A group of educators in Grove Hall has come up with a new idea for public schooling that could make a big difference in the lives of children in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. What those educators need from the city — and what incoming superintendent Brenda Cassellius should make sure they receive — is the autonomy to create a network of schools in the neighborhood that can act as a single innovative system instead of five different institutions.
Home to a couple thousand school-age children, Grove Hall is afflicted by the same inequities as the rest of the city. It’s one of the least safe and least prosperous neighborhoods in Boston. It’s overwhelmingly black and Latino. And the educational outcomes for those kids remain stubbornly behind those for white and Asian students.
One reason, the founders of the Grove Hall Alliance believe, is the lack of a predictable, high-quality pathway for students from kindergarten to high school. Kids may begin at the neighborhood’s Haynes Early Education Center but then scatter to other schools in the city. Meanwhile, students entering schools at higher grades come with uneven levels of preparation. School quality is inconsistent. The alliance is a group of principals, all women of color, who want to provide a different option: Let parents put their kids on a stable, predictable path through neighborhood schools.
Those principals — from the Haynes Early Education Center, the William Monroe Trotter K-8, the Martin Luther King Jr. K-8, the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School 6-8, and the Jeremiah E. Burke 9-12 — started collaborating amongst themselves and then meeting with other stakeholders in the city, including the Eos Foundation, a few years ago.
Except for the Trotter and the Haynes, the schools in the group are among the 49 district schools in Boston that the state says are in need of targeted assistance due to low performance. The five school leaders would like the Boston Public Schools’ central office “to respond to and resource the schools as a network,” said City Council President Andrea Campbell, whose district includes part of the Grove Hall neighborhood.
The group of schools ultimately wants to become a so-called innovation zone, which is permitted under existing legislation governing innovation schools.
That state zone designation would allow them certain waivers from the teachers union contract, and flexibility over budgeting, curriculum, and daily schedule decisions. While innovation schools exist throughout the district, the innovation zone idea including multiple schools hasn’t been tested in Boston. (The Burke is an innovation school, while the Frederick is a pilot school.)
If approved as a zone, the schools would also seek approval to alter the school assignment algorithm in order to prioritize kids living in Grove Hall to attend the five schools. They would like to look into a dedicated bus for those schools. Eventually all these changes could lead to efficiencies that could free up resources to expand before- and after-school programming and summer learning opportunities.
If the experiment works, it could help a district that badly needs new strategies. As a recent report on student achievement in Boston noted, while overall graduation rates have increased, racial disparities remain.
“Only 24 percent of Boston’s black students and 26 percent of Hispanic students scored above grade-level proficiency in reading, compared to 63 percent of white and 62 percent of Asian students,” the report authors found. “Achievement gaps are about as bad or worse for English learners, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities.”
The good news is that the city seems open to the experiment. BPS has had a consistent presence in the alliance’s meetings since last year, according to interim superintendent Laura Perille. Mayor Marty Walsh, in a recent meeting with the Globe editorial board, said he’s discussed the group’s efforts with Campbell. “Everything has to be on the table,” Walsh said.
Cassellius, the next BPS superintendent, visited the city Wednesday to start getting to know the community. Her message was reassuring: She understands the urgency of closing stark and persistent achievement gaps along racial lines in Boston. She told reporters it was her top priority and that an “all-hands-on-deck approach” was necessary to tackle what many fear has become an intractable problem.
Letting the principals in Grove Hall pursue their vision would be one powerful way to signal that the new superintendent is open to new ideas.