Now Under New Management

Why don’t poor minority students get to have public schools?

banners-under-new-managementIt’s time for yet another edition of our long-running reality series, As the School Turns. In today’s episode, we’re heading to Roxbury, Massachusetts, home of the Dearborn STEM Academy, for a fresh take on a now familiar saga. Let’s call it As the School Turns: $70 Million Dollar Listing. That’s right, viewer, we’re in spin-off territory, as in the Dearborn is literally being spun off to a private contractor. It’s been a long season, full of surprising twists and turns, sudden rule changes, last minute hurdles and some extremely questionable assertions.  Now at last we’re down to the final two finalists. So which of our private operators will reign supreme after the votes are not cast? Let’s tune in and see.

First, the good news
Now if by chance you’ve yet to watch any of this season of As the School Turns: $70 Million Dollar Listing, here’s what you’ve missed so far. Things got off to a rousing start with the news that, after seven long seasons, the Dearborn STEM Academy was FINALLY going to get a brand new building. That sound you hear is the studio audience applauding wildly. You see, this was to be the first new public school building in Boston in more than a decade and would feature all sorts of cool STEM stuff, like state-of-the-art science, technology and engineering labs. This wasn’t just a feel good story, viewer, it was a feel great story as the $70 million project symbolized a major investment in Roxbury and in the future scientists, engineers and STEM-sters who live and go to school there.

plot twistPlot twist time
A happy ending, to be sure, but alas, this was what’s known in the biz as a *fake-out/fade-out,* in which a scene ends like the show is over, only to jump back in with plot-twisting developments. Like the announcement that Boston’s first new school building in more than a decade would no longer be a Roxbury neighborhood school but a city-wide charter school to be run by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School, and which students would have to enter via a lottery. Suddenly the feel great story looked more like a made-for TV mystery with all sorts of perplexing puzzles—like where would the Dearborn’s Cape Verdean students be packed off to next? And why was it that alternate endings, like making the Dearborn a Roxbury community school, seemed to have been rejected in advance? Oh, and who thought it was a great idea to warehouse the existing Dearborn students on a single floor of the crumbling Burke High School building while the debate plays out over the best way to brighten the futures of future Dearborn students?

DearbornBut wait, there’s more 
But the season still wasn’t quite over. Faced with strong viewer backlash, the Boston Public Schools suddenly called for re-writes. The Dearborn would not be going full charter starting in 2015 but instead would get a new director in the form of a private operator who would be paid an unspecified amount to run the school. This was essential, BPS officials explained, because without a new director, the state’s executive producer of educational outcomes, Mitchell D. Chester, would likely step in and hand the Dearborn over to a private operator who would be paid an unspecified amount to run the school. The best part of all? There would be an element of audience participation as students, parents and Roxburians could weigh in on essential questions, like *who should manage your school?* *What are the qualities you look for in a private operator?* Or *what kind of private operator would you like to see running the Dearborn 6-12 STEM Academy in 2015-2016?* There was even a cool social media component where audience members could share their thoughts on Twitter with a special #OurDearborn hashtag.

DYETTWelcome Chicagoland viewers 
If by chance you happen to be viewing this show from, say, Chicago, you’re probably feeling like this is a repeat. You see, on Chicago’s South Side a very similar battle has been playing out over the future of Dyett High School, the last open-enrollment high school in Bronzeville. After the Chicago Public Schools announced plans to close the school, students, parents and community leaders fought back, putting forward their own story line: for a community-based plan to make Dyett a neighborhood STEM school. And just like in Boston, officials in Chicago blinked. Dyett can stay open, but there’s a catch: a private operator will be brought in to run the school. Community organizer Jitu Brown—take it away. *Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors?* As Brown sees it, handing the school to a private operator isn’t much better than closing it. *We want this school to anchor the community for the next 75 years. We’re not interested in a short-term contract that can be broken.*

Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors? —Jitu Brown, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

Meet the final finalists
Meanwhile, back in Boston, no one seemed to be asking—or answering—this *awkward* question. Instead, As the School Turns: $70 Million Dollar Listing was hurtling towards its penultimate episode: the selection of the final finalist to take over the Dearborn. Would the final finalist be the Boston Plan for Excellence, the rapidly expanding outfit behind the original excellent plan to convert the Dearborn into a city-wide charter school? Or would it be the Mass. Prep Network, which embraces the *broken windows* approach to schooling that is increasingly controversial in other cities, but has plenty of super fans here in Beantown? (Note for example the fate that awaits young STEMsters who talk in the laboratory…) In other words, anything could happen, if by anything you mean that a private contractor will be chosen to run the Dearborn like a charter school with a STEM focus. STEM, by the way, now stands for *students taking English and math,* the only ratings that matter with this particular show.

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  1. Where to start?

    1. Seems foolish to spend the money to immediately turn the school’s operations over to fairly unproven charter school group (albeit to run a in-district charter). From everything I’ve heard, from multiple sources, DSNCS is kind of a mess. Not sure why they latched on to that group to run the school of all the possible choices. Look, we agree!

