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Boston puts off charter school plan for Dearborn

MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

Boston school officials are backing away from a proposal to convert the city’s newest school building into a charter school, in response to growing opposition from families, teachers, and education advocates.

Instead, school officials will work with Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury, which was originally promised the building, to come up with an academic-improvement plan in hopes of staving off a state takeover of the underperforming school.

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“What we want to do now is catalyze the energy and develop a rapid improvement plan that we all can get behind,” Lee McGuire, the School Department’s spokesman, said Thursday.

School officials and Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced the change Wednesday night at a City Council hearing on education issues, following a late-afternoon meeting of high-ranking officials about Dearborn. The School Department will be sending letters to Dearborn families.

By putting the proposal on hold, the school system is killing any possibility of converting Dearborn into a charter school for fall 2015 because it will miss key deadlines set by the state that allow such conversions to take place. If the School Department puts the proposal forward again, the earliest the change could take place is for 2016.

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The plan, originally announced in July, had increasingly come under fire by Dearborn supporters, who have been showing up in large numbers at public meetings and who launched an online petition urging the School Committee to vote against the proposal during deliberations this month. Supporters say the proposal was developed without their input and worried that converting Dearborn into a charter school was essentially akin to shutting it down.

They expressed delight Thursday that the proposal might be dead.

“This is good news,” said Bruce Thatcher, whose son attends Dearborn. “I think the Dearborn can come up with a better proposal.”

Interim Superintendent John McDonough proposed the idea of converting Dearborn into an in-district charter school, starting fall 2015, in a preemptive move to prevent a state takeover of the long-struggling secondary school. Having the state seize control of the city’s newest school building could be embarrassing for Boston, education advocates have said.

Under the arrangement, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School would have operated Dearborn, which would have taken on the charter school’s name. The School Committee was expected to vote on the proposal Sept. 17, but now the vote will not occur, school officials said.

McDonough said Thursday he had no regrets pitching the proposal.

“My goal in July was to initiate an urgent community conversation” about Dearborn, McDonough said.

Jesse Solomon, executive director of BPE, a Boston nonprofit that oversees the running of Dudley Street Charter School, said he understood why the School Department was reconsidering the plan.

“Would I love it to go forward? Yes,” he said. “But as many people said Wednesday night, there are too many unanswered questions.”

It remains unclear whether Dearborn is at greater risk of a state takeover by abandoning the plan.

Jeff Wulfson, a state deputy education commissioner, said state officials are still reviewing MCAS scores and other data for schools like Dearborn that were designated underperforming more than three years ago. He said a decision on receivership would be made this month.

“There may be a window here for the district to propose an alternative plan, but it is not necessarily a window that will be open that long,” Wulfson said.

But, he added, “we appreciate that the superintendent is working hard to come up with a plan for some significant improvements at the school.”

Construction on the new $70.7 million building is expected to begin next year. It will go up on the current site of the Dearborn school on Greenville Street, after the building there is demolished. Dearborn has temporarily relocated its classrooms to Burke High School in Dorchester.

But the construction project is also facing growing opposition from neighbors who say they never realized the more than century-old building would be razed. They thought it would be renovated and are now pushing city and school officials to reconsider constructing a new building or to erect it on a different site.

City Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents Roxbury and who chairs the council’s education committee, said he was pleased the charter-school proposal is off the table.

“I’m speechless,” Jackson said Thursday. “We understand the urgency and are willing to do the work and collaborate together so the Dearborn can be successful.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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