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West Roxbury: No place for a public high school

Aparna Lakshmi

Mayor Michelle Wu and Superintendent Mary Skipper have proposed moving the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science to the West Roxbury Education Complex (WREC). The city should never have built a high school on that site in the first place and shouldn’t rebuild a high school there now. To understand why, we need to go back to the 1970s.

In 1973, Mayor Kevin White announced plans to build a new high school in West Roxbury “without consulting the school department or the elected school committee” and “promised 75 percent of the seats to white residents of West Roxbury,” according to WGBH. West Roxbury residents had been pushing for a neighborhood high school.

Already, the NAACP had sued the Boston School Committee for its racially discriminatory policies, and the state Board of Education had voted to withhold aid from the city. But federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity had not yet ruled in favor of the NAACP.

When Garrity’s desegregation plans were finalized in 1975, “West Roxbury residents found out they would not be getting their promised seats. They blocked the construction site for days,” WGBH reported.

From the beginning, students were bused to what was then called West Roxbury High from all across the city in yellow buses, but by 2018, these had been replaced with MBTA shuttles from Forest Hills. That year, when the district decided to close the WREC, students, educators and families did not demand to stay in West Roxbury — they demanded to remain a school community. But the School Committee went against their wishes and closed two schools that primarily served students of color.

For those who argue that West Roxbury needs its open-enrollment high school back, it’s worth noting that only 48 students from West Roxbury attend English, New Mission or Boston Community Leadership Academy, the three open-enrollment high schools closest to the neighborhood.  In contrast, 286 West Roxbury residents attend Boston Latin School, 102 attend Boston Latin Academy and 44 attend the O’Bryant.

In 2018, just 60% of West Roxbury children attended BPS schools, and since the advent of the district’s new exam school policy, that number has dropped to 50%. City officials have repeatedly said that they’re not giving West Roxbury its own exam school, but, people, you can do the math.

Roxbury, Dorchester and East Boston, home to half of all BPS students, are the biggest sending neighborhoods to the O’Bryant. All live quite a hike from the WREC. The mayor’s answer to this? Shuttle buses. But shuttle buses (driven by whom? the MBTA still can’t hire enough drivers) will not solve the fact that East Boston students would face a 25-mile round-trip commute. Even an additional stop on the Needham commuter rail line would not solve the fact that students of color and low-income students would be disproportionately burdened by increased commute times and, therefore, higher rates of tardiness and truancy.

No transportation “solution” will solve the fact that the WREC’s only neighbors are a Home Depot and a VA hospital. Compare that with the dozens of universities, research centers, hospitals and after-school opportunities in and near the Roxbury site of the O’Bryant. And shuttle buses and additional commuter rail trains will be a forever cost — in dollars and in carbon. Every year, the district will need to pour more and more money into the transportation budget to get students to a building that’s almost in Dedham, money that could be used for all BPS students to have the resources and staff they need to thrive.

All of this is on top of the cost of rebuilding the WREC. The district’s own 2018 report estimated it would cost at least $100 million to rehab the site. That’s $123 million with inflation. It makes no sense to spend that money on rebuilding a high school there. It’s simply not a convenient location for the vast majority of the city’s high schoolers. Instead, put a K-8 there, affordable housing or the police academy.

As for the O’Bryant, a more equitable and cost-effective solution would be to rebuild its current site to create a state-of-the-art campus shared with the Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury.

The Boston City Council is holding a public hearing on Wu’s and Skipper’s wrongheaded proposal Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. in the Bolling Building.

Aparna Lakshmi is a teacher at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.