    2. On the other hand, let’s look at what happened the last time BPS spent a fortune on new buildings – about 10 years ago.

    a. One of the buildings was on Mildred Avenue in Mattapan, off Norfolk St and Blue Hill Ave. When they opened that middle school/community center hybrid (in the former East Zone), it had a beautiful auditorium, fantastic gym, swimming pool, weight room, music room, library, pottery studio with kiln, multiple computer labs – the works. They seeded the school with the left-overs (principal/AP, teachers and kids)from a school in West Roxbury (former West Zone). That school had been booted out of its former home by a Pilot School that was much more popular / successful / white. Then, they added regular kids from Mattapan, and two small special needs clusters – a sheltered English immersion one and one for kids with severe handicaps (some of whom had been at the previous school too). Within a year, the principal retired, the AP became a principal in another BPS school, the guidance counselor went to another BPS school (you’d love her – Sue Trotz – she hates charters), the new principal came in and completely alienated the new staff. That experiment lasted a year. Since then, the results have been horrendous, and at some point the school turned into a K-8, I think. I can speak to these things because I was working for the Citizen Schools program the first year the school opened.

    b. The other building was the Lila Frederick Pilot School which apparent was only a pilot school in name because the teachers hadn’t chosen the pilot designation and didn’t want to be there. This was in the heyday of small schools movement and the new school had 3 different schools within it. Only one seemed to be running reasonably well. The results there have been pretty poor as well, from all I’ve heard.

    So here’s the thing. The Dearborn has been a mess for years. Why would that change after a renovation? Concerning that BPS doesn’t feel like it has the human capital to make a big change by themselves. So I can see why they might consider chartering it…especially if they have no faith in their ability to make things better.

    3. Call a spade a spade. I know you love mocking charter schools for their “excellence.” But I think most schools that designate themselves as a “STEM Academy” might want to think about getting their kids to be able to do some math and science before touting themselves as being all about math and science.

    6th Math – 20% A + P
    7th Math – 22% A + P
    8th Math – 24% A + P
    8th Science – 1% A + P

    Just saying. Being aspirational doesn’t make it true…

    1. Better late than never on this one! I’m thinking that the Boston Public Schools needs a new logo – preferably one produced by an expensive consulting firm – of hands being thrown up. Their entire approach these days seems to be that *we don’t actually know how to run schools so let’s let somebody–anybody!–else try.* As you point out, Dudley Street is unproven. They’re currently running a K-2, so have no test scores, and word of mouth is pretty much as you put it: *a bit of a mess.* So handing them $500K a year to run a middle school (turns out I was wrong about the *unspecified amount*; DSNCS specified exactly how much they wanted in their proposal.) Meanwhile, Mass. Preparatory Network runs no schools at all. I’m going to skip over the issue about buildings that you raise and trot out one of my other hobby horses. One of the classes I visited at the Dearborn was an ESL course for Cape Verdean middle schoolers who are brand new to the country. I know you and I have our differences about how the BPS classifies English Language Learners, but this particular population–brand new immigrants–represents a huge challenge to the schools in Massachusetts. Every time there is a turnaround or a school closure, this is the group that pays the heaviest price. Look, for example, at what happened to the Cape Verdean students when the Emerson closed, or to the Vietnamese students when UP took over the Gavin. No charter school wants kids who are older than elementary school who can’t speak English because it turns out that speaking English correlates positively with taking a test that is given in English. This is a district problem and a state problem too. Last but not least, is there such a thing in Massachusetts as a STEM turnaround? Most of our turnarounds are math and English only–science is increasingly seen as an enrichment for kids who’ve conquered *the basics.* So my prediction: DSNCS gets the school, the Cape Verdean kids will get fanned out around the city, and you and I will continue to argue until the end of time! Speaking of which 🙂

  2. oh, and the other new building at that time was Orchard Gardens, that eventually needed turnaround, too.

  3. Sadly, science is an enrichment in many schools in BPS – turnaround or not. I’ve visited a lot in our area and can attest to the fact. I think saying that a school is “STEM” or “STEAM” or “STREAM” unless it’s doing something like what AMSA (Advanced Math and Science Academy – a suburban charter school with mega doses of advanced math and science for mostly rich kids, or Bronx Science) is generally a farce. Since ELA has to be taught too, what does that even mean? Just going back to what we all used to have? I guess that’s a good thing, but I think the title is just silly. Sort of like calling one of the lowest performing schools on our list a “Leadership Academy.” What the heck does that even mean?

    I agree with you, BTW, that the state of education for recent immigrants is tough – a lot of that has to do with those ridiculous Unz amendments that were passed 10-15 years ago. Really tragic.

    I would bet that most schools that are not serving regular ed students well are not doing a much better job educating those that have more severe needs – whether it’s language, learning disabilities, emotional impairments, etc. Could I be wrong? Sure. And if I am, those programs need to be reconstituted at other schools. But what I worry about is complacency – the argument that it’s more damaging to move kids to a school that (theoretically, I know) would educate them better, than to leave them in the warm, homey environs of a school where the kids can’t read.

  4. Level of agreement here getting a little disturbing… What’s next??? Totally agree with you re the damage that was done by the Unz amendment (and I’m always surprised by how little discussion there is of this). There are programs in place for kids when they first arrive, but if they don’t learn English within a year, they are basically out of luck and will often end up classified as special ed solely because those are the only interventions available. One of the field trips on my list is to the Otis School in East Boston, where immigrant parents are deeply involved in the school and are pushing for a smarter approach to helping kid acquire language skills. Maybe I’ll stop by the Brooke outpost too. (Note that I am not mentioning comparable demographics!)
    As for complacency issue, the problem I see in a place like Boston is that the district has carved out niches for students with a lot of challenges, including populations of specific immigrants. And inevitably, when the school gets turned around or charter-fied, those kids get shuttled off to another school. Then that school gets turned around or charterfied and they’re on the move again. I’d be interested to know if there are urban districts that have had particular success with recent immigrants (maybe Union City, NJ?). The charter chains (I’m thinking about Rocketship or UNO in Chicago) that have really sought out immigrant students are English only…
    ps: this is so fun! We should really do a longer form exchange on my blog. hint, hint 🙂

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