Upcoming State Review of Boston Public Schools Sparks Anxiety, Reflection

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The Bruce Bolling Municipal Building, BPS's Nubian Square headquarters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Bruce Bolling Municipal Building, BPS's Nubian Square headquarters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

State regulators are finishing up a review of the Boston Public Schools that seems likely to highlight some of the district’s struggles. Officials, teachers and advocates across the city are anxiously waiting to read it.

The anxiety is understandable. This will be the first such report put together by the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) since 2009. And Boston Mayor Marty Walsh predicted on Radio Boston Monday that “it’s not going to be pretty.”

State law requires periodic audits of school districts, especially those with a history of academic struggles, and produce a “comprehensive report” on its findings.

When an audited district is found to be underperforming, the state’s education commissioner is authorized under state law to undertake a wide array of interventions: from modifications of curriculum or union contracts to the takeover of schools.

When asked about the prospect of state intervention on Radio Boston, Walsh said, “I’m not even gonna go there.” He touted the ongoing construction of new schools under a facilities master plan, as well as investments in higher-quality food.

Given BPS’s size and complexity — and the fact that a number of other districts post lower test scores on average — a decisive takeover of the district is probably off the table.

But some advocates for racial equity in Boston said they’d welcome some spur from the state. Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal — director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which has warred with BPS over its approach to exam-school admissions — said the district has proven “highly resistant to change” on its own.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell stopped short of encouraging state intervention, but predicted the report will confirm “what we have long known: Boston Public Schools is failing to deliver an equitable education to our city’s children.”

Both asked that the report be released to the public before any interventions are proposed.

In a statement, BPS superintendent Brenda Cassellius sounded an optimistic note, saying that “the external lens of the DESE district review will only support our efforts to better serve our students, families and staff,” and said her staff “look forward to collaborating with DESE towards our shared goal.”

But others are alarmed at the prospects. State-appointed receivers already run two BPS schools — the Dever Elementary and UP Academy Holland, both in Dorchester. Six other schools are under state monitoring for academic underperformance. Some advocates argue that the state’s track record so far of turnarounds in public schools, including in Boston, is mixed at best.

DESE spokeswoman Jackie Reis had no comment on the report's contents, noting only that the it has not yet been finalized and that no date has been set for its public release.

WBUR contacted a dozen advocates, current and former officials and parents in the Boston Public Schools. Few argue that the district is fulfilling its potential on every metric and most concede that the district has particular work to do when it comes to growing groups of vulnerable youth.

Turnover At The Top

The last state audit in 2009 judged that in many areas, then-BPS superintendent Carol Johnson and her team were pursuing needed reform. The district had set clear, new academic goals, reorganized its leadership team and consolidated 12 schools to create more K-8 offerings.

But when Johnson retired amid some controversy in 2013, it kicked off an era of churn atop the district. Four superintendents have run BPS in the seven years since her departure, with more turnover in top roles.

The new report will arrive during another such transition.

Cassellius only took over as superintendent last July and renewed her pledge to focus resources and attention on Boston’s neediest students. During her public interviews, Cassellius argued that her prior experience — especially her eight years as education commissioner for the state of Minnesota — prepared her well to handle state regulators on BPS’s behalf.

Walsh has pledged to send the district $100 million in new funding to be targeted at struggling student populations. And the Student Opportunity Act, which passed last year, will enable diverse districts like Boston to spend even more on proven solutions for those students.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, acknowledged that union educators “have known about challenges” facing vulnerable students for years, and recently won additional nurses and social workers for the system. But she argued that state intervention couldn't come at a worse time. She said that under Cassellius, labor-management relations have improved — and that “if the state wants to be helpful, they should support us with resources, time and stability."

Miren Uriarte, who served on the city’s school committee from 2014 to 2018, agreed that it would be “shocking” if the state moved in any way to sideline Cassellius after just eight months on the job — and with her strategic plan for the district launched just last month.

