In a long-awaited step toward solving its longstanding problems, Boston Public Schools unveiled a first round of policy changes and blueprints for transformation, meeting the first demanding deadline in its state-supervised improvement plan.
The report submitted by the district on Monday to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education outlined a series of projects still in progress but also included a few concrete innovations already up and running — most notably, a new system for addressing the complaints of families.
Working swiftly in the seven weeks since the state and city negotiated the corrective plan — an agreement that held off the threat of a total state takeover of BPS — district leaders assessed the conditions of school bathrooms and set initial priorities for renovations; laid out plans to better serve multilingual learners and students with disabilities; and solicited bids from experts who will review and recommend fixes to student safety, transportation, and special education.
The first phase unfolded amid an ongoing leadership transition, as incoming Superintendent Mary Skipper continues to divide her time between Boston and Somerville before her Sept. 26 full-time start date, and acting Superintendent Drew Echelson oversees day-to-day operations.
The district’s response to its initial deadline — and the state’s reaction — are seen as indicators of where the relationship between the two might go, following months of tension. After a state review of BPS progress in May found persistent dysfunction, education Commissioner Jeff Riley clashed with city leaders over his demand for a speedy turnaround.
Riley called the work so far “promising.”
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said in an interview. “I think they’ve met some of their early soft deadlines. Obviously, the meat of what we’re looking for to see improvements is coming over the next several years. But I think early signs are promising.”
State officials confirmed late Tuesday that BPS met all its obligations in the first deadline submission.
The district will have little time to take a breath: The next deadline is just three weeks away, on Sept. 8, when BPS must have new controls in place to ensure its graduation and dropout data is accurate and timely.
Echelson said the district took a “no surprises” approach to its submission, meeting with state education leaders repeatedly to collect feedback.
“The DESE findings [in May] were no surprise to us — we have been working toward these goals for years,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that we were able to deliver exemplary work.”
The work ahead includes several costly reviews by outside consultants. The Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition based in Washington, D.C., will undertake three in-depth studies by year’s end, examining school safety, special education delivery, and transportation operations. The state has agreed to cover the $100,000 cost.
The district has already implemented a new system for resolving family complaints with a staff of six multilingual specialists and a new tracking system designed to improve follow-through. Still, it remains to be seen if the district’s “new” approaches will be more user-friendly than the old ones: A Google search by a reporter found no readily apparent online access point for the new complaint system, four months after its launch. District officials said the helpline number has been included in family newsletters, and it will eventually have an online presence.
Beth Schueler, an education policy researcher at the University of Virginia who has studied district takeovers and turnaround attempts, said that while Boston’s plan does not fit neatly into the model of past successes, the combination of technical support from the state and the pressure of accountability holds promise.
Observers wondering if the plan is working may be able to see results within a year, the researcher said: In successful turnarounds, improvements are often seen that quickly, particularly in math achievement.
Another school quality expert, Peter Piazza of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, said districts under duress often narrow their focus to tested subjects, sacrificing diverse approaches, but he saw no sign of that in Boston’s first report, a feat he called “commendable.”
Materials released by the district Monday also summarized its work so far to improve academic services for English learners and those in need of special education and announced that Linda Chen, previously the chief academic officer for New York City schools, has been hired as senior deputy superintendent for academics.
By the Aug. 15 deadline, the district was required to develop two plans, one to improve instruction of English learners and monitor their progress, and another for multilingual learners that incorporates native language instruction. A memo outlining the first calls for more co-teaching between English as a second language teachers and content teachers and creates a regular schedule of classroom observation to monitor progress and provide feedback.
The plan for multilingual learners calls for an expansion in both native language instruction and native language services for students with disabilities, with a community feedback period that started Tuesday and implementation beginning in October. But important pieces including bilingual special education are not expected to launch until 2024.
John Mudd, a member of the district’s English Language Learner Task Force, praised the plan for recognizing the thousands of English learners with disabilities and for envisioning native language instruction, rather than English immersion, as the building block for learning academic English — a practice supported by research.
Still, Mudd said, the documents released Monday are only a first step.
“Unfortunately, Boston does have a history of putting plans to paper that are not then translated into the reality of students in classrooms,” Mudd said. “We can’t let that continue.”
The district said it has met four mandates on special education practices, including the creation of a working group to oversee changes at the McKinley special education schools and updates to its policy and procedure manual.
Roxann Harvey, who chairs the district’s Special Education Parents Advisory Council and will join the new group managing the McKinley overhaul, said she was glad to see the organizational chart and the policies and procedure manual — both of which her group has been asking for for years — but also noted warning signs.
“When I look at the McKinley working group, it says completed, but it (also) says the chair (is) to be determined,” Harvey said. “What other things say completed or done, but if I take off the layers, they’re not done?”
Edith Bazile, another local advocate named to the working group, said that the district needs to “get out of its own way.”
“The district does not have the internal capacity to do this work alone,” Bazile said. “Unless the district locks arms with parents, students, advocates, educators, and community partners to actually operationalize these lofty statements, it’s not going to happen.”
Staff writer Adria Watson contributed to this report.