McCormack students, staff protest possible move to Excel

Student shows Panther Pride while addressing the School Committee

McCormack student Alison Martinez shows her McCormack Panther Pride while addressing the School Committee.

For more than two hours Wednesday, students, teachers and counselors at the McCormack Middle School on Columbia Point told the School Committee why they want to stay where they are and not be moved to space in Excel High School in South Boston as the city spends two years converting the McCormack into a 7-12 high school.

They alternated with students from two high schools in West Roxbury, which school administrators want to close entirely because the building they are in is on the verge of being condemned as unfit for occupancy.

School officials said this week they want to shut the current McCormack at the end of the 2019-2020 school year to turn it into a state-of-the-art high school.

It's part of a ten-year, $1-billion plan, called BuildBPS, to rebuild or even build from scratch a dozen schools - and to invest in repairs at other schools - and to bring more educational resources to neighborhoods with large numbers of students with inadequate access to quality schools. Dorchester is one of those neighborhoods cited by BPS, along with Mattapan, Roxbury and East Boston. Also part of the plan: Eliminating Boston's remaining middle schools so that all BPS students would be able to go from kindergarten through graduation by attending, at most, two schools.

At the Wednesday School Committee meeting, interim Superintendent Laura Perille emphasized the McCormack proposal is just that - a proposal - and that she and her staff will hold community meetings to discuss BuildBPS over the next several weeks before making a final recommendation to the School Committee for its vote in December. Among the scheduled meetings are one on Oct. 25 at Burke High School, one on Nov. 3 at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School and one on Nov. 29 at the Murphy K-8 school.

Both current students and McCormack alums - including one who is now enrolled at one of the West Roxbury high schools - questioned why school officials want to break up what they consider their family, a family that has taught them how to learn and succeed.

One current student, Alison Martinez, who held a sign with the school's panther mascot, said she wouldn't have even been able to address the School Committee and "speak against injustice" had it not been for the teachers who made her feel more confident. "I am so sad because I feel that you guys want to destroy a school that's already a family."

Other students, both past and current, expressed gratitude to teachers who had helped them advance - sometimes by spending their own money on things such as graphing calculators and a trip to an out-of-state debate competition.

Antonieta Bolomey, an ESL teacher at the McCormack, said the McCormack serves a uniquely vulnerable student population: One-third of the school's students are enrolled in ESL, that many have been in the US for less than two years, that many are poor and live in neighborhoods already suffering from murders and other violence. She asked why BPS officials picked a school with "the most vulnerable students in the city" for such a disruptive proposal.

Channel John, a counselor with the Trinity at McCormack program, in which the Trinity Boston Foundation puts counselors in the school, said closing the McCormack and sending its kids to Excel sends a message to them that "they're disposable, that their eduction doesn't matter," especially when their new home would be a high school that is already rated as under performing.

"Our students are already living in communities where there are murders happening every single day," she said. "And to make them transition again is adding additional trauma to students who will barely recover from the trauma just of being black and brown students in this country." Like Bolomey, she questioned why BPS was starting with the McCormack, ratter than "a white school in a wealthy community."

Haven Jones, a Trinity clinical social worker at the McCormack, questioned moving the school into Excel, which first opened in 1901 - what happens, she asks, when BPS decides that building is too old and moves all its students out?

"The current plan compounded by a thoughtless on-the-fly roll out to the school has created, already, an equity emergency," Louise Burnham Packard, executive director of the Trinty Boston Foundation, said. "Students at the McCormack already feel invisible and not valued" and sending them to a "turnaround" school like Excel "signals that they are expendable," she said, adding she worries that if the School Committee approves the move, it will squander the McCormack's most irreplaceable asset - the community that students and teachers have created.

Long after the students, teachers and counselors left, in an evening meeting that stretched for more than six hours, Perille and other BPS officials answered some of their questions.

The McCormack was chosen to go first because its the only middle school whose closing and moving would not cause any problems for the elementary schools that feed into it. As an example, they said the Irving Middle School in Roslindale, which is slated to be turned into a K-6 school, cannot simply be shut quickly because there aren't enough seats currently in other schools in the neighborhoods that feed into it.

Officials acknowledged they would have preferred moving the McCormack programs to a "high performing" high school, but that none of those had enough space for the middle-school students.

At the end of the construction, McCormack student at Excel would have priority for seats in the new 7-12 school in the building. Officials added the new building would not be a new school - they would instead move an existing high school to the space.

Officials added that once the McCormack is rebuilt, they would move students from an existing high school into it. They did not specify which high school, but said current McCormack students would get priority for seats at the newly relocated school.

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