In an abrupt shift, Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced Wednesday her commitment to add sixth grade to three elementary schools for the fall of 2022.
The news came after weeks of vocal protests by parents at the Sumner, Blackstone, and Mendell elementary schools. The campuses initially were left out of the district’s recent plans to receive new sixth grade classes as the middle schools where their students had guaranteed spots were slated to close. The impending closures of the Jackson Mann K-8 School and the Irving and Timilty middle schools left some fifth graders at those three elementary schools in a lurch in recent weeks, with parents scrambling to figure out where their children would end up next school year.
But on Wednesday, Cassellius said the district had amended its plan.
“While we can commit to a 6th grade for each school, we are still in the process of finalizing exactly what it will look like for each school,” Cassellius said in an e-mail to parents. “We will work together with your community to bring an option or a few options to you before presenting the final solutions to the School Committee on December 15, but I can say today that there will be a 6th grade at your school next year.”
Cassellius said she hoped her pledge gave families “the peace of mind needed for school selection for next year.”
Parents at the three schools praised the decision, saying they felt relieved their students had more clarity on their futures. They were also happy their schools would now be less likely to suffer from underenrollment as they feared that parents of incoming kindergartners would choose schools with sixth grades. Such a drop in enrollment could equate to less funding for the campuses.
“This is a really good step forward,” said Rachel Young, a mother of a Sumner second-grader and a member of the school’s parent council. “One of our biggest fears was that our enrollment was just gonna plummet because we’d then become the least desirable school in our neighborhood. ... We would have been looking at crazy budget cuts.”
At Wednesday night’s Boston School Committee meeting, Cassellius said the schools faced “significant space challenges” that required creative solutions. At least some of the district’s elementary schools that are receiving new sixth-grade classes may host students in portable, modular classrooms.
“It has long been a plan to add sixth grades to these schools,” Cassellius said. “That was never in question; it was more a question of timing.”
But Bridget Colvin, a parent of students at the Mendell and Timilty schools, said the district originally told families that sixth grade “couldn’t happen” at the Mendell, Sumner, and Blackstone schools.
“We are grateful,” Colvin said, but “it’s hard not to be a little bit frustrated that our schools did not get these expansions until families pushed for them — BPS should have come to our schools from the position of ‘we want to give you a sixth grade, what does that look like for each of your communities?’”
Several parents testified Wednesday that they felt grateful the district did eventually listen to, and act on, their concerns.
“Our children are not going to go through a traumatic transition again,” Blackstone mother Dorys Gonzalez said in Spanish. “Today, parents have hope and we know that our voices have been heard.”
Young said she hopes the district collaborates with parents to find solutions for adding sixth grades to the schools — it will be a “herculean task” and parents want to help. In her e-mail to families, Cassellius vowed to work with them to finalize plans.
The district has announced plans to close all middle schools eventually due to years of falling enrollment and a belief that students do better academically when they experience fewer school transitions. The district plans for all students to ultimately attend elementary schools that end in sixth grade or eighth grade, or secondary schools that start in seventh grade or ninth grade.
Mayor Michelle Wu, whose two children attend the Sumner School, has previously pledged to bring transparency to the school closure process by “moving quickly to give families the information and predictability that they need.”
Education advocates said the district should have involved parents in decision-making from the beginning.
“You want to be excited, but I also know the work that went into making this happen,” said Ruby Reyes, executive director of Boston Education Justice Alliance. “There’s an added layer of stress that families shouldn’t have to go through in order to mobilize quickly for something so basic.”
School Committee member Rafaela Polanco Garcia, whose son previously attended the Blackstone School, said she was receiving phone calls all day from excited parents.
“I do appreciate this very much, that the voices of parents are being heard,” Polanco Garcia told Cassellius in Spanish.
A district spokeswoman said it was unclear when the Boston School Committee would vote on the proposal, but the conversation, including potential solutions and more details, would continue at the meeting on Dec. 15.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com.