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City councilors, parents, educators blast state overhaul of Boston schools

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley (left)
Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley (left)David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2019

Educators, families, and elected leaders from Boston pleaded with state education officials on Tuesday to freeze plans for overhauling the Boston Public School system, blasting the effort’s launch amid the coronavirus pandemic as inappropriate and insensitive.

“We are literally trying to keep students fed on a daily basis,” said Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, chiding state officials for moving forward with business as usual amid a global health crisis. "It does smack of racism, it smacks of classism, and it smacks of being completely out of tune with what people of color and low-income individuals need in terms of education.”

The school system’s defenders made their voices heard at the monthly meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which was held virtually due to the escalating health crisis that is keeping residents around the world isolated in their homes.

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It was the board’s first meeting since Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley unveiled the intervention plan and a scathing 300-page review of the state’s largest system on March 13, the same day that Boston officials announced they would be closing schools for an unprecedented six weeks to keep students and staff safe from COVID-19 infection. The closure has since been extended.

The plan has raised concerns among some educators and parents that the state might move to take over the school system or a portion of schools if standardized test scores don’t improve fast enough — an action that some advocates with ties to the business community as well as some parents were hoping for before the plan was released.

“Test scores should not be the all powerful measure by which our schools and districts are labeled as succeeding or failing,” said Jen Rose-Wood, whose children attend the Nathan Hale Elementary School in Roxbury. “These labels are inaccurate and misleading to parents and communities, and damaging to staff and students in them. The fact that state takeovers are only prescribed to high-need urban districts populated by students of color and English learners while never threatened in suburban, majority white systems also smacks of racism and discrimination against poor communities.”

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“We don’t need the BPS worrying about the threat of future state intervention,” said Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George.

Riley defended his efforts, emphasizing the state was intervening to provide support. He also noted that key deadlines for several initial tasks have been extended in light of the pandemic and that the plan doesn’t go into effect until the fall.

“I think there has been some kind of misunderstanding in a lot of ways from what I’m hearing,” said Riley, speaking from a conference room at state education headquarters in Malden. “This is not receivership."

The plan, which Riley billed as a partnership, is ambitious and wide-reaching, divvying up various tasks between local officials and the state.

For instance, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius must bolster high school graduation requirements, overhaul programs for students with disabilities, improve the reliability and efficiency of school buses, and boost the performance of nearly 33 schools whose test scores rate in the bottom 10 percent statewide.

The state will assist local officials with efforts to increase the diversity of its teaching force, expand outside partnerships to support student learning, help renovate student bathrooms, and elevate teaching and learning in a group of schools located in mostly in the North End, Charlestown, and East Boston.

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Several speakers blamed the state for some of the school system’s failings, arguing budget cuts such as reducing librarians, nurses, and academic programs are due to a scarcity of state funding.

“Our students have been disenfranchised by the lack of state funding and in reality that is how we have arrived at this place” said Evelyn Reyes, student representative on the Boston School Committee.

“If we get the funding we need,” said City Council President Kim Janey, “I am confident that working with the new superintendent, with my colleagues on the council, our educators in the classrooms, and so many families who care about education in Boston, that we can make the necessary changes.”

Riley questioned Boston’s lack of financial resources, pointing out its per-student spending is among the highest in the state. According to state data, Boston spends more than $22,000 per student, while the School Committee last week approved a more than $1 billion budget for the next school year. But Riley said there may be an opportunity for additional state funds for Boston.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said she doubted any state intervention beyond money would be beneficial.

“The state’s record of interventions in the BPS has been terrible, and this has created an incredible amount of anxiety for all schools involved,” she said. “More anxiety is not what any of us need. For years, our schools have lived in fear of both receivership and designation for turnaround status.”

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Ana Arroyo, who taught at the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester when the state took it over several years ago, shared the pitfalls of state intervention, citing high turnover of teachers and principals, parent confusion, and sluggish academic progress.

“My heart breaks every time I hear about how the Dever has moved backwards rather than forwards," she said.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.