Boston Public Schools is largely stuck in “entrenched dysfunction” and its failure to achieve systemwide change on a number of fronts is causing thousands of students to languish in their classrooms, even as school district leaders have taken initial steps to help remedy some of the problems, according to a blistering state review released Monday.
The review highlighted a range of seemingly intractable problems for which BPS has failed to make headway, including fixing chronically late buses, overhauling aging facilities, reducing the segregation of students of color with disabilities from the rest of their peers, and bringing programs for English learners into compliance with federal law.
It also zeroed in on new problems, such as undercounting late buses and possibly overcounting high school graduates, and it more broadly noted the district’s ongoing failure to meet the needs of vulnerable populations has resulted in “continued poor outcomes for tens of thousands of students.”
“The problems facing BPS are abundantly clear,” the review said. “This moment requires bold, student-centered decision-making and strong execution to ensure the district delivers the quality education its students deserve. BPS needs immediate improvement.”
The review, which has heightened concerns about a possible state takeover of the 49,000-student system, did not include any agreement to address the problems. However, closed-door negotiations are underway among Governor Charlie Baker, state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, and Mayor Michelle Wu regarding the next steps, according to several city officials.
The three met privately on Friday and Riley presented a draft memorandum of understanding detailing proposed next steps for the state and district, the city officials said. Wu declined to describe the details of the proposal on Monday, but said the ongoing conversations are “about how to come to an agreement that will set the district up for success.”
The talks likely will shift to the public arena to some degree Tuesday when Riley formally presents the review at the monthly meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, although it remains unclear whether any proposed remedies will be unveiled. Wu is expected to address the board.
The review comes as Boston is conducting its third superintendent search in seven years and as the City Council is crafting legislation to give control of the mayoral appointed School Committee to voters.
The prospect of state intervention is creating an unexpected early test of Wu’s commitment to overhaul the state’s largest school system, which her two children attend. In recent weeks she has launched several new initiatives, such as expanding opportunities for high school students to take college courses and pledging $2 billion for school construction.
“A lot of what is in the review matches with what our school communities and administrators have been calling for, in how urgently we need to focus on BPS and our young people, and in the need for strong, effective leadership,” she said in an interview Monday. “We are still in the process of putting forward [to the state] what we believe is the best way to deliver on the challenges.”
She pointed to several new city initiatives intended to help address the shortcomings in the state report, including the school construction plan and a revamping of her Cabinet to give BPS more support in its daily operations, so school administrators can spend less time chasing down paperwork, supplies and repairs, and more time improving academics and student support.
Lawyers for Civil Rights on Monday wrote a letter to Riley opposing state receivership.
“No realistic projection for BPS can justify the risk of harm that state control poses to Boston’s communities of color,” Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director, wrote.
But many families say more needs to be done.
“I pray to God the state takes over,” said Hyde Park resident Liz Gomes after reading parts of the DESE review of BPS. Gomes’s 18-year-old son has autism and spends his entire school day in a separate classroom for students on the autism spectrum at Boston Green Academy.
She said she feels like she’s deliberately been kept in the dark when it came to educational options for her son.
Riley embarked on the state review earlier this year, sending a team of experts into BPS to dissect what is going wrong and to document what is working. It follows growing state dissatisfaction with the results of a two-year partnership with the school system born out of a previous and more expansive state review in March 2020, which was the first such review in a decade.
The new review paints a devastating portrait of the state of BPS, but gives outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and the school system credit for launching several new districtwide initiatives that show promising signs for boosting student achievement.
Among them: Raising high school graduation standards to align with entry requirements to the state’s public universities, adopting a new literacy curriculum and higher quality instructional materials, and expanding the diversity of its teaching staff.
Full implementation of those initiatives, however, has not been realized, and the report raises concerns the efforts could be thwarted by the district’s lack of a strategic approach to training staff and setting clear expectations and deadlines for schools to embrace the changes. It also noted BPS doesn’t have a coherent strategy to help 31 low-performing schools, roughly serving 14,000 students, as measured by MCAS.
Edith Bazile, a longtime education advocate and a former BPS special education administrator, said she hopes the review will result in urgent changes that will actually yield results, particularly for students with disabilities and Black students.
“The bottom line is this: the district has gone from systemic disarray to complete dysfunction and in some cases, like Mission Hill K-8 [School], a danger to students with disabilities,” she said, referring to a scathing report last month that found BPS was failing to protect Mission Hill students from abuse, among other concerns.
Page after page, the review chronicles a continuing trend of stagnation in vitally important areas, noting high turnover in leadership in the departments overseeing special education and English learner programs is preventing much-needed systemwide improvement. A particular problem with special education is the high rate of students of color with disabilities being segregated from the rest of their peers.
“Our families have literally pleaded with BPS to prioritize special education and our most vulnerable students, which is inclusive of multilingual learners with disabilities,” Roxi Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, in a statement Monday. “However, BPS frequently will only prioritize special education for those with lawyers and advocates, while the rest of us are stigmatized as being ‘angry,’ if we advocate for our students.”
The state found the quality of student transportation has worsened since its last review of BPS, and also the district has “no effective process” for tracking and responding to parent complaints about bullying and other safety issues. The district also continues to lack a comprehensive master plan for fixing its failing buildings, the state review notes.
The review found in several instances Boston school officials provided inaccurate or misleading data that made it difficult to fully assess the school system.
For instance, the district’s tally of late buses didn’t include those that never showed up to pick up students — “thereby inflating the count of buses that arrived on time” — and January alone had more than 1,100 uncovered morning routes.
Those findings resonated with Marcie Carmody, whose three children rely on the buses. She questioned the rosiness of the late bus data last fall because it didn’t seem to match her family’s experience.
“The buses didn’t come with consistency until sometime this winter,” she said. “Every morning I still wake up with knots in my stomach wondering if the buses will show up . . . If your whole goal is to rebuild trust you have to be honest about what’s not going right.”
The review also questioned whether district leadership may have inappropriately interfered with the integrity of the review and “coordinated a response” among staff who were interviewed. In preparation for the review, BPS gave principals and other administrators a hefty document outlining district improvement efforts to help them answer questions.
Cassellius was not available for an interview Monday, but vowed in a letter to the BPS community the district will make the necessary improvements.
The current two-year partnership between BPS and the state, which resulted from the 2020 review and was formalized in a memorandum of understanding, placed the biggest responsibility for fixing the problems on the district. BPS was required to turn around nearly three dozen of its lowest performing schools; overhaul special education with an edict to reduce the segregation of students of color with disabilities; increase the reliability of buses and decrease the number of students who are chronically absent.
The state also has obligations under the agreement, such as assisting the district with diversifying its workforce, monitoring bathroom renovations, and helping schools create outside partnerships.
Krista Magnuson, a parent of two BPS students, questioned the state’s capacity to drive improvement.
“The state has demonstrated no ability to make a difference in any other district it’s taken over,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s going to do better with a much larger and more complex district.”
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Due to a reporting error, the story was updated to say the review did not include any agreement to address the problems. The state, in its review included smaller targeted recommendations to address some of the problems it raised.
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.