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Twenty years of disruption in Boston’s public schools

Activists see no guiding plan for school closures

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Twenty years of disruption in Boston’s public schools
The West Roxbury Education Complex closed in 2019. BANNER FILE PHOTO

In 2005, West Roxbury High School was split into four schools: Urban Science Academy, Media Communications Technology High School, Brook Farm Business and Service Career Academy and West Roxbury Academy, all operating as the West Roxbury Education Complex.

The move was part of one of Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ first short-lived forays into education reform — the Small Schools Initiative, which operated under the theory that students would fare better in smaller school communities.

By 2009, Gates had moved away from the idea, and the funding his foundation provided moved into other initiatives. In 2019, the two remaining schools in the complex — West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy — were closed, after the city’s Inspectional Services Department deemed the building unsafe. The schools’ student bodies were dispersed to other high schools throughout the district.

The twists and turns that led to the closing of the school are not uncommon in Boston’s public schools. In the last 20 years, the district has closed, moved, merged or reconfigured grade levels at 70% of its schools, according to research by Boston Latin Academy history teacher Jose Valenzuela.

Prompted by news that Boston Public Schools officials have decided to close the Jackson/Mann K-8 school next year, Valenzuela crowdsourced a list of 40 schools that have been closed or merged over the last two decades. In addition, he added in grade reconfigurations to document what he says is a pattern of disruptions to school communities.

“It’s not necessarily that all change is bad, but it’s still disruptive,” he said. “Change requires strategic planning. BPS has had so many superintendents and so many plans, it’s hard to see the changes as part of any thoughtful plan.”

Ruby Reyes, executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, says the deferred maintenance that has led to the closing of schools, including the Jackson/Mann, located in Allston, and those in the West Roxbury Education complex, is endemic in the BPS system.

“There’s no facilities masterplan that’s looking at which schools need to be repaired, and there’s no transparency around that,” she said.

In the case of the Jackson/Mann, school officials over the last several years have cited a backlog of repairs in arguing that the building should be demolished. Parent and teachers at the school have long complained about leaking ceilings, windows with broken seals that have turned opaque and other deferred-maintenance issues. The school, which among other things specialized in instruction for students with disabilities, will be permanently closed. While a new school for the Alston/Brighton community will be built on the site, the current school community will effectively cease to exist.

Asked why the students wouldn’t be transferred to a swing space during the six-year process during which a new building will be constructed, Cassellius cited declining enrollment in the student body at the school.

The demise of the Jackson/Mann fits what some say is a familiar pattern in BPS: A school building falls into disrepair due to deferred maintenance. Enrollment drops in the school. The district closes the school, citing declining enrollment and the prohibitively expensive costs of repairing the building.

“It becomes a vicious circle,” Valenzuela said.

Enrollment has been a driver of other school closures. At the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, BPS officials announced in 2018 the school would close, citing among factors declining enrollment. Much of that was due to a change in grade configurations at feeder schools such as the Condon School in South Boston, which transitioned from a K-5 to a K-8 school.

The district eventually agreed to allow the school to remain in the building and merge with the Boston Community Leadership Academy, a high school that is currently located in Hyde Park.

The planned closure of the McCormack was also part of a wider pattern of closing middle schools, as the district opted to move to consolidate grade configurations, roughly into K-6 and 7-12 schools. The Timilty and Irving middle schools are currently slated for closure.

But some question whether the closures are an end in and of themselves.

Over the last 20 years, the district underwent the small schools initiative as well as a push for a return to neighborhood schools that radically redefined school assignment in the city. While white students in neighborhoods such as West Roxbury and the North End are concentrated in smaller schools in those neighborhoods, the Latino and Black students who make up the majority of the district’s students are concentrated in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, where there are too few seats to accommodate the demand.

During the mayoral administration of the late Thomas Menino, the city constructed large schools to accommodate students in Black and Latino neighborhoods: the Mildred Avenue K-8 school, with 669 students; the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School, with 381 students; and the Orchard Gardens K-8 School, with 820 students. None of the three fits in the small-school model the district formerly adopted. None is small enough to effectively function as a neighborhood school.

In 2017, the Walsh administration announced the $1 billion BuildBPS plan aimed at constructing five new school buildings and renovating existing buildings. But the mayor in 2015 had reportedly told a parents group the district needed close 36 of its then-126 schools, a remark he denied making. Walsh and former interim BPS Superintendent John McDonough both cited what they said was a surplus of buildings and declining enrollment as reasons for the district to pare down its portfolio.

In 2016, a consulting firm hired by the Walsh administration recommended the closure of 50 school buildings, provoking fierce pushback from parents and teachers.

In spite of the report and Walsh’s reported remarks, the district has never had an open conversation with parents, teachers and students about the possibility of school closures, consolidations or other measures aimed at reconfiguring the district. Each closure in recent years has appeared as a discrete event, often prompted by a maintenance crisis.

Whether or not a plan exists, Valenzuela says his data shows closures have been a constant over the last 20 years.

“The only trend or pattern you can ascertain is that schools are being closed or merged,” he said.

What happens to the students?

Last week, Cassellius told the Banner that students from the Jackson/Mann would be given priority assignment at schools closer to their homes.

But Reyes notes that the district has an uneven record of providing resources to students with disabilities, which make up 30% of the student population at the Jackson/Mann. While the district has in recent years moved to educate such students in general-education classrooms, their model for doing so, the so-called inclusion classrooms that pair teachers with specialists, varies from school to school.

A survey released by the Boston Teachers Union in March found that the higher the percentage of white students in a school, the more likely the school has more than one specialist in its inclusion classrooms, an arrangement that teachers say allows them to more effectively provide instruction to students with disabilities.

Because of the inequalities in the system, Reyes notes, the Jackson/Mann students, more than 90% of whom are students of color, won’t likely receive the same level of service they had once their school closes.

“Inclusion looks very different in schools with high percentages of white students,” she said.

Cassellius said the district is working to improve programming in every school.

“One thing that we’re doing now is looking at all of our special education programming throughout the city, and making sure that programs are available around the entire city, closest to home, so that parents have options for more inclusive environments within their school community,” she said.