A Pilot School Fights To Stay Open

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On Tuesday night the Boston School Committee discusses a controversial plan to close or merge eight schools as part of its Acceleration Agenda. It’s an effort to improve the academic quality of every school in the district. Most of the schools on the closure list have high MCAS failure rates and above-average dropout rates. One school stands out.

Lee Academy in Dorchester stands out because it’s a pilot school. The school started six years ago to test the idea that if you integrate preschool with elementary school, it would produce better results.

Kids start Lee as young as 3-years-old. Four hundred families are on the wait-list for the preschool program, which is nationally accredited. The district gives two main reasons for wanting to close the pilot school — low academic achievement and wanting the building to expand another school.

Boston City Councilor John Connolly hears from angry parents at the Lee Academy Pilot School. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)
Boston City Councilor John Connolly hears from angry parents at the Lee Academy Pilot School. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

"Sometimes when we merge schools it’s really about trying to merge the best models that we have with other models, particularly if they are in close proximity," said Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson. "These two schools happen to be in close proximity and that was why they were identified."

Lee Academy Pilot School and Lee Elementary share part of their name, and a building. Johnson says students at Lee Elementary are improving much faster than their counterparts at the pilot school. And the merger will allow the elementary school to expand to a K-8 program.  But closing the pilot has enraged some Lee pilot parents.

"I think the district is undermining the parents and, to be honest with you, almost taking us for stupid," said parent Linda Barros.

She doesn’t believe the district is closing the school because of poor academic performance. She says if you look at MCAS scores across the district there are other schools in much worse shape.

"There are 14 other schools other than the Lee Academy that have lower MCAS scores than Lee Academy but they are staying open," Barros said. "We have turnaround schools that were in warning for years. But yet they were injected with millions of dollars to turn those schools around."

Lee is one of 21 pilot schools in the district, which were created to be models for educational innovation in urban schools. Pilot status gives schools freedom over budget, staffing and governance, but they still fall under district control. Pilot schools typically have smaller classes and a lot parental involvement. Lee Academy has marshaled strong opposition to the plan to close it. One of the parents leading the fight is Ann Walsh, who says it’s not clear to her what the closure is really about.

"You’ve got a pilot school, you’ve got families who love it, people who are committed, teachers who go above and beyond their contract to get this done, families who come to every single event and you see a district wanting to get rid of that and we can’t figure out why," Walsh said.

Walsh says the district is looking narrowly at academic performance and not acknowledging that in other grades, students have made significant improvements.

The proposal to close the pilot school has caught the attention of Boston City Councilor John Connolly, who recently went to Lee Academy to hear from parents.

"My major objection to the merger is that they are going to revoke pilot status," Connolly said. "I don’t want to see any plan that involves losing a pilot."

But Superintendent Johnson says that because pilots have flexibility and control over staffing, students there should outperform students at district schools.

"Obviously, I’m proud of our pilots, I think they are making extraordinary progress," she said. "But the most important thing is that schools work for students, the students that they serve."

Johnson says she’s held hearings and collected data before making her recommendations on closure.  But the parents at Lee Academy want her to reconsider and give the process more time.  While three pilot schools are low-performing and are in turnaround status, the district has never stripped a school of its pilot status.

The school committee votes on the proposed closure of Lee Academy Pilot School on Nov. 3.

This program aired on October 26, 2010.


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