The Boston School Committee on Wednesday night approved a plan to toughen the standards for earning a high school diploma, representing the biggest changes to the system’s graduation requirements in more than a decade.
The graduation policy will go into effect for the class of 2026 — this year’s seventh-graders — and aims to provide all students with the courses needed for admission to one of the state’s public universities. The policy is based on a regimen of courses known as MassCore that was developed by the state.
The policy change, which passed in a 6-1 vote, was one of two significant proposals that Superintendent Brenda Cassellius presented to the School Committee. The other called for constructing five new schools and renovating four others, part of an ambitious goal to replace or overhaul any building more than 50 years old.
The facility votes will take place in the coming months, most likely in October.
“This is a big step in moving forward to provide to our students the facilities that they deserve . . . and to begin the promise of creating high-quality schools in every neighborhood, which is what I said we would do when I first came to Boston,” Cassellius said in an interview before the meeting.
The new graduation standards should lead to big changes at many of the city’s three dozen high schools. In recent years, less than a third of the city’s high school graduates completed MassCore, while academic research two years ago found that students who finished MassCore fared better in college than those who did not.
The approval is considered a big victory for Cassellius. Previous superintendents had pushed for implementation, but met resistance from principals and faculty who were worried a higher bar for receiving a diploma could cause graduation rates to fall.
That latter concern was part of the reason that committee member Lorna Rivera voted against the measure.
“We’re voting to change the graduation requirements during what I believe is the worst time imaginable,” said Rivera, the mother of a seventh-grader. “As an education researcher I know that whenever we raise standards and adopt more rigorous curriculum, there are unintended consequences, collateral damage, such as higher dropout rates and lower graduation rates for the students who are most disadvantaged.”
But other members believed the district could not wait any longer and were comfortable that Cassellius had constructed a reasonable implementation timeline and financial commitment.
“Ever since I came on the School Committee we’ve been talking about MassCore — that’s eight years,” said committee member Jeri Robinson. “Two groups of kids have come through high school, and we are still where we were. So if we don’t start at some point, we’ll never get there. . . . I know that we are starting at a time when there are a lot of challenges.”
MassCore standards include four years of English, math, and physical education; three years of science and social studies; two years of world languages; one year of the arts; and five electives. Currently, graduation requirements vary widely among the district’s three dozen high schools.
Implementation may cost $10 million and would likely require about 57 new positions, including teachers and staff. One area many high schools have struggled with providing students over the years is an array of electives, a consequence of budget cutting and a focus on boosting state test scores in English, math, and science.
Cassellius had encountered resistance among high school principals in overhauling the graduation requirements. Last year, the Boston High School Heads Association criticized her in a letter for leaving them out of the development of the proposal and pushing too aggressively to implement the changes during the pandemic.
But Cassellius, who made adopting MassCore a high priority when she first started the job, has secured along the way some key allies, including state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, who last year called for the school system to put in place MassCore as part of a broader agreement to overhaul the school system.
In public comments before the vote, two mayoral candidates — City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George and John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development — urged the committee during the meeting broadcast on Zoom to pass MassCore.
“I know adopting MassCore will take time, but I’m optimistic by doing so it will yield improvements in graduation rates and student success after BPS,” Essaibi George said.
Barros emphasized the need for robust planning.
“MassCore as a base level standard is a big step in investing in our young students,“ he said.
Not all public speakers supported MassCore.
“It is wrong to pass this additional graduation requirement right now. Families are returning to school . . . and families are having to beg for compensatory services, “ said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of educators and parents, who also raised concerns about school closures.
In presenting the school construction proposals, Cassellius signaled her intent to accelerate the pace of the district’s long-term facilities plan known as BuildBPS, which hit bumps during the pandemic and calls for closing schools.
The construction proposals, many of which have been under development for years, involve closing the Jackson Mann K-8 in Allston, the Irving Middle School in Roslindale, and the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury at the end of the next school year. The Jackson Mann would eventually be replaced with a new building, while the vacated middle schools would be renovated into elementary or secondary schools.
New buildings would also be erected in East Boston, Dorchester, and Roxbury. Two other campuses — the McCormack in Dorchester and the Edwards in Charlestown — would be renovated. School officials are looking for a new site for the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
School leaders will tap local and state funding for the projects, with $163 million allocated in the next fiscal year budget.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey expressed support for the proposals in a statement.
“The vision for Boston Public Schools is that every student has access to learning opportunities that unlock their potential and help them flourish,” Janey said. “That includes learning in excellent school buildings that reflect the high potential we know our students can reach and matches the talent of our educators. We have a long way to go to achieve our mission, but make no mistake, this proposal from the superintendent provides a road map to bring us closer to this goal.”
But some Jackson Mann parents — including Amanda Chen, whose son is moderately autistic — expressed disappointment the school would be closing.
“The fact that he wakes up every morning with a smile on his face and looks forward to go to this program speaks volumes about the excellence of it,” she said. “As you can imagine, I’m very upset to hear that the school will be closed.”