One year, word got out at 1 a.m. on a frigid January morning: The line was forming. Better hustle.
So they tossed off the covers and raced down to the queue, where they waited for the sun to rise over Philadelphia and the doors to crack open.
A couple of years later, the buzz started even earlier — on a Friday morning, days before anyone could get into the building.
One woman dashed out of work, secured her place in line, and set a complicated family plan into motion — her parents, her sister and brother-in-law, and her husband would all swap into the queue at some point as the weekend wore on.
Doubtless, they’d be a little jealous of the guy who’d built a temporary structure complete with flooring and insulation — not to mention the family that had deployed the RV. But the prize was worth the privation.
A front row seat at a Springsteen show? Tickets to “Hamilton”? No, something far more precious than that: a spot for their kindergartner in one of the best public schools in the nation, Penn Alexander — a K-8 founded by the University of Pennsylvania in partnership with the Philadelphia public schools and the city’s teachers union.
Launching a grade school may seem an odd project for an institution of higher learning. But top-flight universities have dabbled in K-12 education for decades.
Many have stood up elite private schools that cater to faculty and other well-heeled professionals — often dubbed “lab schools” because they allow education professors to test their ideas on high-performing subjects.
But others have launched schools like Penn Alexander, university-affiliated public institutions that offer an intriguing answer to the challenges of urban education.
In Houston, the mostly Black, Latino, and Asian students of the Baylor College of Medicine-affiliated Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions do rotations at nearby hospitals and earn tens of millions of dollars in college scholarships every year.
There are university-affiliated public schools in Baltimore, New York City, and Los Angeles, too. And here in Massachusetts, the symbiotic relationship between Clark University and University Park Campus School, a public school that runs from grades 7 to 12, has changed the lives of hundreds of children from Worcester’s tough Main South neighborhood.
It’s a model that would seem well suited to Boston, home to some of the world’s greatest universities, hospitals, and biotech companies.
Oddly, though, there’s very little of the sort, here.
That’s not to say the city’s heavy hitters have turned their backs on Boston’s kids. Harvard University’s expansion into Allston has yielded the Ed Portal, an ambitious community center that offers college help and financial literacy to neighborhood kids. Each year, Brigham and Women’s Hospital provides 100 Boston high school students with paid internships, SAT preparation, and in some cases, $5,000-a-year college scholarships; Massachusetts General Hospital has a similar program that serves 120. And the young learners who cycle through Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ glassy Thomas M. Menino Learning Lab conduct experiments with Bunsen burners and pipettes while looking out on Boston Harbor.
In a couple of cases, institutions have taken the plunge — starting schools and remaining deeply involved.
A consortium of arts-focused institutions, including the Berklee College of Music, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Emerson College, helped found the Boston Arts Academy, a high school for the visual and performing arts, over 20 years ago. And the Codman Square Health Center, a small Dorchester clinic, launched a charter school.
But Bill Walczak, cofounder of the health center and the Codman Academy Charter Public School, doesn’t understand why more of the wealthiest universities and hospitals in the city haven’t gotten involved in starting schools.
“This is something that’s been driving me crazy for years,” he says. “Boston is this place that has these tremendous institutions . . . and if they cared enough about the kids growing up in the neighborhoods, we could wind up with these fantastic options.”
There are plenty of reasons why it could be difficult to get these kinds of schools off the ground here, including the cost, institutional mistrust of a school district with long-running management problems, and simple inertia.
But all of that is conquerable. The money and talent and drive in this town are immense. And Boston has a proven capacity for developing top-flight specialty schools; its charter schools are among the best in the nation.
Of course, institutionally affiliated schools aren’t a cure-all. Nothing is a cure-all.
After years of failure and frustration, though, it seems clear that Boston is leaving one of its best options on the table.
A culture of possibility
In the spring of 2018, at the tail end of Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang’s ill-fated tenure, the district released a report called “Excellence and equity for all” prepared by Ernst & Young.
The title was a bit anodyne, the data a little dense. But the story it told was painful.
Nearly one in five high school students — some 3,300 kids — were two or more years behind in school. Too many of them would never graduate. And the outlook for dropouts was bleak. Research shows they earn less money as adults, are more likely to wind up in jail, and die younger, on average, than those who earn a diploma.
The report pointed to problems up and down the school system. Almost half of these “off-track” students showed serious signs of struggle before they entered high school — chronic absenteeism, bad grades, poor performance on state tests.
And just as worrisome: About one-third of off-track kids entered high school without any warning signs at all — meaning they had been doing reasonably well only to get derailed just before they completed their journeys.
The report wasn’t all bad news. It credited the district for a series of interventions that had actually lifted the graduation rate over the previous decade.
