Boston education leaders said that they have launched initiatives to improve special education services, student transportation, and school safety and that the district is on track to meet 10 mandates issued by the state by the Aug. 15 deadline.
The 10 are the first in a series of requirements Boston officials agreed to with Massachusetts education leaders to avoid a state takeover of the long struggling district. At a meeting of the School Committee, district administrators said that four of the required steps are already complete, while the others will be done by the Monday deadline.
“We fully expect that we will meet or exceed all the benchmarks that are outlined in the Systemic Improvement Plan,” Acting Superintendent Drew Echelson said in an interview before the meeting.
Of the 24 mandates in the agreement with the state, 10 must be completed by Monday — nine by the district and one by the state. As of Wednesday, Boston Public Schools has completed mandates to commission a safety audit, hire a team to improve special education services, and launch an evaluation of the transportation system, according to Monica Hogan, who is spearheading the agreement as the new assistant superintendent of data strategy and implementation.
Mayor Michelle Wu agreed to the improvement plan in June, averting state receivership and an “underperforming” label. Echelson is responsible for executing the first part of the plan until incoming superintendent Mary Skipper takes on the role in late September; Skipper will remain with Somerville Public Schools, where she is currently superintendent, until after the new school year is underway.
“I’ve always said that the [state] partnership and the items that are laid out for us to be on the same page with the state represent the baseline, the bar for our expectations in the system,” Wu said at the meeting Wednesday night. “We are doing much more than what is captured in that document and so we’re grateful to the state for leaning in and providing resources and targeted support and partnership.”
Hogan said the district has also formed a required working group that will implement recommended changes at the McKinley schools, which serve special needs students, over the coming school year.
The additional requirements due by Monday include: improving the district’s response to family complaints; reviewing the status of bathrooms at all schools and plan improvements; taking steps to improve special education; and creating a plan to ensure all English learners get needed services.
The district will submit finalized materials to the state covering all required measures Monday, Hogan said.
Future mandates include beginning implementation of a district-wide inclusion policy for special education by Nov. 1, having 95 percent of buses arrive on time each month, and renovating bathrooms in at least 15 schools by the end of June.
District leaders are meeting regularly with high-level officials with the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Echelson said he is in daily contact with Deputy Commissioner Russell Johnston.
“The feedback that we’re receiving generally has either not been surprising, or has allowed us to think about things in new ways that I think will end up strengthening our products before the 15th,” Echelson said at the meeting. “I think all parties would agree that we’re off to a really good start.”
In July, Echelson told the School Committee that the only deadline of potential concern was the one “to create a system ensuring all English learners get needed services.” But there, his concern was more related to a required Oct. 1 report to the Department of Justice, not the state deadline on Monday.
In the interview, Echelson outlined the problem the district often has with that annual report, required under a consent decree with the Department of Justice. Typically, he said, the district shows better compliance with requirements to serve English learners in reports filed later in the school year, in March and May; data collected in mid-September for the Oct. 1 report reflects just a couple of weeks of school.
“It’s not an excuse,” Echelson said. “We have to ensure that we are immediately meeting the needs of our students. But I think it’s a reason why the Oct. 1 report has generally showed lower levels of compliance with some of the really important services our students are entitled to.”
This year, the district has expanded its office of multilingual learning and embedded staff from it in the district’s subregions.
For the requirements due Monday, officials outlined the district’s instructional system and monitoring for multilingual learners, according to the presentation.
The final deadline in the improvement plan due Monday is for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to hire an independent data auditor for the district. A state spokesperson declined to comment on progress with the plan, but Echelson said in the interview that he expects the state to meet its deadline. The state posted a request for proposals for that position in July.
In an appendix to the improvement plan, the state agreed to train district staff on complaint resolution beginning Monday, but state and Boston officials agreed to delay that training until the district hires a coordinator of problem resolution, which it must do by Sept. 8.
Echelson noted that despite the district’s success in complying with the plan so far, there are always surprises in education, pointing to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the recently announced Orange Line shutdown.
“So while I remain confident, I’m also realistic about some of the challenges we continue to face,” Echelson said.