School Closures Up For Vote; Parents Wait

By Andrea Smardon   |   Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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View BPS Redesign and Reinvest Plan in a larger map
See how the proposed changes affect the city's different neighborhoods. Red pins show closures and blue pins show mergers. Click each pin for more detail. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Dec. 15. 2010

BOSTON -- The Boston Public School Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday evening on a plan that would close 9 schools, while merging and expanding others.  Faced with a budget deficit for the upcoming year; the closures proposed by superintendent Carol Johnson are projected to save the district more than $10 million.  But parents and teachers argue that the disruption caused by the moves will not be worth the savings.

Parents implored the School Committee not to close the Agassiz School at a committee meeting at English High School on Dec. 7. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

It was standing room only at last week’s Boston Public School Committee meeting. Parents, teachers, students and school staff filled the auditorium – over 100 of whom signed up to give testimony.

The vast majority of those who did speak, including Wayne Wilson of Roslindale, implored the committee not to close their local schools.

“I’m not giving this up without a fight.  It’s too important for my family, your family and the families that were created in these schools,” Wilson said.

Wilson is father to Tommy - a boy with autism who attends preschool at Louis Aggasiz Elementary in Jamaica Plain.  Wilson says his son is doing well there. He’s learning to sign, make eye contact, and connect with people.   But he doesn’t want his son’s progress to end, and he says the school created a class for Tommy’s needs to be met.

“We were placed there due to the fact that there wasn’t anything else in the West District.  Is my Tommy supposed to go on a bus across town being nonverbal for an hour and a half? It doesn’t make any sense,” Wilson said.

Agassiz Elementary is one of nine schools slated for closure.  It’s part of superintendent Carol Johnson’s plan to consolidate resources by closing, merging and expanding schools.

Like Wilson, parents and school staff tried to convince the school committee that forcing students to change schools would set them back academically and socially – particularly special education students and English Language Learners.

Marissa Serrette, a student at Brook Farm Academy, doesn't want to see her school merge with another. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

They were concerned about safety, longer bus rides, and limited school choices. And they pointed out that Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented in the closed schools.

Speaking in her office this week, Superintendent Carol Johnson acknowledged the hardship for the communities affected.

“We know this can be disruptive, we know if can be unsettling, and we know we have to provide added support to students, families and to staff as we go through this very difficult transition with these changes and our overall budget,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, there are 5600 empty seats scattered around the school district, which cost schools and taxpayers millions of dollars.  But Boston Teacher’s Union president Richard Stutman says the disruption in education caused by shutting schools and redistricting is not worth the money saved.  Stutman says $10 million is a drop in the bucket, when you consider the district has a $63 million shortfall.

“We’re making a decision that will disrupt thousands of children to save a few dollars.  If it were just an academic decisions that would be a diff. animal, but this is economic,” Stutman said.

Stutman also wants to know why it’s those schools on the chopping block. “I think you have to have reason for doing it, closing one versus another and I’m not sure the superintendent has met that test,” Johnson said.

Over 100 people hoped to speak at the last BPS committee meeting before their Dec. 15 vote on a proposal to shutter schools. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Johnson says the schools targeted for closure were not performing well academically.  She says it was a tough decision but she had to weigh the needs of all the students in the school system against the inconveniencing of a few. 

“If we continue with business as usual then we won’t have the resources to provide any school with the resources that they need,” Johnson said.

She says the school system needs permanent, structural change to thrive. “We’re hoping to put in some permanent reductions, that reduce the amount of budget cutting we have to do every year, where we’re nibbling at the edges or cutting across the board, not in strategic ways, but where we’re nibbling away at the quality of the academic programs in general.”

The downsizing of Boston public schools comes at a time when charter schools are expanding.  The teachers union passed out flyers at last week’s committee meeting accusing the superintendent and the mayor of making secret deals to lease the closed facilities to charter schools.  Johnson denied that any real estate deals were made, but did not rule out the possibility that charter schools would make use of the closed buildings.

At UMass, An American DREAM On Hold

By Toni Waterman   |   Friday, December 10, 2010
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Dec. 10, 2010

BOSTON — Twenty-two year old Deivid Ribeiro’s eyes have been glued to C-SPAN for days, anxiously watching as Congress debates what could be the fate of his future.