But some of the district’s most sweeping efforts at high school reform — creating small schools and trying to turn around big ones — had failed. And when Chang’s successor, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, released her own reform plan, she met with stiff resistance from high school leaders who argued, in an extraordinary letter, that it was “divorced from any authentic analysis of data, lacks major details . . . [and] ignores years of studies about BPS high schools and the complex issues they face.” The pandemic didn’t make reform any easier.
What we have now is a highly stratified, deeply segregated system, with white and Asian students clustered at the city’s three exam schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — and low-income Black and Latino students spread out across the district’s struggling open-enrollment high schools.
Breaking out of that dynamic will be no easy task.
The exam schools exert enormous gravitational pull in Boston; they are the places that middle-class families and high-achieving students aspire to.
And only knock-your-socks-off alternatives will draw some of those families away and create more of the integrated, well-resourced classrooms that decades of research have shown are conducive to better academic performance and life outcomes for disadvantaged students.
This is where university- or hospital-affiliated schools could be powerful — particularly regional schools that drew students from both the city and the suburbs.
“My God, between Cambridge and Boston, you have several of the greatest hospitals in the world,” says Gary Orfield, a school integration expert and co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “They sponsor a regional health academy that’s absolutely world-class — people would kill to get into it.”
Magnet schools have proven their mettle elsewhere.
In Greater Hartford, a network of 40 regional magnets — born of a desegregation lawsuit — has been putting urban and suburban kids in the same classrooms for years. And while the schools have attractive themes — aerospace, the creative arts, character education — none has the branding power of a Harvard or Brigham and Women’s or Vertex.
Even a set of schools that were only for Boston students could have powerful effects.
Look no further than the Clark University-affiliated University Park Campus School, which has a student body that’s over 90 percent nonwhite and about two-thirds economically disadvantaged.
The school came out of a broader effort in the 1990s to revitalize Clark’s troubled neighborhood, Main South.
The university worked with a community group to repair some of the area’s neglected triple-deckers. And it offered neighborhood kids a free ride at Clark if they were accepted. But officials quickly realized that few would qualify for admission without better college preparation.
So in 1997, Clark joined with the Worcester Public Schools to open University Park on the college campus. Not long after, it moved to a 19th-century brick schoolhouse just down the road.
The sign over the front entrance reads, “The School With a Promise,” and two maps — one of the United States and one of the world — hang just inside, loaded with pins representing all of the far-flung delegations that have visited.
The city funds and oversees the school. Any neighborhood kid can attend, regardless of academic record. In a typical year, about 110 students are eligible for the lottery, some 85 apply, and 44 get in.
The school is known for, among other things, its conversational teaching style and respect for students’ intellects.
Principal Daniel St. Louis first caught a glimpse of the approach as an undergraduate at Clark, when he stopped by University Park to observe an English teacher named June Eressy.
“What I saw was June sitting in a circle with 22 neighborhood kids, laughing and reading and talking, and laughing and writing and talking, and having a great time through English language arts,” he says. “And that seemed good to me.”
When St. Louis got a job teaching English at University Park, he emulated Eressy’s style.
And as principal, he says, it’s been easy to maintain the school’s pedagogical approach because so many of University Park’s teachers follow the same path — with about three-quarters graduating from Clark.
But if the school culture has remained consistent in some ways, there have been adjustments along the way, too.
When several of the first batch of University Park graduates who enrolled at Clark dropped out, “we learned the hard way that we needed to think about their preparation not only academically but socially, culturally,” says Tom Del Prete, director of Clark’s Adam Institute for Urban Teaching and School Practice.
Rising ninth-graders now take part in a summer academy on the Clark campus. Kids make regular use of the gym and library. And a few take psychology and economics classes at the university.
Back at University Park, juniors and seniors engage in independent, college-style work so they’ll know what to expect at the next level.
Over the years, the school has also absorbed some of the teaching techniques honed on the college campus.
Kyle Pahigian is what Del Prete calls a “double agent,” working half time at the university training student teachers and half time at University Park as a 10th-grade geometry teacher.
On a recent weekday, she started a remote geometry lesson with a joke: “What do you call fake spaghetti?” The answer: “impasta.”
“lmao that was actually funny,” one of the 10th-graders wrote in the chat, using the Internet acronym for “laughing my ass off.”
For the rest of the lesson, the students examined four shapes and tried to divine which of them wasn’t a parallelogram. Pahigian was all questions. Why do you think that’s the imposter? How do you know? How can you prove it?
At the end of class, she employed a variant of a technique she’d picked up in her role at Clark — the “favorite no.” The idea is to divide student answers into yeses (the correct answers) and nos (the incorrect answers), and then pick a “favorite no” — that is, a common mistake. Without identifying the student who made the error, the teacher walks the whole group through it, with the class identifying something the student did right, then picking out the mistake, and learning from it.
