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To Avoid Potential Receivership, Boston School Committee Votes To Close Mattahunt Elementary02:19
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Teachers lead students into the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Teachers lead students into the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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On Wednesday, the Boston School Committee voted to approve Superintendent Tommy Chang’s plan to close Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan on June 30 of next year and convert the school into a center for early childhood education.

That means most of the school’s 638 students will be forced to enroll in other Boston Public Schools — and this won't be the first time for several students. District records show 17 Mattahunt students have previously been displaced by a closure, and community leaders say the number is higher.

For the past two years, the Mattahunt has scored in the bottom 1 percent of public schools in the state. It’s been classified as a Level 4 “turnaround school” since the fall of 2012.

As part of the turnaround process, the school received special administrative attention and an annual grant of about $600,000. But it also faced takeover by the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) if scores didn't turn around — and they didn't.

Chang presented the closure plan as the only chance for the Mattahunt school to avoid passing out of BPS control.

"I can’t put forward a plan that would put the school in jeopardy of state receivership,” said Chang. “I just can’t."

Chang suggested he isn't comfortable with the external operators the state put in place at Dorchester's Dever Elementary School and UP Academy Holland, and added that receivership doesn't seem to accelerate improvements in learning.

Though the Mattahunt's long stay at Level 4 automatically placed it at risk of takeover, some families say they were shocked when the prospect of closure was first formally introduced at the previous committee meeting on Nov. 2.

Over the past two weeks, community members have met frequently among themselves and with BPS leaders. During that time, they quickly assembled a presentation on other options, including converting the Mattahunt into an "innovation school" to give its leadership more flexibility and requesting a short-term extension from the state. Chang argued those options were not workable this late in the process.

Advocates replied that other communities, like Springfield and Salem, have convinced DESE to reconsider a pending decision. Lincoln Larmond, an activist with Mattapan United, wondered in a public comment why his neighborhood was given so little time to discuss and decide the school's future.

“Communities of color are always asked to accept what is being presented to us as if there are no other options," he said.

Lincoln Larmond, center left, and other Mattapan community members look on as the Boston School Committee discusses the closure of the Mattahunt Elementary School. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Lincoln Larmond, center left, and other Mattapan community members look on as the Boston School Committee discusses the closure of the Mattahunt Elementary School. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

Larmond was one of more than 20 parents, teachers and community activists in the meeting Wednesday night to plead the case for keeping Mattahunt running.

They said the school is cherished by its community and confronted with unique challenges, including high turnover at the top — including three principals in four years — and a high-needs, low-income student population that changes quickly and draws heavily from the city's Haitian population.

Some decried what they saw as a pattern of dislocating children in communities of color without enough thought as to the consequences. Nancy Dickerson, who remembers her 16 years as principal of the Mattahunt as "a distinct honor and pleasure," said she thought the closure would only inflict more damage on an already vulnerable population.

Jovan Lacet, a longtime Mattapan resident born in Haiti, traced the dislocation back decades.

"I went through some of the same things these kids going through now," said Lacet, who listed schools he attended in the 1970s and '80s that are now closed: the Audubon, the Marshall, the Phyllis Wheatley. "I’m tired of it," he added.

Jovan Lacet addresses the Boston School Committee about the closure of the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan, where he lives. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Jovan Lacet addresses the Boston School Committee about the closure of the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan, where he lives. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

It is true that when Mattahunt Elementary first opened in 1977, amid court-supervised desegregation, its first class of 950 students drew from three Boston schools that closed that year.

After hours of discussion, the board voted: six "yeas" to approve the closure, and one abstention from member Regina Robinson.

The committee's decision will require final approval from DESE on Friday. But in all likelihood, the hundreds of Mattahunt students planning to enter grades two through five will have to find a new school for 2017.

Chang's plan does call for those students to receive near-top priority in the school lottery, as well as to guarantee them a place at a Level 3 school or higher. The district also promises to provide one-on-one guidance to families displaced by the closure, and assist faculty and staff with résumés and job placements.

After the meeting, committee chairman Michael O'Neill said the board had been forced to pick between two imperfect options: state takeover, or an opportunity to refocus on high-quality, trauma-sensitive early education on the Mattahunt site. The early childhood education center would cover pre-kindergarten through first grade.

O'Neill, along with other committee members, expressed hope that if the early childhood center works out, they could gradually expand their mission to include later grades, and perhaps once again fill the large and modern school building on Hebron Street.

For now, he said, strained budgets — and the looming judgment of DESE — forced the committee to make this "incredibly difficult" decision before a disappointed audience.

There may be more emotional meetings on the horizon. Boston Public Schools leaders are still considering several school closures, even in the next two or three years, as part of the district's long-term plan for financial stabilization.

Outside the meeting room, Mattapan activists described themselves as heartbroken. Rose Dorgilus, who works in Haitian parent engagement at the school, said she and the parents she represents feel ignored and at a loss for what to do next.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that the John W. McCormack Middle School, not UP Academy Holland, was run by an external operator. We regret the error.

This segment aired on November 17, 2016.

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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