“It would mean another start with another set of leaders,” Uriarte said. “We really need to think about stability.”

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

Top Priority: English Learners

In 2009, state regulators found that 40 percent of BPS’s English learners had chosen to opt out of the district’s standard “sheltered English immersion” program. Under the program — which became state law after a controversial 2002 ballot referendum — English learners were taught mainly in English and without using their native language.

Also in 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation of whether Massachusetts teachers were adequately trained to serve English learners. Two years later, they concluded that the answer was no, prompting new state regulations.

Uriarte — a sociologist who studied bilingual and Latino students for decades — said the district has made some progress in the decade since.

“In 2009, (Boston) could not even count. We didn’t know with certainty the level at which kids were at in terms of English proficiency, or whether they were in front of a teacher who was trained to work with ELs.” Uriarte said. “All that, with a lot of work, has largely been addressed.”

But the number of English learners is growing — they now make up one-third of BPS's enrollment. And Uriarte argued that there are still too few teachers with the fluency and training to serve a district of Boston’s linguistic diversity. She also noted that it has been three years since the state legislature dethroned the sheltered English immersion requirement after 15 years of disappointing results, and yet, in Boston “(it) continues to be the most prevalent program.”

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

So while Uriarte may oppose state intervention, she also hopes that Cassellius will adapt where her predecessors have not to a changing student body.

Gaps Between BPS High Schools

Inequities like the ones facing English learners are magnified by BPS’s three separate sectors of high schools.

Each year, the city’s three well-regarded exam schools enroll about 1,000 students — roughly 28% of all the district’s high schoolers — with the grades and test scores to earn a seat.

Nearly a third of the district’s teenagers instead find a place at one of nearly 20 alternative high schools. Those schools tend to be relatively small, with around 250 students on average, and specialized. Their graduation rate is lower than the exam schools’, but higher than the district average.

The remaining 40% of the city’s high school students wind up in one of the city’s so-called open enrollment schools.

That group, like East Boston High, Charlestown High and English High, tend to be large and to enroll the students who missed lottery deadlines, enter district mid-year after migration or changes of custody, or whose learning disabilities might not be adequately handled at smaller institutions. As a result, the open-enrollment schools serve disproportionately many vulnerable students.

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

Against that backdrop, stark differences of outcome emerge between the exam schools and their open-enrollment neighbors. Nine out of 10 of exam-school students graduate within four years, with the vast majority going on to enroll in four-year colleges by the following year. Only about 30 percent of graduates from open-enrollment schools do the same.

It’s worth noting that for more than a decade, BPS has seen its graduation rates steadily climb: districtwide, among “high-needs” students and at open-enrollment schools. But some have cast doubt on that apparent progress.

Former Boston city councilor and one-time mayoral candidate John Connolly, for example, argued that the rise was driven by the district sacrificing high and universal academic standards: Increasingly, Connolly said, “chemistry at Brighton High can be totally different from chemistry at Mission Hill.” (In her strategic plan, Cassellius calls for higher academic standards that conform to the state’s MassCore framework.)

Connolly also pointed to stark differences of college success, as well as state graduation data published early this month that showed the first year-to-year decline in BPS’s overall four-year graduation rate since 2006.

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

For now, district officials, parents, teachers and advocates are waiting for what feels like a consequential judgment of a district trying to adapt to the city changing around it and to correct a long historical record of inequity.

Given the wide gaps separating — for instance — students of color from their white peers, Elizabeth Pauley, who studies education at the Boston Foundation, agreed with Espinoza-Madrigal that state intervention “has to be on the table.”

But activists like Mary Battenfeld of QUEST agreed with Tang, saying this is a sensitive and in some ways hopeful moment for the state's largest school district — and that while BPS has work to do, the state runs the risk of interfering with a promising educational experiment before it can get underway.

This segment aired on March 2, 2020.

Headshot of Max Larkin

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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