Why not use excess BPS space for subsidized housing for its teachers?

As co-chair of the Rafael Hernandez School Parent Council in 1986, I joined Frank Fornaro from the superintendent’s office, principal Margarita Muñiz, and other parents to visit buildings owned by the city that were vacant or not slated for continued occupancy. Our school was being allowed to expand from a K-5 dual language school, then located in tight quarters in a former car dealership on Columbia Road in Dorchester, to a K-8 dual language school. But where could we go?

When Frank gave us a tour of the Roosevelt School building in Egleston Square in Roxbury, built in 1922 but scheduled to close in months, I was aghast that students were attending a school where graffiti covered bathroom walls, and hallways were lit by the original long, dangling single pendants. I had trouble looking beyond the poor maintenance and disrepair.

“Look at the bones of the building,” we were advised. “The ceilings are high. The floors are hard wood. The windows open. There’s a gym, an auditorium, and a playground. Look at the building and grounds as if you were a developer wanting to turn this into condos.” We said yes. The renovated Hernandez school continues to be a popular choice across the city for parents wanting their children to become fluent in two languages.

Some of the nicest condos and apartments in Boston are in former - and very old - Boston school buildings. These are beautiful buildings with architectural, and in some cases, historical significance. Take the former Phillips School at 41 Phillips Street on Beacon Hill, built in 1824 and now a site on the African American Heritage Trail for being one the first racially integrated schools in Boston in 1855. There is a 1500-square foot, 2-bedroom condo there currently listed for $2,655,000.

From Jamaica Plain High School, built in 1900, to the former South Boston Bigelow School, built in 1901, there are former schoolhouses throughout Boston that were converted to private housing when enrollment plummeted in the 1970s. Developers lined up to obtain them, and they proved to be prescient investments.

We have a serious excess capacity issue in the Boston Public Schools. We have the Timilty, Irving, and Jackson-Mann schools closing in June, and we have excess space – lots of it in some cases – in existing schools. Before we rush to give away more closed school buildings to developers, let’s pause for a moment and take stock of what we have and what we could have. Let’s also think creatively about uses of excess space within larger school buildings.

Epiphany School in Dorchester and MATCH Charter School have successfully implemented on-site residential programs for new teachers for years. They offer first-year teachers or teacher interns subsidized housing owned by the school. As part of the Boston Teacher Residency program, in addition to earning a master’s degree, recent graduates could obtain subsidized housing either in a BPS school or in a former BPS school in a community where they are assigned. Providing subsidized housing would be a powerful incentive to attract new teachers to Boston.

The city already owns the buildings and the land. While the average school in Boston is 80 years old, much older than other cities, ironically, many of the older buildings have better architectural “bones” than those built in the 70’s era of fortress-like brutalist buildings. We won’t be sorry to see those windowless buildings go.

With nearly 900 unfilled job openings for next year currently in the Boston Public Schools’ books, we need creative long-term enhancements to attract skilled talent. It will be disheartening if high end condos go into the former Timilty, Irving, and Jackson-Mann, and if as part of the ambitious $2 billion “Green New deal for schools” we can’t recycle and reuse vacant school buildings to create housing for new teachers.

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