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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Up to half of Boston Public School buildings could close, according to new district plan

It envisions a future where BPS has fewer schools, but larger ones with broader student offerings

The plan would result in fewer but larger schools, similar to the recently approved merger of the Shaw and Taylor elementary schools.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As many as half of Boston’s public schools could close in the coming years, as the district reckons with problems of declining enrollment, crumbling infrastructure, and rife inequities in student offerings, particularly at the high school level, according to a new plan released Wednesday by the city.

The long-term facilities plan for Boston Public Schools envisions a future with fewer but larger schools that have broader offerings. It notes the current number of buildings — 119 — are too many given that enrollment in the district has been steadily dropping, more than 13 percent since 2006, to fewer than 49,000 this year.

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“The result has been inconsistent and inequitable student experiences, inefficient use of resources, and buildings that don’t fully support a high-quality student experience for every student,” BPS said in its plan.

But whether the district actually follows through in closing such a large number of schools remains unclear. Previous attempts to consolidate or shut campuses have been met with fierce public resistance.

The BPS plan does not specify which schools would close or merge, which buildings would be renovated or rebuilt, or even a timeline for deciding. But it does lay out a future in which the district has many fewer buildings, with a mix of small and large schools. For example, the district has 87 buildings, including early learning centers, serving students in grades pre-K through 6; that number could be as few as 40 or, at most, 80 buildings. At the secondary level, there are 31 school buildings for 7-12th grade students; there could be as few as 19 buildings or as many as 24.

In addition to lacking specific proposals for buildings other than those already in the pipeline, the BPS plan does not include long-term enrollment projections, specific budget proposals, or targets for how many new buildings, renovations, closures, and mergers should take place each year. The only timeline in the plan is for the next 18 months, in which officials would submit new proposals each spring in time for School Committee votes and the city’s capital budget.

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Kerry Donahue, chief strategy officer of the Boston Schools Fund, which provides grants to district, charter, and private schools in Boston, said long-term enrollment projections and historical analysis of school enrollment trends should be a central part of any long-term building plans.

“We all know this is an opportunity for Boston to move in a bold direction to create the kinds of schools parents and kids want,” Donahue said, “but it will require us to make clear decisions and plans over a longer timeframe than annual budgeting processes allow.”

The wide range of possible school buildings is based on a vision of fewer, larger schools with more offerings: multiple core classes in each grade, specialty classrooms and spaces for arts and music, gyms, libraries, and cafeterias, as well as spaces to support special education, such as separate classrooms for students who need it some of the time. The plan contemplates schools with as few as 356 for the smallest pre-K-6 schools, to 1,620 students for the largest 7-12 schools. Currently, BPS has dozens of schools with fewer than 250 students.

“These ranges do not represent specific targets or goals for our future building portfolios,” the plan says, noting the district would still maintain a variety of smaller, specialized programs for students with special needs. But school capacity is “ideal” when schools are nearly or completely full, according to the plan, and more than half of the district’s secondary schools, along with roughly one-fifth of its elementary schools and early learning centers, have too few students and too much space to support a “high-quality student experience.”

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Indeed, schools that are underenrolled in BPS tend to have fewer offerings, especially at the high school level, such as Advanced Placement classes and arts and music electives. Fewer students means smaller, less efficient budgets, since BPS allocates funding based on head count and small schools don’t benefit from economies of scale. Small schools also aren’t able to field teams in multiple sports or at various levels, further eroding the quality of their student experience and appeal to prospective families. As a result, underenrolled schools wind up trapped in a cycle of declining enrollment and limited opportunities.

“In some places, we have schools that are too small to host a range of programming and provide a continuum of services,” the plan says. “In many areas of Boston, if students cannot access a high-quality experience close to home, they may be assigned to schools across the city — particularly if they need specific programs or services.”

“This has ripple effects throughout the system,” the plan acknowledges, because certain schools — particularly those with open enrollment — now serve a disproportionate number of high-needs students. BPS notes its recently announced efforts to overhaul special education by integrating students with disabilities into general education classrooms at every school also depend in part on larger schools with needed support spaces.

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The district’s school buildings are in desperate need of investment, the plan argues: More than half of BPS schools are currently in buildings constructed before World War II. Only one-third have comprehensive HVAC systems, 50 percent lack auditoriums, 44 percent have no full science labs, and 17 percent are devoid of art spaces.

The new facilities plan is part of Mayor Michelle Wu’s multibillion-dollar Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools, launched in 2022 with a pledge to spend more than $2 billion overhauling school buildings, partially with an eye toward energy efficiency and climate resilience. BPS is responsible for nearly two-thirds of all emissions from city-owned buildings and is more energy-intensive than the average US school district, according to the plan.

The long-term facilities plan was one of the agreed-upon tasks for BPS under an agreement with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in June 2022 to improve the district and avert a state takeover, and was submitted to the state agency late last week.

District and city officials have said the state agency was up to date on their proposal. DESE is reviewing the plan, a spokesperson said, and declined to comment on it.

Wu’s efforts are not the first attempt to comprehensively rebuild city schools. Former mayor Martin J. Walsh made school construction a cornerstone of his education agenda in 2015 and committed $1 billion to it. Walsh’s effort, known as BuildBPS, built the district’s first new schools in over a decade, but was widely criticized for not developing concrete timelines to address problems or prioritizing schools with the greatest needs. It also faced intense opposition over proposed closures — a political quandary district officials acknowledged they’ll have to overcome.

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Critics of the district’s plans fear any closures will disproportionately harm Black and Latino students, who are more likely than white or Asian students to attend underenrolled, chronically underperforming schools.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the district needs to justify any school closures or mergers, and called on “maximum transparency” from the district on what to expect.

“As a whole, we do agree that changes have to happen . . . but individual educators, students and parents want to know how this is going to impact each specific school, and that unknown is absolutely causing a lot of justified anxiety,” Tang said in a statement. “It all comes down to how these plans end up being implemented.”



Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her @DDpan. Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.