 “Come on, I want this vote to happen already,” Ribeiro says, tapping his fingers nervously on the kitchen table. He’s hoping Congress passes the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – or DREAM Act. 
The legislation would put illegal immigrants like Ribeiro, who was brought to America as a child, on a path to citizenship after completing two years of college or two years of military service. Without it, Ribeiro says a lot of illegal students will have no where to turn.

“We don’t feel like we have a future because when we graduate our degrees are useless. And if we can graduate, we’re hindered by the cost," Ribeiro said. 

Ribeiro was eight years old when he passed through customs at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, setting foot in the United States for the first time. “I remember the first thing my mom said. She said, ‘This is the first word you’re going to learn in the United States: Immigration,” Ribeiro said.
It was 1997 when his parents uprooted the family in Brazil and resettled on Cape Cod. At the time, they were here legally on a tourist visa. Ribeiro and his brother started school; his parents began working at a local church where his father was a pastor.

Deivid Ribeiro, far right, poses for a family photo. The Ribeiro's were denied permanent residency in 2007, and now live illegally in the United States. Deivid studies physics at UMass-Dartmouth. (courtesy photo)

Ribeiro says he quickly assimilated to American life. “I went to elementary school, middle school, high school. I made American friends, listened to American music. My favorite bans are Chili Peppers and Dispatch. So we did everything normal Americans would do.”
In 2001, Ribeiro’s parents began the process of establishing permanent residency. They filed all the paperwork and paid all the fees, but in 2007, they were denied, meaning the entire family is now here illegally. At the time, Ribeiro was heading off to college and was applying for FAFSA. His initial reaction was devastation.
“All I could think was, I’m not going to school. I worked so hard, I was number eight in my class. I got all A's. I did the best I could. I got 5's on all my AP exams, and now I can’t go to school?”
But he went anyway, working full-time while taking classes at Cape Cod Community College. He graduated in 2009 with a 4.0 GPA and is now at UMass-Dartmouth getting a degree in Physics. But he could be deported at any time, which is why, he says, he’s fighting for the DREAM Act to pass.
“We were taught form the beginning, do what you want, work hard, because you will have a future. You will have a life, a career and you’ll be happy. And we did and now we get to this point where we can’t even go to college," Ribeiro said. "We need the Dream Act to pass so we can live our lives and give back to the community we’re part of.”
But critics of the DREAM Act say it’s just a fancy form of amnesty that rewards bad behavior. Former GOP Senate candidate Ken Chase argues that the bill is a way for Democrats to secure a large dependent Democratic voting block for generations to come.

“This is the block of people that will replace black Americans in terms of being the most overwhelmingly Democratic voting block in the nation. This is the strategy," Chase said. "This is what I think is the shameless manipulation of people. People who are immigrants, but particularly illegal immigrants, are the most desperate and the most vulnerable.”
Chase also fears that DREAM Act is just the beginning, that once the door is opened a crack, it will eventually be opened all the way.
“We’re talking about the larger picture here. This is the democratic approach because they raised this in 2007 and it was shot down, so this is their way to get piecemeal to the end goal, which is eventually to get everyone who’s here illegally, legalized.”
But Ribeiro argues the DREAM Act is different. It doesn’t apply to everyone because you’ve got to work to earn it. Plus, there are strict eligibility requirements. Applicants have to have come to American before they were 16 years old, they must be living here continuously for five years, and they can’t be older than 29 when they apply. But most importantly, says Ribeiro, they have to be good students with no criminal record.
Ribeiro says the DREAM Act would give him the kind of stability he needs to succeed in the United States.

“All my dreams are dreams I want to accomplish here. I want to work at MIT, which is here. I want to be an astronaut with NASA, which is here. My friends are here. I want to marry somebody here,” Ribeiro said.
Meanwhile, Congress is still debating. The House narrowly passed the measure on Wednesday night, 216-198, but on Thursday, the Senate shelved the measure until later in the Lame Duck Session. That means young illegal immigrants like Ribeiro are left in limbo a little bit longer.

Report: Health Care Costs Squeezing Education

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Thursday, December 9, 2010
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Dec. 9, 2010

BOSTON — A new report says hundreds of millions of dollars the state pegged for improvements to classroom education have gone instead  to health-care costs for school employees.

The report from the Massachusetts Business Alliance shows that the cost of health insurance for teachers and school employees grew by $1 billion between 2000 and 2007, forcing schools to cut books, teachers and commitments to poor communities.  

