President Obama was in Dorchester Tuesday touring the TechBoston Academy, a thriving BPS pilot school housed in the old Dorchester High — once one of the lowest performing schools in Boston — with Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
The White House says the president is using this opportunity to highlight some of the education spending contained in his 2012 budget proposal, including programs aimed at getting the private sector more involved in educational innovation.
Of course, Obama and his staff did not pick the TechBoston Academy as the setting for these remarks at random.
Monday afternoon, a line of black SUVs rumbled through the parking lot containing men in fatigues gazing suspiciously through the glass — a sign you know the president is coming.
“I’m wondering how I’m gonna get to school on time," TechBoston senior Taisha White wondered aloud. Her classmate, Chanell Freeman, gestured up and down the street, "...with the SUVs parked this way and that way.”
The two friends knew something was up when they walked to school in the morning and saw every parking space in the neighborhood reserved for a “special event.”
“They’re everywhere, for like, miles,” White said of the red-lettered signs.
White and Freeman said they had no idea why Obama chose to visit their school among all others.
“It’s probably because they get funded by Bill Gates,” White theorized.
Eleventh-grader Ingrid Rodriguez had her own theory.
“Nah, because TechBoston is awesome, that’s why,” Rodriguez said proudly.
According to the experts, both the kids are basically right.
In support of the “Tech Boston is awesome” theory, 66 percent of kids there tested at or above proficient in the MCAS last year. That might not sound like much, but the school isn't exactly operating on a level playing field.
“I think he’s looking for schools that are part of a district and the practices that they have can be spread. And I think choosing a pilot fudges that a little bit, because they do have greater flexibility.”Ellen Guiney, executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence
“It is something when you’ve got an 86 percent poverty rate, ” according to Ellen Guiney, executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, a BPS-centric think tank.
Guiney says TechBoson is a great choice for the president’s visit. They have a good graduation rate, at 83 percent.
"That’s big,” Guiney said.
But Obama didn't pick TechBoston just because it's a good school. The White House likely was mindful to visit a district school, rather than a charter school, according to Guiney. TechBoston is a pilot school, which means it is part of the BPS system, unlike charter schools.
“I think he’s looking for schools that are part of a district and the practices that they have can be spread," Guiney said. "And I think choosing a pilot fudges that a little bit, because they do have greater flexibility.”
Greater flexibility in that they’re not bound by the district’s collective bargaining agreements. Administrators are more free to hire and fire, and to set different work hours; the school day at TechBoston is about an hour longer than at regular BPS schools.
“TechBoston is a very successful district school that has adopted some of the most important tenants of charter school success,” says Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Schools Association. He says he’s fine with the fact that the White House chose a pilot school over a charter school.
“President Obama and Secretary Duncan have been 100 percent behind charter schools since day one, and it’s because of their work that we raised the cap in Massachusetts," Kenen said.
That's how the charter school booster sees it.
Kenan’s district school doppelganger is Marilyn Segal, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools. She also says TechBoston is a good school worthy a presidential visit — but there's a catch.
“As far as I know, they’re doing a very good job, but I will also point out they do have extra resources,” Segal said.
This gets to the “they’re funded by Bill Gates” theory.
“This is a well-resourced school, because it got foundation money, from the Gates Foundation and others,” Segal said.
That leads Segal and union officials suggest that the “flexibility” TechBoston enjoys as a pilot might not be the entire story behind its success.
Either way, 12th graders Taisha White and Chanell Freeman don't really care, because they're just successful. After all, they're headed to college.
This segment aired on March 8, 2011.