Mayor Michelle Wu’s vision for transforming Boston’s high schools begins with expanding the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. But among the questions left unanswered by the city’s proposal is, perhaps, its most controversial: Which schools will close to accommodate the staggering growth of both those schools?
Wu and Superintendent Mary Skipper have pledged to double the size of Roxbury’s Madison Park to 2,200 students, and add 400 more seventh- and eighth-grade seats to the O’Bryant upon its relocation to West Roxbury.
But as enrollment in Boston Public Schools continues dwindling, expanding those campuses will come at a cost to other high schools in the district, which even the mayor and superintendent acknowledge. Education policy experts and advocates say Boston’s 16 open-enrollment high schools, which educate nearly half of the city’s roughly 16,000 9th-through-12th-graders, many of whom are high needs, are most likely to face closure.
What’s more, advocates fear the closures will disproportionately hurt Black students, even prompting some families to leave the school district altogether.
The city has not released an exhaustive plan for how it will deal with the other 32 high schools in the district, which vary by admissions standards. But expanding Madison Park and the O’Bryant would pull 1,600 students from the remaining high schools, a number roughly equivalent to the combined enrollment of the district’s three smallest traditional open-enrollment schools — the Jeremiah E. Burke in Grove Hall, Brighton High, and English High School in Jamaica Plain.
Open-enrollment high schools are “going to start losing more students and they’re going to lose students who are more prepared to do well,” said former School Committee member Hardin Coleman. “Do you grow in one area? Do you have systematic plans to shrink in others?”
Unlike exam schools or other selective-admissions schools, open-enrollment high schools are accessible to all students through a districtwide lottery. The district’s open-enrollment schools are among the city’s smallest and lowest performing, primarily serving low-income students, kids with disabilities, and other needs. Open enrollment schools are also disproportionately populated by students who are randomly assigned to them from across the city — a process known as administrative assignment — because their families didn’t choose a school during the registration period.
“The city should have a clear and predictable pathway from pre-K all the way through graduation,” Wu said during a tour with reporters last month at the future site of the O’Bryant in West Roxbury. “In general that means a shift towards fewer, larger high schools.”
In the fall, after the release of a planned facilities condition report and high school design study, Skipper said, district leaders will start eyeing schools for closure, taking into consideration not only the physical state of their buildings, but also their enrollment numbers and academic programs, with particular attention paid to schools that aren’t able to provide the “full spectrum” of offerings, such as Advanced Placement classes, foreign languages, and visual and performing arts. BPS allocates funding to schools based on their head count, so smaller schools, despite receiving extra money for students with high needs, often aren’t able to provide a diverse array of electives and advanced coursework, leaving them trapped in a vicious cycle of eroding appeal and declining enrollment.
While the district offers “an incredible portfolio” of options in schools across the city, officials are moving toward consistency in what they can give families at each of the campuses, Wu said.
“When some of the schools are larger, but then some are very small, at that tiny scale, it’s very, very difficult to sustain the range of academic offerings, the extracurriculars that our especially high schoolers need,” she said.
The city’s proposal would split up the O’Bryant School and Madison Park, which currently share a campus in Roxbury, the cultural center of Boston’s Black community. The Madison Park campus would be extensively renovated while the O’Bryant would move to a rebuilt facility at the now-shut West Roxbury Education Complex on the VFW Parkway. City officials believe the gut-renovated West Roxbury campus could open to O’Bryant students as soon as 2027, and a refurbished Madison Park could be ready in 2028.
Families and education advocates, meanwhile, remain frustrated by what little detail the city has provided on the future of the rest of the district’s high schools, and the lack of engagement with community members during the planning. Although the Madison Park and O’Bryant projects fall under the city’s $2 billion infrastructure plan, known as a Green New Deal for BPS, Skipper and Wu announced their aspirations for both schools outside of the initiative’s lengthy community input process.
“We spend so much time discussing as the Boston community the exam schools and I don’t think we’ve given the rest of the high schools the full length of discussion,” said Roxann Harvey, of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council. “I don’t know that all these [impacts] have been fully considered because they haven’t been discussed with families.”
Edith Bazile, a former BPS special education teacher and administrator, and founder of Black Advocates for Educational Excellence, fears school closures will disproportionately harm Black students, who are more likely than white or Asian students to attend the kind of chronically underperforming schools that will be in the crosshairs. And the proposed changes to Madison Park and the O’Bryant, she added, may even push out the Black students who have historically attended those schools.
Moving the O’Bryant, the city’s most diverse exam school, out of Roxbury and into isolated and predominantly white West Roxbury may dissuade Black families from choosing the school, she said. The district’s plan to alter the admissions policy at Madison Park by requiring an application to reduce the number of students placed there by administrative assignment, she added, will create barriers to historically marginalized communities.
It’s no surprise, she noted, that more and more Black families are fleeing the district.
“It’s almost like you’re feeding one child and letting the other starve,” Bazile said about the consequences of the city’s proposal to the rest of the high school system. “Any school that has been focused on for improvement or state-of-the-art facilities has never benefited Black students.”
Closing schools is a tough sell. The School Committee voted unanimously in May to approve two controversial elementary school mergers starting in 2024. The mergers faced vocal opposition, prompting Skipper to put them on hold, while another proposed merger was canceled. Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, believes the district should hold off making decisions on school closures until it creates a comprehensive plan that includes an analysis of the impact of closures on students and families of color.
“It’s just it feels very haphazard,” she said. “I think the anger from families is that there is still no thoughtful, comprehensive plan that actually prioritizes the needs of schools and school communities. It just is more political promises.”
Travis Marshall, whose son is a rising seventh-grader at a traditional open-enrollment school , said he is worried about the “constant precarity” of not knowing which schools will be closed or consolidated, and the disruption the closures will inevitably cause families. But he understands the need for new facilities and better opportunities for all high school students.
“In my perfect world, I think you’d have high schools . . . that offered opportunities for a ton of different things,” he said. “It just seems like when you’re in an urban education environment, the solution is never, ‘Let’s give everyone more.’ ”