Boston’s public schools are strapped for space at the elementary school level, but they’re swimming in seats in the upper grades — where several high schools, including Jeremiah Burke and English High, are operating at less than 50 percent capacity. The system needs both a long-range facilities plan and a flexible attitude to solve its growing pains on one end and its contraction on the other.
Facilities planners have seen this problem coming for several years. But central administrators, including outgoing school Superintendent Carol Johnson, misplayed their hands during a series of school consolidations and closings between 2008 and 2010. Those steps removed some elementary school seats that would be useful today. Now officials are trying to regain some of those lost seats while figuring out the best approach to deal with a glut of 3,000 seats at the high-school level.
The decline in high-school populations won’t reverse until the school system gives parents the longer school days and rigorous academic environments that are characteristic of state-authorized charter schools, which are expanding across Boston. The popularity of these charter schools, suspicion of the city’s poorly performing middle schools, and demographic shifts point to sparsely attended high schools for many years to come.
Carleton Jones, the head of capital and facilities management for the school system, is saying all the right things about fitting together the pieces of the puzzle. He is looking at everything from the siting of special ed programs to the height of bathroom fixtures in underutilized buildings for the purpose of creating a badly needed five-year facilities plan for the system. He is also seeking technical help from the MIT researcher who created the algorithm for the system’s new student assignment plan. But politics and leadership will play just as big a role as mathematics in finding the right solution.
The system surely can make more creative use of the seats that it has. Some high-school students now attend schools originally designed for younger students. If their families can be enticed to accept reassignments to sparsely attended high schools, it would ease the demand for elementary seats. The school department should also consider repurposing empty space in high-school buildings for elementary-level programs. Some School Committee members believe that the city’s sprawling, half-full high schools represent a chance to create K-12 schools at a single site. At the least, it’s a concept worth exploring further.
Regardless, the school system needs a long-range facilities plan — especially if it wants Boston’s young families to build their own long-range plans around educating their children in the city’s public schools.