BPS plan would eliminate middle schools
Parents still reeling from a failed proposal to change the opening and closing bells at schools across Boston are now facing another proposal that could dramatically alter the fabric of their children’s schools, generating a mix of outrage and support.
Superintendent Tommy Chang is renewing his push to reduce the variety of schools across the city, a move that could eliminate Boston’s six remaining middle schools as elementary and high schools absorb the middle grades.
Chang is advocating for the changes out of a belief that students should switch schools just once during their education instead of multiple times, which can be disruptive both academically and socially, and to address declining enrollment in the middle and upper grades.
Chang seeks a system that would largely consist of four grade spans: lower schools that would extend either to sixth or eighth grade, and secondary schools that would begin in either seventh or ninth grade. Absent from the proposal: middle schools.
The plan, presented recently to the School Committee, represents a compromise for Chang, who sought a simpler proposal in the fall of 2016, with only two preferred grade spans: K-6 and 7-12, mirroring the city’s exam schools, which begin in seventh grade.
The new proposal comes on the heels of an ill-fated plan last month to shift the opening and closing times at nearly 85 percent of the system’s schools, generating opposition from legions of parents, city councilors, and civil rights leaders that forced school officials to withdraw the plan.
Already, the possibility of changing grade configurations has generated controversy, even on the School Committee, prompting members more than a year ago to delay a vote on any broad changes.
Some members were hesitant about eliminating K-8 schools after spending two decades creating them, often at the request of families.
Meanwhile, this new round of potential changes is instilling more anxiety among parents about their children’s education. Liz Hughes, whose daughter attends fifth grade at the Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury and has a guaranteed placement at the Timilty Middle School, is unsure if she should accept it.
“It makes me nervous to send her there if the district is just going to close all the middle schools before she finishes eighth grade,” she said in an e-mail. “On the other hand, if I don’t send her to the middle school and a lot of her classmates also go somewhere else, that just reinforces the perception that the middle school is under-chosen and gives the district a stronger reason to close it.”
She blamed the predicament on the grade configurations of the exam schools and questioned why the school system doesn’t change the exam school grade spans.
Currently, the school system offers 20 grade configurations, although more than half of the system’s 125 schools use just three of them: pre-kindergarten through grade 5, pre-kindergarten through grade 8, and high schools serving grades 9 to 12.
Grade configurations grew under previous superintendents in an effort to expand schools that worked well and to meet parental demand.
School officials said they will proceed cautiously, saying any changes would be rolled out gradually and that none are planned for this fall. In the coming weeks, a round of community meetings will be held.
Chang declined an interview request and instead issued this statement:
“Reducing the number of grade configurations in BPS will create fewer disruptions for students, more predictability for families when selecting schools for their students, and ensuring appropriate enrollment at all schools so they can sustain effective programming.”
The enrollment decline is hitting middle schools and K-8 schools alike, resulting in 1,200 empty seats in grades 6 to 8. High schools also are grappling with dwindling enrollment, creating excess capacity.
All the while, elementary schools are continuing to experience healthy demand in the lower grades, with parents pressing city leaders to create more pre-kindergarten classrooms for 4-year-olds — an idea embraced by Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
Chang believes that relocating more seventh- and eighth-grade programs to the high schools will free up enough space in some lower-grade schools to expand programming.
But there are limits. Some elementary schools are too small to absorb a new sixth grade or, if they do, they will face tough trade-offs, such as sacrificing classrooms for art, music, or other specialties. And it could come at the expense of pre-kindergarten expansion.
Not all schools would need to conform to the preferred grade spans, school officials have said, noting, for instance, that the system will continue running early-childhood centers. Consequently, it remains unclear how many grade configurations will actually disappear.
Some parents whose children attend elementary school say they welcome the addition of the sixth grades to their buildings. Currently, many of these families have to send their children to another school for the sixth grade — often only for one year if they gain admission to an exam school.
Anita Cooper, who has two children at the JF Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, said she would prefer keeping her children there for the sixth grade, especially her son, a fourth-grader, who has difficulties with transitions.
“As soon as I visited the school, I knew that it would be the best fit for him,” because it was smaller than another popular school in her neighborhood, she said. “It’s very friendly and very nurturing. I like the fact the teachers really understand and know all the children. We have a lot of great programs. Academically, he is doing wonderfully.”
But some parents say they oppose shrinking their K-8 schools into elementary schools and scoff at the idea of sending 12- and 13-year-olds to high schools.
Bob Goodman, whose son is a seventh-grader at Mission Hill K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, derided the proposal as a budget-cutting move that could destabilize schools and children’s education.
“We want him to finish the eighth grade there,” he said. “He is thriving.”
The proposal is also raising alarms about the possibility of school closings, a concern playing out at the Lilla Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester.
School district officials approached the school more than a year ago about converting into a K-6 elementary school — a significant change in mission requiring a new educational plan and teachers. But the school district has not finalized any plans, leaving staff and families in the lurch. Some teachers voiced frustration to the School Committee last month.
“Our families are worried about potentially having 12- and 13-year-olds who are susceptible to peer pressure in the same building as 18- and 19-year-olds in communities where there is a large presence of gang activity and violence,” Sharif Williams, an eighth-grade math teacher told the board.
In an interview last Friday, Emmanuel Tikili, chairman of the Frederick’s governing board, said the process has been flawed.
“The way BPS communicates leaves a lot to be desired,” he said. “Our neighborhood, Grove Hall, historically has been slighted by decision-makers and our school serves students with among the highest needs in the city. . . . We just want to be engaged in a process that is meaningful and that has a level of transparency.”
He said the school is open to any changes that are in the best interest of the community it serves.
The Boston Teachers Union has taken no formal position on changing grade configurations.
“Any such changes warrant an authentic and thoughtful community process that truly values the knowledge, experiences and insights of those most impacted,” said Jessica Tang, the union’s president, in a statement.
“Input from families and educators should be integral to the formulation of any potential plans for grade reconfiguration.”