Boston delays vote on changing school grade spans
The Boston School Committee has postponed a vote on Superintendent Tommy Chang’s sweeping proposal to change the grade configurations of schools across the city, which had been on a fast track for approval.
The seven-member board had been scheduled to vote on it Wednesday night — just one week after receiving a presentation on it — but Chairman Michael O’Neill pulled the item off the agenda hours before the meeting began.
“It’s a very interesting proposal from the superintendent,” O’Neill said in an interview, but he added, “I would rather the district take a few more weeks to look at it.”
The proposal, which aims to address declining enrollment and a myriad of grade configurations, calls for schools to adopt one of two grade spans: pre-kindergarten through grade 6 or grades 7-12.
If approved, it would represent a dramatic departure for a district that has spent the last two decades increasing the number of schools that serve students in pre-kindergarten through grade 8, which have been popular among many parents.
The proposal also could deliver the final blow to the city’s dwindling number of middle schools and comes as the state has been declaring more city high schools “underperforming,” raising questions about their ability to take on additional grade levels.
School officials have stressed they will not force schools to adopt the preferred grade configurations and any changes would come gradually. The School Committee would vote on each school request individually.
That the proposal wound up on Wednesday’s agenda for a vote surprised many parents and other observers. That’s because when the School Committee heard the presentation Dec. 7, it barely had a quorum — just four members were present — and half of them expressed hesitation about rushing into a vote.
Vice Chairman Hardin Coleman, who chaired the meeting in O’Neill’s absence, suggested the committee should first convene a summit featuring researchers, parents, students, and educators — a move enthusiastically endorsed by member Regina Robinson.
“I would like to see the case being made for why we are having this conversation,” said Robinson, who has a child at the Roosevelt K-8 in Hyde Park.
The Citywide Parent Council also has not weighed in yet.
“I hope there is public input in this process,” said Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, one of the council’s four co-chairs. “I would be shocked to see a school system this large make this big of a decision without involving the parents.”
K-8 schools have been a slightly awkward match for Boston, where hundreds of seventh-graders enroll in exam schools. The K-8 expansion also occurred as more charter schools opened, stretching students thin.
Superintendent Tommy Chang said Friday afternoon he had heard from many parents at town hall meetings held on the school system’s longterm master plan this year that having 24 grade configurations was confusing to them and caused their children to change schools frequently.
“For some parents, they didn’t realize the issues, but for others it hit home for them,” Chang said.
He also said it is difficult for many K-8s to offer quality programs in the seventh and eighth grades with small numbers of students.
Chang has quietly begun lining up high schools to adopt the new grade spans and met with headmasters over the summer. More than a dozen submitted slideshow presentations in September expressing a commitment to explore the idea.
School officials Monday rejected a Globe request to release the presentations.
“The schools are engaged in developing policy proposals for potential changes to their grade configurations and prematurely releasing details publicly could have a detrimental effect on this process,” Daniel O’Brien, a school spokesman, said in an e-mail.
O’Brien named only one school pursuing the change: New Mission High School, which presented its plan to the School Committee Wednesday.
Headmaster Naia Wilson said in an interview having students start in grade seven would prepare them better for the upper grades and provide more time for electives. Currently, many ninth-graders who come in behind academically double up on math courses.
“Our goal is to get kids into selective colleges — those are the schools that give scholarship funding,” said Wilson, whose school had a 98 percent graduation rate in 2015. “We want to send students off with strong math and English-language arts skills.”
At least one underperforming school, Excel High School in South Boston, was planning to submit a presentation, according to an e-mail the headmaster sent staff in August that was obtained by the Globe.
Bob Goodman, whose son is in sixth grade at Mission Hill K-8 School in Jamaica Plain and intends to stay there through eighth grade, said he opposes changing grade configurations.
He said he doubts the grade configurations would be optional because as more schools adopted them, others would be forced to follow as enrollment declines. He said he worries the proposal is being pursued to address underutilized facilities instead of improving education.
“I have great concerns about the nature of the proposal and the process and its dramatic impact on removing [the K-8] option that Boston and parents worked hard to offer,” Goodman said. “This is something that would reduce the quality of what BPS has to offer parents by prematurely putting kids starting at the seventh grade in high schools.”