Ed Moscowitch, who wrote the report, says that spending on textbooks fell by over than 50 percent and spending for teacher training fell by almost 25 percent.

“The spending on the materials that you need to improve education has fallen by more than half," Moscowitch said. "It should be obvious that you can’t improve a school if you’re using 30 year old textbooks and you don’t have any money to train teachers.”

Michael Widmer, the president of the nonpartisan Massahusetts Taxpayers Foundation, calls the new study very powerful.

“What it shows, without any question,  is that the dramatic increases in health care costs for cities and town throughout this state are compromising our public education system,” Widmer said.

The report concludes that health care is now the number one education issue.

BPS Supt. Proposes School Closures

By Jess Bidgood   |   Thursday, December 2, 2010
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Dec. 2, 2010

Boston — Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson is expected to unveiled a proposal Thursday that would close, merge and move schools in an effort to close a $63 million budget gap.

The details of the proposal, published briefly on the BPS website Thursday afternoon, included eight outright school closures, five school mergers and four expansions.

Johnson said the proposal is intended to cut costs related to empty seats across the district. "We have far too many school buildings for the number of students we serve," Johnson wrote in a statement. "Those empty seats cost millions of dollars every year -- money that would be better used on academic efforts."

Johnson said she marked schools for closure, merger and expansion based on criteron including academic performance, turnaround capacity, enrollment numbers and the availability of other options.

Proposed school closures:

  • Close East Zone ELC

  • Close Fifield Elementary

  • Close Middle School Academy

  • Close Emerson Elementary

  • Close Farragut Elementary

  • Close Agassiz Elementary

  • Close The Engineering School

  • Close Social Justice Academy

Other proposed changes:

  • Merge Lee Academy with Lee Elementary, creat a K-8

  • Merge Alighieri and Umana

  • Merge Urban Science Academy and Parkway Academy of Technology and Health

  • Merge Brook Farm Business & Service Career Academy and Media Communications Technology High School

  • Merge Excel HIgh School and Monument High School

  • Expand Holland Elementary

  • Expand King K-8

  • Relocate Community Academy of Science and Health

  • Unite and expand TechBoston Academy

  • Move Dorchester Academy

  • Clap Elementary becomes "Innovation School"

  • Convert Gavin Middle School to "Up Academy"

One Third Of Urban Students At-Risk For Dropping Out

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Tuesday, November 30, 2010
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Nov. 30, 2010

BOSTON — More than one-third of Massachusetts eighth-graders who attended urban schools last academic year are at risk of not earning their high school diplomas, according to state education officials.

The data comes from a new state tracking system designed to identify eighth-graders who are at risk of not graduating. It confirms what what many educators and parents already suspected: That kids in urban public schools are at much greater risk of dropping out than their peers in suburban or rural districts.

The numbers show a full 36 percent of eighth-graders attending urban schools are at risk of not finishing high school. That rate is significantly lower in suburban and rural districts, where only 8 percent of students are at risk of dropping out.

The districts with the highest number of at-risk kids are also the districts with the fewest resources to deal with the problem.


Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation, a charity that works with the school system, says Massachusetts actually compares favorably with the national urban dropout rate of close to 50 percent. But, he says, the data nevertheless reveals an appalling situation in the commonwealth.

“It’s really a completely unacceptable number because we’re churning out kids who have no shot at the middle class, no shot in terms of a fulfilling life or access to good jobs,” Grogan said.

The state used indicators like test scores, the number of suspensions and attendance records to identify at-risk students.. Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester says research shows these risk factors correlate with higher dropout rates:

“Students who are overage in grade for example, are students who have been held back, and these are students we know who are at greater risk of not making it through to graduation," Chester said. "Students who miss a lot of school – we know this has an impact on their academic standing and is an indication of their disengagement from school.”

The state pulled together data relating to these risk factors and then gave school districts the names of students who are at low risk, medium risk, and high risk of dropping out.

Jennifer Amigone, the director of data analysis for the education non-profit Boston Plan for Excellence, says educators are expected to use the information to help prevent dropouts.

"To name students and to say on day one of the 9th grade year,  you know – this set of students – by name – are at a high likelihood of dropping out – the system really needs to think about how to address that early on."

Education officials hope that schools will assist students with things such as tutoring and mentoring.  But Amigone and other advocates point to a sad paradox: The districts with the highest number of at-risk kids are also the districts with the fewest resources to deal with the problem.

