The Boston Public Schools can claim some small victories in recent years. The graduation rate has edged up, and there have been significant test score improvements in many elementary schools. Yet new superintendent of schools Tommy Chang will find a profound need to rethink how the district creates its end product: educated young adults ready for either higher education or the workforce. Boston is in the early steps of “redesigning” its high schools, and not in the physical sense. A new design means a fresh focus on how to achieve better outcomes — more students succeeding not only in the classroom but also in the real world — and will require the creation of sustainable partnerships with the private sector and the region’s higher education system.
Too many students are unprepared for college or the workforce, in part because the Boston schools operate with a traditional model that doesn’t do enough to make students aware of the opportunities within their reach. The students are, in effect, educated in a vacuum, and the results speak for themselves: Only half of Boston high school graduates receive a college degree or other postsecondary credential within six years. For those who don’t go to college, the job market usually is bleak because they didn’t gain the skills required by the private sector. Even the city’s one vocational high school, Madison Park, has languished for lack of leadership and resources.
Mayor Marty Walsh and his chief of education, Turahn Dorsey, understand the pressing need to redesign the high schools. There are models both here and abroad that combine learning and the power of the workplace. Apprenticeships are currently having a “moment” in the United States, but Germany has long had major success with its apprenticeship program. One in South Carolina offers participating companies a $1,000 tax credit. Closer to home, at Charlestown High School, there’s a new partnership with information technology firm SAP and Bunker Hill Community College: a program that begins in the ninth grade and allows students to get college credits in high school. More important, the students are gaining exposure to advanced technology and a professional work environment.
Dorsey realizes that meaningful high school redesign can’t work without a new level of private sector involvement. And many local companies are eager either to start or expand the relationship — they want the workers, and they want a better Boston. “It’s getting beyond the role of just give me funding, let’s do a service project, or let’s have you visit our facilities,” says Dorsey. Companies are now asking: “How can we be a part of the educational mission in the city?”
Chang has his work cut out for him. But Boston has a lot of resources he can call on, and the new superintendent has arrived at an opportune time — the city’s economy is strong, its spirit vibrant. He must tap into that energy and optimism and make sure it flows through the system’s schools, its teachers, and — most important — students.