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Boston schools put potential school mergers on hold

Recommendations on a half-dozen school mergers were originally expected to take place this fall, but the decision on two mergers will get punted to next spring while a third merger has been scrapped. Those still underway include the merger of the Shaw and Taylor elementary schools in Dorchester.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu and Boston Public Schools have put several proposed school mergers on hold just five months into the mayor’s new school construction program, citing the need for better public engagement, but said consolidations are still necessary to curb steep enrollment declines.

Recommendations on a half-dozen school mergers were originally expected to take place this fall, but the decision on two mergers will get punted to next spring while a third merger has been scrapped.

Those still underway include the merger of the Shaw and Taylor elementary schools in Dorchester and the Philbrick Elementary School in Roslindale with the Sumner. The mayor’s office said Tuesday consolidating the Russell and Clap elementary schools in Dorchester “has been postponed indefinitely.”

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The move comes as the mayor and BPS grapple with deteriorating school buildings and a decline in enrollment over the past decade of approximately 8,000 students, bringing the district’s overall headcount to around 49,000 students.

Superintendent Mary Skipper, School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson, and Wu notified parents about the changes in letters this week. A broader discussion about Wu’s $2 billion school construction program, a Green New Deal for BPS, is expected to take place at Wednesday’s School Committee meeting.

“As we work toward a long-term facilities plan, we firmly believe that combining school communities — in new or updated facilities, wherever possible — will provide us with a path forward to improve students’ academic experience,” one of the letters said. “This would allow us to deploy full-time specialists, offer educators’ robust collaboration opportunities, and improve academic programming and enrichment opportunities.”

The mergers represent the latest effort by BPS to downsize the district and follow the closure or consolidation of more than a half-dozen schools in recent years. Yet several schools continue to educate a fraction of the students they once did.

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The prospect of school consolidations has been extremely controversial. The discussions have involved several small schools, a hallmark of BPS. Parents prize the schools’ close-knit relationships, but the school buildings often lack basic amenities, such as gymnasiums, cafeterias, and music rooms. Space is further challenged as BPS adds sixth grade to elementary schools.

Wu, Skipper, and Robinson also noted in their letter to parents that about half of the district’s elementary schools are too small to house more than one classroom at each grade level, as they made their case for larger schools.

Yet the proposals that were expected to be unveiled this fall were small-scale in comparison with the magnitude of the district’s overall enrollment decline, involving six schools and with no clear plans for building renovations.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Wu said, “The mayor supports the superintendent’s recommendation for these school communities to have appropriate outreach and input before recommendations are made to the School Committee.”

Parents expressed relief about the extended timelines but remain concerned about the potential mergers and BPS’ ability to engage families in meaningful discussions about their schools.

Rachel Young, whose daughter is a third-grader at Sumner, said the discussions to date have centered on preconceived ideas by BPS to merge the Sumner with the much smaller Philbrick Elementary School and didn’t seem that interested in what parents had to say.

“They would come with their own agenda and have high-level conversations about the Green New Deal,” she said.

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She also faulted BPS for not sharing all aspects of its plan and for not keeping parents fully involved in the mergers, including a failure to translate materials into Spanish and Haitian Creole.

Each merger has a common theme — pairing a school that doesn’t have room to add a grade level as BPS tries to get all elementary schools extended to grade six.

BPS officials have said the Sumner doesn’t have space to add a sixth grade at its current site, but BPS allowed it to add a sixth grade this fall and house it at the nearby former Irving Middle School, which BPS eventually wants to convert into an elementary school that could have ripple effects for other elementary schools across that neighborhood.

Similarly, the Russell Elementary School in the northern part of Dorchester doesn’t have room for a sixth grade and the Shaw Elementary School, in the southern part of Dorchester, doesn’t have space to expand up to grade six.

Christopher Fung, co-chair of the Russell Elementary parent council and whose daughter is in the fifth grade, faulted the community engagement process in which it appeared BPS only wanted parents to sign off on its idea. He also said BPS wouldn’t share critical details such as what improvements, if any, they would make to the buildings.

“If you want BPS to work for everyone, we need a system that is more collaborative,” he said, but added that kind of engagement will take longer. “There are obviously some important conversations to be had.”

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