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State to conduct second review of Boston Public Schools amid concerns it could pursue receivership

The exterior of Boston Public School headquarters in Boston.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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The state is about to embark on a review of Boston Public Schools for the second time in less than three years, amid a search for a new superintendent and growing concerns about whether the state will pursue receivership.

The review will begin the week of March 28, and BPS will postpone MCAS testing in grades 3-8 for a week to make way for state education experts and outside consultants to visit the central offices and more than three dozen schools. They will be examining reams of data and documents, interviewing staff, and observing classroom instruction.

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In notifying BPS about the review this month, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said a two-year-old partnership between the state and the district, which resulted from the initial review and was done in lieu of receivership, has delivered mixed results and warrant another inquiry.

He lauded the district for further diversifying its workforce, upgrading student bathrooms, and aligning high school graduation requirements with state university admission standards, according to a letter to BPS dated March 9. But Riley also expressed deep concerns in several areas, including chronically late school buses and the system’s failure to overhaul special education, which has resulted in a disproportionate share of Black and Latino students with disabilities being segregated in separate classrooms from their peers.

He further highlighted new problems that require review, such as revelations that a series of city audits have been quietly raising questions about the accuracy of high school graduation rates.

“In order to deliver a timely and accurate update to [the state education board] on the status of BPS, as well as provide important information for a new incoming BPS superintendent, I have decided to conduct this follow-up District Review for BPS and have directed my staff to undertake this effort,” Riley wrote in the letter.

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Riley declined an interview request.

The initial review two years ago found myriad systemic problems, including nearly three dozen low-performing schools, inadequate services for students with disabilities and English learners, and a lack of trust and confidence in the central offices among principals, teachers, and families.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The pandemic added to those challenges, with many students experiencing significant trauma or lost learning time. Leadership also has turned over at high rates in the special education and English learner programs, and a number of controversies have erupted, including three School Committee members resigning over racially insensitive remarks they made.

Meanwhile, voters frustrated with the Boston schools overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding referendum in November to regain control of the School Committee, which for three decades has been appointed by the mayor instead of through a popular election. Concerns also have been growing among many teachers, parents, and advocates that the state might try to take over the system, which Mayor Michelle Wu also opposes.

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Thursday she believes the state review teams will find BPS has made tremendous progress amid the pandemic, which required the district to unexpectedly pivot to online learning and improve safety measures in buildings.

“I have always welcomed our partnership with the state,” said Cassellius, a former Minnesota education commissioner, in an interview. “I think it’s going to be really useful for the next superintendent coming on board to have this review of the really great ways Boston has continued to make progress.”

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Cassellius said she was able to use the initial review two years ago — along with information she gathered from community listening sessions — to convince then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh to give BPS an additional $100 million, which she said prevented the district from having to make budget cuts during the pandemic. The system also received $430 million in federal COVID relief funding.

“I wish our partners and community knew more about the great work of educators and school leaders and how hard they work every day for our kids,” said Cassellius, who announced last month she’s leaving her post in June. “I don’t feel that story gets told enough. There are heroes in every single one of our schools.”

Educators, parents, and advocates plan to turn out at Tuesday’s meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to advocate against receivership.

They are worried the state is doing the review as a first step toward receivership. A provision of state law, for instance, suggests the state complete a district review within the 12 months before the state board approves taking over a district.

“I feel like the state is doing this as a checkbox to threaten Boston with receivership,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “For them to claim this review will be helpful — it’s not. It’s causing more stress in a stressful situation. Everyone is dealing with the pandemic — educators, families, and students — and still trying to pick up the pieces.”

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The state education department declined to comment on receivership.

If receivership happens, Boston would join three other districts under state control: Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge. All those districts remain in the bottom 10 percent of performance statewide, although Lawrence — under Riley’s stint as receiver there before becoming commissioner — initially experienced early signs of promise.

Harneen Chernow, a former state education board member and a BPS parent who voted in favor of Lawrence’s receivership a decade ago, said she would not vote the same way now, based on the lackluster results she has seen there. She noted that Boston currently outperforms all three receivership districts.

“The idea [the state] thinks it’s equipped and has the demonstrated experience to take over a district the size of Boston is beyond me,” she said.

Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said she was pleased the state is conducting another review, noting that BPS hasn’t made significant changes in the last two years.

”It is time to stop using COVID as a reason for continuing to fail our students since before the pandemic and to deal with the racism in the district that is impacting our students,” she said.

The Pioneer Institute, a free market think tank, released a scathing report earlier this month documenting the low performance of the Boston schools, as measured by MCAS scores and other barometers, and called for receivership.

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“Commissioner Riley deserves credit for initiating another review of the Boston Public Schools,” said Jamie Gass, the institute’s director of education policy and research. “Given the urgent need for action, hopefully this second BPS review in two years will lead to systemic reforms, or perhaps even a robust state receivership.”

Gauging Boston’s academic performance could be tricky for the state, which relies heavily on MCAS scores. Due to the pandemic, the state canceled the MCAS in 2020 and made it optional for students to participate last spring. Boston scores went down last spring but in many cases not as much as statewide averages.

“Educators, students, and families should be commended for their efforts during this time,” Jessica Tang, the Boston Teachers Union president, said in a statement. “Giving such short notice for an additional audit and pushing back MCAS testing to do so also begs the question of what this is really about. It is yet another disruption at the hands of DESE that contributes to the instability of the district, stoking the flames for more failed, expensive, and undemocratic state takeover schemes which hurt communities, students, and families.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.