It has been a painful week for the students and staff at Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy. Those are two high schools housed in what's called the West Roxbury Education Complex, the WREC. Since the middle of the school year, they've known that their 1970s-era building, deemed obsolete, will be knocked down once the school year has ended, dispersing the kids and the teachers across the system. Molly Boigon of WGBH News' Learning Curve Team has been following this story. She spoke with WGBH's All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about the closure and what it means for the school community. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: It's been pretty disruptive, I would think, to go all year knowing that your high school is going to be torn down, living with that uncertainty about where they [students and teachers] will be the next school year. Now I recall your coverage early on was with Willie, who's living with autism. His father, Mike Kincade, said that Urban Science has been a perfect fit for him. "The staff, the environment, the student body was everything a parent of a special needs student would want," he said. And I understand it's not just kids like Willie who thrived there?
Molly Boigon: No, a lot of the students and staff spoke about a special feel at the WREC. One of the students we talked to was Catarí Giglio. She was a new student at the school who felt like it was really easy for her to adjust and feel at home there, pretty much immediately. "When I just moved here, it took me approximately a month to get used to West Roxbury," she said. "it was a very short period of time. It's almost unusually welcoming."
Howard: So what happened, Molly? Why are these two schools and that complex being torn down?
Boigon: Well, we interviewed the interim superintendent of schools, Laura Perille, about that question. "These two high schools in particular had had long-standing enrollment declines," she said, "also had struggled with very uneven academic performance and in some cases, true low performance." But some people called into question whether or not that was actually the case, and that was one of the reasons why the closures were so controversial.
Howard: How did the students perform at these schools?
Boigon: Well it's not that simple. In some cases, Urban Science Academy, which is one of the two schools that was closing, was performing at the sort of same level of performance and in some cases, even better, than the district at large. West Roxbury Academy's performance was lower, but, especially in math and science, was increasing at a faster rate than the district. So it's just sort of complicated when talking about the performance of the two schools.
Howard: Talk about the profile of the students that these schools are serving.
Boigon: West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy are both majority black and brown students. Many of the students are economically disadvantaged. There's 120 students in the building with autism, and there are 12 students in the building who have already had to transfer at least once because of a school closure. So it's a very vulnerable, at-risk school population that will be affected by these closures.
Howard: A lot of reaction to these closures, both from the parents and the students and the teachers as well. They did testify before the school committee.
Here's some of what was said: "My children are not the problem to be solved or something to be pushed aside to make way for something bigger and better." Another testified, "Change needs to happen, but not like this. And it's not sitting in front of all these kids basically saying that you're giving up on them, because that's exactly what closing their school, their home, says."
So after all the testimony was complete, there was a vote taken?
Boigon: And that was five yeses and one abstention from the school committee.
Howard: So what's the status right now?
Boigon: The last day of school was on Wednesday of this week, so teachers are packing up and the building is officially closed at the end of the month.
Howard: Now you spoke with one of the teachers, Allison Doherty, as she was packing up her class. "I believe in BPS," she said. "I'm a product and my kids are going, and I worked there. But also, just, being involved and being a teacher for 20 years, you see some schools get this pot and other schools get this, and it seems like it's not equitable." Now what happens with these kids?
Boigon: Well, the students are kind of being scattered across the district. The seniors from both schools are headed to the third floor of the Irving Middle School. Students in the specialized strands for special education are headed to the Jeremiah E. Burke school. Some of the students from our documentary, Catarí, the girl who switched into West Roxbury Academy, is headed to Fenway, which is a specialized application high school. And then Willie, the student with autism, is going to the Burke.
Howard: Okay. Now you and your colleague, videographer Emily Judem, put together a short documentary about this whole story. In the course of putting it together, how hard was it to get people on the record?
Boigon: The mayor declined to be interviewed on camera. The school committee chair Michael Loconto declined to be interviewed on camera. The two headmasters from the West Roxbury Education Complex did not want to be interviewed. We did get a statement from the mayor's office, which said, in part, that the decision to close the school is a difficult one, and that the district is committed to making more investments in the school system and in the school buildings to better serve students in the long-term.
Howard: Is that it?
Boigon: Well, the school committee here in Boston is appointed by the mayor, not elected, and the lone abstention from the school committee, Regina Robinson, was not reappointed for this year to the committee.