Nearly half of Boston Public Schools K-8 parents are dissatisfied with the district’s high school options, and more than a third of high school parents considered transferring their child to a different school in the past year, according to a new MassINC Polling Group survey of 841 parents.
The results of the poll, which has a margin of error of 4.1 percent, come as city and district leaders face growing scrutiny over the vast disparities in resources, academic course offerings, and extracurricular activities that have existed for decades between the district’s ultra-competitive exam schools and the open-enrollment high schools.
A combined 44 percent of survey respondents said their child’s high school does not offer enough after school sports, or doesn’t offer any at all. A combined 36 percent of parents said their child’s high school either didn’t offer extracurriculars such as arts and music, or doesn’t offer enough, and 38 percent said their child’s school either doesn’t offer honors or Advanced Placement classes, doesn’t offer enough, or they didn’t know.
Will Austin, the founder and CEO of education nonprofit Boston Schools Fund, said the results were not necessarily surprising, and offered “new data for an old problem.”
“For a very long time, there’s been a focus on exam schools in the city and in doing so, we either have ignored the quality options that exist in high schools — to shine a light on them, scale them, expand them — or been unable to address the needs of some other high schools,” Austin said.
Superintendent Mary Skipper said the survey results confirm why she and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu want to target high schools in Wu’s $2 billion proposal to overhaul and revitalize district schools, also referred to as the Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools.
“We want to be able to increase the programming,” said Skipper in an interview with the Globe. “We’re adding four new early college pathways, we’re adding five new career pathways. This will be a theme of ours.”
Skipper also emphasized that the plan to massively update and revamp school facilities is necessary to provide the support for increased programming offerings.
Earlier this summer, Wu and Skipper proposed an extensive renovation of the Madison Park Technical Vocational High School that would allow enrollment to double to 2,200 and create space for new vocational programs. The plans also call for moving the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, which currently shares the existing campus with Madison Park, to a shuttered campus in West Roxbury that would be rebuilt, allowing enrollment to expand by 400, and creating new spaces for robotics, engineering and other programs.
But the ambitious proposal has faced skepticism and criticism from some who said the district didn’t get input from the community in crafting the plan, and worry about relocating the O’Bryant, Boston’s most diverse exam school, to the predominantly white West Roxbury. Opponents also stressed the move could pose transportation issues for students, and said the timeline of the project is too rushed.
Robin Williams, a BPS parent of an incoming sophomore and an incoming eighth grader, said she would support BPS increasing the number of enrollment spots at the highly sought-after exam schools, but is just as concerned about school safety.
Her 15-year-old daughter Janell’s first choice of high schools had been the O’Bryant, but after not getting a seat, she ended up at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School for her freshman year. After two separate violent student incidents, Williams transferred Janell to a different high school in the district. Still unhappy, Janell and her mother opted to change schools again, and this fall Janell will be starting her sophomore year at her third high school.
The MassINC survey, which was sponsored by the Boston-based Shah Family Foundation, shows Williams’s safety concerns are not unusual among BPS parents. Education quality and school safety were the top two most common priorities respondents cited when considering high school options, and for parents of high school students who did consider transferring, the most common reason was safety and security.
Williams said the experience has made her extremely frustrated and disappointed in the district, particularly in regard to communication and safety, and that she wants to see leadership take accountability and institute structural change.
“They don’t look at the children as students, they look at them as numbers.… trying to fill their seats up so they can meet their quota and allow for the government to give them money,” Williams said.
Earlier this summer, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley blasted BPS for failing to meet key deadlines in a state-required improvement plan state, city, and school leaders agreed to last year to avoid a state takeover of the district, and an “underperforming” designation.
While a combined 74 percent of parents were either very or somewhat satisfied with the Boston Public Schools system overall, that percentage marked a decrease from 87 percent in August 2021.
When asked how well BPS is living up to its commitment to “transforming the lives of all children through exemplary teaching in a world-class system of innovative, welcoming schools,” 23 percent of parents responded “very well,” a decrease from 37 percent when asked in August of 2021. The percentage who said “somewhat well” decreased from 47 percent in August 2021 to 44 percent in August 2023.
Steve Koczela, the president of the MassINC Polling Group, said while the survey results clearly show those percentages have decreased in the past few years, he cautions against attributing the declines to any one specific reason due to the impact of the pandemic.
“There’s no baseline, really,” Koczela said. “We think of all of the challenges with bringing [school] back to in-person and staffing challenges, all the things have happened, and you can see why parents are reacting to a lot of different things when they’re asked about these opinions.”