income, will be eligible for meals without cost to the family.
The department starts the new school year with a new system, a new service that allows students to report bullying via text messages.
The intent is to ensure that students are comfortable in reporting incidents of bullying. We also have some indication that those students who do not share English as their primary language are much more comfortable in communicating this way.
In terms of enrollment, there’s been a surge in growth in the student population in younger grades but a decline in the number of high school age students. What’s that mean in terms of the classroom experience?
There is a surge in the lower grades — kindergarten and grade 1, and even in grade 2 — that has put pressures on facility space in our elementary and K-8 schools. We have also seen a decline in some of the upper grades, particularly in the entering points at middle and high school. That’s largely a function of both demographic changes as well as increases in charter school seat availability.
The younger grades — does that mean more crowded classrooms?
That does not mean more crowded classrooms. It means that we have been challenged to identify individual classrooms at existing sites. That is not a long term solution. Ultimately, the challenge for us as a school district is how do we maximize the totality of facility space that we have that is acceptable to families and that encourages a programmatic design which is ultimately supportive of high achieving students?
In the upper grades, where we acknowledge that the population is shrinking, do you think that means there will be a greater push, greater pressure to close some high schools in Boston, pressure that the previous superintendent, Carol Johnson, felt for a time?
I do think it raises a number of questions for us. And I would say that the answer to that question is “not necessarily.” We acknowledge the number of vacancies in our high schools, and we’ll be talking with the community this fall about the long term capital master plan to try to tackle this challenge. We can use all our buildings in ways that make more sense to the community that we serve.
Plus, it’s a question that will need to be addressed by the incoming new mayor and the incoming new school superintendent.
If you take a look, we are a school district in transition; we are also a city in transition. We have specific choices to make during this period of time. We can either hunker down and retreat and wait until things play out, or we can hold steady and just make sure things are moving OK, or we can move forward. In this district, in this city, at this time, there is no other acceptable answer for Boston other than to move forward.