“It really hammers home the idea that mistakes are fantastic,” she says. “And then I start to get kids that are like, ‘Hey, I made this really cool mistake — can I share it? Because I figured it out.’”
It’s the sort of thing Pahigian shares with fellow teachers at University Park — part of a continuous exchange between university and school that helps to explain its success.
The measures of that success are always fluctuating. In 2017, 81 percent of University Park’s graduates enrolled in college. In 2019, the figure dipped to 67 percent. But the numbers are consistently higher than the school district average and on par with the statewide figures — a considerable achievement, given that most University Park students come from more disadvantaged backgrounds than the average Massachusetts pupil.
That track record has created a culture of possibility in the neighborhood.
Consider University Park senior Mariela Miron, 18, the daughter of immigrants from Mexico. After school, she drives her father to work at a packaging plant, takes her mother to her cleaning job, looks after her siblings, prepares food, and caps off the night by picking up her dad at 2:30 or 3 a.m. — sneaking in as much schoolwork and sleep as she can before morning arrives.
It’s a lot. But one cousin who attended University Park went on to graduate from Harvard. Another who went through the school graduated from Boston College. And her brother, also a University Park alumnus, graduated from Clark. “My parents didn’t go to college,” she says. “I feel like I can.”
There is a tendency in education circles to explain away this kind of success — to imagine that the low-income kids at a high-achieving school are somehow different from their peers at other schools; to come up with reasons why the model can’t be replicated elsewhere.
And the Clark situation is unique in some ways; the university is located right in the heart of a blue-collar neighborhood that needed a strong school.
But there’s no reason, Del Prete says, that universities and hospitals in all sorts of places couldn’t partner with school districts to do something similar, adjusting for local circumstances.
“I’m not going to say it’s totally mystifying, but it’s always” — he pauses, looking for a more diplomatic word — “confounding why we aren’t able to do more.”
Getting it done
Boston has edged closer to this idea than it may seem.
In 1997, a group of parents worked with a collection of arts-focused institutions of higher education to help launch Boston Arts Academy a year later.
Those institutions are still intimately involved in the school. They take part in the audition process for young people seeking admission and provide professional development for staff. Arts Academy students can take courses at the colleges. And occasionally, they get to meet a star musician visiting Berklee College of Music.
“It’s soup to nuts,” says Anne Clark, head of school at BAA.
Then there is the story of Boston College’s deep partnership with St. Columbkille in Brighton.
St. Columbkille is a parochial school, not a public one. But it serves a diverse population. And before BC got involved in 2006, it had challenges that a big-city public school might recognize. There were bars on the windows and a dwindling number of students in the classrooms.
BC helped renovate the building. And when the college’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development offered free master’s degrees to students who agreed to stay on and teach at St. Columbkille for three years after they completed their studies, the school got a vital infusion of talent.
“It basically got you five, to six, to seven years of some young, vibrant, fired-up teachers,” says William Gartside, who served as St. Columbkille’s head of school from 2010 to 2020.
BC students served as mentors. Professors helped with a curriculum overhaul. And Gartside asked the college’s researchers for assistance with special projects, like figuring out how to teach civics to the school’s youngest students.
Key to the whole enterprise, he says — and I heard a version of this in all my conversations for this piece — was that BC didn’t overstep. It didn’t try to manage the place.
“When they brought me in, they said, ‘We don’t know how to run a school,’” Gartside says. Instead, the two sides aimed for “a synergistic relationship” where each side learned from the other.
Ivory tower edicts don’t work.
Not far from St. Columbkille, Boston had a shot at setting up a public school in the same vein more than a decade ago. And that missed opportunity offers some lessons for today.
As it planned its expansion in Allston, Harvard signed an agreement with the city in 2008, pledging to establish the Ed Portal, a local hub for educational and cultural activities, and to “fund and continuously support” a “transformative project” in the neighborhood. Among the possibilities it would examine: “a community school, a university-assisted school, or a community center.”
But with the neighborhood’s children scattered among dozens of public, private, and parochial schools, it was difficult to coalesce around the idea of transforming an individual school. And talk of starting an altogether new one never got much traction. In the end, Harvard’s “transformative project” was an expansion of the Ed Portal at a new location.
It wasn’t a bad outcome; the Ed Portal is an impressive place. But it’s not hard to imagine how things might go differently in a future negotiation.
John Connolly, a former Boston city councilor who called for institutionally affiliated schools during his near-miss bid for mayor in 2013, points out that City Hall has crucial leverage when universities or hospitals want to expand.
“If you’re the institution, and you know the mayor is going to make [a new school] a priority” in community benefits negotiations, he says, “you’re going to go in proactively trying to address those desires.”
And it’s not just about leaning on the institution. A determined mayor could work to rally the neighborhood around the idea, too.
Ultimately, a strong proposal for a new school shouldn’t be a difficult sell. In fact, it has the power to bring together antagonists.
