Exactly one year after Boston Mayor Michelle Wu signed a comprehensive agreement with Massachusetts education commissioner Jeffrey Riley in which the city promised to improve the school district’s academic performance, run its buses on time, make basic fixes to buildings, and improve safety in the schools, Riley gave the district a sharp warning: so far, its grade is an “incomplete.”
In a blistering assessment delivered last week during a state education board meeting, Riley said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “remains concerned with the lack of progress made by the district towards some of its key goals and targets outlined” in the systemic improvement plan “and the recommended action steps from external reviews and audits.” Yes, buses are running closer to schedule, and that’s progress. But as Riley said at the meeting, the district has not finished a special education plan; hired leaders for that office and the multilingual education office (English language learners); completed an agreement that would codify the role of Boston police officers in schools; or finished renovating all school bathrooms. This, in a district that spends more per pupil than any other large school system in the country.
One thing the district has managed to do, though, is to announce major building plans for two of the city’s high schools — plans that, to judge from Riley’s comments, he clearly worries could become a distraction from the more immediate challenges facing the district.
Indeed, his words were a timely reminder that the Boston Public Schools — the state’s largest district, which educates about 46,000 students — has to multitask. Yes, plan for the facilities of the future. But not at the expense of the urgent classroom challenges now.
Wu and BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper’s plan involves moving the highly rated O’Bryant School of Math and Science from its current shared space with Madison Park Technical Vocational High School to a yet-to-be-built, state-of-the-art facility located at the now-closed West Roxbury Education Complex, which would allow Madison Park to take over the whole campus once it’s significantly renovated. Those plans would allow enrollment at both schools to expand, a goal this board has endorsed. But the announcement seemed to have taken some relevant stakeholders — including some Boston School Committee members, parents, teachers, and certainly DESE — by surprise. “While the overall plan may have merit, it’s hard to support it without understanding the financials,” Riley said.
In a statement, Wu told the Globe editorial board: “We are committed to building a nation-leading vocational school at Madison Park and giving the O’Bryant community the STEM campus our students deserve.” She added that there will be a community engagement process “so that everyone can learn about the proposal and then engage in many stakeholder conversations to vet concerns and shape the outcome.” Wu said the city and the district will “continue to work with DESE on the priorities and goalposts outlined” in the improvement plan.
Everyone likes nice shiny new school buildings. But bricks and mortar don’t teach kids, and too often politicians focus on appurtenances of a quality education instead of what actually happens in the classroom. Students with disabilities — who make up almost a quarter of the student population at BPS — need the right tools to learn in their classrooms. Every student must have access to a fully functional bathroom. It is incumbent on Wu and Skipper to explain to Boston families how their high schools plan fits within their broader turnaround vision for BPS.
For instance, the district has yet to publicly explain how much those major renovations and expansions would cost; Riley’s estimates put the combined cost of the project at more than $1 billion. Nor do we know when they are expected to be completed, or how the student diversity at the O’Bryant will be affected by the move. How are the O’Bryant students going to get bused to West Roxbury? “I’m not convinced I’ve seen a transportation plan that will meet the needs and get the kids where they need to be,” Riley said. Crucially, if the district is going “to do a ‘super’ Madison Park, which high schools are going to be closing in Boston to accommodate that?”
Indeed, what are the city’s plans for the rest of its high schools? As Globe education reporter Deanna Pan showed in remarkable detail in a recent comprehensive investigation, BPS has left some high schools to languish, like the Jeremiah E. Burke and other open enrollment high schools. They offer “far less academic variety and rigor” than exam schools.
“The future of BPS is likely in fewer, larger high schools,” Ricardo Patrón, Wu’s press secretary, told the Globe editorial board after Wu and Skipper announced their high schools plan. It’s as close as Wu has gotten to acknowledging one of the big, fat elephants in the room: Sooner rather than later, BPS will have to downsize as its enrollment continues to plunge.
By keeping the heat on BPS, Riley is doing stakeholders a service. The city committed to meaningful reforms last year — and neither the state nor parents should let it take its eye off the ball now.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.