Two third-graders at the P.A. Shaw Elementary School in Dorchester, who recently read the poem “Cedar Box” by Nikki Grimes, took a small cardboard box slated for recycling and made a memory box of their own, placing inside some of their artwork. Other students, at NAvon’s and Andrew’s invitation, jubilantly added family photos from an autobiography project and other items.
That memory box has taken on increasing meaning for the third-graders as the Shaw community pushes Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and the School Committee to honor a promise made years ago to make it a full-fledged elementary school instead of ending at grade 3.
Their plight, according to many parents, teachers, and education advocates, exemplifies a troubling reality across Boston Public Schools: Top officials through the years have made many promises about facilities, but often the follow-through is slow or nonexistent, especially as the district has cranked through four superintendents in the last eight years and now is looking for a new one.
In the end, plans repeatedly change and timelines get pushed back, leaving schools in limbo and sometimes feeling betrayed when the district reverses course. Often it’s the students, they say, who pay the biggest price.
If the Shaw can’t persuade the system’s top brass to expand to sixth grade like most other Boston elementary schools, that memory box will commemorate the third-graders’ final year at the Shaw.
“The school district promised they would give us a 4th grade, but they broke their promise. That hurts our hearts,” NAvon wrote to the Globe in a letter-writing campaign. “That’s why me and my friend Andrew made a memory box so no one will forget their friends.”
Sharra Gaston, a school district spokesperson, said BPS is “working with the Shaw School community to determine the best options for their school.”
“We are assessing expansion options and will be happy to share updates as they become available,” she said.
The poor planning comes even though the school system has been operating under a 10-year facilities plan known as BuildBPS. The plan has been widely criticized by parents, teachers, and education activists for omitting concrete details on when projects will happen, inaccurately projecting enrollment, and failing to adequately investigate the depth of building neglect.
Instead, critics say, the district continues to manage facilities with a crisis-response mentality without thinking through the viability of the solutions they pitch.
“That is one of the reasons why a lot of families have lost trust in BPS,” said City Councilor Julia Mejia, who chairs the council’s Education Committee.
Ironically, when the School Committee voted in fall 2013 to reopen the Shaw the following September after closing it in 2009, at least one member, Claudio Martinez, raised questions about whether district leaders were promising families too much amid a spate of ever-changing facility plans of that time.
“How many of those promises were [kept] by this School Committee?” he asked.
Facility problems — and the mixed messaging around them — have only intensified since then. Among them:
- In October, BPS told three elementary schools, including the Sumner in Roslindale where Mayor Michelle Wu sends her children, that it would not add a sixth grade, leaving students in limbo. After protests, BPS gave them a sixth grade.
- In September, students and staff at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers began classes in a rundown elementary school after BPS moved too slowly on finding a permanent home after their long-term lease expired at Northeastern University.
- And in May, BPS notified families at the Jackson Mann K-8 in Allston it was pulling two-year-old plans to construct a new building and instead would close the school, angering families.
The School Committee in December ordered Cassellius to develop a new plan, but it remains unclear where it’s headed, now that she is leaving.
A cornerstone of BuildBPS is supposed to be shifting grade configurations so most primary schools end at grade 6 or 8 and that most secondary schools begin at grade 7 or 9. The idea is to provide consistency and reduce school transfers.
Despite that goal, BPS decided in 2018 to freeze the Shaw’s expansion at grade 3, even though the School Department website continues to say the school will expand.
Disappointment over the broken promise has prompted parents to pull their children out of BPS after finishing at the Shaw.
Tiffany Vassell, who led the school’s parent group for five years, is now sending her daughter, a fourth-grader, to a private school. She said she would rather have her at the Shaw, noting that during the pandemic the teachers ensured that her daughter got her work done while Vassell was working the night shift as a nurse.
“I just feel like the love and care are always there,” she said. “I want other kids in the community to have that experience.”
The Shaw community in recent months stepped up their advocacy, turning out for School Committee meetings where the students have given impassioned testimony that has captured the hearts of many other parents, advocates, and even some school officials.
A rally is being planned outside the school Wednesday morning.
Parents are worried BPS might be quietly planning to close the school, because the proposed budget for next year calls for cutting a third-grade classroom.
Shaw’s enrollment has been dropping, and parents say its frozen expansion is deterring new families. State data potentially backs that up: When officials decided to halt the expansion during the 2017-18 school year, enrollment peaked at 256 students and has fallen to 154 this year. Almost all the students are Black and Latino, two student groups that have been disproportionately affected by BPS school closures.
BPS also is grappling with a dramatic enrollment decline districtwide.
Deb Shea said she enrolled her daughter, who is now in the second grade at the Shaw, under the belief it would be expanding. She says she’s been thrilled with the education her daughter has received and notes it’s one of the few BPS schools with a librarian.
Her daughter, she said, has been studying immigration and has been coming home with books on the topic, and has been working on writing and structuring paragraphs, being more expansive in her writing, and getting evidence from different texts.
“My daughter really wants to stay,” she said.
For Brenda Ramsey, the Shaw has been a lifeline for her family. They were homeless at the start of the pandemic and staying with other family members. Teachers personally delivered a Wi-Fi hotspot and, after a first-grade teacher noticed her youngest daughter was Zooming classes from bed because she didn’t have a desk, the school got her one. The staff eventually helped Ramsey secure a housing voucher, ending about three years of homelessness.
It was heartbreaking, she said, when her older daughter left the Shaw after third grade. Ramsey didn’t like the other available options in BPS so her daughter now attends a charter school.
“It’s more than a school; it’s a true community,” Ramsey said of the Shaw. “I would hate for it to go away because BPS can’t keep its promises. I don’t think BPS realizes the position they put families in when they put us in limbo like this. All we are asking at the Shaw is to make decisions with us and not for us.”