The following is a letter that the Boston High School Heads Association sent to Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, Boston School Committee Chair Michael Loconto, and Boston School Committee Vice-Chair Alexandra Oliver-Davila on Thursday.
To: Michael Loconto, Chair, Boston School Committee
Alexandra Oliver-Davila, Vice-Chair, Boston School Committee
Dr. Brenda Cassellius, Superintendent, Boston Public Schools
From: Boston High School Heads Association (formerly Headmasters Association)
Re: Concerns With BPS High School Redesign Proposal and Leadership
Date: July 16, 2020
This letter details the strong concerns that the Boston High School Heads Association have regarding the proposed BPS High School Redesign process, leadership of the high school division in general, and additional high school network issues. At the May 27, 2020 meeting, several Boston School Committee members spoke publicly about their desire to hear directly from high school leaders on these topics. We are pleased to provide that feedback to both the Committee and the Superintendent and her team in this letter in the hopes that a candid discussion of the issues will result in better outcomes for our students, families, and schools.
All Heads of School support the strengthening of academics at the high school level and are deeply committed to that work. The ideas presented as part of High School Redesign are worthy of discussion and provide one path (of many) to increasing rigor in our high schools, which is what all our students need and are very capable of doing. However, we believe that the current proposal presented to the School Committee on May 27, 2020, and the process used to develop it are deeply flawed. We believe that this proposal, if implemented as currently constructed, would be extremely detrimental to students, families and schools. Finally, we believe that during this time of ongoing health emergencies, pressing forward with this plan now is absolutely inappropriate and will distract schools and school leaders from the deeply challenging work of reopening and successfully running our schools over the next year and beyond.
The Association is asking the School Committee and the Superintendent to immediately withdraw the current high school redesign proposal, place a hold on all implementation of proposed changes, immediately address issues of leadership and management in the central office, and collaborate fully and authentically with school leaders over SY2020-21 to revise the plan for all high schools going forward.
High School Redesign
As part of the Superintendent’s Strategic Plan, BPS is committed to strengthening the academic performance of our high schools. As high school leaders we share this strong commitment.
However, the process of creating a plan for High School Redesign, as it has been labeled, over the past year has been a top-down exercise in poor planning from the start, one that has ignored the thoughtful and urgent feedback of school leaders at every step. The current plan is divorced from any authentic analysis of data, lacks major details that must be thought through prior to implementation, ignores years of studies about BPS high schools and the complex issues they face (mostly notably the recent Parthenon Report), reverses years of improvements in Alternative Education, and pushes forward with a complexity and a pace that are impossible to succeed in the timeline proposed.
Already, major changes have begun to be implemented without School Committee approval and were in motion long before the update the Committee received on May 27, 2020. Leadership of the high school division has been unwilling to take and incorporate feedback from school leaders, has consistently sought to implement a top down vision despite major concerns, and has required school leaders to undertake superhuman efforts to meet rushed and incoherent tasks and deadlines that appear to be designed to project progress to external constituencies at the expense of schools themselves and the dedicated people who lead them. The Association believes the School Committee deserves a much fuller and candid picture than what has been presented thus far and an explanation of our reasons for requesting an immediate halt and restart to the process.
As you know, seven high schools were selected for “Phase One” of this initiative by the Superintendent and the School Superintendents for High Schools, all of which are open enrollment high schools mostly with large facilities. These high schools are Burke, Brighton, Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH), Charlestown, East Boston, English, and Madison Park. The challenges of our open enrollment schools have been well documented, especially in the BPS-commissioned Parthenon Report from 2018. In the new High School Redesign plan, schools have been directed to implement a “core four” set of strategies that include adding Career Technical Education (CTE) programs, International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, Pre-AP programs, and Dual Enrollment with local colleges and universities. At the same time, all of these schools are moving from grades 9-12 to include students in grades 7-12 with the goal of increasing enrollment at all schools over time. All five of these major initiatives are scheduled to be implemented at the same time starting in September 2021. Below are our specific concerns about the process of developing and implementing this plan. Our concerns are organized thematically below:
1. This initiative is a ‘one size fits all’ solution to a complex challenge that demands better analysis first. At no time has the central office undertaken an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the programs currently housed at these seven schools. Programs at certain schools have seen significant gains and narrowing of gaps that we believe are attributable to intentional strategies being employed based on the actual needs of students in these schools. While each part of the “core four” programming that is central to the redesign initiative, taken alone, has the potential to benefit students, the student populations of each school are different and there is no basis for determining how these programs are in fact conducive to the students that each of these schools serve. We believe the ‘one size fits all’ approach used with the “core four” is misguided and will not result in the gains we all hope to achieve.
