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McCormack Students Ask Why Their School Should Close, And What's Next03:58
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Eighth grader Bianka Bautista and other students discuss the planned closure of the McCormack Middle School during a circle in one of their classrooms.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Eighth grader Bianka Bautista and other students discuss the planned closure of the McCormack Middle School during a circle in one of their classrooms. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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As is often done at the McCormack Middle School in Columbia Point, seven students sat in a circle around their classroom. They passed around a decorated stick as they took turns speaking about the closure. And there's one common refrain: "I feel bad."

Nahomy Garay is from El Salvador and has been in Boston for three years. As a sixth grader, this is her first year at the McCormack.

"I like that in this school, when there's a problem, we talk about it first. In other schools, they say that it's a problem to deal with on your own," she said.

Another student noted that the teachers help students who don't know how to read. All of the students shook their hands in agreement as their peers discussed what they described as a quality education.

"I feel education is important here," said seventh grader Jefferson Serrano, who also moved from El Salvador three years ago. Serrano said he used to attend a different Boston public school, where he didn't learn much.

Jefferson Serrano, a seventh grader at the McCormack Middle School in Columbia Point, speaks to classmates while holding a "talking stick." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jefferson Serrano, a seventh grader at the McCormack Middle School in Columbia Point, speaks to classmates while holding a "talking stick." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"Because in the other school, they didn't give me homework. The other school, they gave us a little book to read and we were supposed to work on that for homework," he said. "In this school, they give me homework every night. And here, I've learned many things — English, a lot. I didn't learn in the other school."

The worry for students like Serrano is that the next school they go to won't be able to help them the way the McCormack has.

Eighth grader Bianka Bautista said she did not choose the McCormack. She was assigned after she moved from the Dominican Republic two years ago.

"They can’t decide to close the school because of its bad reputation. They need to come here, spend a week here and see the good things that are going on in the school," she said.

Most of these students should be able to graduate from the McCormack before it closes in 2020.

But these pre-teens and teenagers said it's difficult to understand why this building and this community will no longer exist in the same way.

"What exactly is the reason they want to close the school? There has to be a be a reason," Bautista said. The district has said that the plans for the McCormack are part of a broader goal to eliminate standalone middle schools.

WBUR spoke to these students last week, amid ongoing community conversations around the Boston Public Schools broader facilities plan, called BuildBPS Phase II.

On Monday, interim Superintendent Laura Perille said the district is adjusting some of the plans. Instead of moving the students to Excel High School in South Boston in 2020, McCormack staff will now work with the district to select a high school to partner with and create a new seventh to 12th grade school. That new community will go to a brand new facility, built on the same lot as the current McCormack building.

Perille said a central part of the next steps for the new seven to 12 school, and the district's broader plan, is to create more equity. The superintendent called that "a real breakthrough" for Boston.

"Right now, particularly at the high school level, we are we are not equitably serving our most vulnerable learners. They are highly concentrated in a small number of high schools," she said.

How exactly to do that is still being worked out.

"We deliberately set a nearly two-year timeline so that once the idea was out there, we would have an opportunity to work with that school community and other impacted school communities to accept feedback, look at modifications and really drill down to the sort of program transitions that would impact a number of students, but particularly students with special needs in special education programs," Perille said.

But some McCormack teachers worry that the closure might dismantle a program they have worked hard to build.

"This idea that these programs can be removed [from one context] and dropped into another and it all work out because the building is shiny is absolutely ridiculous and very ill-informed, in my opinion," said Ethna Fernandes, the native language teacher at the McCormack's program for Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education. The program works with students who have newly arrived in the U.S. and are two or more grade levels behind.

Boston has a legal obligation to McCormack students. Eight years ago, Boston Public Schools reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, which laid out changes to the way the district identifies and serves English language learners. (It was amended two years later.)

Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy, Inc. (META), the Somerville organization which monitors how Boston is meeting those requirements, sent a letter to the district recently saying that the district "needs to be extremely careful that its planning for the McCormack does not run afoul of the letter and spirit" of the agreement.

Boston's superintendent said that when the McCormack closes in 2020, the students would get the supports they need.

This segment aired on November 21, 2018.

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Kathleen McNerney Twitter Senior Producer / Editor, Edify
Kathleen McNerney is senior producer/editor of Edify.

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