Jerry Jordan, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, says the union was in the midst of a bitter row with the superintendent of city schools when then-University of Pennsylvania president Judith Rodin brought the two sides together to plan a school in the university’s struggling West Philadelphia neighborhood.
“You know, what was really clear is that we all care about kids,” Jordan says. “And so we did not allow our day-to-day challenges to get in the way.”
The three entities pored over blueprints and talked about what what would make for a good school. Ultimately, the union agreed to grant the school special autonomy in hiring, which has been a key to its success.
Jordan says agreeing to the hiring freedoms was “a difficult decision” for union leaders, knowing they could face backlash among the rank-and-file. “But it was worth the gamble,” he says, “because of the commitment that the University of Penn had made to the school and all the work that we’d done together for a couple of years.”
Today, Jordan considers Penn Alexander — formally known as the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School, after a Penn graduate who was the first Black woman in the country to earn a PhD in economics — one of the district’s great success stories.
“When visitors come to the city, I always take them to Penn Alexander,” he says. “It’s just a wonderful, wonderful place.”
In some ways, the school has been too wonderful — driving up housing prices in the neighborhood and squeezing out many of the low-income families of color it originally served. But it’s still a diverse place. About 43 percent of students are white, 22 percent are Asian, 19 percent are Black, 11 percent are of two or more races, and 5 percent are Latino.
Penn doesn’t run the school. But it does provide robust supports — including help with the math curriculum, an embedded employee who does fundraising and professional development, and a $1,330 per-pupil subsidy to help keep class sizes small.
The rap on these schools is that they succeed only because of the extra resources thrown their way. But that is the point. Big institutions can provide resources that are otherwise hard to come by. And in a city like Boston, with so many potent universities and hospitals, it’s possible to create these sorts of schools at scale.
Imagine: A Harvard high school in Brighton. A Northeastern academy that funnels young people into the police and fire departments. A Massachusetts General Hospital high school for would-be doctors and nurses.
Signs of change
There are some signs that the city is warming to a larger institutional role in the schools.
A growing number of small colleges are allowing high school students to take classes for credit. And next week, the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, a Fenway high school that trains aspiring nurses and EMT’s, will move its 11th- and 12th-graders into a handsome space on the Wentworth Institute of Technology campus.
Head of school Caren Walker Gregory is thrilled. “I feel like I’m dreaming,” she said this week, after showing off the new site to students who stopped by to pick up badges and take COVID-19 tests. “I feel like we won the lottery.”
The relationship with Wentworth is still taking shape. But in the long run, Gregory said, she hopes to see Kennedy Academy instructors and Wentworth professors co-teaching classes while her students rack up college credits.
Across town in the Columbia Point section of Dorchester, Joseph Berger, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UMass-Boston, says he would like to turn burgeoning relationships with a pair of nearby public schools into a “pre-K to 16 educational hub,” with a broad suite of intellectual, emotional, and health supports for students from pre-kindergarten through college.
In an interview with Ideas, Cassellius, the Boston superintendent, was enthusiastic about the notion of institutionally affiliated schools.
When she worked in Minnesota, her son attended a school located on the grounds of a zoo.
“They work with the animals, they do field studies — all of these very creative, wonderful ways of learning that this new generation is wanting and desiring,” she said.
The superintendent cautioned that it will be difficult to create these kinds of schools in Boston. She spoke of the exam schools sucking all the oxygen out of the air and pointed to the pushback she’s faced on her own high school redesign plans.
Indeed, with all the rancor surrounding Cassellius — district insiders have criticized her for running a chaotic administration — it’s unclear if she’ll be able to deliver on big ideas.
It’s not even certain how long she’ll be around, now that the man who brought her to town, former mayor Marty Walsh, has gone to Washington to serve as labor secretary.
But whoever is at the helm in City Hall and at school district headquarters after the coming mayoral race, there’s little doubt they’ll have to try something different to right the Boston schools. Something bold.
And the city’s largest institutions will need to recognize the role they can play. “The nation still looks to colleges and universities to solve its most pressing problems,” says Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College, which helped found Boston Arts Academy. “So I do believe that, as a general principle, colleges have an obligation to be committed to the larger society so that we can help to improve lives and strengthen communities.”
Institutionally affiliated schools, it should be said, are no guarantee of success. A Stanford-backed charter school started by Linda Darling-Hammond, a rock star education professor and former adviser to Barack Obama, struggled mightily before a local school board voted to close it down more than a decade ago. Others have delivered middling results.
But Boston’s intellectual and financial firepower, and its remarkable track record on charter schools, mean the city is well positioned to learn from missteps made elsewhere — and to build the dazzling alternatives its students deserve.
This story has been updated to include the role of Boston arts-focused institutions in founding the Boston Arts Academy.