2. School leaders were sidelined and ignored in the development and implementation of this initiative. When representatives from the Association were asked to serve on the high school redesign committee at the beginning of this year, we were under the impression that members of the Association would be included in the discussions as to how, when, where, and what would be implemented as part of the redesign process. This expectation was based in part on the significant level of engagement on issues pertaining to high school redesign that occurred in the preceding school year, at which time school leaders devoted a significant amount of time to developing a framework for much-needed and pragmatic conversations at the secondary level (without negatively affecting students). It is now our understanding that the redesign committee, while continuing to convene throughout the course of the year, has not had any level of responsibility for the development of this plan. Feedback and concerns given by school leaders to the high school superintendents about the plan have been dismissed repeatedly. We believe the unilateral imposition of this plan is unacceptable, will doom it unnecessarily to years of resistance, ignores the deep historical knowledge of school leaders that could make it better, and is a ‘quick fix’ plan designed to satisfy external stakeholders rather than a thoughtful, nuanced approach to a complex problem we all are committed to solving.
3. The ‘core four’ programs are not aligned to state and BPS assessments and accountability measures. It has become apparent that some of the elements of the core four are wholly unaligned with both the district’s curriculum scope and sequence framework in multiple subject areas and the curricular frameworks upon which the Commonwealth’s MCAS and accountability are based. Specifically, the implementation of some pre-AP and IB programming, which are not aligned to Massachusetts and Boston scope and sequences will cause a domino effect that will leave programming alignments in these schools completely disconnected from both staffing models and accountability measures. While the individual programs themselves could be beneficial to students, in the rush to adopt ‘nationally recognized rigorous programs’, little attention appears to have been given to how these programs might actually be unaligned to our state and local context. Without detailed planning, additional funds, and any kind of prioritization or alignment, we are fearful that the initiatives will collapse under the weight of themselves.
4. Successfully implementing all of these new initiatives at once is not possible or advisable, especially during a global pandemic. We are concerned that the simultaneous implementation of pre-AP programming and IB programming coupled with the expansion to 7th- 12th grade configurations and the increase in CTE programming will constitute an implementation overload in which none of the subparts of this initiative will be effectively implemented. Our concerns are rooted in the fact that we have seen no data to suggest there is, in fact, a sufficient level of demand among current or prospective BPS students to warrant the simultaneous implementation of all four of these initiatives at seven schools all at once. The belief of the Superintendent and other central office leaders that implementing these programs quickly and simultaneously will increase high school enrollment overall and specifically at these schools is simply unfounded. Finally, given the challenges associated with reopening and sustaining school in the Fall and beyond, it defies common sense to also ask these seven schools to continue planning to implement these new programs on the proposed timeline. For all these reasons, we believe a restart and delay is needed to effectively analyze, prioritize and sequence the roll out of any new programs in these seven high schools.
5. Logistics of implementation have not been adequately planned for. In addition to questions over whether there are, in fact, enough students to warrant this expansion, our members are also concerned that – in light of potentially having too few students – the logistical aspects of this plan, including scheduling and other relevant provisions of the district’s collective bargaining agreements, may not permit a successful implementation. Implementing a new IB or CTE program on their own would require years of planning, additional positions and funds, and schedule changes. For most of the schools identified in this initiative, none of whom are autonomous schools, it would be impossible to implement all of this programming without a significant expansion of the school day, additional positions, or contractual changes. None of this has been thought out by district leadership and school leaders concerns about this have been repeatedly dismissed. Examples are:
- IB implementation will add 14 full time positions to the district in addition to professional development and consulting fees. This will cost the district approximately $1.5-2 million per year. There is no plan we are aware of for the funding.
- CVTE programs account for 25% of instructional time in the freshmen and sophomore year and 50% of instructional time in the junior and senior year. It is not clear that there are enough instructional minutes in the day for a vocational school, such as Madison, to implement IB with integrity. This is already a struggle for AP courses.
