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Charlestown high students, teachers blast planned takeover

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Charlestown high students, teachers blast planned takeover
Charlestown High School

Staff and students at Charlestown High School say a mostly white group of parents in the neighborhood are attempting a hostile takeover of their building that would force layoffs of teachers and force out students with disabilities who are currently enrolled in specialized programs at the school.

During last week’s Boston School Committee meeting, teachers and students gave public testimony and submitted comments critical of the Charlestown parents, none of whom have children currently attending Charlestown High, a school where more than 95% of the population are students of color.

The Innovation Schools initiative was signed into law in 2010 by then-Gov. Deval Patrick under the Act Relative to the Achievement Gap. The law was designed to empower groups to suspend collective bargaining agreements with school staff to make changes to a school’s curriculum, hours, yearly schedule, staffing and other school district policies.

Under the law, groups of parents, teachers or school administrators can apply for one of three options: a new school, a conversion school or a school-within-a-school.

The Charlestown parents are pushing for the “new school” option, one that would leave the door open for teachers and school leaders to be replaced.

“It’s hard for our community to ignore that this is a group of mostly white parents,” testified history teacher Cecil Carey. “The unstated goal is to empty out a school of its experienced teachers and families of color so that they can use its resources.”

While the parents who advanced the proposal did not testify during the hearing, one of them, Ross Wilson, who is executive director of the Shah Family Foundation, said during a “Last Night @ School Committee” podcast that the proposal, in the form of a prospectus, was meant to start a conversation with the Charlestown High School community.

Speaking during the podcast, Wilson, a former BPS deputy superintendent, said BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius did not let his group meet with teachers, staff, students or parents at the school while they prepared their prospectus.

“We were clearly blocked from having a conversation with the Charlestown community,” he said. “It took writing a prospectus and putting it out there for people to react to. Thankfully, the Charlestown High School community — a number of educators — have reached out to us. We’ve had a number of conversations in the last few days, which is where we should have started.”

A BPS spokeswoman said Cassellius never told Wilson, or any other of the proponents of the Innovation School, that they could not speak with member of the school community.

“The Superintendent did not direct anyone to deny meetings,” the spokeswoman said. “She reached out to Ross Wilson to schedule a meeting to discuss their prospectus in the early phases. The Superintendent’s team met with the prospectus team to hear the plan and ask questions. During that meeting, the team made recommendations for a robust community engagement plan, including a reasonable timeline for the work that needed to be done. We then received the prospectus and have started the formal process.”

Those who testified at the School Committee meeting last week uniformly spoke against the proposal, saying it is at odds with the school’s mission and noting that many of the proposals outlined in the prospectus — such as inclusion classrooms and college credit programs — are programs that are already being offered at the school in its current configuration.

While those backing the prospectus say the school is underperforming, with just 19% of students meeting expectations for 10th grade English Language Arts (as opposed to 45% of students statewide), members of the school community note that the school currently puts a special focus on students with disabilities, who make up 32% of the school’s population, and English Language learners, who make up 36%.

The school serves students diagnosed with cognitive disabilities, students with Down Syndrome, severe language disorders, health disabilities, visual impairment, motor impairment and autism, many of them in substantially separate classroom settings.

Teachers who testified noted that many of the students at the school are served in programs not aimed at meeting the district’s graduation requirements, but rather at obtaining life skills. The school also serves populations of students who are more than two grade levels behind and those lacking credits necessary to graduate on time.

Charlestown High School

Inclusion specialist Michael Terkla said the Charlestown parents’ proposal would force those students into schools currently not set up to support them.

“Entire cohorts of our students are being ignored and cast aside by the writers of this proposal,” he testified. “Where are they supposed to go in the next school year?”

The prospectus written by the Charlestown parents calls for 24% of seats to be reserved for students with learning disabilities who can be educated in inclusion classrooms — those in which students with special needs are educated alongside students who do not have special needs. Although the prospectus calls for the retention of all students currently enrolled in the school, it does not present a plan for how those students would receive services.

“The Boston Public Schools Office of Special Education will need to determine the best method to work with families of students who are currently at Charlestown High and receiving substantially separate services or students who are enrolling in the school from substantially separate programs,” the prospectus reads.

Speaking during his Shah Foundation podcast, Wilson said he and the other authors of the prospectus were motivated by a desire to improve the school.

“With all of this talk around the exam school policy and exam schools, the group of families thought, ‘What if we stopped talking about exam schools and really focused on, could we support open-enrollment high schools in BPS?’” he said. “We put together a plan. We worked with community members and parents and said, ‘What would we like to see in a high school?’ and we submitted an innovation plan to the city.”

Wilson and the other authors of the prospectus appear to view the proposed changes to Charlestown High as a pilot program to usher in broader changes in other BPS open enrollment schools.

Boston School Committee members listen to testimony from Charlestown High School history teacher Cecil Carey.

“A new vision must be created for our open enrollment secondary schools, starting at the existing site of Charlestown High School,” the parents write. “A new innovation school is needed to radically restructure the 7-12 traditional high school to meet the needs of all students by erasing the arbitrary line between high school, college, and career.”

They cite a paper by leadership at JFF, a Boston-based education and workforce development consulting firm that receives funding from philanthropic organizations and corporate donors including Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Walmart and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

The prospectus includes some ideas that have been touted by Jeffrey Riley, state commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, such as incorporating so-called acceleration academies into the school year and instituting a “deeper learning” curriculum. Riley has cited low test scores in 34 BPS schools in his decision to intervene in the district. Cassellius in 2020 signed a memorandum of understanding codifying a series of reforms Riley is advancing, including adding several BPS schools into a deeper learning cohort.

In order for the plan to be approved by the state, the Charlestown parents would need approval from BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and the Boston Teachers Union and a vote in favor by the majority of the School Committee.

Under state law, Cassellius is required to convene a screening committee to review the proposal, a BPS spokeswoman told the Boston Herald. At last week’s meeting, Cassellius said the screening committee would meet this week.

If approved, the state would authorize the school to operate for up to five years before going before the School Committee for re-authorization.