More than a hundred students, teachers, and parents packed a Boston School Committee meeting Wednesday night to oppose a sweeping facilities proposal that calls for shuttering two high schools and a middle school.
Many students from Urban Science Academy, West Roxbury Academy, and the McCormack Middle School held signs such as “Keep the McCormack together” or wore school jerseys as they cheered dozens of speakers who pleaded their case.
“You are tearing apart our school, and you expect us to be OK with that,” Bre’elle Foster, junior class representative at Urban Science, said during more than two hours of public testimony. Foster castigated School Department officials for failing to keep up with facility repairs and for subjecting the school to years of steep budget cuts.
Alyssa Juliano, a senior at West Roxbury Academy, which shares a campus with Urban Science, also lashed out at School Department officials for what she described as their negligence.
“We have been asking you for years for our building to be fixed,” she said.
The closures are part of the latest proposal being pitched under Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s BuildBPS school construction program that aims to modernize the system’s 125 aging schools, two-thirds of which were built before World War II.
Walsh has committed to spending $1 billion on the effort.
The proposal unveiled this week by Interim Superintendent Laura Perille is wide-ranging. It calls for building or extensively renovating a dozen schools, gradually phasing out middle schools, and merging several elementary schools over the next decade.
Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy would close in June, and the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester would shut its doors at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
Perille said that the need to close the two high schools constitutes an “equity emergency” because problems with the roof, windows, and other elements of the building are so dire that the schools almost didn’t open this September.
Jack Sinnott, of Jamaica Plain, urged the School Committee to preserve the autism program at Urban Science Academy, which his 17-year-old son attends, characterizing it as very successful. “They make sure he catches up in every way possible,” Sinnott said.
Several students at the McCormack who are recent immigrants to the United States relied on a translator as they delivered testimony in Spanish.
In an interview before the meeting, two McCormack eighth-graders speaking in Spanish — Bianca Bautista and Rosiling Meija — lauded the school’s educators for their dedication.
“We have great teachers who are patient with us,” said Rosiling. “I feel it would be unfair for them to close the school.”
Bianca said she has learned a lot there, and the teachers have created an environment where she feels safe and supported.
Neema Avashia, a McCormack Middle School teacher, questioned why the School Department would want to move the McCormack’s seventh and eighth grades to the underperforming Excel High School in South Boston, just a few years after the department attempted a failed merger between the McCormack and the underperforming Dever Elementary School in Dorchester.
“Why would we repeat history that we know didn’t work the first time?” Avashia asked in testimony. “Is that the best thinking that the BuildBPS team, which has been working on this for four years, can come up with?”
The president of the Boston Teachers Union, Jessica Tang, said in an interview that teachers have many concerns about the facilities proposal and have been workinghard to improve programs at the schools slated for closure.
“Whether this proposal is the best plan remains to be seen,” Tang said. “Our primary concern is do these proposals result in better educational opportunities for students, especially high-need students.”
She said members are also worried that disrupting the students’ education by closing their schools could set them behind academically.
Tang said all three schools had been working on proposals to reinvent themselves. Urban Science and West Roxbury Academy were exploring a merger, while the McCormack was looking to convert into a school serving grades 7-12.
Tang later said in testimony to the School Committee that “it was heartbreaking to watch” School Department officials deliver the news about the closures in meetings held on Tuesday.
Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, questioned in an interview before the meeting how the city would pay for new school construction while pursuing other large-scale projects, such as preparing for rising sea levels and reconstructing the Long Island and Northern Avenue bridges.
Tyler also wondered whether the School Department was being aggressive enough in closing schools, given that enrollment districtwide has tumbled by nearly 8,000 students since 2000.
“Excess capacity needs to be addressed and needs to be at the forefront,” he said.
Currently, the proposal calls for reconstructing or renovating at least three of the middle schools that will be closing, as well as the West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science site.
Many in the audience expressed dissatisfaction that the plan would evict students and teachers from those buildings so that new school communities can move in, with new building perks.