- Due to the physical constraints of our buildings, we may be forced to limit the cohort size in order to accommodate 7-8 graders AND an alternative program. There may not be enough room in our buildings to run so many specialized programs.
- IB mandates a scope and sequence, instructional strategies, assessments, projects and presentations, all of which may conflict with other initiatives like Pre-AP or pre-existing school-based programs. It requires whole school professional development and the addition of staff, at minimum a Coordinator and a person to manage community projects and portfolios. It is clear that pre-AP courses are not a feeder for IB coursework and are misaligned.
- The path forward with district assessments is very unclear. How will we balance the assessment demand of pre-AP, IB alongside district and state assessments? Not to mention, each school has developed rigorous but unique assessments to meet the needs of their school community.
- At many of these schools this will be the third wave of massive PD initiatives in recent years. Previous initiatives have not yet solidified to show gains. Now we are restarting again instead of building upon what was in place.
- The success of the transformation school hinges on staff, School Site Council and ILT support for major initiatives. Mandated initiatives without this support will not be successful. School-based governance is being bypassed in the rush to implement these proposals.
6. The High School Redesign effort has been wholly uncoordinated with other BPS departments and initiatives. In the last several weeks school leaders have communicated to us that their conversations with representatives from the BPS offices of Data & Accountability, Transformation, Equity, and Academics – respectively – have each suggested that these offices have been either uninvolved or entirely uninformed about the implementation of the High School Redesign programs. This lack of coordination at the central office level has been concerning because it is unclear that these offices will be able to provide schools the support that will be necessary for implementation of any components of this redesign initiative, never mind the implementation of all four at once. This kind of major initiative requires close coordination between central departments and school leaders and appears to be deeply lacking at present. Examples are:
- The Transformation Office was not made aware of the IB and pre-AP mandates in the high school redesign process until late February. There still is not a plan on how these elements will be integrated into state-mandated turnaround plans.
- The Office of Data & Accountability was not aware of the mandated pre-AP quarterly assessments until mid-March and could not address how the issue of competing formative assessments would be addressed.
- Last fall, pre-AP was introduced to all high school leaders at a PD and schools were told that this was an excellent opportunity to increase rigor, equity and access. Schools were encouraged to follow up with the College Board to consider implementation. In January, 7 transformation schools were told pre-AP would be purchased centrally for English and Math. In May, schools were told the mandated subjects would be English and Biology. The issue of assessments is still not resolved.
- The Academics Office, which has now had most positions eliminated, will now be unable to support the coordination and development of these new curricular options. There is now no ‘in house’ BPS expertise or coordination left to support these major overlapping efforts.
7. There has been no meaningful equity analysis. It was communicated to the Association and our members in the last several weeks that no substantive equity analysis of the High School Redesign initiative would be undertaken until next year. Because equity is such a key commitment of our district, we are deeply troubled that this initiative could have advanced this far without an equity analysis. In the seven schools impacted the average enrollment of ELL and Students with Disabilities is 35% and is much higher in some schools. The impact of the ‘core four’ upon them has not been analyzed at all. School leaders of the seven schools have received a directive to rapidly submit lengthy applications pledging required funding and support from rank and file staff (which school leaders have no confidence that they will be able to secure) without a thorough analysis of the impact its implementation will have on the district’s most vulnerable learners. Once again, the speed at which this is being pushed forward implies a strong desire by district leadership to satisfy external constituencies at the expense of quality, equity and real results.
8. Existing school turnaround and transformation plans are unaligned with High School Redesign requirements. Multiple schools that are involved in this initiative are already subject to state-required plans that may or may not accommodate aspects of this redesign strategy. We are concerned both with running afoul of those state sanctioned plans and, more importantly, about abandoning some of the strategies and tactics within those plans that have proven effective in school improvements across some of these schools. Schools and school leaders have been working hard for years to implement these plans and to improve outcomes for students. The addition of new requirements and strategies that are unaligned to these existing plans is a recipe for incoherent attention and implementation and may result in schools extending their stay in negative state monitoring rather than exiting quickly.
