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Schools

Boston’s schools a major issue for mayoral hopefuls

Facilities, programs draw rivals’ focus

Councilor at Large Felix Arroyo wants a longer school day. John Barros, a former School Committee member, has called for a “citywide learning system.” And Councilor at Large John Connolly introduced a “hubs of opportunity” initiative.

In the race to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino, proposals to overhaul the Boston public schools abound, making education one of the most talked-about issues thus far.

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The prominence of the school issue surprises few. Often the quality of a city’s school system serves as a barometer of its health, and the Boston school system, in spite of two decades of gains made under Menino, still has a long way to go in offering all students a good education, observers say.

Many of the 12 candidates, in discussing the need to bolster school quality, frame it as both an economic and a quality-of-life issue, as Arroyo did in a recent interview. “Strong schools help build stronger neighborhoods and a stronger economy,” he said.

But he added, “We spend about a billion dollars on the [city’s] public school system, and I would say a lot of people would suggest we don’t get a billion dollars worth of the results.”

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Hardly any educational issue seems to have gone unaddressed.

Who is pushing to fix all those aging school buildings? State Representative Martin Walsh, Councilor Charles Yancey, Councilor Robert Consalvo, and Connolly are all pitching ideas.

Thousands of “kids do not have the amenities they need, and that is a disgrace,” Yancey said.

Who wants more charter schools? District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, Bill Walczak, Connolly, Walsh, and Barros do. Said Connolly: “I don’t want to put a ceiling on success.”

Who would expand early-childhood education?

Councilor Michael Ross, Conley, Arroyo, Walczak, and Walsh, to name a few, have all been talking about it.

Many of the measures that candidates have been pushing are also similar to those embraced by President Obama, Governor Deval Patrick, and Menino in their school overhaul efforts. Those issues include extending the school day, expanding charter schools, and giving traditional schools more autonomy in making decisions about how to fix their problems.

Some candidates have even pledged to pick up some of Menino’s unfinished business, such as overhauling the ailing Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. Charlotte Golar Richie, Ross, and Connolly have been discussing Madison Park.

Charles Clemons Jr., general manager of TOUCH 106.1 FM, has been among those pushing for more science, technology, engineering, and math programs. (The 12th candidate, former Roxbury teacher David James Wyatt, did not fill out a Globe survey and could not be reached by phone.)

The next mayor will confront one of the biggest decisions about the future of the city’s school system: Hiring a superintendent to replace Carol R. Johnson, who is retiring in coming days. That will give the new mayor considerable leverage in pursuing his or her own vision for education.

“It will be without doubt one of the most important decisions I would make if I’m elected mayor,” Ross said. “It’s a huge opportunity to hit the ground running with education.”

The selection of a superintendent has been one of the most contentious school issues. After Johnson announced her retirement in April, the mayor’s office suggested that Menino might appoint a replacement, a possibility that many candidates ended up opposing.

Just last month, Walsh called on the School Committee to halt its search, which at this point has consisted of School Committee members meeting to develop a strategic vision that a new superintendent could execute.

Walczak fired back in a press release, saying the committee should use the months during the mayoral race to do preliminary work on the search, such as hiring a search firm, identifying the qualities it wants in a superintendent, and developing an initial list of candidates.

Education has been a hot topic in previous mayoral races, most notably four years ago when former city councilor Michael Flaherty challenged Menino. Flaherty often rattled off dispiriting statistics about the school system, while Menino would talk glowingly of accomplishments and awards.

By some measures, such as National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, Boston performs higher than many other urban systems.

But immense challenges remain. Stubborn gaps in achievement persist among students of different backgrounds, too few third-graders can read independently, and dozens of schools score so poorly on the MCAS they are at risk of being declared “underperforming” by the state.

Earlier this year, a Globe poll found that 42 percent of respondents with children were so dissatisfied with the city’s schools that they have considered moving away.

“People are looking for solutions,” Walczak said. “They want Boston to prove it’s a great city moving forward by fixing its school system.”

The school system is “the biggest problem arguably the city has,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that works on education issues and is a strong supporter of charter schools.

“In a healthy, prosperous, vital city, it’s hard to manufacture things that are wrong,” Grogan said. “The schools are it in terms of the things we have to fix. . . . We still have this problem of kids doing poorly in school and not having good life chances, and these kids are piling up.”

Each mayoral candidate has been proclaiming his or her own credentials to get this job done.

Barros stresses his service on the School Committee. Arroyo says his life has been immersed in public education: He attended city schools, his mother taught there, his wife is a teacher there, and his father was on the School Committee.

Connolly points to his former career as a teacher and current stint as chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee. Last month, he secured a key endorsement from the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a national organization that has been pushing Obama’s education agenda.

The Massachusetts chapter of Stand for Children, a national educational organization that stresses parental involvement, is weighing whether to endorse a candidate.

Even the Boston Teachers Union, which has not endorsed a candidate since its former president Edward Doherty challenged Mayor Raymond L. Flynn in 1991, said it will back a candidate this year and will be holding an education forum next month. Whoever gets that endorsement will get a lot of foot soldiers, said Richard Stutman, union president.

The union, however, has not decided whether it will endorse before or after the make-it-or-break-it preliminary election, which will whittle the field to two.

In spite of the enormous task of overhauling schools, candidates express confidence that all students in Boston will attend a good school.

“We turned around Orchard Gardens,” Barros said, noting it was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state three years ago. “We can improve every school in our district. We are on the cusp of making it happen.”

Walsh said: “It can be done. We don’t have an option here. We need to make sure every child can earn a good quality education so they can be successful in life.”

Correspondent Jasper Craven contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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