Core Skills, Not MCAS, Turned Brockton High Around

Thursday, October 7, 2010
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by WGBH News
Oct. 7, 2010

Brockton High School.
Brockton High School.

BOSTON -- The city of Boston is in the midst of a concerted effort to overhaul its struggling schools.

Last week, Boston Public Schools superintendent Carol Johnson announced a proposal to shutter six of the district's lowest performing schools. Six months earlier, at the end of the last school year, the district fired five school principals and announced that all of the teachers at six of the twelve schools the state had identified as "underperforming" would have to reapply for their jobs.

Closed doors and staff shakeups have become a normal part of education reform. But just outside of Boston, there's a school with an unconventional turnaround story -- a school that kept most of its staff and capitalized on its own culture, transforming itself from one of the state's roughest schools to one of the state's top MCAS scorers. And a report by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson has put it on the national stage.

Brockton High School school certainly doesn't fit the mold of the state's best-performing schools. About 2/3 of its 10th grade class is black or Hispanic, and 64 percent of its 10th graders get free or reduced-price meals. The school as a whole has a whopping 4,300 students.

For a long time, Brockton High School was performing even below other low-income, high-density schools. In 1999, 44 percent of the students were failing MCAS testing in English, while 75 percent of the students failed the MCAS mathematics exams."It was like a slap across the face," Principal Susan Szachowicz told WGBH's Callie Crossley, of seeing those scores.

For Szachowicz, then a history teacher and a Brockton High graduate herself, that was a wake-up call. She and other teachers knew that a law that would go into effect in four years time that would require students to pass the math and English MCAS exams in order to graduate. "We were going to have three quarters of our students not getting a diploma if we didn't do something differently, and fast," Szachowicz said.

'Restructuring' Brockton High School

Szachowicz and about 20 others were pulled into a restructuring committee tasked with figuring at what, if anything, could be done about the abysmal scores. It wasn't easy to find people to join. "It was really who we could beg," Szachowicz remembered.

The committee's first meeting was simple, and grim. "I took a marker, and I wrote the failure numbers on a paper, in giant, smelly marker, and said, 'Is this the best we can be?'" Szachowicz said.

For most of those teachers, it wasn't. So they asked themselves what their students would need to be successful, and chose four crucial skill areas -- reading, writing, speaking and reasoning. Then, set about embedding those skills -- real-life skills the teachers themselves used in their every day lives -- into all aspects of the school's curriculum. The group decided early on that their efforts wouldn't be tied to the MCAS. "There's no speaking component on MCAS, and we can't stand how the teenagers speak -- have you heard them?" laughed Szachowicz.

Szachowicz  and the rest of the committee had to teach the other teachers how to turn subjects like science, history and Physical education into opportunities to build core skills -- not just a time for students to repeat facts.

Sczachowicz uses her own classroom as an example. Before the restructuring, if a student didn't understand a primary source document, she would simply tell them to read it again. Now, she needed to teach them to "actively read" and analyze the passage.

A distance from MCAS didn't mean the efforts were unstandardized. "It was very structured, and we monitored it like crazy," Szachowicz said.

Slow, Steady Improvement

By 2001, the students were doing better -- and more and more teachers wanted to join the restructuring committee. Seven years later, in 2008, Brockton High School's students showed more improvement on their English MCAS exams than 90 percent of the state's other high schools.

In a time when many education advocates are speaking to the importance of small schools, Szachowicz said Brockton High School's culture and identity -- including its large size -- was crucial to its resurgence. "We didn't want to build a wall in the middle of the school," she said.

Szachowicz contends that with the right approach to teaching, change is possible in any kind of educational institution. "It isn't about structure. It's about instruction," she said. "The most powerful change agent is the classroom teacher."

And teachers, Szachowicz continued, need guidance. "Are you preparing the teachers appropriately? If teachers are just left to, 'Oh, just go ahead and do what you want to do,' that's not such a good strategy."

Szachowicz has the same advice for those turnaround schools in Boston. "Literacy," she said. "What is the mission that you want for you school around literacy?" And then, she adds, "empower a team" from within that school to implement it.

WGBH'S Jess Bidgood compiled this report.

About the Authors
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.
Jess Bidgood Jess Bidgood
Jess Bidgood is's news editor and producer.


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