9. Lack of spatial and enrollment analysis: When the school committee committed to a district-wide grade configuration strategy in May of 2019, several of the school communities affected by these initiatives were enthusiastic about having a grade span that could potentially stabilize enrollment and expand a variety of programmatic options. Detailed analysis of space and enrollment was used to justify this shift. Under the High School Redesign rollout, however, grade levels are expanding without the use of any data analysis regarding demand for seats or how the various options will interact with one another with respect to open enrollment schools. In addition, no extensive spatial or financial analysis has been conducted at any of the schools posing questions about whether each school in fact has the infrastructure for this simultaneous expansion and if the district has the funding to support significant renovations. This is a critical failure of planning and the School Committee should insist that it occur before allowing any High School Redesign plan to move forward.
While the flaws in the overall High School Redesign proposal are significant, they are at least a year away from being implemented fully. However, there are immediate and very strong concerns about what the plan will do right now to our alternative education schools and programs. The leaders of the alternative education school communities have been working for years to reform this sector of the BPS and to build upon the ‘portfolio approach’ specifically approved by the School Committee over the past few years. A new framework for alternative education was shared by school leaders with the high school superintendents in February 2020 but was ignored in the current High School Redesign plan, which threatens to undo over a decade of good work in a few short months if not halted immediately. Specifically, the issues are:
1. The High Redesign Plan is uncoordinated with and ignores previous School Committee policy decisions. In the last two years BPS has made significant progress with respect to certain alternative education programming. The district has adopted new practices and policies at schools like Greater Egleston and BATA that have improved their capacity to serve students with some of the most significant needs. While there is undoubtedly more work to be done in this regard, there has been neither an equity nor programmatic analysis with regard to how the High School Redesign effort will affect these programs. In multiple instances, school leaders have been called in the hours leading up to an announcement that an alternative program is relocating into a new school community. The administrators with the most experience in working with these populations have conveyed to the Association grave concerns about how this type of implementation will affect students in these programs.
2. The plan restricts enrollment at alternative education sites, denying students the opportunity to attend a program that best fits their needs. By situating most of the alternative education programs within the seven high school redesign schools, and limiting enrollment to students within those schools, the plan clearly prevents students from across the BPS from accessing them. This is the opposite of what the ‘portfolio approach’ to alternative education approved by the School Committee was supposed to accomplish. Students who need alternative education need it for different reasons. By having city-wide access to a number of programs with different approaches (like magnet schools) or who specialize in serving different segments of the alternative education population, students can be better served and have a higher chance of success and graduation. The High School Redesign plan removes those options and limits students in very counterproductive ways.
3. Programs are being moved and altered right now without School Committee approval. Some alternative education programs are being directed to move this summer into space within the larger high schools and others are being told to prioritize their enrollment of students from specific schools. School leaders do not approve of or support these changes. We think the School Committee should immediately halt these changes as they conflict with previously approved School Committee policies on alternative education.
4. School leaders and BPS-specific research have been ignored throughout this process. Despite years of experience in a very unique section of education, the leaders of the alternative education schools and communities have been ignored and cut out of any meaningful discussions about the fate of their programs. The significant body of research on alternative education in the BPS (which includes the 2018 Parthenon report references above and it’s predecessor from 2007) is also being discarded in favor of a restricted and less effective model for serving off-track students. The current administration also disregarded the work plan drafted by the alternative education work group in 2019, which put together a redesign plan for alt ed, based on the 2018 Parthenon findings. This type of leadership leads to poor decision making, lack of buy-in for leaders, and mistakes for a district that cannot afford to make them with our most vulnerable students.
Impact on All High Schools
While these proposals are focused on seven schools for “phase one” of High School Redesign, the impact upon all other high schools will be significant. The presentation to the School Committee, the documents presented to school leaders, and the High School Network meetings this year have been silent on this issue. The Superintendent has made numerous public statements that she believes “BPS should ideally have 7-10 high schools of 1000-1500 students each”. The complete absence of long term planning in the Redesign proposal, coupled with these statements, leads us to believe that the remaining schools, many of whom are smaller but higher performing, may close as the enrollment is made to grow in the large schools.
This has massive implications for the over 30 high schools currently in the district. There is a well known declining enrollment problem in the BPS, especially at the high school level. If these seven schools grow in size, other schools must lose students to offset them, many of which currently outperform the seven schools in the High School Redesign cohort. It is also unclear how the High School Redesign initiative is linked, if at all, to the BuildBPS work over the last several years. This massive data-driven project has grappled with key questions like how many students are projected to be in the BPS over the next several years, how many high schools the City of Boston needs, their locations and special programs, and other factors.
