The new year promises to be a busy one for Boston Public Schools.
The state’s largest school district must make wide-ranging changes to improve its academics and operations under an agreement reached with state education authorities to avoid a state takeover. BPS will also try to coax back students who dropped out during the pandemic and launch major construction projects for school buildings under Mayor Michelle Wu’s Green New Deal.
It will also be the district’s first full calendar year under Superintendent Mary Skipper, the former Somerville Public Schools superintendent who took charge of BPS in September. The district, which serves more than 48,000 students in 119 schools, is home to some of the state’s top-ranked schools, but about one-third of its students attend schools that are among the state’s lowest-performing ones.
Here are some top items to watch in BPS this year:
Reform agreement with the state
Under a “systemic improvement plan” mandated by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, BPS must take steps to dramatically improve the education, transportation, and other services students receive, particularly in chronically underperforming schools. The plans are especially aimed at better serving multilingual learners and students with disabilities, as well as addressing delayed and no-show buses and school safety.
The district will work with state education officials during the spring “to deliver on meeting the needs of all Boston Public School students,” Max Baker, a district spokesman, said in a statement, adding that updates are posted online at bostonpublicschools.org/strategicprogress.
BPS leaders expect to receive two reports early in 2023 that will inform their plans to improve transportation and school safety. Those reports will be conducted by the Council of Great City Schools, which also completed a review in November of BPS’s special education problems and suggested recommendations.
One of the district’s biggest challenges is ensuring students in special education can learn alongside their general education peers, which is linked to better outcomes for students with disabilities. Across BPS, the council’s recent report found, an unusually high rate of students with disabilities — and disproportionately Black and Latino male students ― learn in segregated classrooms where they often lack access to grade-level coursework.
BPS plans to address this issue in phases. This spring, the first set of educators in 22 schools that serve kindergarten through eighth grades are planning and training to create inclusive classrooms, with implementation slated for the fall. Additionally, all high schools are in the planning process, with four expected to create additional inclusion classrooms as early as next fall, according to a plan BPS submitted to the state.
Green New Deal
By the end of the year, the district should have a complete picture of the future of all its facilities, with the comprehensive master plan for Wu’s Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools.
The district is conducting a comprehensive assessment of its facilities and a study of what’s needed to switch to a pre-K-6 and 7-12 grade configuration districtwide. Those assessments will be incorporated into the 10-year facilities master plan for the multibillion-dollar overhaul of the district’s facilities announced in May.
The district also is moving forward on plans for two elementary school mergers — the Taylor and the Shaw and the Philbrick and the Sumner, although the timeline is unclear.
Construction should also begin this year on two major building projects: conversion of the former Irving Middle School into a K-6 school and renovation of the PJ Kennedy Elementary School for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
For the other major building projects envisioned in the first phase of the plan, groundbreaking is unlikely before 2024.
“The $2 billion that is often quoted is the beginning,” said Rebecca Grainger, the mayor’s senior adviser for youth and schools. “This is really about a long investment in the school facilities and that means that there are additional funds, as additional projects come onto the table.”
School Committee changes
Proponents of an elected School Committee are pushing to put the option before voters this year, but the move could be in jeopardy after Wu indicated she has no intention of creating a new governance structure at this time.
Currently, all seven members are appointed by the mayor. But after residents last year overwhelmingly voted to restore the ability to elect its school representatives, city officials began discussing plans for the transition, which would require the mayor’s approval, as well as the Legislature, and the governor.
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo has said he hoped the council would have voted on the measure in December. Various details still need to be hammered out, however, so a vote to move the plan forward could still be weeks away. Delays could hamper the ability to hold School Committee elections in November.
While on the campaign trail in 2021, Wu said she was open to turning a majority of School Committee seats into elected positions, but recently told the Globe she has no plans to remake the School Committee, instead focusing on “urgent challenges” that need immediate action in Boston’s schools.
“In the year ahead, I am focused on supporting Superintendent Skipper’s leadership as we continue to enhance the learning experience and infrastructure at BPS and deliver for our students and families,” Wu said.
Re-engagement efforts for students
Working to bring back students who dropped out of school during the pandemic, BPS will ramp up its re-engagement efforts, visiting the homes of former students no longer enrolled and working more closely with struggling students at their campuses to keep them in school.
Volunteers last year visited 400 homes of school-age children who weren’t enrolled, an annual tactic aimed at bringing them back to the district. Emmanuel Allen, director of the district’s re-engagement center, said the team will not only continue that work in 2023, but now will double down on prevention efforts, sending outreach workers directly to the schools to meet with students who often are missing their classes. The specialists will talk to the students about their educational options or ways to make school more appealing, including placing them in alternative education programs or a different school.
During the 2020-21 school year, 292 students dropped out of BPS. The most recent state numbers on graduation and dropout rates are expected to roll out before March. More than 40 percent of BPS students, or over 19,000, were chronically absent last school year.
“People are open to innovation and trying to continue to support the things that they know are working, and also implement new things so that we can have better outcomes,” Allen said.
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