BOSTON — Preparations to create the first new public school building in Boston in more than a decade are underway.
However, as officials plan to develop a modern facility to replace the Dearborn School, a century-old middle school in Roxbury suffering from academic struggles, many community members are fighting the upgrade.
The Dearborn School is one of about two dozen Boston Public Schools housed in buildings more than 100 years old.
Last June, city and state officials celebrated the approval of $70 million to tear down the stately building, and build a new, state-of-the-art public school for grades 6 through 12. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held recently at the school.
“Boston is an old city with a proud history,” said Boston School Committee Chairman Michael O’Neill. “We’ve also some of the oldest school buildings in the country and that presents a challenge as we strive to provide the best education for our students.”
The Dearborn’s replacement was supposed to house the city’s only STEM school — for science, technology, engineering and math, preparing kids for jobs of the future.
But in mid-July, officials changed plans. The city’s school superintendent now proposes that the Dearborn become a K-12 charter school, run for the district by an existing elementary charter school.
Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, of Roxbury, chairs the council’s Education Committee, and says it would be sad if the only way for kids who live near the Dearborn to attend the new school is by winning a citywide lottery for a charter seat.
“The issue for me is when you build a new school, it’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal for a community. And I don’t see any other place where we’re building a new school and turning it over to a charter. We don’t do that,” Jackson said.
Interim School Superintendent John McDonough says he should have told the community his proposal was coming and better explained the reasoning behind the revised plans.
“My strongest concern regarding the Dearborn was that we have a Level 4 school, a turnaround school, that the state has deemed as, prior to this year, making progress but not sufficient progress to move out of Level 4 turnaround status,” McDonough said.
He added that he is afraid the Dearborn School could be taken over and run by the state, just as the funds have come through to rebuild the school.
Two years ago, two other public schools in Boston that were plagued by chronically low MCAS scores were placed into state receivership.
“And both the mayor and I have committed that there will never, ever be another Boston public school that is designated as Level 5 and placed in receivership by the state,” McDonough said.
He said that making the Dearborn an in-district charter school would prevent that.
But many residents and education activists are fighting the idea. They’ve been working to improve the Dearborn’s status, through mentoring, weekend tutoring and other programs, and say the charter proposal blindsided them.
“We have a community that fought and put their hearts, their souls, their everything, into securing a building, a state-of-the-art building for a STEM program, and then, without anyone seeming to know it, it can be snatched from under them,” said Barbara Fields, a Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts member.
The Boston School Committee will have a public meeting on the charter proposal before a final vote scheduled for September.
Meanwhile, another fight is brewing to block any plans to rebuild the Dearborn School. Those critics are concerned with preserving the building for its historical value.
“It’s a beautiful building. I mean, from the front, you look at the lines, it looks like a coliseum,” said Nadine Riggs, who grew up in Roxbury. “You don’t see architecture like this anymore. And this ia historical district, and we want to keep our historical building. I mean, sometimes not everybody wants bright, shiny, glassy.”
The Dearborn was built in 1912 as a high school for girls, teaching them cooking, sewing, nursing and other “practical arts.”
Some opponents argue there’s no land for athletic fields and other modern facilities. They’re collecting signatures for a petition to save the building and plan to take their fight to Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Deval Patrick.