The High School Redesign proposal needs to take these into account so there are clear, coherent, and data-driven goals for the district that are reflected in the plan. All of these are currently absent and reflect an emphasis on short-term, surface-level ‘reforms’ at the expense of real solutions. BPS leadership over the past year has shown resistance to engaging in these important conversations with school leaders. This needs to be rectified.
Additional High School Network Issues
In addition to the issues above, we want to also bring to your attention several issues within the High School Network that have been deeply concerning:
1. Removal of School Leaders
We want to be sure that the School Committee is aware that six high school leaders were removed from their positions by the Superintendent during the pandemic shutdown this spring. Four of the leaders were in schools that are part of the High School Redesign process. The Association has registered our strong disapproval of the timing and process used to make these changes and believes it essential that this be completely overhauled for next year. We have begun conversations with the Office of Human Capital and look forward to continuing them. However, changes made under these circumstances are absolutely detrimental to morale, dismissive of the strong work done by those leaders before and during the COVID emergency, and reflect poor practices by the BPS in supporting and evaluating school leaders.
These personnel changes exacerbated long standing issues with principal turnover and lack of trust between school leaders and the central office that were extensively documented in the DESE review of BPS released in March 2020. In addition, the installation of new leaders into these positions violated the BPS policies and circulars regarding the involvement of School Site Councils, Governing Boards, and staff members in the selection of school leaders.
We believe the School Committee should closely monitor the BPS turnover rate of school leaders, the timing of and rationale for those decisions, and the impact it has upon a corp of school leaders that already suffers from high turnover (50% of school leaders have departed the BPS over the last three years).
2. Poor Evaluation Practices
Most high school leaders report that their supervisors were barely present in their school this year and that observations, feedback, and true evaluation did not take place. While all other formal evaluations in the BPS were suspended due to the COVID emergency, only school leaders received evaluations. These were delayed beyond the expiration of many school leaders' contracts (June 30th) and were scheduled to be completed by July 15th (although as of this writing many leaders have still not received them), well after the expected evaluation deadlines in June had passed. Decisions about school leadership changes, made many months prior to the completion of evaluations, were clearly done without evidence or proper process. We understand there were adjustments due to the COVID emergency, but what was happening prior to the shutdown was still poorly administered. This must be changed going forward.
3. Ignoring School Governing Boards
Almost 50% of the high schools in BPS are autonomous schools (Pilot Schools, Horace Mann Charters, or Innovation Schools). All have governing boards and codified agreements with BPS about governance. The Superintendent’s actions over the last year have shown a consistent disregard for these Boards and agreements. Autonomous Schools have been issued mandates as part of the High School Redesign and Transformation initiatives that contradict their autonomies while their governing boards have been consistently ignored or dismissed when they assert their role. Additionally, new leaders were installed in two Pilot Schools without the consent of their governing boards and proposals have been made to alter the enrollment and program of another autonomous school without consultation with or the support of their board. Finally, many governing boards completed their evaluations of school leaders, as is their role and responsibility, on time and with quality, while BPS evaluations of school leaders were greatly delayed. There are always hard conversations to be had around autonomies and school leaders are committed to having them. However, the Association insists that the codified processes for autonomous schools be adhered to and requests the School Committee monitor the Superintendent’s actions with regards to autonomous schools so that BPS policies are not violated.
Conclusion and Next Steps
In closing, the Association wishes to reiterate that these concerns are significant and need to be addressed immediately. It is our sincere hope to engage in an authentic dialogue with the School Committee, the Superintendent, and other central office leaders to strengthen this important work. However, we want to be clear that we do not think the High School Redesign initiative should proceed as currently constructed. We also request that the School Committee and Superintendent respond to the various points and requests made in this letter so that the problems identified can be addressed collaboratively. We continue to be committed to this important work and look forward to future conversations.
Cc: Dr. Elia Bruggeman, High School Superintendent, Boston Public Schools
Dr. Lindsa McIntyre, High School Superintendent, Boston Public Schools
Corey Harris, Chief of Accountability, Boston Public Schools