I remember when I first moved to the city of Boston. We were too poor to afford our own place, so we bounced around from a friend’s bedroom to a cousin’s couch. Every morning when I woke up, I was never quite sure if I would be falling asleep back in the same place.
We never had the opportunity to plant our feet and examine the root causes of our problems. And now years later, after witnessing administrative change after administrative change in Boston Public Schools, I am beginning to wonder whether the same patterns of housing insecurity I experienced as a child are playing out as leadership insecurity, particularly when it comes to the conversation around receivership.
There have been suggestions that BPS will be placed in receivership — that is, under the control of the state through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This would be the wrong move for Boston for many reasons, not the least of which is that DESE has a miserable track record of improving schools it has taken into receivership.
Southbridge and Holyoke, each under DESE’s control for the past five and six years, respectively, remain among the 10 lowest-performing school districts in the state. BPS, by comparison, has outperformed all the DESE-controlled receivership districts in both English-language arts and math at both the elementary and secondary levels, before and during the coronavirus pandemic. Previous state interventions in BPS, with the Dever Elementary and the UP Academy Holland Schools, have similarly produced few improvements, and in fact may have caused harm — like unchecked suspensions, a 50 percent decrease in Latinx teachers, and the cancellation of the dual-language program at the Dever. Why should we risk yet another executive leadership change if the leaders we are entrusting our children’s future to have no clear record of improving outcomes?
Making the move to take BPS into receivership is inherently anti-democratic in a time when 78 percent of Boston voters approve of returning to an elected School Committee. Parents, teachers, students, and members of the community want more of a voice, not less. But the discussions surrounding a potential BPS receivership represent yet another decision being made about us, without us. And for the parents who have been crying out for decades that they want to be engaged in their children’s education, this is yet another attempt at creating barrier after barrier that stands in the way of a school district where all voices can be heard.
Domingo Morel, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, has found that “predominantly Black school districts are more likely to be taken over, and that cities with a greater share of Black city council members are more likely to face takeovers.” We are seeing this play out in Boston, a largely Black and brown city with a majority-minority City Council that recently pushed toward democracy by voting for an elected School Committee, only to have our leash threatened with being pulled back by a Commonwealth incapable of understanding the root causes and solutions to the district’s problems.
There is still work to do to ensure every student receives a robust, well-resourced education, and the parents, students, and teachers of Boston are prepared to do this work together. From a lack of teacher diversity, to little support for English-language students, to a culture of politics and disregard for parent voices, the problems within BPS run deep. Nowadays we are asking our teachers to do more with less, with a funding structure where financial support may be there one year but run dry the next. Parents are told for years that their child’s school isn’t closing, only for that decision to change, disappointing parents and students.
BPS is not without its problems. But these are problems that can be solved by turning to the community, not by initiating yet another executive leadership retooling. That kind of thinking is lazy and intentionally avoids the core problems facing BPS. You can swap the players up at the top all you want, but the instability created through that process trickles down to parents, students, and teachers, and we’re left exactly where we started, only less engaged and less hopeful for the future. We need to be creating real pathways to parent engagement and empowering parents, students, and teachers to steer us in the right direction. We need to make our district whole, not fracture it with change for the sake of change.
This requires taking on a shared responsibility between BPS leadership and the community. It requires holding listening sessions with the community — not for the sake of checking off a box, but to collaborate with the community on the issues that they know better than anybody else. It requires a funding structure and a school committee that the people have a voice and a vote on. It requires us to commit even harder to the hard work, and the heart work, of stewarding our children’s futures. We don’t need DESE to find this out for us. We already know what we know. The question is: Is the state capable of believing that urban leaders and parents of color, with the resources and power necessary, can make these changes?
Julia Mejia is a Boston city councilor at large.