Connolly: A missed opportunity to close the gap in Boston Schools

Two transformative opportunities for the Boston Public Schools hung in the balance as students began the new school year. First, students desperately needed a longer school day and a system that kept good teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, this opportunity came and went, as the Boston Public Schools’ leadership and the Boston Teachers Union agreed to a status quo teachers contract.

City and union leaders touted the hollow accomplishment as groundbreaking school reform, but parents and teachers were left with a sense of resignation knowing that when it comes to the Boston Public Schools, help rarely comes from those in power.

With just over 56,000 students, 74 percent of whom live in poverty, our schools face a daunting achievement gap while hemorrhaging middle-class families from their ranks. It would strike many as common sense that combining a longer school day with a steadfast commitment to high quality teaching would go a long way toward closing the achievement gap and winning back those who opt out through METCO, charter schools, private and parochial schools, and of course, for sale signs.

Instead, the teachers contract failed to add a single additional minute of learning time to a school day which rates as one of the shortest in the nation. Adding insult to injury, new hiring freedoms for principals will remain limited by the annual “bumping” process in which beloved teachers lose their positions due to a lack of seniority. This is the same awful process that “bumped” the 2011 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year out of his classroom.

Having failed to seize the moment with the teachers contract, there is now a second opportunity to propel real change in the Boston Public Schools as the yearlong effort to reform Boston’s student assignment lottery enters its final phase. This second chance will come into clearer focus next week when the school department releases draft reform proposals. A final proposal should emerge in November with a school committee vote scheduled for mid-December.

The task at hand is no easier than delivering a groundbreaking teachers contract. Many view this issue as the most deeply divisive debate in Boston given the pervasive inequities across our school system and the historical link to Boston’s painful school desegregation.

There are two keys to breaking the status quo and forging a consensus around reforming school assignment. First, there is a point of agreement among parents that drives the call for reform. Quite simply, every parent agrees that every child should go to a high quality school. Thus, the school department cannot propose a student assignment reform plan that is merely redrawn lines on a map, like the 5-zone plan proposed in 2009. Instead, student assignment reform must be part of a broader quality school plan that includes hard commitments to ensure principal and teacher excellence, curriculum and programming improvements, facilities upgrades, and additional funding.

Second, if we focus on the need for every school to be a high quality school, we also will recognize that the student assignment lottery, though conceived with good intentions, undermines the very goals it seeks to accomplish by scattering some students and families across Boston while driving others out of the school system entirely. Ultimately, the lottery reinforces a system of winners and losers, removing the impetus to build quality schools citywide.

If the teachers’ contract is any indicator, the school department will retreat to the status quo by December and push the school committee to adopt a watered down student assignment plan. Such steps will once again leave city leaders touting a hollow accomplishment as groundbreaking school reform.

Boston parents must step into the debate and demand a plan focused on upgrading the quality of every school while giving children and families the option to go to school close to home. In so doing, Boston parents can give Mayor Menino and Superintendent Johnson a second chance to seize an opportunity for transformative change in the Boston Public Schools.

John R. Connolly is a Boston City Councilor At-Large and Chair of the Council’s Committee on Education.