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State report rips Boston Schools, demands 'bold' response

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boston Public Schools continues to fall short of an "acceptable minimum standard" in several critical areas, including transportation and special education, state education officials concluded in a withering new report that could reignite debate about potential state receivership of the largest pre-K-12 district in Massachusetts.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Monday published a 188-page report detailing its assessment of how well BPS has transformed itself in the two-plus years since the state first highlighted major deficiencies in the district.

While DESE praised Boston school officials for some of the steps they have taken, the follow-up review makes clear that the Baker administration believes significant failures across BPS have persisted or, in some cases, gotten worse since the state's last probe.

The latest analysis comes as BPS is set for another turnover at the top, with Superintendent Brenda Cassellius set to depart at the end of the year and the district searching for its fifth leader in the past nine years.

"Over the past several years, under Dr. Cassellius' leadership, BPS has successfully launched several new district-wide initiatives and has further advanced others. However, the district has failed to effectively serve its most vulnerable students, carry out basic operational functions, and address systemic barriers to providing an equitable, quality education," DESE authors wrote.

"This moment requires bold, student-centered decision-making and strong execution to ensure the district delivers the quality education its students deserve," they added. "BPS needs immediate improvement."

The district, through BPS Chief of Communications Gabrielle Farrell, said in a statement that the new report "provides a welcome midpoint progress update as a follow-up to the fall 2019 review."

"While the report highlights that BPS has made considerable progress in many key areas over the last three years, it also provides clear direction to areas where urgent action is needed," Farrell said. "As we continue to build upon the momentum we have created, we look forward to working collaboratively with DESE to ensure all BPS students can reach their full potential."

The district also submitted a letter to DESE reflecting on the state's findings as well as another document outlining areas where BPS leaders disagree with conclusions in the report or the way information was framed.

DESE's latest review, conducted between March 28 and April 1, highlighted four major "areas of challenge" for the district: transportation, facilities, safety protocols and data reporting.

State officials warned in their 2020 review that BPS struggled to provide sufficient transportation to its student population. DESE said Monday that although the district agreed in its memorandum of understanding with the state to prioritize addressing transportation issues, the situation has "worsened."

Buses frequently arrived late through much of the year, DESE said, and "uncovered routes" disrupted students each month. The department also said BPS at first omitted buses that never arrived from its arrival data, "inflating the count of buses that arrived on time," and only provided updated information after the state launched its follow-up review.

DESE also flagged other problems with the district's participation and data, writing that BPS "may have coordinated a response with their staff participating in interviews with DESE" and impeded a complete picture of the district's footing.

In its response to DESE, the district said it has achieved a 91% average daily on-time bus performance rate while acknowledging "significant room and need for growth." City and BPS officials are hopeful that a tentative agreement with the union representing school bus drivers will help improve the situation amid other hiring efforts.

DESE also knocked BPS for "a lack of urgency in improving special education services," warning that those options "remain in disarray" even though 20% of the district's roughly 46,000 students rely on them.

"The disproportionate placement of black and brown students in substantially separate settings is of particular concern," DESE wrote. "As just one example of the district's inadequate focus in this area, over the past two years, the topic of special education appeared on the BPS School Committee agenda just once."

That section, too, drew pushback from the district. BPS officials said in their proposed factual corrections that DESE overlooked major special education projects totaling nearly $10 million in allocation and other steps taken to support students with special education needs during pandemic-era remote instruction.

"We acknowledge far more progress is needed and stand ready to partner with DESE to drive that work," BPS wrote. "However, we disagree with the statement that there has been a 'disturbing lack of urgency,' nor do we believe it is factually accurate."

The report will be presented at a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting scheduled for Tuesday morning.

It's not clear from the report what next steps Education Commissioner Jeff Riley or the board will take.

Upon release of the original review of BPS in 2020, Riley opted against pursuing state receivership of the district or the "empowerment zone model" used elsewhere, such as in Springfield, and instead sought to reach a deal in which BPS committed to address issues.

The idea of state intervention, including outright receivership, has been a point of heated debate.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu in March said she "firmly" opposes the idea of receivership, warning that it would be "counterproductive in light of our ongoing transition and in light of the progress we're making in collaboration with the state."

And while neither the DESE report nor the district's response hit directly on the chances of a receivership bid, BPS officials hinted they believe control should remain in local hands.

"To be clear, we believe that an updated and strengthened partnership with DESE is critical to driving solutions, but ultimately, no one is better equipped to accelerate the progress Boston has made than our BPS communities," the district wrote in a letter to the community.

Wu earlier this month rolled out a $2 billion plan to accelerate renovations and construction in the school system, which her office said would address a central issue in DESE's report.

"The serious challenges highlighted in the review aren't new to our school communities, educators, and students. As a BPS mom, I'm eager for the partnerships and accountability that will set us up for success in accelerating the pace of change and rebuilding confidence in our schools," Wu said in a statement on Monday. "In the first six months of our administration, we've worked quickly to build the foundation for structural reforms and organizational capacity needed to implement the scale of changes our students deserve. I look forward to coming to clear next steps with the state that will tackle immediate issues as we on-board our next school superintendent."

The Pioneer Institute on Monday called for appointment of a "receiver-superintendent" to a six-year term, creation of a "hybrid school committee" featuring both state and city representatives, and a six-year intervention by both BPS and the state aimed at "right-sizing the district's central office," updating curricula, and improving the lowest-performing schools.

"The central office has grown chaotic under a 'musical chairs' of superintendents and is no longer capable of leading the necessary change," the think tank said in a statement.

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